2.16.2018 – Exploring Regenerative Agriculture
For several years, we have been talking about water quality and the need to clean up the waters of our state. As part of that conversation we have explored the importance of soil health and how we can rebuild it. As a result, the term “regenerative agriculture” has become part of our lexicon and while the term is relatively new, the concept is not and as we have taken testimony it has become clear that farmers have actually been using many of these techniques, some for many years.
What exactly is regenerative agriculture (RA)? What we have learned is that it’s not one thing but rather a set of principles that, if employed, will improve soil health, promote water quality by reducing erosion and nutrient runoff, and drawdown carbon. In statute, healthy soil is defined as “soil that has a well-developed, porous structure, is chemically balanced, supports diverse microbial communities, and has abundant organic matter”.
While there are a number of different approaches to RA, there are several principles that are common to all. Didi Pershouse of the Soil Carbon Coalition (www.soilcarboncoalition.org) shared a concise list that includes: Keep living roots in the ground as long as possible; keep soil covered year-round; use plant diversity to increase diversity in soil microorganisms, beneficial insects, and other species; try not to disturb those underground structures with tillage; minimize chemical, physical, and biological stresses; plan with the whole water cycle in mind; plan to integrate and welcome a diversity of animals, birds, and insects into the system; and get to know the context of the land. Ms. Pershouse also felt that it was very important not to limit our work to organic methods.
The House Agriculture and Forestry Committee has two bills on our wall regarding RA. H.430 requires the establishment of a certification program within the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) and the creation of a position to administer the program. H.661 creates within the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) a Regenerative Organic Transition Program that would provide technical and financial assistance to farmers. It would also require an appropriation of $50,000 to be used for grants to farmers to help with the transition. Neither of these options is particularly feasible at this time. There is not the money for a new position at the AAFM, nor the money to establish a new grant program in VHCB. Despite these constraints, there may be another option.
The AAFM has a pilot project known as the Vermont Environmental Stewardship Program that “encourages agricultural producers to achieve environmental excellence through responsible land stewardship”. The Program has capacity for ten to twelve farms – eight have already signed up. Farmers will have access to technical and financial assistance, soil health tests, and other incentives to participate. They will be assessed on nutrient management, sediment and erosion control, soil health, greenhouse-gas emission and carbon sequestration, and pasture health. Conservation planning services will be available through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and partner programs to farms that need to change management practices.
It is estimated that by implementing our statewide Required Agricultural Practices (RAP) with 75,000 acres of cover crops and 42,000 acres of filter strips and buffers we can draw down 80,750 tonnes (one tonne equals 1000 kilograms) of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This is similar to removing 21,400 cars from the road!
It’s hard to believe that no-till and cover-cropping work so well but seeing is believing. Several years ago, I attended the Farm to Plate “Gathering” at the Killington Grand Hotel. One of the presenters was Ray Archuleta, a Conservation Agronomist who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He performed a demonstration comparing aggregates of soil – one which came from a field that had been continuously tilled and the other came from a no-till field. When placed in a cylinder of water, the no-till clump of soil held together because of its organic “glue”. The tilled soil fell apart because the organic “glue” was not present. This “slake” test demonstrated the value of a no-till approach to agriculture and the damage that can be done by tilling. In another “rain” test Archuleta demonstrated how tilled soil causes more runoff during a rain event than no-till, which is counter-intuitive. It makes sense that something that is broken up and fluffy would be more apt to absorb water but that is not the case. It is easy to find many of Ray Archuleta’s fascinating videos on youtube.com.
I have actually witnessed this in my own garden. In the past, I have been a bit of a fanatic about weeding. I actually love to weed – it’s somewhat therapeutic – but between that and rototilling I have watched the edges of my garden gain in height and my garden “sink”. This has caused some problems like soil loss and erosion that are characteristic of tilled soil. The other strategy to use along with no-till is cover-cropping. I cover-cropped with weeds, which I mowed instead of pulled. I’m not sure I would do that again but I did get a remarkable amount of produce from my garden. Many folks are cover-cropping with winter rye that is then rolled and flattened.
We will continue to work on RA because it has so many beneficial effects that might speed up the cleanup of the waters of our state.
Over the years, it has been my policy not to wade into national politics in my columns but I feel I must speak up regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) situation. I am a practical person at heart and even if I were to ignore the humanity of the issue, when I evaluate what we have invested in the “Dreamers” in terms of education and health care during their childhoods and what they have to offer our country including military service, I have to question our president’s shrewdness as a dealer maker.
None of these young folks has been suspected of terrorism, many have served in the military, and many are already productive members of society. They are the product of parents who came to this country, granted illegally, looking for the opportunity to make a living and achieve the American dream. If they worked in agriculture, they did the hardest work imaginable – work that most Americans would rather not do. They understood that if they did work hard, kept their heads down, and obeyed the law, they could make lives for themselves and, more importantly, their children. In my view, if even one Dreamer is deported, not only will it be inhumane, it will be a waste of my money as a taxpayer and I object.