The Key to Saving Family Farms Is in the Soil
By David R. Montgomery
Would it sound too good to be true if I was to say that there was a simple, profitable and underused agricultural method to help feed everybody, cool the planet, and revitalize rural America? I used to think so, until I started visiting farmers who are restoring fertility to their land, stashing a lot of carbon in their soil, and returning healthy profitability to family farms. Now I've come to see how restoring soil health would prove as good for farmers and rural economies as it would for the environment.
Over the past several years, I drove through small towns from Ohio to the Dakotas visiting farmers to research Growing A Revolution, my book about restoring soil fertility through regenerative farming practices. Along the way, I saw a microcosm of the national economy in which run-down farms and hollowed-out towns stood in stark contrast to farms and communities thriving with renewed vitality.
These revitalized farms came in all sizes — hand-worked three-acre vegetable farms to horizon-spanning ranches where enormous remote-controlled contraptions seemingly cast out of Star Wars seeded and harvested fields with GPS-guided precision. Yet it was not size or technology that distinguished these places, but how they worked the land.
After the Second World War, an expanded reliance on chemicals boosted the yields from soils degraded during decades of intensive farming. At the same time, American farmers increasingly specialized in and became very good at growing a large amount of a small selection of crops. This newfound bounty manifest as a surplus of corn, wheat, and other agricultural commodities. Over time, this drove down the price farmers got for their harvest as the cost of fertilizer, diesel, and pesticides rose — squeezing farmers in the middle.
From 1960 to 1970 corn prices rose from just over $1 to $2 a bushel — the equivalent of about $8 in inflation adjusted dollars today. In 2019, however, corn prices have stayed around $4 a bushel, so farmers are getting half of the real income for growing the same harvest as they did when we put a man on the Moon. At the same time the inflation-adjusted price of a barrel of oil tripled from about $20 in 1970 to more than $60 today. Over the same period, global fertilizer prices roughly doubled. Today's conventional farmers spend a lot more to grow crops they can sell for far less than their grandparents did.
The mantra became "get big or get out" as the average size of American farms grew. The number of farms declined as smaller ones were consolidated or went out of business. Small towns struggled to retain people, and economic vitality declined in rural areas as a smaller population supported fewer services and local businesses. Driving through America's heartland today, it's hard to miss the fallout: shuttered stores, closed restaurants, and half-vacant mini-malls.
Interviewing farmers who had already improved their soil, I found hope that we might turn around this almost century-long trend and economically revitalize rural America. Their practices not only restored soil health, but returned profitability to family farms in the span of a few years, as opposed to the decades you would expect.
If we restore soil health and save farmers substantial input costs, we can restore smaller farms as a means to a secure living and revive the economic viability of farming communities across small town America.
So how did those farmers do it?
The successful regenerative farmers I visited all combined three unconventional practices that cultivate beneficial soil life: They parked their plows, planted cover crops, and grew complex crop rotations. Some also reintroduced livestock to their fields, employing a shifting mosaic of single-wire electric fences to frequently move cattle and implement regenerative grazing methods. These farmers were rethinking how they saw and treated their land.
This combination of unconventional practices — no till, cover crops, and complex rotations — allowed farmers to use far less fertilizer, pesticide, and diesel to grow and harvest as much, if not more, than they did growing one or two crops under conventional farming practices. At conferences, other farmers related how it took just a couple of years for this new farming system to rebuild soil fertility enough to become more profitable than neighboring conventional farms. From then on, these regenerative farmers spent less money to grow more, a surefire recipe for a better bottom line.
I could see the difference around the countryside. In parts of the Dakotas where no-till and cover crops had been widely adopted, the landscape was dotted with new grain silos and barns. Shiny new pickup trucks streamed by on the roads. But in counties where black dirt fields still marred the view, things looked worn down and worn out, and topsoil blew across the highway. In Kansas, I was struck by the contrast between bright, well-maintained equipment dealerships in counties that had gone no-till, and sad lots of rusting gear in those counties still hitched to the plow.
Regenerative agriculture is not just about restoring the life of the soil. By making smaller farms profitable once again, it could bring more people back to the land and thereby boost the economy in small towns across America.
You don't have to take my word for all this.
These points are backed up by a recent paper by Claire LaCanne and Jonathan Lundgren who compared regenerative and conventional corn fields on 20 farms in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Minnesota. They ranked farms from most regenerative to most conventional based on whether farmers tilled, planted cover crops, used insecticides or other pesticides, and let cattle graze off cover crops and crop stubble. They then divided them into two groups of fields: regenerative fields that were not tilled, received no insecticides, and included livestock grazing; and conventional fields that were tilled at least annually, regularly received insecticides, and had bare soil in between cash crops.
For each field, LaCanne and Lundgren measured the amount of organic matter in the soil, pest insect populations, corn yield, expenses, and profit. What they found directly contradicts key tenets of conventional agriculture. They found that pest insects (such as corn rootworms, European corn borers, Western bean cutworm, other caterpillars, and aphids) were 10 times as abundant on conventional farms that used insecticides than on farms that relied on regenerative, pest-resilient cropping systems with no insecticides. The lower pest abundance in regenerative fields was likely due to competition from greater insect diversity, and because insecticide use kills predatory insects (like ladybugs) capable of keeping pests in check. This becomes a problem because pest populations rebound before their predators.
LaCanne and Lundgren also found that regenerative corn fields were almost twice as profitable as conventionally managed corn fields due to lower seed and fertilizer costs, a price premium if the crops are organic, and the added value of cover crop grazing for meat production on the regenerative fields. The profitability was unrelated to grain yield, but positively correlated with soil organic matter. In other words, restoring soil paved the way to restoring farm profitability. A profitable farm was less about how much the farmer grew and more about how they treated their soil.
Other studies have also found higher economic returns from adding cover crops to no-till systems in order to improve soil health. One example comes from a four-year study of the economic impacts of cover crops conducted by the National Association of Conservation Districts and Datu Research on a farm in northwestern Missouri. Over the course of the study, cover crops averaged a positive return of $16 per acre among all fields, and reached up to $100 an acre in some places. The cost of cover crop seeds and planting was more than offset by lowering fertilizer costs by up to $50 per acre, increasing corn yields from 120 bushels to 153 bushels per acre, and raising soybean yields from 38 bushels to 52 bushels per acre.
Such results are not an anomaly. In 2019, the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program released a report on cover crop economics based on data from several hundred farms that concluded cover crops generally provide a positive return within three years and that profit margins continued to grow for at least seven years. Corn and soybean yields were consistently higher in cover cropped fields, especially in drought years. Such examples show that spending less to grow more is a winning combination for farmers.
Whether on large commodity crop operations or on small boutique farmsteads supplying farmers markets and restaurants, the key to a more profitable farm lay in the health of the soil. And we need more small farms near cities to provide fresh foods and vegetables, much as we need regenerative grain and dairy and grazing farther afield. Bringing life back to the soil can help farm profitability across America's rural landscapes. It's time to reverse and revise the "get big or get out" mentality to "get small and get back in." Restoring the soil on smaller, more profitable farms holds the key to restoring rural communities.
The soil is the historical root of American prosperity, the foundation of our country. But since the American Revolution, our nation's soils have lost half their organic matter — half their natural fertility. Policies that promote efforts to rebuild healthy soils offer fertile ground to help restore prosperity to family farms and farming communities. Reinvesting in our soils is a natural infrastructure program, a sound investment in the foundation and future of America. This would not only put a lot of carbon in the ground, it would reduce the environmental damage from agrochemical use and help bring life back to the land and rural communities. Having more people on the land isn't the problem, it's the solution.
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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Plain Naturals is making waves in the CBD space with a new product line for retail customers looking for high potency CBD products at industry-low prices.
Is More CBD Really Better?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2ODQyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzYxMDMzN30.6B08i5QYW_Iq5bUf3qtm8oK8o6FKsRUZ74gdakgJ_TY/img.jpg?width=980" id="0ef5b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bac86abf3ce246742b18b0dc4052f4dd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Plain Naturals offers a 5000mg CBD oil tincture in 30ml bottle for $99.99.<p>Consumers have gotten used to paying high prices for low amounts of cannabidiol. Plain Naturals is beginning to change that. There are myriad <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">studies</a> showing that low doses of CBD (less than 50mg per day) are ineffective for many users. And many clinical <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">studies</a> have shown effective dosages of 100 - 800mg per day to be effective for many conditions ranging from <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">anxiety and depression to Parkinson's disease and cancer</a>. And several <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">studies</a> published by the National Institutes of Health have shown up to 1500mg per day to be consistently "well-tolerated" by adults. </p><p>Now it is always recommended to begin with a lower dosage and increase until an effective dose has been reached. But the advantage of starting with a higher potency CBD oil is that it is much easier to use less to start with and increase over time than to buy very low dose CBD oil and ultimately end up buying more and more stronger products. To start at 50mg per dose of a 5000mg oil, you would simply use ⅓ dropper or about 10-12 drops.</p>
The Truth About CBD Product Potency<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2ODMyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDc2NTg1N30.OAm3iOTO_pKZLXi7KdJ7n0DGOFMdOmIYuG4ArGooFC4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d657c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee016a81b29caa699b9185b64ce345d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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