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My Obsession with Regenerative Agriculture


By Owl McCabe

I will admit it that I am a little obsessed with promoting regenerative agriculture. I spend a large portion of my free time reading and studying about the subject. I am passionate in my belief that regenerative agriculture will help solve many of the problems we as a society now face. I am “retired” and in my sixties. I could easily kick back and enjoy my retirement but I can’t. I see we have a colossal problems and I can’t just turn my back especially since I see a simple way to fix these problems. Let me explain more on why I feel this way.

Conventional Agriculture Has a Problem

There is a crisis happening in agriculture that most people don’t know about. Farming is no longer looked at as a viable occupation. When you spend $100 at the grocery store, less than 10% of that money goes to the farmer. Farmers are making less and less money with their crops because the cost of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides is rising faster than crop prices.

The family farm is dying. Right now, the suicide rate among farmers is higher than any other occupation. Most farms are not making enough money to support a family. Farms are closing down at an alarming rate. The children of farmers look for work in any occupation other than farming often at the encouragement of their parents. Because of all these reasons, the average age of a farmer in the US is now 65. In ten to twenty years, most current farmers will have either passed on or are too old to farm any more. There are very few people willing to step in to replace them when there is no money to be made.

It has now become apparent that the way we farm is not sustainable and we are running out of time to fix it. The most disturbing fact is that conventional agriculture is destroying our topsoil. With all the tilling we are doing and the fact that fields are often tilled and left bare for long periods of time, mostly over winter, our soils are eroding away quickly. It has been estimated that at the current rate of erosion, the planet has less than 60 years of topsoil left. We will see world food production falling quickly, long before those 60 years, as less and less topsoil is available for growing.

There is a sculpture off Highway 80 in Adair County, Iowa that shows how dramatic this soil loss is. It shows the topsoil loss in Iowa in the last 150 years. In the 1800’s, Iowa had 14 to 16 inches of topsoil. Today, it is down to 6 to 8 inches. The USDA estimates that Iowa is losing topsoil at a shocking rate of 5.5 tons per acre per year. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this must change.

The nutrient content of our food is also falling. Conventional agriculture assumes that all a plant needs is nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – the N-P-K you see on fertilizer bags. However, plants need a total of 42 essential nutrients, although most of these are in very minute quantities. When we first started conventional agriculture, we assumed that all these micronutrients were in sufficient numbers that we didn’t have to worry about them. After 80 years of conventional farming however, we now see these micronutrients are running out. If you combine this with the fact that plant breeders develop new cultivars of vegetables that grow best under conventional agriculture conditions, without regard to nutrient content, it should be no surprise that our food is less nutritious.

A landmark study on this subject was done by Donald Davis of the University of Texas in 2004. The study compared USDA nutritional data from 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits. The study found “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C from 1950 to 1999. The Kushi Institute compared nutrient levels in 12 fresh vegetables from 1975 to 1997 and found a 27 percent drop in iron levels, a 37 percent drop in vitamin A levels, and a 30 percent drop in vitamin C levels. A study published in the British Food Journal, comparing nutrient data from 1930 to 1980 found similar drops in nutrition.

I could write a whole book on the problems in conventional agriculture and it’s use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. The current data coming out on glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) is frightening. I won’t expand on it here but I am sure most of you would agree that you would prefer not to eat these poisons even in the small amounts that the manufacturers consider “safe.”

Our Food System Has a Problem

It’s not just conventional agriculture that has a problem. It’s our whole food system. When I say food system, I mean not only farms but also the shipping of that food from the farm, the refrigeration, how the food is handled, etc. We must also look at the economic system that has been set up and how that affects the farming community.

It is now estimated that our food, on average, travels 1,500 miles before it gets to our plate. Food from a farm can be gathered in one state, processed in another, then sent to a distribution center, before being sent to your store. That’s not including the food we insist on having year-round and thus must be shipped in from another country. Think of all the fossil fuel that must be burned for this to occur. It is estimated that conventional agriculture now uses about 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every one calorie of food energy produced.

Add to all this CO2 emissions from shipping food across long distances the fact that tilling the soil releases significant amounts of CO2 on its own. Every time you till, you put oxygen into the soil that sends the bacteria into a feeding frenzy where they eat organic matter (that which has not eroded away) and expire CO2. Unlike other agricultural systems, conventional agriculture does nothing to replenish that organic matter.

By the time you add up all this CO2 emissions, the amounts can be staggering. Studies have estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of all yearly greenhouse gas emissions is from our food system. I have seen one study done by the UN that put that number closer to 55 percent. I have also read one paper that claims that most of the greenhouse gas increase in the Earth’s atmosphere over the last 150 years is from our land use, tilling and tree cutting, not from burning fossil fuels.

One of the saddest side effects of our current food system is how it is killing the rural economy. One hundred years ago, small towns were thriving. People bought locally. Money stayed in the community. Conventional agriculture pushes the mindset of “go big or go home.” It claims it’s more efficient to grow a monoculture that you ship away from the community. That thinking results in large corporations gaining control of prices at the expense of the farmer. Money now goes to these companies, most of which are headquartered in larger cities. The rural community is being sucked dry of its wealth.

Looking Toward a Healthy Local Food System

Enough of this depressing stuff. I hope you see now that we must change. Some people look at all these problems and give up. They decide they want to move out into the country and prepare for the economic collapse. The whole “Prepper Movement” is based on this mentality.

I, however, am not ready to give up. I want to hold onto the dream of rebuilding our community and our food system in such a way that we not only hold off any collapse but so that we also will thrive. Instead of preparing for collapse, let’s prepare for abundance. Let’s convert to regenerative agriculture that will regenerate our communities and our lives.

So, what does this new food system look like? How do we go about making these changes? I would like to offer a vision. I am a firm believer that if you have a vision to work toward, you are more likely to succeed. My vision may not be the “perfect” solution. I would love to hear from others if they have suggestions, but this is a place from which to start.

Make farming profitable again

We need a paradigm shift in how we think about farming. If you ask the USDA, they will say the key to farming success is through maximizing yields. They keep pushing this. They want you to have your soil tested yearly to see how much chemical fertilizers you need add. If you don’t test and you don’t apply enough fertilizer, you won’t get the biggest yield. Farmers have been doing this for the last 40 years and it has not got them anywhere.

I think farmers should concentrate on maximizing profits instead of maximizing yields. Let me give an example. Let’s say a farmer using conventional agriculture makes $100 per acre on a crop but the input costs (fertilizer, herbicides, plowing, etc.) are $90. That gives him a $10 per acre profit. What if that same farmer used regenerative agriculture instead and had a slightly lower yield, say $95 per acre, but the input costs were only $40 per acre (regenerative agriculture has much fewer inputs). The regenerative method gave him a profit of $55 per acre verses the $10 per acre using conventional agriculture. Yes, the yield was lower but so what. The farmer makes more money. This example is typical of farms that have freshly converted to regenerative agriculture. But things will get better for the regenerative farmer.

When a farmer does regenerative agriculture, the soil is in better shape each year. The soil will hold more water each year. In the example above, the farmer using regenerative methods will eventually get better yields as his soil improves and thus make even more money per acre. When a drought comes, and they always do, the regenerative farmer will be in much better shape than the conventional farmer, especially in our dry climate, because regenerative agriculture increases soil organic matter which will hold onto rainfall much longer.

Farmers can also learn to cut out the middleman and keep all the profits from food sales for themselves. Instead of farming for export, sell as locally as possible. I would like to see farmers feed themselves first, then feed their neighbors, then their community, and then they can think about selling for export.

Make Rural Communities Thrive Again

If we want to revive our local economy, it’s not just the farmers that need to have a new mindset. It’s all of us consumers that need to step back and look at our choices. It may appear that buying cheap food from Walmart is better for our wallet but is it really? Consumer must look at the hidden costs – sickness, poverty, environmental damage. This cheaper food you are buying lacks the nutrients of regeneratively grown produce. Lack of nutrients is a leading cause of illness. You may save a few dollars up front but later in life you will pay with more medical bills. Buying locally grown food also keeps the money in the community instead of shipping it off out of state. Supporting local stores and supporting local farmers is the key to reviving our local economy.

Work in Beauty Promotes Regenerative Agriculture

I am the executive director of Work in Beauty. Our mission statement states, “Work in Beauty was formed to create livelihoods that heal, sustain and harmonize with the environment in fields such as sustainable growing, water conservation and healthy life styles.” We are fulfilling our mission by promoting regenerative agriculture. Last year we held about 30 workshops and lectures, all free to the public. This year we will again be having these workshops and lectures with a greater emphasis on regenerative agriculture. Hopefully I have helped convince you of the need for regenerative agriculture and made you want to know more.

Work in Beauty will kick off it’s 2020 workshop season at the Eco-Regenerative Learning Center in Candy Kitchen on April 4th at 3:00pm. At that workshop we will be planting trees and shrubs while going over our plans for the year. We also have volunteer days every Monday from 8am until noon starting in March. We would love to have you join us.

If you wish to get involved or to find out more information, please contact me at workinbeauty.inc@gmail.com.

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