Part I – Regenerative Agriculture – From the Shoes on Your Feet…
For the majority of us, our days begin with a morning routine that likely includes brushing your teeth while squinting your eyes in a primal attempt to block the harsh bathroom light, a rushed breakfast that we promise ourselves that we will make healthier tomorrow and donning the pair of shoes that you’re already daydreaming about removing at the end of the day. And for most, this routine remains relatively static throughout each week, each month, and each year. Although an often-overlooked aspect of our lives, let’s take a deeper exploration into the shoe component of your routine and unravel how all of this is correlated to regenerative agriculture.
Shoes are tools that provide a buffer between our feet and the ground. They protect us from potentially harmful objects, they sustain wear and tear from our evolutionary bi-pedal activities, and in many ways — at least in modern society — shoes grant us the pleasure of unadulterated mobility throughout our day…And yet, we so often take for granted the job that they perform for us — often tossing them into the back of a dark closet the moment we feel their job is complete. And yet, with the dawn of each new day, our shoes will be there, loyally waiting to perform their duty once again. However, with each passing day, the impact of performing their duties chips away at our shoe’s ability to perform, until eventually, they’ve been completely exhausted and beyond repair, no longer capable of serving you. The beauty of shoes, however, is that they’re an expendable good. When one pair dies, there’s always another pair in the wait, ready to fill the role.
So, imagine for a moment, a world where you only had a single pair of shoes. You may second-guess traipsing through mud or scuffing them along abrasive surfaces. You may incorporate tactics to extend their lifespan. If the thought of this even remotely triggered that anxious, sinking feeling in your stomach, then you have your first taste of exactly how many farmers, conservationists, and environmentalists feel about the alarming rate at which our agricultural land is degrading. Although we may not be able to simply replace fertile land like our shoes in the previous example, we can regenerate it, but not without a concerted effort on everyone’s part. Let’s dive into the enchantingly necessary world that lies between seed and shelf — regenerative agriculture.
…To the Soil of the Earth
Regenerative agriculture is a term that you may have heard in the past few years, but one that dates back to the 1980’s, where it was first coined by the Rodale Institute. Regenerative agriculture is most simply defined as an approach to farming that incorporates efforts to conserve and rehabilitate topsoil, offset climate change, and improve biodiversity.
There are many schools of thought behind the best approach to regenerative agriculture (RA) practices. In fact, there have been so many attempts to identify best practices of RA that Wageningen University published a systematic review of 279 RA studies in an attempt to better define RA themes. Their review found the following four principles to be consistent:
- Enhance and improve soil health
- Optimize resource management
- Alleviation of climate change
- Improve water quality and availability
Of the principles identified, soil health and rehabilitation was clearly the topic that researchers found to be most often emphasized.
But, it’s Just Dirt…Right?
You may find yourself wondering how soil is damaged by farming or why environmentalists are just sounding the alarm now when we’ve been farming for millennia — after all, soil is just dirt, right? And surely dirt can’t be damaged, right?….
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, and our soil faces the largest impact from modern commercial agriculture. It is estimated that soil contributes to a whopping 95% of global food production and that during the next 40 years, we will produce as much food globally, as we have in the past 500 years.  If we look back at our shoe example from earlier, this would be akin to relying on the same pair of shoes to run a marathon every single day. The bottom line is that we’re not on a sustainable path.
Soil houses nutrients that are vital to nearly all organisms, humans included. In the case of agriculture, the nutrients are absorbed by crops. Over time, soil is able to replenish these nutrients naturally. In the early days of agriculture, pre-heavy machinery supplementation, soil degradation wasn’t a concern because the rate at which humans could cultivate and till the land was far slower than the rate at which soil could recoup from previous harvests. Unfortunately, modern agricultural machinery — a seemingly necessary evil to produce enough food for a population that has grown exponentially — has created a new set of problems for soil health.
- Soil Compaction – This occurs in the soil when heavy machinery is used repeatedly or proper aeration techniques are not practiced. As the name alludes, soil is compacted by equipment that can weigh thousands of pounds. Over time, this results in a reduction of its ability to absorb water and poor aeration. Additionally, compact soil affects crops as many root systems are incapable of penetrating to depths for optimal nutrient absorption, growth, and stability. This is amplified when farmers use equipment in wet conditions. 
- Soil Erosion – As you can see, compact soil isn’t a desirable quality for most agricultural operators. The solution to this often involves tilling, which is typically performed by heavy tractors that force large steel discs into the soil. As these discs are pulled along the earth, soil from deeper layers is mechanically brought to the surface, creating a mixing effect with the existing topsoil layer. In strict moderation, this practice can be performed with little long-term harm to the soil. However, as tilling is performed at the scale of commercial operations, the soil doesn’t have enough time to regenerate attributes specific to various layers. As you begin to lose the attributes of subsoil layers (dense, moist) in lieu of those associated with topsoil layers (loose, dryer), you run the risk of severe erosion from environmental factors like wind and rain. If this feels like science fiction, talk to any farmer who has family lineage dating back to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Although not the only contributing factor, poor soil management certainly fueled much of the devastation caused in the Southern Plains during this period.
Don’t Hurt the Dirt — A New Approach to an Old Concept
Just because agriculture has been around for thousands of years, doesn’t mean that we’ve perfected the practice. If you’re concerned about the sustainability of our soil (spoiler alert…you should be), then there are countless resources that provide scientifically backed best practices for treating your soil like a friend instead of…well…dirt.
- Equipment Traffic Management – Research conducted by the North Carolina State University Agricultural Extension found that “farm equipment traffic is one of the main causes of soil compaction”. Researchers found that there are several methods that farmers can use to better manage soil compaction from heavy equipment. These include, but aren’t limited to, utilizing the same set of rows each time a piece of equipment enters the field  as well as ensuring that equipment operators always travel in the same direction across fields when using heavy equipment. Other recommendations include matching the track width of equipment when possible  and utilizing precision GPS systems that are available for many pieces of commercial AG equipment. 
- Avoid Wet Soil – As mentioned, tilling or even driving equipment across soil that is wet spells trouble if you’re concerned about soil compaction. 
- Utilize “Floating” Tires – Floating or flotation tires are exactly what they sound like. While you won’t find that your combines are capable of driving across water, flotation tires increase the surface area of rubber to soil, thus reducing the concentration of pressure on your fields.  Remember the old “laying on a bed of nails” stunt? The same physics applies here!
- Maintain Your Equipment – In this situation, we’re namely speaking to the tire pressure. While overall maintenance of equipment is important, appropriate tire pressure in the case of soil compaction is vital. With machinery weighing thousands of pounds, even a few pounds too much or too little of pressure can amplify soil compaction that could have otherwise been avoided. 
…But Wait! There’s More to Regenerative Agriculture!
Of course, we couldn’t hit all aspects of regenerative agriculture in a single article. Check out part II of this series where we discuss the other principles of RA and how you can best incorporate them into your operation. We will also explore how technological innovations like FarmSense’s FlightSensor are helping lead the way for a sustainable future for commercial agriculture while providing opportunities to reduce operating expenses.