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Regenerative Farming

2 people in a field

Conventional farming techniques using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and unconstrained water use have created systems that produce unprecedented amounts of low-cost crops. (According to the USDA, 30% of these crops go uneaten.1) This food, however, has the unintended consequence of undermining our health. According to the CDC, increasing from only 4% in 1965, 60% of American adults now have a chronic disease and 40% have two or more. This results in annual healthcare costs of $4.1 Trillion. Agribusiness and food industry marketing of these crops promote one of the leading causes of chronic disease, poor nutrition.2 So while these farming methods may benefit the largest industrial farmers on a short term basis, they create incredibly high costs for the rest of us. These healthcare costs don't even factor in the 35% of global carbon dioxide emissions caused by agriculture and deforestation, the other greenhouse gas emissions, the erosion (Oklahoma farmers lose 4 pounds of soil to erosion for every 1 pound of wheat they produce), floods, desertification, and water pollution.3

Organic, Living Soil, and other Sustainable farming methods may have a reputation for costing more and producing lower yields, but the 12 Ways linked here tell a very different story. In reality, these systems can dramatically lower costs, produce higher yields, and - at the same time - effect numerous environmental benefits.

The almost scandalous but common waste of water on most farms not only adds to costs - for the water itself and also for the pumping, delivery, and components - but also creates or increases erosion, desertification, flooding, and crop losses. With a Slow Water system, you can use a smaller pump, and most of the main components can also be smaller, including water lines and filters. Because there is less demand on the pump, it also requires less maintenance and lasts longer. Improved irrigation helps address the ever-increasing droughts that 40% of the planet’s population must already suffer though.

The UN recently reported that "soil death" caused by unsustainable farming and its consequences like climate change now increases each year by more than 30 times earlier rates. Every year it gets worse - 1.61 million square miles are degraded annually. This means more heat waves, dust storms, forced immigration, and food shortages. New research shows a direct correlation between less water in the soil and higher ambient air temperatures. Fortunately though, this cycle can be reversed and the more healthy the soil, the more it preserves soil moisture, and the more air temperatures decrease.

Rich, healthy soil nurtures the microbes and microorganisms that assure the best environment for growing plants. Using cover crops and mulches while avoiding pesticides and chemical fertilizers can produce equal or better harvests with less labor and expense. These beneficial soil helpers, however, can go dormant and die if the soil gets either too dry or too wet and stays that way. An irrigation system focused on the soil rather than on just plants becomes essential.

This systems approach to agriculture integrates a scientific approach with biology, economics, and the cultural/political/and environmental context. A growing, worldwide movement, agroecology learns from indigenous methods, increases food security, and supports both farmer and wildlife health. Learning from the synergy and interrelationships between humans, crops, and the environment; it promotes and teaches best practices. Although a somewhat vague term without allegiance to any of the various regenerative approaches, the UN strongly supports this and it has a good track record in many different countries.

We were already Fukuoka fans when Bill Mollison published Permaculture One in 1978 and so we jumped on board right away and made it a basic part of our business strategy and mission. (I remember writing a book review for our Real Goods employees in 1979.) We started using this approach in the early 1980’s and our sales team (most have Permaculture Design Certificates) use this approach when planning and implementing irrigation systems for you. Basically an ecological design approach, it follows nature and emphasizes an awareness of the social and environmental consequences of our farming and irrigation decisions.

Our subsurface irrigation systems use a special, very low flow soaker tape made from medical grade Tyvek. A grower in Costa Rica installed it lower than the depth they plowed, tilled each spring, and used it in place for over 20 years. We have another type that has a "root response" quality - it interacts with root exudates and supplies more or less water based on what the plants actually need. No guesswork needed! These systems still remain barely known but we have confidence in their ability and likelihood of solving most of the regenerative agriculture challenges while also decreasing pollution and increasing carbon sequestration.

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