By Dr. Mercola
It is quite clear that in order to continue feeding a growing population, we must first feed the soil. One of the best ways to prevent global disaster, save our health, and build a sustainable economy is through regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative techniques, which include cattle grazing, can address a number of pressing problems, including water scarcity, soil erosion and degradation, air and water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and rising toxicity levels both in the environment and in our food.
Allen Williams is a sixth-generation farmer, born and raised on his family's farm in South Carolina, which has been there since 1840. This family heritage has played a major role in shaping his career.
When starting college, he fully intended to return to the family farm and spend the remainder of his life there. A highly respected professor shifted his plans for a time however, and he ended up spending 15 years in academia, teaching and doing research.
"I concentrated in animal science, livestock area. I got my bachelor's and master's degree at Clemson University in South Carolina and my PhD at Louisiana State University," Allen says.
During that time, I was heavily involved in commodity and conventional agriculture. But I started noticing that we were spending a lot more money on what I call “props”, things such as pharmaceuticals, soil fertilizers, chemicals, seed supplements, and vitamin and mineral supplements for livestock...
I noted that we were using more and more pharmaceuticals to keep animals healthy, and that our soil health was declining along with things like soil organic matter and water infiltration rates."
Conventional Farming Is More Expensive in the Long Run
As soil health has declined from poor land management and heavy chemical usage, farmers have had to increase the amount of external inputs used on their land, such as inorganic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The added costs have resulted in steadily dwindling profits.
In the 1990s, Allen began looking at how livestock was being raised and how soils were being treated. For more than two decades now, Allen has collected soil data along the way, including data on forage, plant, and animal performance, along with ecosystem-type data.
This helped him understand what's really occurring, and has helped him develop, formulate, and implement land management practices that have reversed much of the negative impacts done by the conventional model.
This includes improved soil health and boosted ecosystem biodiversity. In 2000, Allen left the University system and went back into private business full-time.
Since then, he’s consulted with more than 4,000 farmers and ranchers across Canada, the US, Mexico, and South America, particularly concentrating on the areas of grass-based animal agriculture.
He also is involved in his own grass-based ranching venture and is partners in Joyce Farms,1 a grass fed beef and pastured poultry branded program.
His consulting includes grass-fed beef-, grass-fed lamb-, pastured poultry, and pastured pork production. Soil health has also been a major focus. “With all of our current clients, we concentrate on building the soil foundation first – soil health is key – and then everything else is generated from there,” he explains.
The Grass-Fed Exchange
Allen helped found The Grassfed Exchange2 in 2009. As an education-oriented organization, the Grassfed Exchange does not set policy or certify grass-fed products. That's done by organizations such as the American Grassfed Association, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and others.
"We wanted to be an organization that is fully focused on exposing farmers, ranchers, distributors, processors, restaurants, retail grocery sector, and consumers, to alternative grass-based agriculture," he says.
"[We] provide them cutting-edge, innovative topics, seminars, farm tours, and basically challenge them in this whole process...We like to look at multigenerational families because succession is very important.
If we are to have true regenerative efforts on our agricultural lands, it's going to have to be multigenerational. We place a strong educational emphasis on succession and on helping multiple generations, including our youth, understand the concepts of soil health and grass-based agriculture."
Each year, the Grassfed Exchange holds a three-day long conference. This year's conference will take place on September 16th to 18th at Mount Pleasant, Michigan.3
On the first day, you can take a farm tour, visiting ranches and farms that are engaged in innovative, cutting-edge practices specifically related to grass-based livestock production and the building of soil health. The remaining days feature presentations that help attendees to improve their farming skills and operations.
Advantages of Grass-Based Livestock Production
There are significant benefits to regenerative land management, both from environmental and financial perspectives. It's truly a win-win situation for farmers and consumers alike—not to mention the Earth itself.
It's really important to realize that without a thriving ecosystem, mankind's chances of survival become increasingly slim. Regenerative agriculture is really a matter of self-preservation. Contrary to popular belief, it can also be financially rewarding.
"What we have found is that rather than detracting profitability by shifting our practices from conventional to more sustainable, regenerative practices... it has allowed us to significantly reduce input cost and significantly increase productivity per acre, thereby improving our overall net margins.
We're practicing a form of agriculture that allows us to benefit the environment, the ecosystems surrounding us, the consumers, the farmers themselves, and subsequent generations."
These techniques also have significant benefits for our water supply. By restoring and rebuilding soil organic matter, you significantly improve the water infiltration rate; meaning when rain falls, it soaks into the soil and is held there rather than running off and taking valuable topsoil with it.
This reduces the need for irrigation, which currently accounts for 70 percent of the world's total fresh water usage. Runoff—which is a continual problem in conventional agriculture—also carries nitrates, phosphates, and sulfur into our waterways.
Chesapeake Bay, for example, is a drainage area from conventional farms, as is the Gulf of Mexico where annual hypoxia occurs, creating a dead zone covering up to 8,000 square miles. This contamination problem is also averted through regenerative land management. "We have found that our form of agriculture allows us to significantly reduce those negative results of agriculture and to actually produce very positive results," Allen says.
There are benefits both above and below ground. Organic matter is rebuilt by strengthening the natural soil microbial population, and this has a myriad of benefits in terms of soil fertility and subsequent plant growth and plant health. It also promotes diversity of plant species growing in surrounding wild areas, and this has resulted in a return of significant wildlife populations, including but not limited to deer, ground-nesting bird species, and wild turkeys.
Beneficial insect populations that are vital to fertilization and propagation of plants are also positively impacted. Allen has noted a significant return in the pollinator insect population and other beneficial organisms like earthworm and dung beetles on farms that have adopted regenerative land management principles.
Sustainable Agriculture Begins with Healthy Soils
So what are some of the most important components of sustainable, responsible, and healthy agriculture? As noted by Allen, you have to start from the ground up. It all begins below ground, in the soil. When working with a rancher or farmer, they begin by assessing the current state of the soil—its fertility and soil biology—and there are simple tests for that. Then, they have to determine how to implement agricultural practices that will allow the farmer to significantly reduce chemical inputs, such as inorganic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
"What we find is that when we have to rely on heavy applications of inorganic fertilizers we get trapped in a vicious cycle," he explains. "Heavy nitrogen applications over time acidify the soil, lower the soil pH, damage soil biology, and therefore cause us to have to come in every few years and correct those negative aspects through applying agricultural lime and those types of things.
We look at practices that allow us to significantly reduce all of those external inputs, particularly the chemical inputs –the inorganic fertilizers– and allow us to be able to substantially build the soil microbial population and other organism population beneath the soil. What we have found is that if we start there, then everything else comes much easier.
Our plants, whether we are growing crops or forages for our livestock to graze, are significantly healthier, more nutrient dense, and they are much more tolerant and stress-resistant. They are much more resistant to diseases that impact plants. They are much more resistant to pests that impact plants. And therefore because they are healthier, we get greater levels of production from them. And our livestock are healthier because they’re grazing these plants.”
How You Can Support Regenerative Farming
Consumers can assist the process of converting conventional chemical-based agriculture into a system that relies on regenerative practices in a number of ways. For starters, "voting with your pocketbook" is one of the most potent ways to support farmers who have transitioned, or are transitioning, to sustainable practices. As noted by Allen:
"The exponential growth of the grass-fed sector over the last 15 years, as well as the local food movement, the increasing number of farmers market in the US, and the increased incident of direct marketing—consumers buying direct from farmers—all of those are ways that consumers can support and contribute to regenerative agriculture and family farm-based ranchers and farmers."
At present, less than two percent of the US population is engaged in growing sustainable food. So in terms of government policy, they have but a tiny voice. This is particularly true for farmers practicing regenerative agriculture. According to Allen, regenerative farmers make up just one-tenth of one percent of the entire US population.
They need the broader, stronger voice of consumers—not just by purchasing these products, but also by supporting policies from the USDA, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and others that would help further support regenerative agricultural practices. And, of course, by voting against policies that are detrimental to regenerative farmers.
Supporting These Three Organizations Helps Further Regenerative Land Management
Allen is also actively involved with the Pasture Project,4 which is part of the Wallace Center of the Winrock Foundation. (It's also supported by a number of other foundations.) The Pasture Project is heavily centered on controlling harmful runoff, particularly harmful runoff going into the Gulf of Mexico. The Pasture Project also places heavy focus on regenerative agricultural practices, and educates ranchers and farmers about techniques that will significantly reduce harmful runoff from their land.
Another important project that Allen is involved with is the Soil Carbon Nation Team, which consists of scientists, farmers, ranchers, soil experts, and other industry experts across the US. This team actively measures and monitors changes that are brought about by regenerative agriculture on farms and ranches, and use that data to help farmers understand the power of transitioning to regenerative agriculture.
"Consumer support of those types of projects can be very vital in helping us to continue those efforts," Allen says. "I've also been involved with the National Audubon Society5 and looking at the development of bird-friendly grazing practices. Consumer support of Audubon is another way [to support the movement] because they are heavily focused now on helping farmers and ranchers get the education they need, to, again, put in regenerative bird-friendly grazing practices on their farms and ranches.”
How to Apply Regenerative Practices in Your Garden
Many of the regenerative land management practices used on farms and ranches can be duplicated in a much smaller area, such as your home garden. A large component of soil regeneration on a ranch is the presence of grazing cattle, which clearly is not feasible for most suburban home owners. But there are still plenty of strategies you can implement, including the following:
- First, stop or minimize tillage because when you till, you expose the soil and allow soil carbon to be released back into the atmosphere. In the soil, carbon promotes soil health and healthy plant growth. Once in the air, it only contributes to atmospheric CO2 levels, which has an adverse effect on the environment. Tilling also destroys important soil biology, particularly soil fungi.
- Also minimize the use of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, or avoid them entirely. Opt for organic fertilizers instead, if needed.
- To promote soil health, use:
- Mulch. One of the primary keys to healthy soil is keeping the soil covered with a deep ground cover.
- Compost application can be helpful. You can even work with local farmers and ranchers to access animal manures and apply that to your garden.
Many of the farmers and ranchers Allen has worked with over the past 20 years were in deep distress, trying to farm and ranch conventionally, and failing. Many of them were on the brink of losing their farms, which had been in the family for generations. By teaching them regenerative land management techniques, many of them are now thriving again, and are prospering financially. Moreover, their farms are greatly contributing to the health of the environment, rather than detracting from it. They're also producing very high quality, nutrient-dense foods.
"This holds a lot of hope for those who have not been able to make adequate profits on their farms and ranches, to be able to turn things around. These practices also offer a way – and this is very important to the future of agriculture – for beginning farmers and ranchers, for young people to be able to effectively and profitably enter back in to farming and ranching," Allen says.
"For several decades, we have seen the younger generations leave the farms and ranches for job opportunities that they deemed much more profitable and viable because they saw their fathers and mothers struggle on the farm and they didn't want any part of that.
Now, we're able to turn that scenario around and to be able to bring back the young people, the younger generations. We desperately need that because the average age of farmers and ranchers across the US are people in their 60s and early 70s. So we desperately need the younger generation to return to the land, and these regenerative practices allow them to have that opportunity to return and to do it in profitable and viable manner where they can support their young and growing families."
To learn more, or to get more actively involved, please check out the Grassfed Exchange website. It features blogs and videos by a number of contributors, along with a wide variety of cutting-edge educational information.