There are lots of definitions floating around for regenerative agriculture. But the best and simplest I’ve heard was from Soilcraft. They define regen ag as adding “life.” When you think about it, the practices of no-till/low-till, crop rotation, cover crops, manure and biological products all help create, stimulate, prolong and accelerate more diverse life in the soil. Better soil life leads to better plant life (healthier crops), better human life (more nutritious food), better environmental life (less erosion, fewer toxins, less carbon emissions) and better financial life (reduced crop input costs, higher long-term yields, higher land values) for farmers.
During Soilcraft’s Regen Ag Conference, I had the pleasure of visiting with several farmers from the west. A question I got from the older ones was, “Why isn’t the midwestern corn as dark green as it once was?” Some commented that during their visits east, they’ve observed differences over the years. After pondering the question, I replied that it could be related to a lack of regen ag practices. Prior to the 1990s biotech boom, most farms utilized more crop rotation, even beyond just corn and soybeans (winter wheat essentially serves as a cover crop). We also applied lots of manure from hogs and cattle, which added organic matter. Once the packing plants moved away, less livestock was raised on the farm. These practices are central to regen ag. Fortunately, the pendulum may be swinging back to a more natural approach, with less tillage, more cover crops and the growing use of biological products appearing on Midwestern fields.
French fries, fresh fries. A few days ago, on my flight to Pasco, WA, I sat next to a south-central WA farmer (she likely had no idea she was in for constant farm talk when she boarded her flight). She and her husband farm 2,500 acres, mostly potatoes. They contract all their potatoes with McCain Foods. Harvest can run from July through October. They harvest when McCain tells them to. McCain will inform them when they want a delivery, so they have their diggers and trucks ready. Once a truckload of potatoes is delivered to the plant, McCain processes them that very day, then ships them to McDonalds, other restaurants and grocers.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Last month a winter storm swept across the Plains and Midwest, dumping over a foot of snow in places such as Nebraska. Soon after the eastern Cornbelt got hit. You heard no complaints from farmers. Much of Nebraska, Kansas, Texas and even parts of Iowa are in the extreme to exceptional drought. Most areas of the Midwest rely on winter snow to replenish subsoil moisture. One inch of rain equates to about 10 inches of snow, so the more the merrier. One way to optimize snow moisture is by using no-till, low-till or cover crops. Surface residues can trap the snow and significantly increase moisture retention in the soil.
The key to improving soil health is bringing biology to the soil and creating a diverse, underground ecosystem of microorganisms. One advantage of healthy soil is better water-holding capacity. This is especially important in drier regions or during times of drought. Water retention is often associated with pore spacing, low compaction, soil type and earthworm activity. But another factor is microorganism populations in the soil. Each microbe can affix to a water particle. A single teaspoon of healthy soil can contain 10s or 100s of millions of microbes. While each individual microbe may be small, when you add them up by the millions per teaspoon, they can account for valuable moisture-holding capacity. So the more microbes you invite into the soil, the better moisture retention
Whether spurred on by geo-political issues, climate advocacy or just plain dollars and sense, the ethanol industry is gaining serious momentum. A recent poll shows 64% of consumers have a favorable opinion of the corn-based energy source, vs. just 18% unfavorable. Moreover, 68% support increasing the availability of E15 and 66% think it’s important for the government to promote the sale of flex-fuel vehicles (E85). American-made ethanol is popular at home and abroad. We exported $4 billion worth of ethanol last year. The greatest demand is coming from our neighbor to the north; 470 million gallons last year for a 33% increase. Canada’s newly released Clean Fuel Regulations will drive demand through 2030, anticipating a 15% national blend rate by 2030, 2x the current rate of 8%. Strong demand is also coming from South Korea (our second largest customer), the EU and UK.