It was Kansas farmer Gail Fuller who “took me to school.”
“You should be ashamed,” he told me bluntly.
As an employee (at the time) of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, I had assumed our 80-plus years of conservation work would insulate us (and me) from such a scathing rebuke. I assumed we were the ultimate “good guys” when it came to soil stewardship.
“Your agency came up with ‘T,’” Gail said in a tone that rang of indictment. (“T” is a concept developed by the Soil Conservation Service, now the NRCS, that established the minimum soil loss or erosion rate required to sufficiently reduce soil organic content and harm crop productivity. That rate, which is still used today, is measured in tons of soil per acre.)
“Tolerable loss of soil? Do you really think there’s such a thing as a ‘tolerable’ loss of soil?” he asked. “We should be rebuilding our soil.”.
After absorbing the initial impact of Gail’s candid reprimand, I realized he was right. “Okay,” I said, “but can soil regeneration be done profitably on a large scale without reducing productivity? “
“It can and it is. Right here on my farm,” he said.
Since that day more than five years ago, my perception of sustainability changed. I, too, began asking: “How can agriculture be sustainable if we tolerate a net loss of its foundational resource?” Coupled with the fact that our nation has lost an alarming amount of top soil in the past 100 years, shouldn’t we move beyond sustainable agriculture to regenerative agriculture, especially if it can be done profitably and productively?
Since my eye-opening encounter with Gail, I’ve visited dozens of farms and interviewed an equal number of farmers who are regenerating their soil by using soil health management systems.
Those farms operate in vastly different climates and feature a wide range of cropping systems. But each farmer made the decision to rebuild the soil using four key soil health-improving principles: 1.) Keeping the ground covered with plants and residues; 2.) Keeping living plants and roots in the soil throughout the year; 3.) Using diverse plants and animals; and 4.) Limiting soil disturbance by using no-till planting techniques.
Each farmer reported, to varying degrees, an increase in soil organic matter, increased profits, increased soil function and farm resiliency through increased water infiltration rates and lower overall use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Not surprisingly, an increasing number of studies are correlating soil health management system use with reduced farm runoff and sedimentation, too.
Author David Montgomery, in his latest book, Growing a Revolution, writes that soil health/regenerative agriculture offers “a triple harvest of societal benefits, along with better farm profitability. It simultaneously builds soil fertility to help feed the world and improve food quality, stores carbon to slow climate change and boost agricultural resilience to it, and conserves biodiversity on agricultural land. As a bonus, taxpayers could save money through reduced subsidies.”
Given the myriad of on- and off-farm benefits, coupled with the increasing appetite of consumers for agricultural products that are produced in environmentally beneficial ways, regenerative agriculture just makes sense. And to their great credit, an increasing number of national, state and local soil health non-governmental organizations have recognized the potential of regenerative agriculture, and are working alongside farmers and ranchers to seize this transformative opportunity.
So why doesn’t USDA’s NRCS, the world’s leading soil conservation agency, make soil health-focused, regenerative agriculture its primary mission?
Healthy soil is the foundation of our nation, the production engine of American agriculture. With so many economic and environmental benefits at stake, now is the time for bold USDA leadership and courageous advocacy for soil health and regenerative agriculture.
USDA started down that road a few years ago when a soil health division was established within the NRCS and I was proud to be a part of the agency’s soil health efforts. But for something with such enormous potential, assigning a few dozen specialists from within an agency of some 10,000 employees can hardly be considered a robust response to this extraordinary opportunity.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently introduced a spiffy new motto for USDA’s 100,000 employees: “Do right and feed everyone,” the tagline reads.
Mr. Secretary, there’s no more efficacious way of “doing right and feeding everyone” than by focusing USDA’s soil conservation programs and services on regenerating our nation’s living and life-giving soil.
The time for regenerative agriculture is now. Farmers like Gail Fuller want it. Consumers support it. And our future literally depends on it.
Ron Nichols is a freelance writer and former communications coordinator for NRCS. He created the award-winning education and awareness campaign “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil”.