March 04, 2024

Improve, restore soil health with regenerative agriculture

ELIZABETH, Ill. — Regenerative agriculture is focused on improving and restoring soil health rather than only utilizing sustaining practices.

“It is about figuring out a way to do agriculture, so it’s putting carbon back into the soil, restoring soil health, protecting water quality and improving the water cycle,” said Laura Paine, outreach coordinator, Grassland 2.0, GrassWorks.

“The basic themes of regenerative agriculture are minimizing soil disturbance, reducing chemical inputs, maximizing biodiversity, keeping the soil covered, integrating livestock and crops and adapting to the local environment,” said Paine during the Working Towards Regenerative Agriculture workshop hosted by University of Illinois Extension, University of Wisconsin Extension and the Grassland 2.0 project.

“All of these principles recognize the importance of livestock in the system to allow you to have more perennial cover,” she said, “and to have a more diverse cropping system with more plant species in the landscape.”

Regenerative agriculture, Paine said, is not a new principle.

“If we keep a diverse set of root systems in the soil, we can get good soil health, which turns into good animal health and that turns into healthy food for us to eat,” she said.

Now in the Midwest much of the ground is bare for most of the year.

“That minimizes the amount of time we’ve got green plants to capture the sunlight,” Paine said.

“Changing that is part of what Grassland 2.0 is doing,” she said. “We are looking at how to transform our agricultural system to address this issue and start putting carbon back in the soil while keeping farms profitable and keeping supply chains in place.”

Paine encourages farmers to think about the process as a continuum, where one end is all bare ground and the other end is all perennials.

“You decide your goals and then move yourself along the continuum,” she said.

There is no one right or wrong way to develop a regenerative agricultural system, Paine said.

“It’s not what equipment you have in the shed or the fertilizers you use,” she said. “It’s really about management.”

Agriculture is not a machine. It’s a living, biological system.

“We need to take a systems approach, be responsive to that system and understand how it works so we’re working with nature and not fighting it,” Paine said.

It all starts with a plan.

“Having a plan of where you want to get to is the key,” Paine said. “The planning process allows you to not only include economics, but also include your values related to the environment and the quality of life for your family.”

Farmers must be profitable; however, building a system that allows them to balance things is what is really important.

“There’s a lot easier ways to make a living than through farming, but we’re drawn to farming because of the other benefits,” Paine said.

There are a lot of different whole farming planning processes, but the important part is to take some time to make a long-term plan, Paine said.

“We have the science to know how to manage and protect the environment and keep our animals healthy to make a living,” she said.

However, Paine said, there are things that get in the way of making a plan and moving in the desired direction.

That may include pressures from a banker, what the rest of the farming world expects or the system that a farmer grew up with.

“Holistic management is a framework for setting goals, making decisions and implementing plans,” Paine said.

“A process for planning is to start by identifying your personal goals, quality of life goals and business goals, to develop an implementation plan,” she said.

“You also need to put a monitoring system in place to make sure you get to where you want to go, when you want to get there.”

The situation is different for farmers.

“In a lot of areas of life, if you make a mistake, nobody notices,” Paine said. “But if you make a mistake farming, everybody is going to see it because it is right out there on the landscape, so that creates huge pressure on people to conform to what’s going on in their neighborhood.”

For example, Paine’s farm is the only grazing operation within miles.

“We’re in the middle of the biggest corn growing area of Wisconsin, but we came in without that community pressure because we didn’t grow up in the community,” she said.

The social aspects, Paine said, are more of an influence than many people realize.

“This planning process is about trying to overcome some of those or to understand them and move forward regardless,” she said.

One of the most important parts of holistic management is the quality of life statement, Paine said.

“We found there are four things that end up being important to almost everyone — economic wellbeing, relationships, something that challenges you to allow you to grow and giving back to the community,” Paine said.

“Once we develop a quality of life statement, then we can refer back to it and see if a change will impact what we said we wanted in our lives,” she said. “And how we can make the change so it doesn’t impinge on the things we said we wanted to do.”

Farmers should create a timeline to lay out what needs to happen, as well as a feedback loop.

“Get your plan in place, your goals set and look for the first sign of things going off the rails,” Paine said. “Correct your course to make sure you stay on track and sometimes you have to re-plan because unpredictable things are going to happen in life, so you have to figure out a way to adapt with the long-term goal in mind.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor