Holistic management instructor calls for adoption of farming methods that restore soil health and make farmers prosperous
Don’t talk to Blain Hjertaas about “sustainability.”
The farmer and holistic management instructor from Redvers, Sask., can’t stand that word.
“I hate the word ‘sustainable,’” Hjertaas told the recent Western Canada Holistic Management conference. “If we’re in the toilet bowl, and we keep sustaining it, we aren’t ever getting out.”
Hjertaas’s presentation juxtaposed the decline in soil organic matter in his area from 12 per cent to less than five per cent in just 120 years, the current obesity epidemic and the conversion of North Africa from the “breadbasket of Rome” to what is now known as the Sahara desert. He makes the case for what he calls “regenerative agriculture” undertaken by prosperous farmers who provide “nutrient-dense” food for a burgeoning world population.
“Herodotus wrote in 454 BC about the rich, bountiful, flowing springs and black soil of Libya,” he said. “Libya’s a desert today.”
Hjertaas said soil health is the ultimate arbiter of a nation’s wealth, because history shows again and again that civilizations collapse when their soil health is compromised, he added.
Hjertaas, a former grain farmer who struggled with the contradictions of modern, industrial agriculture for 25 years until he was “beaten down, broke and done,” said that if the planet’s farmers don’t start working with complex biological systems instead of against them, they’re “hooped.”
“Climate change and soil health are the same thing,” said Hjertaas. “We can turn this around.”
Modern industrial agriculture creates deserts of the land, food, and people, he charged. It has continuously reduced soil organic matter and masked the problem with chemical fertilizer, he said. As for food, it has created a “nutritionally challenged” food system dependent on just two main species, corn and soybeans.
“There’s less of us on the land, so it’s creating deserts of us,” said Hjertaas.
In contrast, holistic management’s approach to farming improves the soil over time via four key ecosystem processes: the capture of solar energy, interrelationships of living organisms, and optimizing water and mineral cycles.
“These are nature’s laws. We can work with them to our benefit, or against them to our peril,” said Hjertaas.
As an example of how ranchers can optimize the water cycle, he pointed to his own experience with managed grazing aimed at boosting litter cover to improve moisture infiltration.
Conventional wisdom says that snow cover doesn’t figure much in terms of annual precipitation. But on Hjertaas’s farm, where he left the grass high instead of grazing it “carpet short” like many of his neighbours had, he found that the total of trapped and slightly packed snow cover averaged well over a foot. After filling a pail to that level and taking it in the house to melt, the result was nearly six inches of water.
Thanks to litter cover, come spring, that water went into his soil instead of running off, and his pastures perked up early while everyone else was waiting for rain.
“I had already had 5.7 inches of rain. It didn’t cost me one cent to do that. It’s pretty low tech,” said Hjertaas.
Some farmers are already benefiting from regenerative agriculture, he noted.
Paul Brown of Bismarck, N.D., has figured out how to grow bumper crops of corn without fertilizer by integrating livestock into his crop rotations.
The first year, Brown “biologically primed” the land with a cover crop of mainly hairy vetch seeded in late April, then custom grazed it with yearlings until early July, when he no-till seeded a hugely diverse forage mixture of 20 species where the cattle had grazed.
“Two months later, they were back in there with cattle again to harvest it,” said Hjertaas, adding that the total returns from both operations was north of $300/acre.
The next spring, earthworm populations showed that the soil was rich in biological activity. When no-till corn was seeded into the heavy residue, the crop ended up yielding 142 bu./acre with no added fertilizer.
“This to me is intelligent farming using technology to work with natural biological processes,” said Hjertaas.