Traditionally, farmers have correlated yield to success. That is to say, on a field by field basis, yield is often the primary determining factor used to judge whether a crop was successful or not.
And for good reason. To begin with, yield is fairly easy to measure (e.g. bushels/acre) and can be calculated during harvest. This is important as other metrics for success (i.e. profit) that can only be calculated when the crop is sold which can be months after harvest. This means yield is the closest thing to real-time feedback that is available to farmers
The limited variables used to calculate yield means that yield is also used as a general standard for comparison across fields or on the same field year-to-year. Additionally, yield is a point of pride for many, and proud farmers rightfully boast about high yielding crops. All this reinforces the general idea that yield is tied to success.
But beyond all that, yield is also used as a rough gauge for future profit. The logic here is simple: the more you produce, the more you sell; the more you sell, the more you profit.
However, agricultural researchers (LaCanne & Lundgren 2018) out of the North-central American plains are challenging the notion that yield is a good predictor of profit.
One key result from their study which compared the profitability of conventional versus regenerative farming demonstrated that ““regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over traditional corn production systems”.
But how can a field that has a 30% drop in yield produce 80% more profit than its conventional counterpart?
Well, it’s all about the soil.
Regenerative farms tend to have a higher level of organic matter (i.e. particulate organic matter or POM in science talk) in the soil which is developed over several years of careful management and is often used as a general measure of overall soil health.
Large amounts of organic matter in the soil increase water infiltration and retention, encourages natural mineral cycles, increases nutrient exchange capacity and supports biodiversity. This is reflected in overall crop profitability as farmers are able to save money on irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides respectively which greatly reduces the farm’s overall expenses.
Ultimately, this means that with the right soil conditions, less inputs and a smaller yielding crop can be more profitable than a higher yielding one.
This observation has led these researchers (LaCanne & Lundgren 2018), to suggest that the level of organic matter in the soil (i.e. POM) is a more accurate predictor of profit than yield.
And to support this claim they present their data the slightly confusing chart pictured below:
In this chart organic matter (i.e. POM) is represented in blue — POM has been converted into %SOM for the purposes of statistical analysis. Soil bulk density, illustrated in red, is a measure of soil compaction. Profits are calculated per hectare.
The chart above is meant to demonstrate that as POM levels rise, and soil bulk density decreases, profits increase. Based on these findings the researchers assert that, “profit was positively correlated with particulate organic matter of the soil, not yield.”
To restate that in simple terms — soil health is strongly linked to profit.
This article briefly explores one aspect of LaCanne & Lundgren (2018) paper – the link between POM and profit. You can check out the full paper here (https://peerj.com/articles/4428/) or read our full review.
LaCanne, C.E., Lundgren, J.G,. (2018) Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably. PeerJ, DOI 10.7717/peerj.4428