I have written a brief overview, with links to more information, of what I consider to be the 9 most important techniques for transitioning large farms to sustainability, or for improving already sustainable large farms.
Here it is in text format (with all of the links broken and no pictures). I recommend you check out the actual article.
These are some of the most effective and important Regenerative Agriculture techniques. They can dramatically improve most farming and ranching operations. Most of them can increase profits, if applied correctly. And they are almost all guaranteed to regenerate land.
1. HOLISTIC DECISION MAKING (A.K.A. HOLISTIC MANAGEMENT)
Holistic Decision Making is a method managing complex systems (like farms, families, nations, companies, etc). This decision making framework has been tested on thousands of farms and ranches around the world for decades. It works. Holistic Decision Making takes into account the financial, environmental, and social aspects of every decision. It also offers methods for changing decisions that aren’t going as planned. And it is simple enough for farmers in rural Africa with absolutely no education to use. This is #1 on my list because most farms and land managemers fail because their decisions do not adequately address the social and financial and environmental aspects of their situation. Holistic Decision Making is a basic prerequisite to long-term sustainability. Read this article for a more detailed explanation of Holistic Management.
Holistic Decision Making cannot easily be explained in a short blog post, so I encourage you to read the foundational book: “Holistic Management: A New Framework For Decision Making” by Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield.
2. PERMACULTURE DESIGN
Permaculture is a philosophy, a design science, and a global movement (read this article to understand those three aspects of Permaculture). The design science of Permaculture is an invaluable tool for farmers and land managers. It is basically landscape design, but unlike most landscape design it is tailored to the needs of agriculture, and it also takes into account the principles of ecology. A Permaculture farm will tend to be more efficient for the farmer, it will tend to have better functioning ecosystems and water cycles, and it will tend to be beautiful as an added bonus.
Permaculture Design, like Holistic Management, cannot be easily explained in a single blog post. I encourage you to read the founding text “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual”, as well as more contemporary guides to Permaculture like “Gaia’s Garden”, “Restoration Agriculture”, and “The Resilient Farm and Homestead”.
3. THE SOIL FOOD WEB
The Soil Food Web is not a farming technique, it was not invented by anybody. It is simply the natural process which allows plants to grow when chemical fertilizers are not around (ie. for the past hundreds of millions of years). Elaine Ingham has been the soil scientist who has done the most to reveal the critical importance of the Soil Food Web. The Soil Food Web refers to the microorganisms in the soil (bacteria, fungi, nematodes, etc) which extract nutrients from the soil and provide these nutrients directly to the roots of living plants. Elaine Igham has shown that by managing the the Soil Food Web on your farm carefully you can dramatically improve your plant growth in very short periods of time. This usually entails a one-time application of well-made compost or compost tea, followed by a change in management to protect the health of the soil organisms in the long term (no-till, organic, perennials, etc).
For a brief intro to the Soil Food Web watch this inspiring video. The book “Teaming With Microbes” is probably the first book you should read on the subject, followed by Elaine’s more technical guide to making compost “The Field Guide For Actively Aerated Compost Tea”.
4. PROPERLY MANAGED LIVESTOCK
Only recently have we begun to understand how to manage livestock in a sustainable manner. The key is to mimic the behavior of wild herds in nature. In nature large, heavy herbivores bunch together into herds in order to avoid predators. This bunching behavior has several side effects: the animals move constantly, and do not return for a long time to the same piece of ground.
To keep this article short I have written a separate article with more in-depth information about managing livestock sustainably, including some external resources for those of you who have livestock. Read it here.
5. NO-TILL CROP PRODUCTION
“Tilling” refers to any major physical disturbance below the surface of the soil (plowing, cultivating, roto-tilling, etc). Tilling is the most damaging thing that you can do to soil organisms. It is even worse than applying pesticides, fungicides, or other chemicals. With new methods for controlling weeds and planting seeds that do not require tilling farmers have begun to transition to no-till production. When a piece of land is not tilled the soil organisms are able to establish a healthy soil ecosystem. This has tremendous benefits: looser soil (decompaction), increased nutrient availability and soil fertility, fewer soil-borne diseases, faster water-infiltration rates (ie. less soil erosion and flooding), etc. A healthy soil will actually increase in depth each year.
To learn about no-till watch this inspiring video about no-till farming… whether you are a farmer or a consumer, it offers tremendous hope for our future. If you are interested in applying no-till techniques on your farm the “No-Till on the Plains” website is a great place to start.
6. PERENNIAL CROPS
Perennial crops ensure that there are living roots in the soil 100% of the time. This prevents soil erosion, reduces compaction, feeds the soil food web, and pushes the soil profile lower (creates soil).
Perennial plant roots can grow very deep over time, allowing the plants to access nutrient and water stores that annual plants never can.
All trees are perennials. Tree crops provide many environmental benefits including wind reduction, temperature moderation, wildlife habitat, etc.
To Learn more about how to viably transition farms to perennial based crops read the excellent book “Restoration Agriculture” by Mark Sheppard.
“Polyculture” refers to growing many different species of plants (and animals) in one area. Traditional agriculture employs “monocultures”, which means only one or two plants are grown in a given area and all other species are relentlessly exterminated.
Monocultures are not found in nature, they create a very unbalanced ecosystem which leads to countless problems: plant diseases, insect imbalances, reduced soil fertility, reduced wildlife habitat, reduced crop resilience to drought, heat, etc.
Plants growing in a polyculture with many other plants are more healthier and more resilient. Watch this video for some very clear evidence about the benefits of polyculture cover crops. These books are excellent resources for those of you wishing to apply polyculture yourselves. This article and this article also have some excellent information about polyculture-based agriculture.
8. THERMAL COMPOST
Most agricultural soils have lost a huge percentage of the microbial soil life which is necessary for a healthy soil food web. In the absence of these microbes plants develop nutrient deficiencies, are susceptible to disease, and are more vulnerable to stress like drought and insect damage.
Dr. Elaine Ingham, and others, have achieved tremendous results on large scale farms by applying carefully crafted “thermal compost” to the soil in order to replenish the missing microbe populations. A one-time application of compost or compost tea is usually all that is necessary as long as destructive farming practices (tilling, fertilizing) are stopped.
Elaine has an excellent introductory video to the benefits of thermal compost here. The book “Teaming With Microbes” is a good introduction to the practice of making compost. The Rodale Institute also has some excellent in-depth material, as does Elaine’s website.
8. S.T.U.N. BREEDING
A lesser known technique, but incredibly powerful. STUN is an acronym for “Sheer total utter neglect”. Basically the idea is to breed plants which will produce food without needing to be constantly cared for and babied by the farmer.
Mark Shepard is definitely the pioneer of this technique (he coined the acronym). His book is a great resource. However, if you don’t want to read an entire book you can also get some excellent information in this article, this podcast, and this podcast.
9. KEYLINE SUBSOILING
A potentially very powerful technique. I am not as familiar with it as other Regen Ag techniques, which is the only reason it is at the bottom of this list. Basically it is a method for cheaply capturing water that would otherwise run off a piece of land. It also is able to increase the depth of soil very quickly. It is a non-destructive practice, unlike most plowing, and does not destroy the soil food web or existing plants growing in the area. The plowing is usually done in a very specific pattern in order to spread water evenly across the landscape.
For more information I would recommend reading this excellent article first. Then you can dive into the book which started it all: “Water For Every Farm”. When you are actually ready to implement Keyline on your property I would highly recommend getting some professional advice as the process must be done just right in order to work (The Yeoman’s Plow company is probably the best place to go for advice).