Regenerative agriculture is the dawn of planetary engineering. And that's great news for the future of the planet. Here's how I know.
We have five hay fields on our farm. They are the kind of rolling, green, and gorgeous fields that are typical across Vermont's pastoral green mountains. All five of the fields have been incredibly productive over the past forty years using our area's conventional methods for hay farming--frequent tilling, a corn rotation, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Our hay was regarded as some of the best in the area. And we produced a lot of it.
Then, in 2012, we stopped tilling. We stopped spraying chemicals. We stopped rotating in corn. And, as a result, fields that once produced three cuttings of broad-leafed, green, tall grasses struggled to produce two cuttings of thin, dry, yellowed grass. Our hay production collapsed.
Despite that, we stuck to our idealistic guns: no tilling, no chemicals, no corn. And, now, three years later, the grass growth is still dismal in all of our fields...except one.
This one field--our eastern-most field--is not struggling to produce grasses. In fact, this particular field is now producing far more than it ever did under conventional management. This field, this year--when all grass production across the northeast is at alarming lows--is producing a fourth-growth of broad-leafed, green-as-can-be, lush, tall grasses. The improvement in this one field has one farmer (me) doing backflips of joy.
I attribute this field's booming growth to changes in our management and changes in our thinking.
First, I'll address our changes in management. Once we stopped fertilizing the fields, we knew our production would drop. We didn't know, however, how to replace the fertilizer and stimulate growth without chemicals. After much research and YouTubing, we came across the work and writings of Allan Savory, Joel Salatin, Allan Nation, Courtney Smith, and Judith Schwartz. These are the pioneers of regenerative agriculture--a form of farming that respects and harnesses the nuances of nature to produce crops, restore the land, and sequester atmospheric carbon back into the earth.
Intrigued though we were, being skeptics, we didn't commit all five fields to the experiment. We gave it a go on one small test patch...and, when that worked, we did it in just one field. Next year, we'll expand again.
In a natural system (a.k.a. before fences and highways), our fields would have been frequently visited by roaming packs of herbivores and migratory birds and fowl. So, with much hesitation, we brought in a bunch of grass-loving animals. The grasses, after all, evolved to depend on the animals as much as animals evolved to depend on the grasses.
This one eastern field is now home to 60 sheep, 40 turkeys, 100 chickens, and a fat sweetheart of a donkey named Ben--our guard donkey. (See our Instagram account for photos--especially of Ben.)
The sheep rotate about the field in a pack, behind mobile fencing. They graze. They fertilize. They aerate the soil. And they trample grass.
The chickens and turkeys follow the sheep in the rotation by a few days. They graze. They fertilize. They aerate the soil. They eat bugs. And they also trample grass.
After every pass of the sheep and the poultry pens, the soil is shaded, fertilized, aerated--primed for water retention, and microbial, fungal, and algal activity. The grass is well-fertilized and grazed to an optimal height. Everything is primed for rapid regrowth.
Every time the grass comes roaring back after the animal activity, it is drinking in the CO2 from the atmosphere. The plant splits the carbon (C) molecule from the carbon dioxide, releases the oxygen (O2), and uses the carbon as the foundational building block for everything else it does: build plant matter, build root systems, build topsoil, and feed the soil's microbial critters. Essentially, the grass is doing the work we sorely need right now--putting the excess atmospheric carbon to work and storing a large percentage of it back in the ground where it will be safely stored for hundreds of years.
Well-managed grasses can do this often, and very quickly, making them ideal allies in the campaign to reverse climate change.
Our changes in management would not have been possible without changes in our thinking. We stopped thinking our ourselves as hay farmers (growers and harvesters of as much grass as possible) to thinking of ourselves as stewards of the fields (managers and aides to an already-existing natural system). This turned our focus from the grass we were growing to the soil in which it grew. It is a subtle shift of thinking, but it has huge practical implications. Clearly, this shift is yielding results: we're growing more grass than we ever did, improving the nutrient content of our hay, improving the soil for (and productivity of) future hay crops, and sequestering carbon.
This type of regenerative agriculture marks the dawn of planetary engineering.
You see, we know how much carbon should be in the atmosphere (fellow Vermonter Bill McKibben offers a target of below 350 ppm). And, we know how to stop dumping it into the atmosphere (clean energy, no-till agriculture, etc.). And, we now know how to put it back into the ground...WHILE boosting the productivity of agricultural land AND raising healthy animals and humans. Therefore, we have the nascent knowledge and tools to tackle climate change. We are learning to be stewards of the carbon cycle--regulating the atmosphere of the planet by working with natural systems to move carbon back into the earth. It is now just a matter of doing the work.
The global discussion regarding climate change will soon shift: from vague doomsdayism to excited talk for what's possible. Humans are taking another evolutionary step forward and it is exciting to watch. The groundwork is now being laid for the large-scale tools and global strategies that will allow modern humans and nature to live symbiotically. Planetary engineering is starting--to the benefit of us all.