Five Free Strategies For Regenerative Agriculture on Any Scale
Common agricultural practices such as tilling the soil, spraying herbicides to keep the soil bare between crop plants, and relying on chemical fertilizers instead of replenishing organic matter through applications of manures, composts, fallow periods, and cover crops can increase soil erosion. When soil erodes, the rich fertile topsoil is removed from the land. It washes away in storms, it blows away in the wind, and it ends up somewhere else. Often, it ends up in a body of water where it causes damage instead of benefit. The soil left behind is less fertile, and it takes a long time to replace it. According to an article by the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, the soil erosion rate in the Midwestern United States ranges from ten to one thousand times higher than it was before Euro-American settlement. This is a big deal, and it could impact our future in a wide variety of ways.
Before I took over the management of this land, it was being farmed using the no-till method. This method was developed to help reduce the amount of erosion. It’s not a perfect solution, especially since it relies heavily on chemical herbicides to substitute for tillage. Since organic living is very important to me, I prefer to avoid herbicides, but I believe this decision was made in good faith and I believe it was a positive change over tillage agriculture. I respect the farmer who came before me for making this better choice. I suspect this transition was made too late, because there are glaring signs that significant erosion has already occurred here. In some patches of ground, we have nothing but clay subsoil remaining. Other patches have fared somewhat better, but when I compare soil samples from anywhere in the farm fields to a sample from the yard which has likely been protected from erosion by a grass cover crop all this time, the differences are obvious. I can see them with my eyes, I can feel them with my hands, and I can count them in the species of plant life that are able to thrive.
Regenerative agriculture is a collection of agricultural methods that build soil back up. Instead of being content with trying to mitigate the harm humans are doing to the soil with our agriculture, the regenerative agriculture model seeks to improve the quality of the soil through agriculture. This requires some fundamental changes over the current industrialized model, and changes are often difficult and costly. I am privileged to find myself in a position that gives me the opportunity to implement these kinds of changes on my land, and I hope that my work can help make that easier for other farmers in the future. Since I don’t have a large budget, and I don’t have (or want) large machinery, I primarily rely on these five zero-cost regenerative techniques.
I make as much compost as I possibly can make. I compost all the food scraps from my household, I compost all the used bedding from my chickens, and I sometimes compost other things from off the farm. For example, I had a standing arrangement with a coffee shop in my office building when I worked an off-farm job in the city. Every evening, I would deliver a clean 5 gallon bucket to the coffee shop. They would fill it up throughout the next day with all their used coffee grounds, and then I would take the full bucket home for my compost and leave them a fresh clean bucket for the next day. This gift of off-farm compostables really helped me to give my first garden here a head start. Many coffee shops are generous in this way, and Starbucks even has an official program called Grounds For Your Garden.
In addition, keep your own leaves! Leave them in place if you can, so that they can fertilize the land where they fall. If you need to rake them for one reason or another, consider moving them to your garden or composting them. I leave most of my leaves in place, but I gather the ones that fall on the driveway for use in my compost. The same idea can apply to grass clippings.
Many municipalities make mulch out of the yard waste they collect from their citizens. Tree branches get mulched into wood chips, leaves get shredded into leaf mold, and these products are often made available to residents for free. Additionally, arborists are often looking for a place to dump the wood chips they create as a byproduct of their work. You can call around to your local arborists individually, or you could make use of a free service called ChipDrop. I sometimes receive four or five ChipDrops per year. I take as much as I can possibly spread around with my pitchfork and wheelbarrow. Each load is usually 10-15 cubic yards. This is a great way to give new life to a byproduct of another industry.
When my own trees fall, or when I prune limbs or cut down invasive brush here on the farm, I don’t make wood chips. I leave that wood whole and I use it to fill brush fences. My long term plan is that these structures will serve one purpose as a fence for a few years. When the wood begins to decompose, I will remove the old wood from the fence and spread it around the field. The T-Posts will still be in tact, so I should be able to continuously fill them back up with new wood to keep the process going. If you don’t want to create brush fences, there are some other ways to achieve a similar result. You can make brush piles, which provide habitat for birds and various wildlife. You can also make hugelkultur garden beds! I haven’t tried hugelkultur yet, but I am considering it. Hugelkultur is a German system of gardening in which whole logs are used as the base for a tall mounded garden bed. Everything rots down eventually and creates really gorgeous soil.
Cover crops are very popular in regenerative agriculture, but I find they are best suited to rotations in annual crop fields or vegetable gardens. Managing a large-scale cover crop planting requires a lot of the same (expensive) machinery that it takes to grow annual row crops. I don’t practice that kind of farming, so I don’t have (or want) the expensive tools. Plus, since I practice perennial agriculture, perennial plants fit much better into my farming model.
Early on in my farm career I spent a whole year focusing on cover crops. The results were somewhat discouraging to be honest. I have found that encouraging certain perennial plants, wild plants, and certain weeds yields some of the same benefits as cover crops for a significantly lower input cost. Less money, less labor. After that first year of cover crop hard labor (and about a $1,000 seed bill), I planted a mixture of low maintenance perennial pasture grasses and clovers on all my fields. I encourage dandelions and yellow dock for their deep tap roots. I planted native stinging nettles as a dynamic accumulator. The areas where these plants are really thriving have shown noticeable signs of recovery, and as a bonus, some of the plants also provide delicious food and useful medicine!
Rotational grazing is a major strategy in regenerative agriculture. Chickens can be moved to new ground every day in movable coops called chicken tractors, so that they get fresh grass to eat and a fresh patch of ground to fertilize with their manure. Four legged livestock are also moved frequently in portable fencing systems for the same reason. These are excellent ways to bring fertility back to the land. But what if you don’t want to keep livestock? I keep chickens, but I only have a small flock, and more would be unmanageable. To supplement the manure contributions that this farm receives from the chickens, I work on making this land as bountiful a habitat as it can possibly be. I work to attract and protect songbirds and squirrels, eagles and deer, rabbits and raccoons, possums, toads and turtles and whoever else is nearby! When they come, they bring their own unique contributions (#1 and #2!). These animals don’t cost me a thing, and they contribute so much more than manure.
Note: it’s not safe to eat veggies (or other raw foods) that have had direct contact with manure. This is a strategy that I employ in the wider fields, orchards, and woods rather than in the garden.
If you’re looking for a great movie to chill with, and if you’re interested in learning more about regenerative agriculture, there’s a great documentary called Kiss The Ground. Check it out sometime! Regenerative agriculture is a powerful movement that has already generated great results and useful information. It pairs very well with some of the other traditions I follow, such as permaculture, agrarianism, and organic farming. Regenerative agriculture is mostly focused on rebuilding good soil, which is very important. However, I draw from a number of different models when making decisions for this farm because I believe it’s equally as important to zoom out and consider how our actions are impacting the whole ecosystem. Holistic land care must include a sense of place. What’s good for the animals in your area? What’s good for the pollinators? What’s good for the unmanaged wild spaces around you? It is about soil health, but it’s not only about soil health. It is about what’s best for people, but it’s not only about what’s best for people. Remember, you are a part of nature. When nature thrives, we thrive.
For Further Reading
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