Illinois soybean farmers have become familiar with the term sustainability as it is applied to our production practices. Now, we are learning the term regenerative agriculture may be better.

Regenerative agriculture is defined as more than just agronomic stewardship for soil, water and nutrient flows. It’s a conservation and rehabilitative approach to farming systems that focuses on regenerating topsoil, improving the water cycle, increasing biodiversity, supporting carbon sequestration and increasing the ability of our land to persevere through climate extremes.

The Illinois Soybean Association checkoff program is assessing how farmers might benefit from regenerative agriculture’s practical applications in soybean production and its potential for greater profitability.

The existing body of research and data surrounding regenerative agriculture shows it can be profitable. When more money stays on the farm, it improves agronomic and farm financial outcomes, bolsters rural economies and provides environmental benefits.

Potential for increased profitability stems from a combination of things, including more stable yields and lower input costs. Already, the industry is starting to see some supplemental or alternative revenue streams come into regenerative farming systems.

They’re not mature yet, but carbon, water and biodiversity markets are emerging that can pay farmers to provide some of these eco-system services. Differentiated crop quality also may offer additional value.

ISA, through a recent ILSoyAdvisor webinar, asked Kristine Nichols, a soil microbiologist and founder of KRIS Systems Education and Consultation, to share her research.

Nichols focuses on the impact of cropping and grazing systems on soil microbiology, nutrient cycling and soil aggregation to improve soil health and water quality.

She says a microscopic fungus known as mycorrhizal fungi that already exists in the soil can change the way plants get nutrients and water, aid in disease resistance and help plants engineer soil structure to reduce erosion and soil loss. The fungi colonize the plant root system, giving the growing crop greater water and nutrient absorption capabilities and assisting soil aggregation.

Important processes, as soil health is critical to our future as soybean farmers. Nichols has done the math on vast topsoil losses in the United States and based on the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture data available, she says in 2014 the country lost 1.6 billion metric tons of topsoil.

If you loaded that amount of soil into boxcars, the length of the train to hold all of it would circle the globe seven times. And that is just one year’s worth of loss. Agricultural productivity is in severe jeopardy if that continues.

Farmers by nature always look for ways to improve their systems. We’re innovators. And that’s why we will continue to see more farmers implement regenerative systems.

The benefits are not just profitability, but better farm resiliency to weather, improved water use, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, better food quality and, increasingly, preferred supplier status.

Common practices today like no-till would not have happened and become critical management strategy without farmers driving them. As we look into more research on organic matter and carbon sequestration, tracking key performance indicators, paying farmers for sinking carbon and increasing land productivity, ISA will prepare Illinois soybean farming for the next generation.

To learn more about these and other ISA checkoff program efforts, visit ilsoy.org.

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