When Jesse McDougall and his wife, Cally, took over the Vermont farm Cally’s Aunt Edie had operated for decades, what they’d envisioned as a profitable business venture turned into a rude awakening.
Learning the ropes of running a conventional farm taught Cally and Jesse some hard truths about nature they hadn’t anticipated. They kindled a suspicion. Could farming have had a hand in why Edie had died of a brain tumor at age 56?
The couple decided to take the farm cold turkey. No more chemical fertilizers. No more pesticides and herbicides. No more tilling to reduce weeds, either, and no more tiling to encourage water to drain more quickly into unprotected lakes an streams after a hard rain.
The result was disastrous. The soil turned dry and gravelly. It was prone to washouts. Edie’s once-lush fields weren’t able to produce much of anything except weeds.
The farm had suffered the same fate as she had, the McDougalls believed. All that man-made chemistry had, for all intents and purposes, cost the soil its ability to fight off disease on its own. Eventually the living organisms that sustain life had perished in the chemical onslaught.
Unwittingly, just by following the advice of the local farm bureau and the university extension service and the companies from whom she’d purchased seed, Edie had deprived her farm of its self-sufficiency by depleting its most precious resource, the carbon-rich soil made up of decomposed organic matter that maintains a healthy balance of interdependent organisms.
She had robbed her land of its ecosystem. Quite possibly, she had also shortened her own life.
Jesse and Cally had two choices: either they could invest in sprays and seeds, knowing they’d be leaving their own kids worse off down the road, or they could stay the course, risking bankruptcy, and slowly bring the farm back to life.
They thought of the farm as an addict. Withdrawal is slow and brutal. But once they’d connected the dots from Aunt Edie’s premature death to the weeds, the web kept getting wider and the dots denser. Soon they were looking at the world in a whole new way. A lot of problems they’d thought of as unrelated — from algae blooms to avian flu — came together in a single word that encompasses both the problem and the solution.
The word is regeneration.
Since then they’ve taken the word to the Vermont legislature. If passed, Senate Bill 43 would establish a statewide regenerative soils program. It is sponsored by the Soil4Climate Advisory Board, one of whose members is Jesse McDougall.
“Years of chemical treatment and tillage damaged our soil and the fertility of our farm,” he says, “essentially making us dependent on more chemicals and tillage in order to produce crops. This led to our decision to practice regenerative farming, including the use of planned grazing, which we soon realized was a better alternative to conventional agriculture — ecologically and economically.”
Looking at the pros and cons made their decision a no-brainer: Nice profits for a few more years vs. having to live with the knowledge of what those nice profits would cost down the road. The role of carbon sequestration in slowing climate change cinched it. Carbon’s release from the soil through conventional agriculture is one of the leading causes of global warming. Regenerative farming holds promise for allowing the carbon in the atmosphere to come back to earth where it belongs. Some experts say that changing the food system is the single most important thing humans can do — more game-changing even than harnessing renewables for energy — to alter the current and inevitably catastrophic course of climate change.
“We don’t have a ‘climate change’ problem,” McDougall has written on his blog. “We have a broken carbon cycle. There’s too much carbon moving up (greenhouse gases) and not enough carbon moving down (depleted soils, erosion, unhealthy food, droughts, floods, and so on). There’s no more nor less carbon than ever before … it’s just in the wrong place. … For farmers, foresters, landowners, and land managers everywhere, the direct action to take is clear: simply change your land management policies to leverage techniques that put more carbon into the ground than they release to the atmosphere — no-till, cover crops, mulching, livestock rotation, etc.”
There are other benefits, too, lots of them. “This will not only sequester atmospheric carbon,” McDougall explains, “but it will also improve the fertility of the soil and therefore the yield and quality of the land’s crops.” That’s because “when soil loses its carbon through decades of plowing and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, it is no longer able to retain nutrients that instead flow into rivers and lakes, causing the algal blooms we’re now seeing.
“This bill provides an incentive to farmers to rebuild the soil ‘sponge’ above Lake Champlain and across the state — keeping water and nutrients uphill and in the soil where they belong.”
This is the problem Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has been trying to address through legislation that would require conventional farmers to set aside some of their land for plants that might slow farm runoff — mainly natives with long roots that hold soil in place. Conventional farmers say they can’t afford regeneration, not now, with farm prices low.
It’s a catch-22, of course, as the McDougalls know all too well. You can’t have it both ways. Farm prices are low because conventional agriculture is a self-contained system that penalizes long-term maintenance of soil, air and water. Small tweaks like Dayton’s buffer zones won’t make this system sustainable. Small tweaks in our economic model can make a difference, however. Capitalism is an efficient system, but without regulatory tools and monetary incentives that balance business interests with community interests it is a menace to society.
Take our own health. Just as cigarette taxes help reduce smoking and protect us from cancer, so it is with agriculture. Except that the ill effects of conventional farming are spread as wide as the pockets of Big Ag are deep. Still, Americans spent $40 billion on organic food this quarter. That’s a record. Who’s benefiting? People wealthy enough to pay more for healthy food. As for the rest of society: let them eat cake, I guess. And get diabetes. And end up costing the health care system a whole lot more than preventive measures would have.
It’s not just nutrition that regenerative farmers are fighting for — it’s life as we know it. A free society can’t last when fairness is available only to a few. Equity isn’t something our Constitution prescribed as the reward for hard work. Equity is the prerequisite, the driver of a society that can only prosper if everyone is given equal opportunity at birth.
Climate change is scary enough all by itself to call for an immediate halt to fossil-fuel extraction. That won’t happen, because every citizen in America has a right to behave irresponsibly as long as he or she is rich and powerful. (Drug dealers and drunken drivers, look out!) All the more important, then, that we begin at once to focus on the single most effective way to counteract its effects one responsible and forward-thinking farmer at a time.
The Vermont regeneration effort is unlike previous legislative attempts to curb the power of Big Ag — attempts like buffer zones and GMO labeling (the latter raises the question of GMOs’ toxicity, which is a canard that companies like Monsanto can convincingly ridicule).
Other states, including Oklahoma (prompted by the drought), passed “regenerative soils” bills, but Vermont’s is “precedent-setting” in that it creates a certification program for farmers who follow its guidelines. It’s like organic certification but more comprehensive and focused not just on personal nutrition but on planetary health, and thus it more directly goes after conventional farming (the whole system, which includes massive use of fossil fuels just to make the synthetic fertilizers it requires and that regenerative farming would eliminate).
Why Vermont? Why is Bernie Sanders Vermont’s senator? Same reason. Vermont is full of people who care about these kinds of issues.
Bill S.43 takes aim at the very foundation of the current ag system — the soil itself. It will do what the farm lobby in Washington fears most — raise awareness of how all the issues the sustainable food movement represents fit together, and in so doing demonstrate why only sweeping and cohesive reform can address the clear and present danger posed by climate change.
Carbon sequestration cuts to the chase, in other words. If we reject it, we are handing our future over to the climate deniers. If we accept it, we are signing on to a massive shift to smaller-scale farms that employ armies of people instead of machines; to higher prices that reflect the true cost of food; to a diet that is rich in what humans need, not what we crave; to rationing of fuels that concentrate carbon where it should not be — in the atmosphere — and incentivizing producers of renewable energy; to defunding sci-fi “fixes” like geoengineering and precision agriculture, a University of Minnesota-supported (and Big Ag-sponsored) effort to tweak the chemistry of our soils from the top down through esoteric satellite imaging and the like; to returning animals confined in CAFOs to the land, where their presence has been proven vital to restoring soil from the bottom up.
Like anything built on a solid foundation, regenerative agriculture will endure.
We are talking about the cycle of life, after all. And the thing is, we’re not alone. We all face the same future. We must choose which side we’re on. Sitting on the fence is not an option. Either we are part of the problem or we’re part of the solution.
And as the McDougalls learned when they were unexpectedly confronted with a problem they had to solve, it’s just not all that complicated.
Bonnie Blodgett is a St. Paul writer specializing in environmental topics. An avid gardener, she frequently lectures on her adventures in the garden (firstname.lastname@example.org).