Thinking about Regenerative Ag with Lucy Stitzer, Dirt to Dinner and Nate Birt, Vice President of Trust In Food, a Farm Journal initiative, was originally published on Farm Journal’s AgWeb on March 2, 2021.
Nate Birt: We hear a lot these days about conservation, or sustainability, or regenerative ag. But soil health is really a fundamental building block underlying every ag system, no matter what terminology we use. It even made it into the Super Bowl this year! What are you observing about soil health in the world of food and ag, and what should farmers be paying attention to?
Lucy Stitzer: Chipotle’s marketing captures the idea of a cleaner, happier, more future facing farming. What does this mean exactly?
Personally, I think that it all starts with the soil. When I first started learning about soil, I didn’t think it was very glamourous or exciting. But when I realized how alive it is – I started paying more attention.
Did you know that in one teaspoon of healthy soil – there live over 7.8 billion microbes – more than all humans on Earth today. Compare that little teaspoon with the human microbiome – and we have 100,000 billion microbes floating around our entire body – about the size of a mango.
And these little organisms in the soil are more diversified than all the life – plants and insects – in the Amazon! Because of the Earth’s carbon dance of life, 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions are found in the soil.
Healthy soil means a healthier environment and healthier humans. Regenerative Agriculture makes the soil healthier, have more nutrients, takes carbon out of the air, and retains water. This is different from the concept of sustainability which has broader meaning including animal welfare, human labor, and deforestation. Regenerative agriculture is primarily focusing on the soil itself, however many see it as the panacea to save the world from climate change by pulling carbon out of the air. But we can’t just get there with one type of farming and one answer.
What big-name companies or brands are stepping up their commitments to soil health and regenerative agriculture? What can we learn from these announcements as farmers?
Walmart is committed to having zero emissions by 2040 – restoring 50 million acres of land will help them achieve their goals. Danone will help achieve their regenerative goals by helping farmers make the shift to regenerative ag by locking in long-term contracts with farmers to guarantee stable profit margins.
And Land O’Lakes, a farmer cooperative, has partnered with Microsoft to help farmers with their rural broadband which, in turn, enables them to have ‘intelligent agriculture solutions’ so farmers can keep their soil healthy by fully utilizing precision agriculture. NRCS is also trying to help farmers invest in conservation practices by providing federal financing, as well as from private capital.
“We seem to be divided on everything…let’s use food to bring people together.”
– Lucy Stitzer
Regenerative agriculture refers to the ability of farmers to strengthen ecosystems through their farming practices – yet you refer to the challenge of balancing regenerative practices as part of an entire food and ag system. What can the larger food and ag ecosystem do to support farmers holistically, including regenerative agriculture adoption?
I think companies, the government, and the entire ag ecosystem can recognize that there is not just one answer to growing our food. There is a tendency in our country to take sides. We seem to be divided on everything from immigration to impeachment to the welfare state to education and religion. Bringing the food to your dinner table doesn’t have to have the same divide. Let’s use food to bring people together – unite the country. There is not just one answer to growing food. Regenerative agriculture is a great answer for the soil – but it is not the only answer.
Incorporating different agricultural practices into farming will certainly help the soil. But what we have to guard against is putting one type of farming on all farmers. Just as people are unique, so are farms — their soil microbiome, their environment. Every farmer should have a choice on how they grow our food. What works great in Kansas doesn’t work in Missouri.
Finally, trading carbon credits created at the farm is beginning to be a reality. Farmers would have additional income by selling the carbon they have sequestered in their land. There is still a lot to iron out here – but it is being discussed as a way to reduce carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and provide additional farm income.
It’s not as simple as every farmer adopting a cookie-cutter set of conservation practices or products. How should farmers be thinking about learning the lay of the land, then customizing sustainability to fit their needs?
I am not a farmer – so my only thought here is for farmers to tell their story. Let people know how you grow your food, farm the land, use different technologies, take care of your soil and your watersheds.
Agriculture is being thrown under the bus as degrading the environment when the reality is that farmers are generally more environmentally conscious than most of us.
In addition, compared to any other industry, farming is the ONLY one that can be carbon neutral.
What are you reading/watching/listening to that you’d recommend farmers check out? For example, The Wall Street Journal just published an excerpt from a new book this past weekend highlighting the accomplishments of precision agriculture and many ag sectors, such as livestock, in lowering environmental impact.
On Saturday, Robert Paarlberg, an agricultural economist wrote an excellent piece in the WSJ reminding us that farming practices over the years has gotten better. Science and technology such as precision agriculture, seed genetics, and irrigation management, have helped reduce pesticides and fertilizers while yields have increased. Growing our meat and producing our milk takes less water, less feed, less land, and fewer animals than it did in the ’70s. How can we continue this trajectory?
A great page turner on soil is The Hidden Half of Nature, by David Montgomery and his wife, Anne Bikle. He is a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington and she is a biologist and environmental planner. They write a fun and fascinating book about the soil microbiome. I loved it and learned a lot.
I also watched Kiss the Ground. It was thought provoking. It explained regenerative ag very well and highlighted Gabe Brown, a North Dakota regenerative farmer. However, I wish it had a more balanced view on the different types of farming.
I would like to end with a couple questions for all of us. How can we use creative thinking, technology, and science to advance our food system? How can we push past political agendas and just ‘do the right thing’ for human and environmental health?
Check out Lucy’s full interview here: