Regeneration and Resilience
We believe… perennial grasses, along with managed grazing animals, heal, regenerate, and revitalize soil.
We also believe… that not only is it completely unlike nature to not have animals on the land, but that it is patently impossible to build soil without animals or the manures thereof.
Regeneration and Resiliency in Action –
As you may know, we—and other farms like us—constantly claim to be advocates of such things as regenerative agriculture, nutrient-dense food, farming in natures image, and the like. While the terms may sound good and glamorous in their own right—and yes, we are quite passionate about these concepts, too often we lack concrete evidence that we’re actually achieving the desired outcomes we claim to strive for. And so today we’ll give some real-life examples of how we’re regenerating our soil and building forgiveness into the landscape. Stick with me and I’ll try to be as clear and concise as I can. I think you will enjoy this.
In keeping with the “We Believe” statement above, if perennial crops are better for the soil, what’s the antithesis? It’s annual agriculture, which are crops that grow for a single growing season, put forth lots of seeds, and are harvested for animal feed and human food. Confinement animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) revolve around annual agriculture, which entails growing crops and animals separately, and then bringing the crops (feed) to the animals, usually in a confinement setting.
You may ask, “Why are perennial crops so much better for the soil?” The answer is twofold;
- Perennial crops protect the soil from erosion by continuously keeping live roots in the soil, which serve to stabilize it and protects from wind and water erosion. Annual crops, conversely, will only be in ground about six months out of the year, and during parts of those six months—while the plants are infants, there is not sufficient root material to hold soil, which reduces the soil stability period to about four months.
- Perennial crops provide a constant cover. Soil hates to be naked, and will put forth extraordinary effort to cover itself with plants. The ongoing battle between annual crop farmers and the ground they farm concerns weeds. This is our human term for plants the soil puts forth in an effort to cover its nakedness, and farmers constantly either till away or herbicide away these plants to force the soil to be naked.
The primary cause of soil erosion—especially in areas of moderate to heavy precipitation—is water falling and flowing on the landscape. Of course, long or steep slopes increase water velocity and volume, which causes more damage to the landscape. However, most people don’t know that erosion takes place even on very gentle slopes, especially if the soil is tilled or denuded via herbicides. Even if a landscape loses only a quarter of an inch of soil per year, think how much that is in fifty years; a hundred years; two hundred years. It’s a devastating amount. As an example, in 2008 when we installed our driveway—which curves alongside the woods with the land sloping slightly to the driveway, the excavator dug out two feet of prime topsoil that had eroded there over the course of many years.
If you’ve been to our farm, you may recall that we have fields adjacent to our driveway, Cambridge Road, and Rt. 10. Covering about ten acres in a rough rectangle that stretches from our farm store to Rt. 10 to Cambridge Road, it’s a long gentle slope toward Rt. 10. When I say gentle, it’s slightly less than a 3% slope, which is 3 feet of drop per 100 feet of land surface.
Because we grew our farm and market from a hobby scale to what it is today, we didn’t need all the land in the early years and rented what land we didn’t need to another farmer. Upon our request, this farmer farmed our land organically—without chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, which meant he was plowing and tilling the soil to grow annual crops such as corn, wheat, or soybeans. The last year he farmed the ten acres I mentioned was 2012, at which point he had planned to seed a 100 foot strip of the lowest area (beside Rt. 10) in grass because the slope was too long for continuous row-crop and was prone to erosion. Remember, this is a mere 3% slope for a distance of about a thousand linear feet. His planned grass strip was not meant to halt erosion on the bulk of the slope, but was designed to be a buffer area to keep the soil that was washing down from leaving the property.
I don’t say any of this to knock on this particular farmer, rather to point out that even responsible farmers who practice annual agriculture on relatively gentle slopes are losing soil due to having it uncovered.
That said, here’s the best part of the story. This past weekend we had 3 ½ inches of rain, most of which came on Sunday night. Our cattle herd was out on pasture throughout the rain—and didn’t mind it a bit. In good growing conditions such as now, we move the herd to a new paddock at least three times a day—using modern lightweight electric fence to facilitate containment to perhaps a quarter of an acre per paddock. The herd was in the field I mentioned earlier–right next to Rt. 10 at the lowest point of the field—on grass that was upwards of a foot in height pre-grazing. I moved the herd to a new paddock at 6 PM on Sunday, after which it began to rain quite steadily—with it still falling when we retired for the night at 10 PM. Lying in bed listening to the rain, I was worried that surface runoff would gravitate to the very spot where the cows were, and their trampling would create a muddy area in the quarter acre area they were in. Actually, I expected to find a heavily trodden area on Monday morning. While that has happened during heavy rain, it’s not desirable, but neither is going out after dark to move cows in the rain, which I didn’t do.
Come Monday morning, I went out to move cows at first light, and was pleasantly surprised. Ecstatic, actually! There was no mud. This was, if you’ll recall, the same three-percent sloped ten acres that was erosion prone only ten years ago—without cattle pressure—simply from being tilled and planted in annual crops. Had there been surface runoff, the cows would have caused a muddy area, no doubt. Why, with 3½ inches of rain, didn’t we have runoff? Here’s why. The ten acres is covered in perennial plants that have been established for a decade. Perennial plants mirror in root length what we can see in above-soil plant, which in this scenario was an average of about a foot in height. Think of all the root channels going a foot down into the soil, and how much water was able to percolate into the soil alongside these roots. That’s a lot of water holding capacity. That’s forgiveness in heavy rainfall.
Equally important is the fact that in a rotational grazing program (which is essentially allowing the animals to graze and then assigning a rest and regrowth period before the next grazing), the plants amass carbon from the air and store it in the soil. Over the course of years and decades, this builds soil carbon, adds sponginess and thereby improving water holding capacity. This farm and the field mentioned, had been in annual crops for at least 75 years—which is as far as we can tell according to the history of the farm. According to the general farm history of the area, it was likely over a hundred years.
If you’ll recall, as recently as ten years ago, our renter farmer felt the need to install a buffer grass strip to catch eroded soil. Here we are after only ten years of managed grazing and perennial crops, and we’ve been able to reduce surface runoff to this degree during substantial rainfall. If that doesn’t demonstrate the resiliency of nature under tender loving care, I don’t know what does. And that’s The View from the Country.
Quotes worth re-Quoting ~
“Grasslands, grazing mammals, and pack-hunting predators evolved together. So, if domestic herbivores can be managed such that their behavior mimics that of their wild counterparts, the grasslands—the African savanna or the U.S. prairies and plains, terrain that represents about 45 percent of all land world-wide—will regain the state of wild land: healthy, diverse, and resilient.”
― Judith D. Schwartz
“Regenerative agriculture therefore implies more than just sustaining something but rather an active rebuilding or regeneration of existing systems towards full health. It also implies an open-ended process of ongoing improvement and positive transformation. This can encompass the rebuilding or regeneration of soil itself, and of biodiversity more widely; the reduction of toxins and pollutants; the recharging of aquifers; the production of healthier food, clean water and air; the replacement of external inputs; and the enhancement of social capital and ecological knowledge.”
― Charles Massy