Updating Agriculture: The Need for Regenerative Farming System
“Restart your device to update.” This reminder wasn’t in mainstream conversation a decade ago but has grown so common that many choose to ignore the message and run the risk of the system becoming outdated, signs of incompatibility begin to emerge, and eventually a full system crash. Signs that there is an incompatibility in current agricultural systems and the changing climate have been growing, most recently in an unexpected dust storm that hit central Illinois, causing loss of life and injuries.
“There are big challenges and big goals when it comes to fighting climate change, there are also powerful outcomes that will come from meeting the challenge. In order to update the whole agricultural system, there is a need to help farmers make changes step by step. By starting with small changes and building more support, farmers can take the first steps in realizing the benefits of regenerative farming,” shared Kris Reynolds, Director of the American Farmland Trusts Midwest region and resident of Montgomery County where the dust storm occurred a few weeks ago. We need to update our farming system and tune into evidence that adopting small regenerative practices in farming can help curb the effects of worsening climate events. This update isn’t just about helping the environment; it’s also about helping the people who live and work in rural communities. There are simple, actionable steps farmers and landowners can take to slowly move our farming system to a more resilient future.
Regenerative farming is a system of tending the land that can mitigate several climate disruptions. Many of the practices in the regenerative system work by trapping carbon in the soil, which reduces the amount of greenhouse gases in the air. A simple first step in updating our current system into a regenerative trajectory is for farmers to eliminate tilling the soil at the end of the growing season. Tilling is when farmers disturb the topsoil, most commonly at the beginning of the season to get the field “ready for planting”. Tillage disturbs the topsoil and reduces the residue cover from the previous harvest leaving the land susceptible to erosion from wind and water. Now there are many that skip this step and plant their fields using a “no-till” system, possibly in combination with a “cover crop”, both additional system updates keep soil healthy and on the field. But before discussing what inputs can be added to improve a system, it’s easier to think about what can be eliminated; fall tilling. Fall tillage is an end-of-season step that can be easily eliminated, allowing for “residue” or plant materials to stay on the field over winter, adding valuable biomass that will keep soil from eroding and feed the microorganisms that live in the topsoil. In comparison, fall tillage removes the valuable roots and residue making the soil less dense and more prone to erode, blow away in the wind, and lose valuable nutrients to downstream water bodies.
Communities in rural areas are likely to be greatly impacted by the effects of climate change. Droughts, dust storms, and extreme weather will damage crops and make it harder for farmers to make a living. Rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns can disrupt planting and harvesting windows. These events, which the current farming system has been tied to, will lower yields and potentially take fields out of production which will mean less money for farmers. Farmers are part of local community’s economies, so when farmers struggle, it affects everyone adding a broader financial impact on top of the environmental. By supporting farmers to adopt more regenerative farming practices, with private, local, state, and federal programs, this system will make farmland more resilient to extreme weather events. Regenerative farming helps keep the soil healthy, and manages water better by keeping soil in the field, which is important for the environment and the people who rely on that land.
Eliminating fall tilling is the first simple step that farmers can take to improve their farming system; this step has no costs associated and could play a role in preventing future topsoil from leaving the fields and putting local and national communities at risk. As farmers see positive results, they may be more open to trying other regenerative system updates, which will be important for their future success and realizing a better agricultural system.