Sponsored By: AEA
By Jason Stoll, Regenerative Agriculture Consultant, Advancing Eco Agriculture
As I continue to share and interact with others in the agricultural industry, several ideas seem well-ingrained in farmer knowledge. One of these ideas is that growing a crop is an extractive process that removes energy and nutrients from the soil. These then need to be replenished at great profit to the fertilizer salesman and, of course, at the farmer’s expense. This mindset falls short on the promise of a truly regenerative agriculture system.
I understand how this concept got so deeply ingrained in our understanding, seeing that we truck tons of material off the farm, never to see it return. This is less than ideal. And as much as possible in a regenerative system, we should be looking to close the loop on nutrient cycling.
The key difference is whether crops are able to capture and store more energy than they need. This does not happen in most conventional crops, where only a fraction of a crop’s photosynthetic capacity is realized. However, when a plant is surrounded by a robust microbial ecosystem from germination and provided vital nutrients to start a high-capacity photosynthetic cycle, the farm becomes a truly regenerative ecosystem where the outcome is much greater than the sum of the parts. Each growing season leaves more soil energy reserves than before that crop was grown.
See the below info graphs to see how this happens.
I have heard some growers say, “We do not need off-farm biology because it will bring in non-native biomes, causing an unnatural balance in the soil.” Proponents of this idea may point you toward a more “natural” inoculant source like compost teas.
This approach perplexes me for several reasons. If American growers were to return to a full native biome model, many would have to abandon corn and soybean crops. The same goes for biology – we can wait patiently for it to return, but the reality is we have been killing microbial populations for the last 40 to 50 years. Growers need to be actively replacing beneficial organisms instead of waiting for them to return on their own.
Let me be clear—I am in no way bashing compost teas. I have worked in agriculture my whole life, and I have seen good results from small growers and market farmers who have utilized this method. But it takes time and energy to create adequately effective compost teas, and this may not be economically viable for many. All the same, we don’t want to leave the process of biological restoration to chance.
Many soils in the U.S. are deficient in bacterial biology. Even if management practices on your farm didn’t kill it, your neighbor, environmental impacts, and decades of the conventional ag approach have eviscerated microbiome populations throughout the country. The desire to restore our soils to their natural state is a lofty goal, but that goal gets even more challenging when you expect a monoculture of soybeans to have the biological diversity of a thriving forest. This is where bringing in off-farm inoculation really shines.
The goal of regenerative agriculture can be boiled down to this: to have healthier soils and plants that lead to ever-increasing results with fewer inputs, at less cost from the farmer’s pocket. Everyone starts this journey at a different point, but you will begin to see a compounding result on your investment as these biological populations begin to sustain themselves over time.
Our approach at Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA) focuses on obtaining more responses from less material. With the inclusion of off-farm biology and other regenerative practices, growers can take the next steps in their journey towards healthier, more profitable growing.