Originally published on Medium
Pre-American Industrial Revolution agriculture
In the early 1800s as populations grew in a young country, the demand on farmers to produce more food also grew rapidly. Farmers who had been farming the same piece of land since the early settlers were already seeing their yields dropping. They started creating local agricultural society groups to work together to improve their practices. These groups would print small booklets explaining trials that farmers were trying and even offering prizes to solve specific issues that would arise. Their communities also created agricultural society sponsored county fairs to exhibit and talk abour their recent efforts and to educate the local public. The early higher-education college’s were just being built and didn’t have a focus on agriculture. Though soon after forming, the sciences of geology and chemisty started to gain importance and support. Geology was important for mining of needed earth resources. And chemistry was closely tied with these earth resources in obtaining knowledge of their chemical properties and for processing and manufacturing. By the early mid 1800s agriculture started to get some college science interest. Of course, this was from a geological and chemical perspective as those were the primary scientists available. Plowing had long been considered a best practice and was strongly encouraged by geologists for farmers to intensify the practice to access more and deeper available soil nutrients as availability lessened. Chemists started looking at the chemistry in the dirt and what was needed to grow crops. But farmers found it difficult to work with these higher-ed institutions modeled after European institutions. These often called “Ivory Tower” institutions for the elite class.
The State Landgrant College System
During the 1840s farmers started talking about the need for a different type of college. One where they could have an active role in the development of agriculture and a place to send their children after grade school to learn the emerging agricultural sciences and the engineering and use of improved farm equipment. With the even more increasing demand on food production and farms becoming larger, the idea gained momentum, quickly. By the early early 1850s the idea had become of national interest and at the federal government level. And by 1862 the plan was for each state to have a college specifically for agriculture and engineering. Starting money to build these colleges, with a land grant and then yearly federal support to cover basic infrastructure. In 1862 President Lincoln signed the Morrill act that launched the state landgrant college system. And soon after as the industrial revolution began, enabled agricultural expansion. But into the 1900s these colleges became full universities. During the past 50 years working with farmers and their innovative ideas has been increasingly replaced with working with ag. corporations and their interests in the future. The original mission of the Morrill act and the brilliant american farmers original concept of a people’s high-ed institution, long forgotten to the same powers it was meant to provide an alternative inclusive system to.
A second path for agriculture
While geology and chemistry had become the primary approach to agriculture, it also had its share of crop failure problems with the new chemical sciences. Some farmers stayed with more traditional approaches. Often these are now considered indigenous practices. These practices were more aligned with farming with nature through observation of nature-based principles. And by the 1880s the microscope had advanced and was started to be used to explore, identify and name the microbiology organisms in the soil. The beginnings of organic and biological agriculture sciences. The second track of scientific study of agriculture. While the chemical approach dominated, the soil biological studies still significantly advanced right up to the second world war.
Post second world war synthetic nitrogen driving modern day industrial agriculture
The sudden end of world war 2 with the dropping of the atomic bombs left large supplies of the synthetic nitrogen used to make explosives. And the large industries that were needed to produce all the nitrogen needed from natural gas. It was realizied that these leftover massive stockpiles could be used in agriculture instead of manures. Nitrogen being important to crop production and yields. The US federal government through USDA and the state agriculture college system worked to strongly encourage farmers to replace manure use with this new synthetic nitrogen fertilizer product. All focus shifted in research and education towards this new advancement of inorganic agriculture. Research and education money for the nature-based organic and soil life sciences, dried up.
The restart of the organic movement
The other issue with the synthetic chemical approach to agriculture was in the use of chemical pesticides. DDT was one that first brought major concerns to the public. Inspired writings like “Silent Spring” by Rachael Carson in the early 1960s. This restarted an organic movement and a renewed look at nature-based principles. The movement started primarily by the “back to the land” movement also during the 1960s. These tended to be small farms of young people and commune farms. These small farms often connected with new local natural foods co-ops to sell their products. It was often marketed as “All Natural.” At the same time farmers that grazed livestock also started looking to nature to improve their grazing practices. They simply looked at how bison sustainably grazed the great grassland areas of the country. Tightly bunched and always moving to fresh ground. The traditional way on farms was constant grazing on big open pastures. But with time they had found these pastures were degrading and needing more and more fertilizers. Pest problems also increased resulting in increasing health problems of the animals and drug needs. New ways of fencing and temporary movable fencing was developed to enable mimicking the bunched and moving to fresh ground as observed in nature. This had proved to be extremely successful and encouraged even more deeper looks at how nature-based practices might have similar potential for food crop production.
From observational and farmer trials to the science of nature-based.
Research at institutions and funding for research continued to focus on the chemical-based approach. But a few microbiologist at institutions and some independent research scientists who worked directly with leading farmers, started to see real potential in the progress and results in what the farmers were doing. By the late 1980s the “Soil Food Web” was developed. How the organisms in the soil functioned. How they created plant available nutrients out of the dirt particles and decayed organic matter. And that plants put out nutrients from photosynthesis (sugars, carbs and proteins) through their roots to feed the organisms in trade for soil nutrients the plant needs. These are called “exudates.” Also found that plants do the same through their leaves to feed beneficial organisms that protect from harmful insects and organisms. This knowledge allowed farmers to begin to put science to what they had primarily only been abe to sense through observation. This also helped biological farmers better understand how to “do no harm”. One of the most important soil organism identified and function realized was beneficial soil fungi and the web in the soil it develops. A web that delivers nutrients to the plant roots. This led to the realization of the harm of plowing and tillage damaging these important soil fungal networks. Thus no-till practices began and increased in adoption in the 1990s.
Chemical-based issues intensify
Going into the 2000s the chem-based approach issues only intensified. More and more fertilizers needed to boost yields. Stronger and blended cocktails of pesticides needed due to increasing pest adaptation and resistance. Soils degrading and eroding top soil. All these chemicals contaminating water drinking supplies, creating ocean dead zones from contaminated rivers, lake algea blooms. Toxic residues of pesticides causing food contamination and human health concerns. Farmer health issue concerns due to chemical exposure also on the rise. An the need to genetically engineer plants to tolerate use of these pesticides and weed killing herbicides. Farmers becoming more and more dependent on all these inputs adding greater and greater costs to production. Degraded soils no longer able to infiltrate larger rain events or hold water in drought times demanding more irrigation. Increasing fossil fuel use and costs for all these input applications. Beneficial soil carbon massive losses due to intensive tillage now creating co2 ghg emissions. The benefits of properly stewarded livestock integrated into crop rotations to improve soil was abandoned for often at best a 2 crop rotation.
Regenerative agriculture and Climate Change.
Into the 2000s more farmers at scale began successfully adopting these nature-based approaches. Refining practices and improving equipment. More networks of leading farmers started to form. And more, still primarily independent scientists started working with these leading farmers. Farmers then began providing education to traditional farmers wanting to transition. During the past 10 years the nature-based soil science has greatly increased. We now have knowledge of plant/soil biomes and functions. The realizations that living soils with proper stewardship have far more potential than ever thought. With this recent science and increasing proven successes on leading farms at all scales, we now have the confidence that this is the future of agriculture. And as leading farmers in other countries using this recent advanced science and proven practices are finding out, it can work worldwide. And has the best chance to feed the growing world population far into the future. Nature-based principles essentially work the same everywhere, with local context considerations. Other recent nutritional science is showing the potential to significantly increase nutrient spectrum and density in crops through complete soil biological functioning. Something that had decreased with chem. intensive monculture cropping. Being nature-based adds the benefits of increasing bio-diversity of the farm ecosystem. And as in nature, integrating the role of ruminants, diverse cover crops year-round to support soil life and beneficial insects and pollinators. As well as benefiting bird populations. The overall yield and sustainability of yields realized potential of these nature-based systems has also greatly increased. Regenerative is merely a present term for a long evolution of the nature-based biological approaches to agriculture. People want to put names on things and Regenerative made sense in its restoring abilities, crucial to the present degregated state of most farmland. Nature is of course, naturally regenerative.
The benefits for Climate Change are also extensive. Regenerative ag. can also help stabilize temperature extremes and hydrological cycling of water resources. Recarbon soils. And increase crop natural resistance to pests. Good for the planet and the health of all life.
Why isn’t Regenerative agriculture being adopted more quickly?
It is the future. The problem now is the chem-based approach is being replaced. And the large global chem industries that have controlled agriculture for 150 years are now becoming essentially obsolete. Most all their products no longer needed or at least a significant loss of market share of most. Similar situation as what fossil fuel industries are facing and even more so. They will continue to try to hang on as long as possible with all means possible. A bit of the too big to fail situation. Evolution causes change that understandably can be hard for some businesses. They still have market power and money to hold influence. Regenerative doesn’t have these external powers because it doesn’t need global industries manufacturing massive amounts of inputs and patented input tolerant seed technology industries. Research and education institutions will also have to adjust and have been reluctant to change. Regenerative ag. will need different types of research and technology developments. It’s not about going back to farming of the past as some think it is. It’s about finally making peace with nature and learning to collaborate with natures ultimate abilities.