I recognized the blackgrass was becoming a greater and greater challenge.
It infected our wheat fields every year, always doing more damage and hurting our yields. We tried to kill it with crop-protection products, but the more we spent on inputs the less we seemed in charge. Blackgrass requires a 97% control just to retain status quo. The weed continued to grow and thrive in its menacing tufts: Just 12 plants every 2 meters would reproduce 120,000 plants in that same space or, one (1) million plants in the area covered by one Tesla parking space.
Then, six years ago, I decided that enough was enough. Our costs had soared. The blackgrass had acquired herbicide tolerance. And I realized that the time had come for a dramatic change in our approach to the problem.
That’s when our farm in the United Kingdom turned to regenerative agriculture.
Earth Day is now upon us—it arrives next week on Thursday, April 22—and one of the best ways farmers are marking the occasion is to join us in sharing how regenerative agriculture has improved their operations and the plans they are making to continually learn and adapt.
We embraced this method in part because another farmer convinced us about its merits: I met Sarah Singla of France in Iowa at a meeting of the Global Farmer Network. She gave me the confidence to believe that we could sell our cultivation equipment, halt our use of insecticides, and plant cover and catch crops within our regular schedule of crop rotation.
In hindsight, I realize that we had started to practice regenerative agriculture way back in 1997, when our farm moved away from plowing and took up shallow non-inversion tillage techniques as a way to fight soil erosion. This was just the first step in what has become a long walk toward a new vision of how to farm by adapting practices that optimize economics, habitats, and sustainable farming.
The term “regenerative agriculture” can mean different things to different people. It has become a buzzword, like “corporate social responsibility” or “sustainability.”
For me, however, regenerative agriculture involves a commitment to four fundamental actions: intention, invention, conscience, and legacy.
- Intention means a willingness to change your mind. Despite the frustrating challenges of our time, resist the temptation to romanticize the past as the “good old days.” We know they in fact had their own problems and required dramatic solutions. We have to look at what we’re doing wrong and make it right.
- Invention is an openness to new ways of doing things, based on creative thinking and sound science. We should accept change but not merely surrender to it—we must become agents of positive change as we search for solutions to soil erosion and water scarcity.
- Conscience is a recognition of our responsibility to the resources of air, water, and soil. As farmers, we must make use of them all, but we have to give back as much as we take out. That’s why we speak of “regenerative agriculture” rather than “degenerative agriculture.”
- Legacy is all about what we leave behind: Farms that are healthier and more robust for our grandchildren, who inherit land full of organic matter that can continue to provide food security for ourselves, our country, and our world.
These principles guide our practices. To defeat blackgrass, we’ve delayed our autumn planting, though the hazards of British weather in October make this hard. We now plant sheep mixes in the spring to replace a break crop, and we bring the sheep of other farmers on our land to graze these covers. We have reduced our use of fungicide. We rely on less fertilizer and more on biostimulants.
Those are just a few of our innovations and we learn more every year. What we’ve started to do appears to be paying off—and the data prove it.
I work with scientists at Rothamsted Research to measure the effects of regenerative agriculture on our farm. We aren’t yet ready to publish our findings because we’d like a little more time to elapse, but we’re seeing major improvements in the health of our soil.
One interesting measure involves earthworms: We’re counting more than 170 per square meter. If worms love our healthy soil, so will our crops.
We may never rid our farm of blackgrass entirely. Weeds are a scourge of agriculture, and they like healthy soil, too.
After years of futility, however, it finally feels like we’ve got a handle on the problem. And for that, we can thank the advent of regenerative agriculture.
Nominations are being accepted for candidates to the 2021 Global Farmer Network Roundtable and Leadership Training. Tentatively scheduled to be held during summer 2021, the next Roundtable will include a virtual component prior to meeting in person in Brussels, Belgium. The face-to-face event date is dependent on when travel is allowed and people feel safe. Learn more about the event here.
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