Regenerative Agriculture is a Win for Producers, Consumers, and the Environment: A Promotional Rant

Regenerative agriculture is in everyone’s best interest. 

This is true for the producer, who reap a variety of benefits from fully regenerated soil. The general idea being healthy soil is more resistant to environmental stresses; ranging from drought to disease, and will therefore produce healthier plants.

This is true for consumers, who stand to gain more nutritious food. And this is no boast; regenerative agriculture is focused on restoring natural mineral and nutrient cycles in the soil. As nutrients in our food (i.e. fruits, vegetables, grains, etc.,) originate as nutrients in the soil which are absorbed by plants, we can say that healthy soils literally produce healthy food.  

And of course this is also true for the environment. Beyond the restoration of natural mineral cycles, regenerative farming also promotes biodiversity through the use of cover cropping, multi-year crop rotations and animal integration. 

As a completely serendipitous happenstance, regenerative farming also tends to sequester large quantities of carbon in the soil — in fact sequestering carbon is a central goal of regenerative agriculture. But not to fight climate change or any such thing, regenerative farmers sequester carbon to increase their soil’s health which is ultimately for personal economic reasons — pulling greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and saving the world from global warming is just a byproduct of regenerative farming; it can’t be helped really. 

How to Build a Vermicompost Bin: Cheap and Easy Worm Castings

Over the last few years we’ve been hearing great things about vermicast (i.e. worm manure). And when farmers are talking up one kind of shit over all the other types of shit they have access to, we’ll it’s time to listen up — cause farmers know their shit. 

What makes worm castings so special — while they are kinda like meta-composting. While most farm animals eat plants and produce manure, worms eat manure and produce…umm… super manure; likewise while composting breaks down plant material, worms eat the compost and break it down further which provides a host of additional perks.  

Ultimately when these worm castings are applied to the soil, either directly during seeding or as an eco-tea extract, there are a number of benefits. Worm castings have been shown to aid in the creation of a more resilient and robust soil microbiology, and help plants better cope with environment stresses. As well as increase plants’ early season vigor and germination rates as well as plant biomass and yield. 

Worm castings are an extra additive and do not replace any other regime. Unlike many other soil additives, worm castings benefit the soil more by stimulating biology (i.e. microbial life) than through the addition of any particular nutrient or mineral.

And best of all, building a vermicompost system is easy and pretty much free. Not completely, you will have to spend a couple bucks on worms, but apart from the actual critters, most everything else should be scavengable on most farms.

While there are a few different methods of vermicomposting available, which one is best suited to your farm will likely be dictated by climate. Warmer environments can get by using the windrow method where the composting can be done outside, on the ground. However, cooler environments, like most all of Canada, will need to use an indoor method for year-long usage.

At Prairie Son Acres, we opted for what is known as a ‘flow-through’ or ‘raised-bed’ design for our vermicomposting system. 

In this system, new material (i.e. worm food) is added to the top of the elevated worm bed as old material (i.e. worm castings) is drawn from the bottom. As the worms are attracted to the new food at the top of the worm bed, the worms will always be moving upward which works to automatically separate the critters from the castings which collect at the bottom.  

Our homemade system was constructed from re-used farm materials. Most notably the tank which contains the worm bed was formed from a repurposed 1000L plastic tote and cage with a false bottom made by laying rebar approximately 2-3” apart.   

The plastic tote was cut once to remove the top and again to remove the base. The middle section was refitted around 12 inches over the base using a homemade rebar frame which reinforces the bottom of the metal cage. When it is time to harvest, the worm castings are cut  from the bottom of  the bin using a rake pitch fork or whatever you have that is handy, even your fingers will do the trick. The metal cage is cut away from one side of the base allowing the bottom piece to slide out like a tray once the castings have been harvested.  

We purchased 10 lbs of worms (i.e. red wriggles), once the tank was complete. We put about a foot of our homemade feedstock into the tank; mixed in some extra shredded paper, and dumped in our worms and let nature do her thing.

This is a simple and very low maintenance design. 

Once the tank was constructed and stocked with worms the castings were ready to be collected after roughly four months with new feedstock being added every 7-20 days. Click the link to get our recipe for worm feedstock

One crucial bit of advance is to be sure not to overfeed the worms. The worms will always move upwards towards new material, if new material is added before the previous batch has been fully consumed then worms will move to the new food before the first batch has been fully converted to castings. It is far better to underfeed than over feed.  

Once the castings have been collected they can be bagged and stored in a cool dry place until they are needed. 

Also, just like when handling any other dried, powdery material, masks are recommended when handling the dried worm castings.

Vermicompost Feedstock Recipe: How to Make Worm Food and Why You Should Do It

Our recipe is as simple as it gets: in a large plastic tub, mix together equal parts cow manure, raw vegetable/fruit waste, barley or wheat straw, wood chips, and shredded paper; let the mixture sit in for 28 days, stirring occasionally, and serve to your worms in small batches as needed. 

Now this is worm food, not rocket fuel so when we say equal parts we mean equal-ish — eyeballing it is fine, there is no need for proper weights or measures, again, we are literally making worm food. 

What is important however, is a diversity in ingredients. A diversity of decaying ingredients attracts a diversity of microorganisms, which is exactly what we want.

Moreover, certain ingredients select for (i.e. attract) specific types of organisms which can be used to create feedstocks with specific benefits. For example wood chips and shredded paper attract specific types of desirable fungi; as our farm (i.e. Prairie Son Acres) is still trying to develop strong fungal networks in our soils, we added a few extra wood chips to help the processes along.

Letting the mixture sit for around 28 days (with occasional stirring) is done to help us to control the temperature of the feedstock and ultimately the worm bin — note if the worm bin gets too warm it will kill your worms. As compost decays it heats up in processes known as a thermophilic compost cycle — hard science aside, the process lasts about 28 day during which time the feedstock will rise in temperature, some bad bugs and pathogens are killed off, and worm-hurting toxins are neutralized before finally the temperature returns to normal at the end of the cycle, at which point it can be fed to the worms. It’s kind of like quasi-pasteurizing your worm food. 

Notably, this heating process is aerobic, which means the mixture needs fresh air to work. This can be achieved either through a fancy aeration system that blows compressed air directly through the feedstock or simply stirring the mixture every few days — we obviously went for the fancy aeration system but only because we deemed it more fun to engineer and build an aeration system than to manually stir compost. 

Letting the mixture sit and “bake” for 28 days is a crucial step in making worm feedstock — honestly, it’s pretty much the only step…don’t skip it. 

The last key element in creating a good worm feedstock is consistency. Consistency in the end product (i.e. worm castings) begins with consistency in the feedstock. That is to say, if one can consistently feed the worms the exact same food then the castings produced should be of a consistent quality and thus consistently bestow the same benefits upon the crop.

This consistency is crucial when creating your own worm castings as it allows for the product to be used with consistent results across the various crop types, year after year with predictable results. And it all begins with the feedstock.

On the Science of Regenerative Agriculture and Those Who Don’t Give a $#!&

Farming has always been a multidisciplinary vocation. Few other professions require individuals to have such a diverse skill set. Ranging from general heavy machinery maintenance and repair to understanding the basics of botany, from accounting to marketing, business management to animal husbandry and everything in between. Farmers are never short of options when it comes to learning useful new skills.

Now, with regenerative agriculture focusing on soil health, mineral cycles, microbiology, etc., and the interplay between them, soil science and mineral ecology have become increasingly useful knowledge bases for regenerative farmers who have such a background.

However, not every farmer has the same level of interest in the science of agriculture. And ‘interest’ is the key word here. It’s not about intelligence or education. Some people just aren’t into soil science. And even if they do have the interest, not everyone wants to come in from a hard day’s work on the farm and sit down to study the rhizosphere or wrap their head around cation exchange  — which is very reasonable.  

If you live in a rural area, it’s very likely you know someone who fits this description. Maybe a friend or a family member, or that oldtimer in the coffee shop. You know they are smart people, skilled and able, good at what they do. But just not interested in lofty, highfalutin ideas or ideologies. 

So, how do we introduce regenerative agriculture to farmers who have a limited interest in the science of agriculture? How can we pique their interest and encourage them to try regenerative techniques without burying them in hard scientific facts, techniques and practices?

This is a very real open question. If regenerative agriculture is going to be the dominant form of agriculture practiced across the globe (i.e. the long term goal), then we need to find a way to bring all types of farmers on board — from fresh noobs to recalcitrant oldtimers and everyone in between.

The challenge here seems to be finding a perspective from which all farmers can see the benefits of regenerative agriculture.

A seemingly obvious solution might be to promote the green ideology that attracts so many to regenerative farming, particularly first gen farmers. But while many green ideologies tie in very neatly to regenerative agriculture, such ideologies are hardly universal and are unlikely to persuade some farmers who view their farm as a business first and foremost. Given our goal to avoid controversy and focus on agriculture we shall say no more on this topic other than to acknowledge that ideology is probably not the unifying answer we are looking for.

One shared perspective that we would at least like to think is universal is a shared love of the act of farming; an inherent joy in the profession; a deep satisfaction at watching crops grow. The emotional connection every farmer has with the land they work is very real. But it’s also very personal which can make it harder to relate on a global scale. And to be honest, few people make hard business decisions based on ‘a love of the land’ alone.

There is one force, however, that is both truly universal and powerful enough to drive meaningful change. And we call this force economics.  

Making money is possibly the only universal goal we can safely assume for most every farmer across the globe. It doesn’t matter what type of farm or where: a grain farm in Canada, an orchard in Madagascar, or a ranch in Australia — a new agricultural method or technique that makes economic sense is one that all farmers can get behind. 

And regenerative farming makes economic sense. 

So it might be a good idea for people who wish to promote regenerative agriculture, particularly to established farmers, to find ways to couch regenerative methods and techniques in economic terms. Cover crops can save money on irrigation, high levels of organic matter in the soil reduce input costs, animal integration saves on fertilizer. While these lines are most definitely oversimplifications, they also focus on the economic benefits of regenerative agriculture which is something all farmers are interested in.      

The way we choose to promote regenerative agriculture will have an effect on what type of farmer is attracted to the movement. By focusing more on economic arguments, we can increase the appeal of regenerative farming to the largest possible audience while using all the other benefits the movement offers to show it helps more than just the pocket book.   

And, there are a lot of benefits to regenerative farming. From increasing nutritional value of the food grown to the environment benefits of restoring natural systems; from better water management to reducing reliance on synthetic chemicals. Some argue that regenerative farming can help battle climate change while others are adamant that regen farming can solve the world’s looming food crisis.

But for those who aren’t interested in or simply don’t care about these benefits, there is only really economics. 

Transitioning to a Regenerative Farm: On Developing Water Infiltration, Retention and Management

For farmers on the Canadian prairies, water is precious as gold. 

With an average precipitation of 300 mm (12 inches) water resources are tight on a normal year. But weather is rarely normal and recent years at Prairie Son Acres have been on the dry side of the scale, leaving us searching for ways to get more moisture in the ground and keep it there.

Prairie farmers have a long history of water conservation. Given our naturally dry conditions and limited water resources, irrigation is rarely used. And dating back to the 1930s (i.e. the Dirty Thirties), Canadian farmers began to adopt simple but effective water management practices. Crop rotations were introduced and summer fallowing land was discouraged, tall stubble was left on the field in fall to collect snow, bushes and shrub rows were planted to prevent wind and water erosion.  As modern technology created new techniques, like direct seeding and min/zero tillage, prairie farmers were quick to pick them up. These combined efforts have done much to help conserve our limited moisture and has undoubtedly prevented a repeat of the dust storms as experienced in the 1930s.

But water is precious and we always want more.

Towards this effort, we at Prairie Son Acres have turned to regenerative agriculture — in fact water infiltration and retention was one of the key features that originally attracted us to the regenerative farming movement in the first place. 

As much of the land we farm has slightly sandy top soil, erosion and nutrient leaching are key concerns. There is also an ubiquitous hardpan that begins between 6-9 inches below the surface. Approximately 5% of our acres have a saline condition – poorly drained soils with groundwater pushing salts up to the surface. 

With these soil conditions in mind, we decided on four key goals that are specifically focused on improving our water management:

  1. Breaking up hardpan soils and creating/improving soil aggregation
  2. Improving water infiltration and maximizing water holding capacity
  3. Increasing carbon in the soil to trap water and prevent erosion 
  4. Optimizing water usage to produce as many bushels per inch of moisture as possible

After a bit of time examining our regenerative farming playbook, paging through various water management tactics, we realized that the solution to all these problems was regenerative farming’s universal answer for almost all things: more carbon! 

More roots, more critters and more crap. 

Roots to break up the hardpan and attract critters both big and small (e.g. from microbes to earthworms). Critters to feed the roots and create soil aggregates. And crap (i.e. cow manure) to feed the critters and provide a cheap and easy source of carbon. Now, this is a grossly oversimplified explanation of the complex relationships between these three components, but it does serve to highlight the basic interconnectedness for those in our coffee room who are more interested in the Cliffsnotes than the hard science (for those who are interested in reading more about it, check out our other articles: Five Principles of Soil Restoration: Revitalizing the Carbon Cycle and Soil as an Ecosystem).  

Of course, it helps to be more specific, so here is what he have actually done thus far:

  • Introduced a variety of tap roots, including large tubers, into our cover crop mixes. We focused on root diversity and having a living root in our very limited growing season for as long as possible on both freeze up and thaw. Tap roots (canola, alfalfa, clover, turnips) will penetrate hard pan and will improve water infiltration. Fibrous rooted crops (wheat, barley, oats,) have large root mass (up to 6’ deep in the ground) and add lots of carbon to the soil. Added benefit of efficient water use and increased crop competition.
  • Included crops that have a high C:N ratio (e.g. flax) in regular crop rotations. A high C:N ratio has the long term benefit of improving SOM by adding lots of carbon to soil. Crops like peas have a low C:N ratio and therefore have a net removal of carbon to balance the N in the residue. 
  • Used a growth manipulator. This is a plant growth regulator that decreases the stalk length of wheat. It reduces the energy required for shoot growth and therefore increases available nutrients and water for seed production.
  • Added humic acid to our granular fertilizer mixture. It’s an easy carbon source that will improve fertilizer use efficiency, make nutrients more accessible that are in the soil and improve water holding capacity.
  • Introduced grazing animals. Cattle provide lots of organic matter, dense with nutrients and a supercharged carbon cycling method that would take the average plant years to accomplish. Animals are by far the most efficient way to take a green plant and recycle its carbon (and other nutrients).
  • Practice minimum and zero till seeding. We do both, using drills and a disc seeder respectively. While zero till is preferable in that the ground is less disturbed and therefore retains more moisture, minimum till seed does have its place on northern farms. Notably minimum tillage exposes some soil that aids ground thaw and can lead to quicker seed germination. With our short growing season, it’s a balancing act and the best method is dependent entirely on ground conditions when it’s time to seed.

So far the results of our efforts have been hard to quantify. Observational data suggest some progress but with only three years of reliable hard data collected we have only just established a baseline with which to judge our future progress.

We know that regenerative farming is a long game, soils don’t change drastically over the course of a single year. However, we know we are headed in the right direction as every decision we make is made with the goal of building carbon in the soil and conserving water. With this process well under way, we are optimistic that when our current bout of dry conditions break, our soils will be ready to capture every drop of rain.

Transitioning to a Regenerative Farm: The First Three Years and the Mid-Transition Hump

Change is hard. Uncertainty can be stifling. And there is always risk in the unknown. So when we at Prairie Son Acres, a 4th generation family farm in central Saskatchewan, Canada, decided to transition from a conventional farm to a regenerative one it felt like a big deal. 

Prairie Son Acres (https://www.prairiesonacres.com) is an 11,000 acre farm owned and operated by three brothers (Colin Hilderman, Shane Hilderman and Trent Hilderman) and the semi-retired family patriarch (Ron Hilderman). Traditionally, we have grown cereals, oils seeds and legumes but no animals. Our average frost free growing season is 105 days. We receive around 225 mm (9”) of rain per year and around 75 mm (3”) of snow melt for an average total of 300 mm (12”) of precipitation per year. Temperatures range from -40C in deep winter to a few days of 35C in high summer. We do not irrigate.

It was around five years ago when the concept of regenerative agriculture made its way to Prairie Son. A common topic of intrigue and discussion at first, we soon began to attend regenerative agriculture conferences and seminars while continuing to research the science and practice behind the movement. After a year or two of increasingly serious discussions we  decided to move into regenerative agriculture.

Now, Prairie Son is a large operation and like any large operation change is slow. As such we knew this was going to be a long term effort with our transition likely taking years to fully realize. 

In the beginning, uncertainty remained over the efficacy of certain regenerative practices in a region as cold and dry as central Saskatchewan. As such the decision was made to begin trialing a number of regenerative agricultural practices.

To help give structure to transition we adopted a transition strategy we credit to Joel Williams (https://www.integratedsoils.com/). Williams suggests three broad goals should be considered in all aspects of decision making on a regenerative farm. We refer to this approach by its acronym, ESR:

  • Efficiency: Improve input efficiency
    • E.g. reduce fertilizer application rate and usage; increase nutrient efficiency/availability
  • Substitution: Substitute inputs with softer options
    • E.g. compost, AMF, biostimulants, humics
  • Redesign: Rethink and redesign current systems towards agroecology 
    • E.g. cover crops, intercropping, crop rotations   

With these foundational principles in mind, we moved the transition forward on three fronts. First we set out to find viable chemical alternatives. The goal was to re-evaluate our chemical additives – mainly fertilizers, soil treatments and inoculants – and replace them with soil friendly options. When viable these options were instituted across all acres. 

A few of our substitutions include:

  • Liquid compost was applied directly into the furrow with the seed while vermicompost was used to inoculate seeds
  • Penicillium Bilaii added during seeding to increase phosphorus uptake
  • Ligno Humate, a natural carbon source was added to spray water, as well as in furrow
  • Low salt fertilizers was used to reduce harm to seed and microbes
  • AMF products to inoculate soil with beneficial microbes to increase fertilizer availability
  • Fulvic Acid was also added to the spray water to function as an additional carbon source.
  • Humic Acid was added to fertilizer to help improve nutrient availability and improve water holding capacity of the soil

Our second front was to begin experimenting with cover crops. While this sounds straightforward the sheer number of options and available techniques involving cover crops can be a daunting task to undertake. With few regional models, our first few years consisted of cautious experiments with the ultimate goal of increasing plant/root diversity and keeping a living root in the ground for as long as possible. 

We began with companion crops such as silage peas/canola and flax/soybeans. Companion crops are two cash crops planted and harvested together with the seeds sorted after harvest. 

This was our first real set towards regenerative farming and while it was only a baby step it served to help familiarize the more skeptical members of our team with the concept of regenerative agriculture. Bringing everyone on board and making sure we were all comfortable with the proposed changes was an important step for our family business which is ruled by consensus.   

In subsequent years, we have continued to experiment and scale up the number of acres we cover crop. Both intercrops (e.g. 640 acres of silage peas/canola and soybean/flax) and traditional cover crops (e.g. 320 ac perennial grazing mix of 12 species, corn/vetch, flax/clover) have both been trialed with varying results. Our northern climate does limit the number of plant species we have access to and we are still working to find optimal seed mixes suitable to our location. 

With our short growing season and cool temperatures, perennial grasses (e.g. tall fescue, perennial ryegrass, fall rye, etc.,) have proven to be particularly useful in keeping a living root in the ground for as much of the year as possible. 

Our third and final front was animal integration. As our operation has traditionally been grain only, this was the biggest move outside our comfort zone. However, we wanted to promote cows on our land, regardless if they are ours or not. We recognize cattle as an integral part of incorporating and recycling nutrients at a much faster rate than if we were to focus solely on cover crops. 

We began by fencing off several quarters of land and arranged for local cattle farmers to graze their animals on our land. This was an easy way to get cows on our land in our first year with only a minor investment in fencing.

In the following years we slowly began to integrate our own cattle operation, investing in animals, equipment and infrastructure. Now, three years in, we have nearly 1000 acres fenced off for grazing and run 80 head of cattle in a labour sharing partnership with a few local cowboys. There is plenty of room for expansion. 

Additionally, we started a small honey operation. With only a few colonies on an easily accessible piece of land this project is operated by our young, ‘farmers in training’. It’s proven a great project for our adolescent kids, helps out our pollinators, and provides a tasty treat.

One final project Prairie Son Acres undertook was the creation of our blog — https://prairieserf.com/. We recognized early on the importance of sharing knowledge and experience in the regenerative farming community and this blog is our modest attempt to contribute to the movement. The fourth and final Hilderman brother (Dustin Hilderman) was recruited to write the blog.  

Now for a moment of brutal honesty. The transition so far has been tough. Our successes have been small and our failures large. Much time, money, and effort has been invested and the results aren’t easily visible. The last few years have been abnormally dry in our area, and while this undoubtedly has hampered some of our efforts we have come to think of our current situation as the mid-transition hump; that point in a change where one is neither the thing they were nor the thing they will become. 

Hardpan soils are only partially broken, soil biology is improving but lacking in density, AMF networks are growing but still far from their potential. Our soils are improving but they are still vulnerable. The restoration of our natural processes and mineral cycles is at a delicate point — better than they were but not yet at the point where we can see positive gains in yield or profit. 

The mid-transition hump hurts. 

And we make this point not to scare or deter anyone, but with the recognition that farming is a business and that family farms need to be prepared and transition in such a way as to not jeopardize their livelihood or legacy. We are keenly aware of this and while we encourage others to experiment with regenerative farming we also caution everyone to be aware of possible repercussions. It’s that old adage: hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

At this point in time we don’t know whether or not Prairie Son Acres can be called a regenerative farm. We still monocrop close to 70% of our acres while our trials continue but have shifted to incorporate as many regenerative techniques and practices (e.g. chemical substitutions & animal integration) as we comfortably can while keeping Prairie Son Acres on a sound economic path. Nonetheless we aspire to do more.   

What we do know, in the years since our transition has begun, is that we have adopted a purely regenerative farming mindset (i.e. ESR). Every decision made is made with regenerative farming principles in mind and with the ultimate goal of restoring soil health. We as farmers have changed; our principles, our philosophy, the way we think about the soil and the ecosystem as a whole. While Prairie Son Acres might not be considered a regenerative farm just yet, we who work the farm have become regenerative farmers.

Sustainability: A Regenerative Farmer’s Perspective

Every once in a while, the forces that be select a term from relative obscurity and elevate it to the forefront of the public consciousness. These terms, known commonly as buzz words, come to be associated with a specific cultural movement or feeling and help to define the flavor of the current social climate. Over the last decade, few words have buzzed as loudly and persistently as the term ‘sustainability’.

As with many buzzwords, there are a lot of different perceptions on what exactly ‘sustainability’ means, particularly when applied to agriculture. Most will agree that the term refers to good farming practices which produce high quality food in a manner that is healthy for both the land and the consumer. However, when we try to nail it down any further, the specifics can get a bit messy.  

As it turns out, what is ‘sustainable’ is often a matter of perspective. Crucially, and unsurprisingly, producers (i.e. farmers) and consumers have different views on what is sustainable farming.

Years of popular use, most notably in the field of marketing, have seen the word ‘sustainability’ stretched in a number of ways that take the term farther away from practical real-world applications and into the realm of ideologies.

Remember the 100 mile diet—back in 2008-2009 this was a short-lived ‘sustainability’ movement that challenged individual consumers to only purchase food produced within 100-miles of their home. Beyond just supporting local producers, the movement encouraged sustainability on two fronts: a) by drawing attention to environmental issues surrounding food distribution; and b) by encouraging consumers to make informed decisions about the origin of the food they purchase. This was a practical and real-world way individuals could support practices they believe to be sustainable and feel good about the food they ate—even if they cheated occasionally and bought chocolate or bananas, it was still a move in the right direction in that it encouraged individuals to make green-lifestyle changes.  

However, recent years have seen the term drift into ideological territory with a shifting focus often conflating sustainable food production with a number of issues including fair trade, organic products and ethics. To be fair, the confusion is not unfounded, there is a lot of overlap between what is sustainable and what is ethical (e.g. encouraging biodiversity on farmable land). And, fair-trade practices do help support local small scale indigenous farmers in developing countries—the coffee trade is well known for such practices.    

However, what is ethical can be very subjective while many modern sustainable food production practices are based on scientific studies and advancements. This relationship is exploited by marketers to help ‘greenwash’ products—when a product is labeled as ‘ethical’, consumers tend to project their own understanding of the term on to the product and assume it was produced in a sustainable manner consistent with their personal understanding of the word—which may or may not be the case.      

Even more controversial, at least for agriculturalists, is the relationship between sustainability and organic produce. While many organic products can be produced in a sustainable manner, there are sometimes long term problems that can arise. 

For example, to produce certified organic grain in Canada, a farmer is prohibited from applying synthetic fertilizer which can allow for precision soil maintenance. With each organic crop taking more and more nutrients from the soil, organic farming can actually be detrimental to the long-term health of the land without careful soil management—organic fertilizer may be plentiful but the variable rates of nitrates, phosphates and sulfates in compost and manure mean precision management of soil nutrients is near impossible. Getting enough nitrogen may mean too much phosphate; this may result in a possible chemical build up and potential soil deterioration.  

The point of our discussion thus far is to highlight the differing perspectives on what it means to be sustainable. When contrasting the perspectives of a producer (i.e. farmer) and a consumer, it is probably the least romantic aspect of agriculture that is responsible for the largest gap in perspective — economics. 

Simply put, a farmer needs to adopt sustainable agricultural practices to protect their land thus ensuring their future productivity and revenue stream—sustainability is a practical investment to secure their own livelihood. Sustainability to a farmer means weighing economic inputs against sound agricultural practices that maximize yields and re-invigorate the land. For a farmer, it’s all about balance.

However, a consumer will purchase sustainable products as an investment in our global future—sustainable agriculture benefits everyone after all. Consumers tend not to be overly concerned about the economic feasibility of any given agricultural practice assuming it is not perceived to be harmful to the environment.     

Ultimately, differing perspectives on sustainability does not necessitate that either be right or wrong. It is important to recognize the merits of multiple perspectives on the same issue. While farmers tend to focus on practicality, consumers concerned with sustainability are generally driven by green ideology. Ideology drives innovation, innovation leads to practical applications, and practical applications mean more sustainably produced food. 

Continued discussion on sustainability benefits everyone.  

Regenerative Farming: Why the Focus on Soil Health?

A hundred years ago, Canadian pioneers could break a fresh plot of land and grow a healthy, high yielding wheat crop just by putting seed in the ground. 

Fifty years ago, second and third generation Canadian farmers began to realize that the land just wasn’t producing like it used to. Lucky, synthetic fertilizer was now widely available and farmers were able to make up the difference with a modestly priced addition to their crops which more than paid for itself in increased yield.

On today’s farm, many conventional farmers are now fully dependent on increasingly expensive synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow a profitable crop. Input costs are growing so large that a single crop failure can be financially disastrous. With these mounting input costs compounded by ever increasing operating expenses (e.g. fuel, labour, etc,.) and a volatile grain market, farmers are looking for a way to help mitigate this risk while securing profit (aka, job security).

Enter regenerative agriculture.

Just like the name suggests, regenerative agriculture is singularly focused on restoring, or regenerating, agricultural soils. 

Born of an unholy union between science, economics and environmentalism, regenerative agriculture has identified soil health as the cornerstone of success on a farm. This idea isn’t new, all farmers work their land to produce what they think are ideal soil conditions for their crops to grow.  

What is new with regenerative agriculture is the general approach on how to achieve healthy soils.

Traditionally, conventional farming is all about control. The land is stripped clean and every possible input is controlled: exact quantities of fertilizers are added to the soil; desired plants are seeded; undesired plants are chemically removed; pest populations are monitored and culled as needed; etc,. Everything that can be controlled is, and technology is slowly allowing more and more control; but at a price.

From a soil health perspective, conventional agriculture is focused on treating the symptoms. Short on nitrogen, the prescription is more fertilizer; low on moisture, then irrigate; got bugs, spray them; for every ailment, a remedy. 

Regenerative farming, on the other hand, is more like preventative medicine — a healthy diet and exercise. And just like a healthy diet and exercise, the general goal is to improve the health of underlying systems which will subsequently increase resistance to disease, environmental stress and unforeseen trauma.   

This is often called a systems approach that focuses on restoring natural systems and cycles (e.g. the carbon cycle, mycorrhizal networks, soil aggregation, etc,) that have been disturbed by conventional farming methods.

A healthy carbon cycle will help replace the carbon (i.e. seed and straw) withdrawn from the land each year. Mycorrhizal fungal networks function as a nutrient delivery system for neighboring plants. Plant diversity helps prevent disease and supports communities of microorganisms living in the soil which in turn make more nutrients available to the plants.  

Restoring these systems to their full potential is a long game that can take many years of carefully managed farming. Crucially, as many of the systems are co-dependent, working to regenerate one system often has a positive, cascading effect on related systems. Cover crops, for example, have a variety of root structures which help break up hard packed soil, which in turn allows for more water infiltration and retention which in turn helps both the plant and its community of microorganisms survive drought conditions. In return these microorganisms can help with creating soil aggregates which further increases water infiltration and retention.   

Ultimately, by restoring these natural systems farmers are able to reduce their reliance on more expensive conventional farming methods while increasing plant health and achieving comparable yields. 

Pioneers of Regenerative Farming: The Miraculous Dr. Northen

“Do you know that most of us today are suffering from certain dangerous diet deficiencies which cannot be remedied until the depleted soils from which our foods come are brought into proper mineral balance?”

These words were spoken by Rex Breach, a gentleman farmer from the state of Florida, in his 1936 address to the US Senate. Mr. Breach was there to present the findings of Dr. Charles Northen, a pioneer in micronutrients and soil health.  

“The alarming fact is that foods – fruits and vegetables and grains – now being raised on millions of acres of land that no longer contains enough of certain needed minerals, are starving us – no matter how much of them we eat!”

Dr. Northen began his career as a medical doctor in the American south at the turn of the 19th century and was one of the first to explore the relationship between mineral nutrients (i.e. micronutrients like iron, copper, zinc, etc,.) in food and human health. He was also one of the first to notice that extensively farmed land produced fruits and vegetables that were deficient in the same minerals absent in the soil.

“You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a carrot is a carrot – that one is about as good as another as far as nourishment is concerned? But it isn’t; one carrot may look and taste like another and yet be lacking in the particular mineral element which our system requires and which carrots are supposed to contain.”

Over years of experimentation, dozens of crops grown in a variety of soils all across the US, Dr. Northen was able to develop methods to reintroduce these vital micronutrients back into the soil.    

“Bear in mind,” says Dr. Northen, “that minerals are vital to human metabolism and health – and that no plant or animal can appropriate to itself any mineral which is not present in the soil upon which it feeds.”

While this may seem like common knowledge in today’s day and age, in the 1920s this revelation had a huge impact on human health. At the time, Mr. Breach claimed that as much as 99% of the U.S. population was deficient in at least one vital mineral which manifests in a number of health problems. 

Rickets, bone deformations, and bad teeth were associated with a lack of calcium. Anemia, which is caused by an iron deficiency, was a common ailment particularly among women. Insufficient levels of iodine found in the soils of the great lakes region caused widespread thyroid problems which led to the region being dubbed the goiter belt. And even some behavioral problems were blamed on a lack of magnesia.

As medical science progressed and the effects of these mineral deficiencies were slowly being discovered, doctors of the time found them difficult to treat. Technology of the early 20th century was limited, and attempts to create mineral pills or supplements were met with marginal success. This was largely because the inorganic minerals used in supplements could not easily be absorbed in the human body. 

The solution, according to Dr. Northen, was simple; put the minerals in the soil. Let the plants absorb the minerals, process them and store them in an organic form that can easily be absorbed into the human body.  

“Nature can and will solve it if she is encouraged to do so. The minerals in fruits and vegetables are colloidal; i.e., they are in a state of such extremely fine suspension that they can be assimilated by the human system: it is merely a question of giving back to nature the materials with which she works.”

Nearly a century after Dr. Northen’s work was first presented to the US senate, micronutrient deficiencies in many soils are producing fruits and vegetables with less essential minerals than in years past. This is highlighted by a study published in the British Food Journal that compared mineral nutrient levels in 40 different fruits and vegetables between 1930 and 1980 and found that of the seven minerals tested, six of them had been reduced in quantity (see appendix 1 at the bottom of the article for details).    

While medical science has advanced a thousand fold since the 1930, and all essential minerals are available as pills or powers, there are still large populations around the world who suffer from basic mineral deficiencies which can be overcome by reintroducing these micronutrients through specialty fertilizers. 

Of particular note are zinc deficiencies which are all too common in many developing nations and may affect as many as 2 billion people around the world. Rural areas where farmers subsist mostly on a diet of wheat, corn or rice – crops with low natural concentrations of zinc – are particularly susceptible. 

Zinc deficiencies are associated with a litany of health problems, ranging from hair and skin disorders to stunted growth in children, compromised immune systems and impaired cognitive functionality. 

However, over the last decade several organizations have take a page straight of of Dr. Northen’s playbook, including the HarvestZinc project (www.harvestzinc.org), which have been developing micronutrient fertilizer mixes for these regions which are designed to increase the levels of zinc in these staple crops through a process called biofortification. The project has achieved a good deal of success in fighting zinc deficiency by producing zinc-enriched grains. 

Of course these micronutrient laced fertilizers have an added bonus; these crops also receive a significant yield boost from the fertilizer mix. This boon was known to Dr. Northen back in the 1930s who stated, “…crops grown in a properly mineralized soil were bigger and better; that seeds germinated quicker, grew more rapidly and made larger plants; that trees were healthier and put on more fruit of better quality.”

Ultimately, Dr. Northen’s groundbreaking research has never been more relevant. As consumers are becoming more and more conscientious about the relationship between high quality food and good health, Dr. Northen’s words are just as true today as they were in the 1930s, “Sick soils mean sick plants, sick animals and sick people” he states. “It is simpler to cure sick soils than sick people – which shall we choose?” 

Ref.

Mayer, Anne-Marie. (1997). Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables. British Food Journal. 99. 207-211. 10.1108/00070709710181540.

Rex Beach, “Modern Miracle Men”, Document No. 264 in Senate Documents, 74th Congress, 2d Session, vol 18-48, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1936, p. 1-9.

The Chaos Garden: Year 1

Some call it a mess. Others contend it’s natural order. Technically, it’s referred to as polycropping but we call it a chaos garden and it’s the perfect microcosm of a regenerative farm.

Regenerative agriculture is focused on restoring natural nutrient cycles in the soil by emulating the natural ecosystem. The goal is to create an ecologically diverse environment for crops where micro-organisms, cover crops and edible plants all work together to protect each other from pests, disease and even weather events like drought or flooding.    

A chaos garden takes these agricultural principles which we usually speak of in terms of large-scale farming and applies them to your garden. 

In an effort to showcase these principles in action the Prairie Serf along with our partners Prairie Son Acres and Hillside Foods, proudly presents our very own experimental chaos garden just off the No. 16 highway in Duval, Saskatchewan.  

Hand hoes were used to create rows, half and inch deep, into a standing pea crop about four to five feet apart. Peas make an excellent nurse crop for the rest of the garden as they tend to be less competitive and demand less water than other crops. Peas have the added benefits of fixating nitrogen into the soil while providing a broad cover for other young plants.

Planting the garden

A seed mix consisting of; corn, kale, cabbage, squash, lettuce, sunflowers, cucumber, carrots and beets, was treated with a homemade compost extract. This extract functions to boost microbial activity in the soil which in turn aids in seed germination and helps provide the early nutritional needs of seedlings.    

Once treated, handfuls of the seed mixture were spread casually into the rows. Potted plants, namely, tomato, red onion, yellow onion, capsicum peppers, basil, thyme, rosemary oregano and kohlrabi were planted randomly into the rows.

Seed rows were then treated with humic acid which functions as a carbon source and the garden was watered once just after planting.

Now, it is important to keep in mind that regenerative farming is a long game. That is to say that the rewards are not immediate; developing healthy soils is a multi-year process that produces increasing benefits as time goes on.

Nonetheless, the benefits are the same regardless of whether we are talking about a half section cash crop or a relatively small chaos garden. 

A Few Benefits of Polycropping

  • Plant root diversity breaks up hardpan earth and creates soil aggregates that in increases water infiltration into the soil
  • A variety of broadleaf plants and grasses creates a thick canopy that blocks water evaporation and helps prevent soil leaching.
  • Plant diversity helps protect crops and gardens from pests and disease. 
  • Healthy communities of microorganisms exchange nutrients with plants and provide important roles in natural cycles (e.g. the carbon cycle, etc.,)
  • Overtime fungal networks (i.e. mycorrhizal fungi) develop and play an important role in nutrient optimization and distribution.
  • A diversity of flowering plants will continually attract pollinating insects which inturn attracts a variety of song birds 

Come fall and regenerative agriculture can look a bit messy at first glance, and our chaos garden is no exception. Hidden with the tangle of leaf and vine can be found a veritable cornucopia of organically grown vegetables. However, the true treasure of the chaos garden is not what you can take out, but rather what is left behind.

Chaos in the garden

Beneath the matted layers of plant residue left lying on the surface, the soil has been primed, the first steps in restoring natural mineral cycles have been taken and the microbial community is getting ready for exponential growth come spring and the start of a new cycle.