Taking the Long View, Farmers and Scientists are Attending to the Health of the World’s Soil

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following was written by the Rev. Heather Coates (and before the pandemic). Rev. Coates, ordained in the United Church of Christ, is currently serving out her call to ministry by teaching World Religions to middle school students. She received a masters degree in Theological Studies from Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and has served churches in both urban and rural settings. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her husband and two dogs. If you visit her there during gardening season, she will offer to cook you up something from her garden. Or just sit on her front porch and stay awhile.

Just 60 harvests remain… this is one possible scenario presented in 2014 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.  If we continue degrading our farmable topsoil at the current rate… just 60 harvests remain.

(Before the pandemic, and one assumes also in the “new normal,”) with overflowing food at supermarkets and new restaurants opening daily in our cities and towns, it’s a difficult scenario to imagine. We don’t seem to be in crisis.

But travel a little further out into the countryside, into the places where our food is grown. Talk to the farmers. The farmers that know the earth’s soil is rapidly losing its fertility. The farmers who see the urgent need to focus not just on growing our food, but on the lasting health of our soils. The people who are working outside the bounds of conventional agriculture to save our land.

These farmers will tell you a story. They might tell you about an alternative method of planting seeds they are using called no-till. They might talk about their work in “soil regeneration” or tell you about their involvement in a “soil health movement.”

In the face of this impending crisis, one that will affect humans at every level of society, what these farmers offer is both a word of hope and a way to make that hope a reality.

Let’s first take a very quick look at how the situation became so grave. Since the creation of the plow (a long, long time ago) farmers have turned and tilled the soil to grow their crops. It’s an old story. One we all know and few have questioned. What we have learned, however, is the repeated tilling of the soil does things like expose and harm the earth’s nutrients, releasing the vital stored carbons in the ground. It makes the soil vulnerable to erosion, displacing topsoil.

Today, this practice of tilling is partnered with monoculture farming—the practice of clearing a field of all other vegetation to plant and grow just one kind of seed. The combination has proved disastrous.

As a response, no-till practitioners are working to write the next chapter of the story, seeking methods of farming that will both feed the world and maintain our earth’s fertility. What they have found is that the healthiest way to grow crops is to mimic the natural systems of the earth.

Left to its own devices, the earth will always go toward life and diversity. So along with planting seed with minimal disruption (no-till), farmers plant cover crops instead of letting their field lay fallow. Instead of growing just one crop at a time, companion plants are introduced. The same field might be used for crop land and animal grazing—a practice unimaginable on most modern farms.

Practitioners have discovered that no-till farming methods can offer amazing results, such as curbing carbon emissions, retaining groundwater and minimizing soil erosion. Their fields are often able to withstand extreme weather events better than their neighbors. All of this leads to high yields, while spending less on soil inputs, such as fertilizers.

If no-till farming is so beneficial, such a story of hope, why are these farmers so hard to find?

I spent some time talking to Steve Swaffar, the executive director of an organization called No-till On the Plains. This is an organization that supports no-till farmers from Colorado to Iowa, North Dakota to Texas, bringing them together to share ideas and support each other in this alternative way of farming.

Mr. Swaffar, is a professional biologist who grew up in Oklahoma working on his grandfather’s farm. Today he lives just south of Topeka, Kansas, where he has converted a large swath of his yard into a garden. If possible, you should try to find him in the summer months, as he loves to grow and give away food.

He says when people see his garden they often comment about how weedy it is. He tells them, “those aren’t weeds, they’re helpers.” He always carries a shovel in his car, just in case he gets a chance to dig in the dirt on someone’s farm and see the progress they’ve made towards soil health.

On a cold, snowy couple of days in January, Mr. Swaffar organized a No-till On the Plains conference in Wichita, Kansas. As one might expect at a farming conference, the parking lot was full of pickup trucks. There were lots of hats of both the baseball and cowboy variety. The people in attendance looked like they have spent a lot of hours working outside.

What was happening inside was anything but conventional. The speakers were “regenerative farmers” and “soil health specialists.” They gave talks on topics like “the benefits of cover crops” and “how to develop a regenerative ecosystem on your farm.”  There were no big ag companies in the building.

As I listened to a presentation by a successful farmer who had been using no-till methods since 2001, a grey-haired man sitting next to me leaned over and said, “All of this has made farming fun again.”

Mr. Swaffar said this optimism and excitement about farming is the norm in the no-till world.

Sadly, this hope is not the norm for today’s farmers. Farming demands hard work and long hours, while offering continual struggles.  Extreme weather events are on the rise, profit margins are shrinking, the infertile soil is demanding more additives, the cost for equipment is rising. In 2019, bankruptcies of family farms hit an eight-year high. The profession has seen a huge spike in depression rates and suicides, and is facing a mental health crisis.

When I asked Mr. Swaffar why more people weren’t involved in the soil health movement, he talked about how the system is set up for monoculture farming. The government incentives, crop insurance, the seed and fertilizer companies, even the work being done at universities—it’s mostly organized around monoculture farming.

While no-till farms can produce just as much yield as conventional farms for less cost with the added bonus of not having to rely so completely on big ag companies for things like fertilizer and sprays, the reality is that getting to the place of productivity doesn’t happen quickly. Every farmer I talked to said it takes from three-to-five years to convert a farm to no-till, with a lot of mistakes and not a lot of income along the way. It takes time, determination and money. In a profession where the average age is over 50 and many family farms are one extreme weather event away from bankruptcy, time and money are in short supply.

Karen Willey is a no-till farmer in rural Douglas County, just outside of Lawrence, Kansas.  Her background is a doctorate in geomorphology. She and her husband moved out to their land more than 10 years ago. Even her 11-year-old daughter is involved in farming, raising a flock of turkeys to sell this year for Thanksgiving.

When Dr. Willey talks about soil health, you quickly see that she’s on a mission to heal the earth. You might also think she is describing a person struggling with a drug addiction. She will tell you that after being fed chemicals for so many years, soil, like people, will become addicted. And like any addiction, it can’t be broken overnight.

The wisdom she offers has the ring of a mantra, “First you need to heal the earth, then you can ask it to grow your food.”

When she talks about starting her farm, she first talks about all the mistakes she made. How for years her family has eaten from their farm but not seen a profit. She will tell you that she is only able to do this work, because farming is not her family’s only source of income.

She will also tell you that even with her background in earth science, she has struggled to find good information and support to guide her. Most of the information isn’t coming from universities, but from other small farmers who do experiments on their land, and then share this information with their neighbor. For the most part, no-till, has spread slowly, farmer to farmer.

It is a quiet revolution that is on the rise.

When asked where she sees hope, Dr. Willey talks about the lessons she and her fellow no-till neighbors have learned and are now able to offer their neighbors. In recent years, their area of the world has seen historic amounts of rainfall. On the conventional, monoculture farms, the rain has brought erosion and unwanted trenches in fields.  But her farm and other no-till farms in the area, that are consciously designed to mimic the area’s native prairies, have not been affected in the same way.

She points down the road to her no-till neighbor, who never allows his fields to lie fallow, “When he’s not growing a cash crop, he grows a cover crop. And when the rains came, that field didn’t ditch,” she said. “It was in corn like everyone else’s corn, but it had had this rotation for so many years, that the soil was offered enough healing. Everyone else was getting gullies from the rains, but not his.” The other farmers in the neighborhood have taken notice.

This is indeed a story of hope.

How does all of this affect you and me? How can we embrace this story of hope, and help these farmers write the next chapter of the farming story?

In the end, farming is about eating. In the previous decades, there has been a push for consumers to buy organic. But no-till advocates say that organic farming is not necessarily the final answer. As organic farms have become big business, they have become similar to monoculture farms, tilling the earth and displacing other life. This is not a long-term solution for soil health.

Karen Willey encourages people to buy their food from people you can look in the eye. Even if they aren’t all organic, it doesn’t mean they aren’t working to heal their soil. She encourages people to find and support the farmers who are working to heal the land.

When asked what he really wants people to know about no-till farming, Steve Swaffer offered this, “We all eat. The food that we produce is the food that we eat. If you have the ability to care enough to buy organic, the next step is to care about the soil. The soil is where it is coming from.”


A Reading List for Soil Health/Regenerative Farming

David R. Montgomery, a Berkeley trained geomorphologist teaching at the University of Washington. He takes a long view of farming and our soil.

Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery

Growing A Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life, David R. Montgomery

Wendell Berry, I believe it’s all good. I haven’t read any of his novels. But here are some of his collections of agrarian essays (there are more),

The Art of the Commonplace

The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry

Our Only World

The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays, Cultural and Agricultural (I believe his breakout  work from 1981)

And he writes poetry—this is the collection I have read the most from

Sabbaths

Books that I have heard are good…

Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture, Gabe Brown

Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth, Charles Massy

The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet,  Kristin Ohlson

Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, Judith D Schwartz