How can we have more birds, cleaner water, better food, and a healthier planet? That seems to be the questions a lot of people are asking now days. You can watch one documentary after another about all the environmental problems we face, many because of or food system. What’s harder to find is examples and stories on how agriculture can provide the food we need, for some nine billion people, and protect the natural world we so enjoy and need.
The good news in agriculture is out there, and you don’t need to go far. Self-reliant and self-educated farmers are implementing practices that build soil health, diversify the landscape, and protect their pocketbook. The farmers, ranchers and resource professionals implementing these restorative practices are new age pioneers, leading the way in conservation agriculture.
Gabe Brown, of Brown’s Ranch, farms 5400 acres in central North Dakota and has led the way in innovative cover cropping, livestock integration, and other soil building practices. In doing so he provides habitat for pollinators and predatory insects, game and songbirds, small mammals, and the microorganisms below ground that fuel the whole system. He protects water quality by increasing soil organic matter and water holding capacity, mitigating runoff and restoring hydrology. This type of agriculture functions as an ecosystem, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, further protecting water, soil, and our children that eat the food he grows. And Brown’s Farm generates greater profits, allowing him to bring his two sons and their families back to the farm, creating the rural economic development everyone wants to see.
Mark Shephard of New Forest Farm, located in the driftless area of southwestern Wisconsin, is restoring the land with perennial woody crops, agroforestry and innovative water catchment. Purchased in the 1990’s as a degraded corn and soybean farm, Mark first installed keyline swales to capture water in the valleys where it concentrates and move it slowly across the slope to the drier ridges where it can infiltrate into the soil and feed his crops. Where the water concentrated he brought in equipment and dug out “pocket”
ponds to hold yet more runoff. Below the swales he planted highly productive cultivators of trees and shrubs that are native to the surrounding landscape; raspberries, hazelnuts, chestnuts, apples, plums, cherries, and other edible perennial crops. In the areas between these planting he grows vegetables and grazes livestock. I first was able to visit New Forest Farm in 2004, about a decade after Mark purchased it. The trees and shrubs were well established, but just starting to produce. Several years later I heard him speak at a conference. He had increased the size of his pocket ponds and he was seeing frogs and snakes around these areas. Biology students from a nearby college had completed a bird count and in one weekend counted well over one hundred species of birds in this once degraded farm field. Since, he has started a hard cider brewery to use apples and other fruit that wasn’t marketable, adding value to his product and diversifying his income stream. He’s developed equipment and facilities to handle nuts and other products. And has been instrumental in the growth of Organic Valley food cooperative. During extreme rain events, while neighboring farms are having their soil washed off the slopes, he is soaking up water and storing it for the next drought. He has restored historic springs on his property and returned wildlife to the landscape. All this on a working, productive agricultural landscape.
Max Alger works for the Missouri Department of Conservation as a grassland specialist. After many years working to restore natural prairie lands they began to notice that when a landscape was returned to prairie there would be an initial influx of game and songbirds. But after six or seven years the populations would level off, and eventually start to decline. Looking to nature for solutions, they wondered if the lack of large herbivores, which would have been prevalent in large numbers of buffalo historically, was playing a role in the decline of bird populations over time. They brought in livestock to mimic the buffalo. Using cattle in conjunction with controlled fire, they have developed a burn patch graze system that increases landscape diversity and provides the various successional prairie stages that are needed for the vast number of species, and the individual life cycles, of wildlife that is native to prairie grasslands. Studies are showing that the areas disturbed by this approach are seeing more nest sites and greater survival rates for gamebirds such as the bobwhite quail. The ranchers they contract with are glad to have access to additional grazing lands and the resource professionals charged with managing these public lands can do so more cost effectively, improving native habitats while saving taxpayer dollars.
But it’s not just farmers and land managers driving this revolution. Consumers are demanding better diets and want to know where their food comes from and how it is grown. They are driving these changes with their pocketbook. Farmers that are using holistic methods are increasingly being backed by governments and research institutes. The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service as a soil health initiative and the National Association of Conservation Districts has resolved to promote soil health as an agency. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization held a world symposium in 2014 exploring Agroecology and how it can provide food security to developing nations. The Green Lands Blue Waters Coalition is a group of land grant universities and other organizations in the Mississippi River watershed researching and promoting methods to
keep agricultural landscapes in living cover year around. Focused on the soil health principles, they promote perennial forage, agroforestry, cover crops, biomass, and perennial grains as strategies to keep the land green, and the water blue. One of the more promising hallmarks is the perennial grain Kernza, which is planted once every five to six years and can be harvested annually for grain. They are finding that rotationally grazing this crop in early spring or fall, after harvest, appears to increase the grain production, increasing profitability. Genetic technology has increased the speed at which this grain is being developed and is the type of technology that will help to fuel the agroecological revolution.
Scientists are delving into soil ecosystem research, trying to understand the complex interactions of the soil food web. We now can show that it is diverse, fragile, specialist species and groups of organisms that fuel a healthy soil. They need good soil aggregate, a substantial soil carbon pool, living roots in the ground throughout the year. We know they can’t withstand excessive soil disturbance or prolonged periods of flooding or drought. It is clear that overuse of agricultural chemicals and synthetic fertilizers degrade the soil biota, and without healthy soil we cannot expect more birds, clean water, abundant nature, or healthy food.