“Soil should be on the list of endangered species,” Nebraska farmer Del Ficke said in a recent interview with NPR.
After more than more than 300 years of conventional agriculture, and half a century of even more intensive industrial agriculture, American soil is on life support.
Ficke is part of a growing grassroots movement of farmers looking for ways to revive it.
“For years, talk of ‘healthy soil’ was mostly limited to organic farmers and others on the fringes of mainstream American agriculture… No more,” NPR reports.
Even big food companies getting on board with regenerative soil practices, as failing conventional methods have left them no choice.
Some are even discussing a new “regenerative” label for food, that would indicate a level of sustainable soil practices above and beyond “organic.”
For Ficke, soil is a spiritual quest. He recalls the moment he heard a “call from God” to farm in a way that mimicked the native prairie that used to flourish in Nebraska.
“I could feel it in my heart that we had to change. We are running out of time,” he says.
The most important change to Ficke was switching to stop tilling the soil.
“Tillage is the most destructive thing in agriculture,” he says.
More and more farmers are adopting “no-till” farming over the last couple of decades, realizing that for millennia we’ve been killing a living organism and releasing all its nutrients by turning it up-side-down.
Another game changer for Ficke is the use of cover crops. After he harvests his corn or soybeans, he plants a mixture of grasses and legumes on those fields right away.
The roots of the cover crops, decaying in undisturbed soil, enrich the soil. So do manure and urine from his cattle.
In time, the soil comes back to life, teeming with microbes and fungi.
“When I started doing this stuff five years ago, you had to go a state away to find people farming this way,” Ficke says. “Those people are all over now. You can find someone like that every few miles.”
There’s Bryce Irlbeck in North Dakota, for instance. He’s simply looking for the practical advantages that healthier soil can bring.
“When we put that carbon back in the soil, we can see the effects of reduced fertilizer, reduced erosion,” he told NPR.
Soil that’s full of decaying roots and microbes is like a sponge for water and nutrients, which means less money spent on chemical fertilizer and watering.
“I think there is a movement, and I believe that farmers want to be part of that movement,” he says. “It’s just figuring out how to do it and stay economically viable.”
Planting cover crops costs more money up-front, Irlbeck says, and it takes years to see the benefits. This is the main reason why only 5 or 10 percent of farmers in Iowa are really doing it.
Until recently, a lot of his neighbors thought he was a little crazy. Now, they’re starting to ask him questions.
Even some of the biggest, most powerful names in American agriculture including Monsanto, General Mills and Walmart are taking more interest in regenerative soil practices out of desperation.
A coalition of food companies and environmental organizations has set up a new organization, the Soil Health Partnership, which in turn has signed up a hundred participating farmers so far.
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