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CASA members explore how farmers could ‘regenerate’ soils at conference
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Feb. 7, 2017) — Farmers have plenty of terms they can deploy to describe their practices: sustainable, conventional or organic among them.
But a recent conference aimed to add another to their arsenal: regenerative.
The term may not conjure any specific farming practices on its own, but more farmers and soil health experts are using it to describe the less-visible work they and their farms are doing for the earth.
“For probably thousands of years, there have been people raising food and fiber while maintaining, conserving and regenerating soil. Most of them, we’ve never heard of,” said Peter Donovan, co-founder of the West Coast-based Soil Carbon Coalition and an expert on regenerative agriculture.
He said the phrase, which was a strong theme at the annual Future Harvest, Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture conference in mid-January, refers to the way farmers and land managers can build and improve the soil — and, by extension, its water-holding capacity and the atmosphere — with their practices.
Donovan started his nonprofit in 2008 after a soil expert told him that management practices made little difference and “soil carbon is too hard to measure anyway.” So he started trying to do just that.
National organizations like the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service have recently grown their focus on soil health and on the potential of farming to regenerate it where it’s lacking.
Donovan said the pro-soil approach entails a focus on five basic principles or practices: minimizing tillage, maintaining soil cover, ensuring diversity, keeping living roots as long as possible and integrating livestock.
A good combination of these practices, he said, has the power to improve soil health over time, which he described as the soil’s ability to function as intended.
At its best, that crumb-like porous structure should “provide habitat for microbes, slow the release of nutrients, absorb and maintain water and produce abundant, healthy crops with a minimum of inputs,” Donovan said.
While there is growing support for the types of practices many recognize as better for both soil and food production, Donovan said it has been difficult to get more farmers — and the broader farming system — to adopt them.
Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director for Regeneration International and the Organic Consumers Association, said that’s beginning to change.
Near the end of 2016, the federal government issued a strategy on “deep decarbonization” that lists soil-minded farming as one of many tools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon from the environment.
This document and others recognize that improved land management could significantly increase the amount of carbon stored in cropland and grassland soils, creating the potential to both enhance agricultural productivity and reduce carbon emissions.
This “land sink” effect, if put to full use, could store the equivalent of about 45 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, the document states.
Baden-Mayer said such documents establish a framework for farmers to potentially be recognized for their carbon sequestration in the future.
“Farm programs should incentivize producers to choose production practices that minimize climate change and reflect measurable results,” she said. “I think there is a basic understanding among policy makers that we need soil to produce food, and it’s not that big of a bipartisan issue.”