There are lots of them, so let’s take them one at a time:
1. Cover crops. Photosynthesis is nature’s most brilliant invention. Growing plants pull carbon from the atmosphere, and active soil biology (no chemicals to kill the mycorrhizae and earth worms!) can stabilize and store it there. Cover crops are crops seeded after the cash crop (In Mt. Folly’s case hemp, corn, soybeans, heritage corn, small grains, vegetables and corn silage) is harvested. These start growing in the fall and stay green all winter. Thus, our crop fields are photosynthesizing year-round, and the roots of the plants are active in the very alive soil.
In the spring, as the cover crops are growing, we turn cattle in to eat and poop.
This adds organic fertilizer, and, because the cattle are ruminants who use bacteria to digest cellulose (grass, ensiled corn and hay) in their 8-compartment stomachs, each cow pie is a motherlode of biology plopped on the ground. Then, worms and dung beetles start dragging the poop below the surface to feed the biology there.
2. Minimizing tillage. On organic ground, this is the most difficult, as weed control is necessarily mechanical. We’ve been growing enormous covers, with lots of biomass and nutrients, and have been harrowing them in before planting. Until the 2021 season, our efforts to minimize tillage have included a flame weeder, which we use on organic corn, but not organic soybeans, and a hemp hawk, a precision tillage tool, which hasn’t worked well on anything. We also have multiple targeted tillage tools, as do most organic farms.
Our new roller crimper, which was built by the company which helped with the design and manufacture for Rodale, arrived to late in the 2020 season to be of use. But already (as of October 10, 2020) we are planting cover crop rye thickly, which we will roll down late spring 2021, when the rye begins shedding pollen.
On non-gmo ground, minimizing tillage is pretty easy, as these fields have been no-till for years. We have a good no-till planter, the seeding mechanism of which slices the soil, inserts the seed, and then pulls the soil and cover back over the seed, moves on several inches, and does this again.
Regenerative agriculture is a term used by Robert Rodale to describe a type of farming that went beyond “sustainable,” that made the land and ecosystem better. When put in practice, regenerative agriculture allows the land to heal itself.
Laura Freeman, shown here sharing the cover of a 1992 edition of Rodale’s “The New Farm” magazine with pastured hogs, points out that back then it was called “regenerative,” but now the term has become recognized.
“You can see that New Farm, which we all read as a sacred text, was called, “The Magazine of Regenerative Agriculture,” says Laura. “I was happy to play second fiddle to grazing hogs, and we grazed hogs ourselves, though they kept getting loose and scaring my riding horses.”
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, back-to-the-landers understood that the goal was to mimic biological processes and achieve closed nutrient loops, Laura explains. But farmers were figuring out how to do this and stay afloat. “We still are,” she says.
“You can see from the picture here that we were going to local restaurants, picking up their food waste, and feeding it to pigs…with our great Pyrenees guard dog joining the feast,” Laura says. “I guess you can call this a ‘closed nutrient loop’, and we still feed or compost food waste from our farm to table restaurant and distillery. It was disorganized, experimental, and had great energy. I’m so thankful that some of what we odd-ball farmers were trying to do really can help save the world.”
From a climate change perspective, regenerative agriculture practices can turn farming from a bad thing to a very good thing. Simply put, the suite of regenerative practices can sequester carbon in soils and plants. Rodale ‘s carbon math demonstrates that global adoption of this method could sequester all the carbon humans emit annually. Called “Drawdown,” Paul Hawken and his researchers rank regenerative farming as #11 in a list of 100 promising solutions to the climate catastrophe. The Drawdown math published by Hawken in 2017 computes the practices could reduce carbon pollution by 23.15 gigatons by 2051. This number is based on the speed and breath of farmstead adoption, which Hawken et al estimate is at 108 million acres now. Their goal is 1 billion acres by 2050.