We’ve got to stop treating our soil like dirt.
That statement is among the driving forces behind the growing number of Canadian farmers adopting regenerative agriculture, a movement that has gained traction over the last decade as both knowledge and interest in soil biology has spread among academics and producers.
Put in basic terms, ‘regen ag’ focuses primarily on regenerating soil health; strengthening organic matter in the topsoil, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, increasing resilience to extreme weather and climate change and enhancing the ecosystem.
The practice’s advocates envision a system of primary food production that dramatically reduces requirements for synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. The result, they argue, is more cost effective for the producer, healthier (and tastier) for the consumer and better for the environment.
Those same advocates have described it as the best of all worlds: taking the knowledge and wisdom from zero-tillage, organic, holistic and traditional farming practices, and applying them to a new, more comprehensive, version.
“Regen ag in my mind takes the best of all these other systems because it focuses on ecological principles and addressing how ecosystems are meant to function,” said Ryan Canart of Miniota, also the general manager of the Assiniboine West Watershed District.
Five years ago, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) had plenty to say on soil degradation, naming 2015 the International Year of Soils. The announcement came with a 650-page report that found, “the majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition and that conditions are getting worse in far more cases than they are improving,” according to an article published on the FAO website on Dec. 4 of that year.
That same report estimated that 7.6 million tonnes of annual cereal production is being lost every year due to erosion, and that the total reduction could top over 253 million tonnes by 2050.
“This yield loss would be equivalent to removing 1.5 million square kilometres of land from crop production – or roughly all the arable land in India,” the Dec. 4 FAO release said.
Lack of soil nutrients, meanwhile, was tagged as, “the greatest obstacle to improving food production and soil function in many degraded landscapes,” while human-induced salinity impacted an estimated 760,000 square kilometres globally. Soil acidity was also noted as, “a period constraint to food production worldwide.”
Here in Canada, the nation lost 3.9 million hectares of farmland from 1972 to 2011 (39 years), according to the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, a loss the council associates with a $3.1-billion economic hit.
It’s a decline that local experts have also noted.
“One hundred years ago the soils around southwest Manitoba had over twice the soil carbon in it that they do now,” Canart said.
“We used to be at 12 to 14 per cent organic matter in our Newdale soil,” said Michael Thiele, a Shoal Lake-area resident and manager of the Manitoba Grazing Club through Ducks Unlimited Canada. “Now we’re at two to four per cent.
“We’ve broken the mineral cycle,” he added. “We’re not deficient in minerals at all, we just aren’t utilizing them properly.”
Thiele, who studied plant science at the University of Manitoba, has had a 30-plus-year journey understanding agriculture and the importance of soil, water, sunlight, plants and animals and is now part of a consulting company, UnderstandingAg.com, specializing in regenerative agriculture. They currently work with 15 million to 20 million acres across Canada and the U.S. and expect to reach 25 million in 2020.
Turning the tables
For farmers turning to regenerative farming, the goal is to reverse this trend.
Soil typically contains five per cent organic matter, 25 per cent water, 25 per cent air, and 45 per cent minerals, and it has been said that a handful of healthy soil contains more organisms than there are people on earth. Regenerative ag experts claim that conventional farming, with its reliance on synthetic fertilizer and chemicals to produce higher yields and eliminate weeds and pests, is detrimental to the natural balance of that soil.
However, it doesn’t happen overnight, as those same experts are among the first to admit. Speakers at regenerative agriculture events often urge farmers to start small, to ease into it on a smaller parcel of land or to integrate practices that easily fit into their current system. Gains in soil health take years, they warn, urging patience.
Those who have bought into regenerative agriculture, however, say the long-term sustainability, reduced input costs and resilience against poor weather make the work worth it.
For Zack Koscielny, a young farmer near Strathclair, Man., the decision to go with regenerative farming practices made sense.
“During the final year of my agro-ecology degree, I did a lot of research on regenerative agriculture,” he said. “Before I graduated, I had decided that was how I wanted to farm. A large part of the decision for me was improved profitability that comes with regenerative management, as we operate on a fairly small land base.”
Now in his third year of regenerative management, Koscielny says reduced inputs are the, “big money-maker” in regenerative agriculture.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, but I know of people who have made significant reductions in their fertilizer and chemical bills in the first two or three years,” he said. “We certainly have observed that grazing livestock on our cropland, and polycropping as much as possible has led to reduced input costs.”
His livestock operation has also seen, “big improvements in pasture production and the length of our grazing season,” he added. “Part of the increase in grazing days for us has been from full-season cover crops on our cultivated acres, as well as growing cover crops on the shoulder ends of the growing season.”
Canart also argued for the benefit of resilience.
“Farms will see financial reward from a more resilient system, less impact from climatic stress, less disease and pest pressure, less cost per acre and eventually more profit per acre,” he said.
This can be done in a variety of ways to suit individual farm needs. What regenerative farming practices look like for one farm might be different for another.
“Every farm is going to go about it differently based on ingenuity, skill, confidence, risk aversion, access to capital, etc.,” Canart said.
The principles behind the practices, however, are often the same. Koscielny pointed to the five often-cited tenants of soil health that he tries to base his practices around: armour (or cover) on the soil, minimizing soil disturbance (tillage and otherwise), plant diversity, keeping live roots in the soil as long as possible and integrating livestock.
Making the switch
As with any business, a transition period would certainly take some effort, have a learning curve, and would probably result in smaller profit margins in the interim. However, Canart doesn’t see another choice that would result in sustainable agricultural practices for farmers. He also suggests converting acres (relative to the size of the farming operation) slowly over time.
“The alternative is to ride the downward spiralling treadmill of increased reliance on synthetic crop intervention products and ever-diminishing soil function, which are totally related to each other,” he argued.
He also said he suspects there’s a looming consumer backlash coming for current agriculture systems.
Thiele, meanwhile, suggests that agriculture in general needs a paradigm shift.
“It’s (actually) way more about people than it is about the science, biology, ecology and microbiology,” he said. “The environment will always be more important than the economy, even though we’ve currently got it turned around. We need to really start questioning: How can we be more profitable per acre? How do I want to leave the soil for the next generation? We need to take responsibility for our own decisions and actions.”
“I think that regenerative agriculture is better than sustainable; it’s actually rebuilding and rejuvenating degraded soils, while improving the bottom line for farmers,” Koscielny said. “The fact that regenerative agriculture can be good for the land and good for my bottom line at the same time is why I chose to farm regeneratively.”
The model itself is versatile he argued, and could be adjusted to any size or type of operation assuming that diversity remains at the core.
“Crops and livestock instead of one or the other,” he said. “Polycrops instead of monocrops, developing multiple markets rather than relying on just one. We try to make sure that every management decision will result in improved soil health.”
Canart cautioned that, although any size of operation can transition, larger farms with a bigger land base and tighter windows of operation will find it more challenging.
He has, however, seen the momentum for regenerative agriculture steadily increasing.
Some farms have completely crashed the ecological systems and have been forced to adopt these practices, he said. Others have had a health scare and now take a pass on chemical use. Many have adapted a belief system that attempts to align farm practices more with natural systems and cycles.
Some, on the other hand, are just farmers fed up with seeing the majority of their farm profit going towards inputs and off farm.