A reckoning may be coming soon to the agriculture industry, and it’s because of the dirt.
Rich, fertile American topsoil — which once covered massive swaths of the Midwest and Southeast and helped produce plentiful crops — has been steadily eroding over the past several decades under farming methods that rely largely on tilling and chemical fertilizers, which disturb and kill many of the microorganisms necessary for building healthy soil.
Soil degradation is reaching a tipping point in many parts of the US and the world, but understanding this phenomenon has also spurred a resurgence in traditional, more sustainable farming practices.
Regenerative agriculture, with its basis in healthy soils and natural life cycles, is one of them. Like natural systems, it relies on three basic concepts for a healthy growing landscape: diversity, rest, and rotation. In the US, the healthiest soils in the Midwest were developed over millions of years by such a powerful natural cycle. Great herds of bison churned the sod as they stomped and ate their way through the grasslands — which were not just grass but an incredibly diverse plant and animal ecosystem. Cowbirds followed, scratching through the manure for seeds and the insects it attracts. In between these rotations, vast swaths of land rested, or were cleansed by fire.
At Rock Bottom Ranch, we employ a similar system in which every animal and microorganism plays an important role. Our sheep and cattle are our lawnmowers — instead of costly tractors, labor, and fuel, sheep are a passive way of managing the land. These ruminants digest grass (not all animals can) — while grazing near fencelines, ditches, and other nooks and crannies that machines cannot reach — and produce nitrogen-rich compost on the other end. We prioritize our animals for the service they provide, but they’re generating income while they’re doing it — our lambs are eventually used for meat.
Our 700 laying hens are the ranch’s cleaning system. Like cowbirds, they follow sheep and cattle, breaking up cowpies looking for fly larvae and thus exposing them to sunlight, killing parasites. By controlling parasites and worms, these chickens help us save on vet bills. Even if they didn’t lay a single egg — a profitable operation for the farm — it’d be worth it to have them.
We rotate our animals through different pastures, using electric fencing to both contain them and keep out predators. We’ve used pigs and cattle for different effects, depending on what the land needed. And with this human-guided management, we’re able to enhance six cycles of healthy soils in a year, compared to the bison-and-cowbird teams’ one.
In our healthy homemade soil, we grow 60 to 70 varieties of vegetables rotated through nine outdoor blocks. We rotate shallow-rooted plant families, like lettuce, with deep-rooted ones like tomatoes, to not deplete the nutrients in one layer of soil. We use hoophouses with passive solar gain and insulation to extend our naturally short growing season by four to six weeks on each end, and can harvest some vegetables year-round.
Within this nine-block system, some are managed solely for soil health for two to three years at a time. During this cycle of rest, we plant only cover crops, use the soil for compost, and let earthworms do the tillage.
Regenerative systems like this one are more than sustainable. They build soil health and wealth, their denizens often do double duty, and they can sequester more carbon than they produce. By constantly feeding back into the land, they’re the opposite of extractive industrial farming.
And they’re catching on. Major food conglomerates and the US government, among others, are aware of the impending soil crisis, as well as the fact that the widespread degenerative practices most major agricultural operations use are a financial drain, while regenerative systems can be much more profitable.
At the same time, America’s farmers are aging, and we’re poised for approximately half the country’s agricultural land to change hands in the next decade. While younger generations are further removed from the land than they’ve ever been, some are turning toward agriculture, with all its possibilities and purpose — and an interesting lifestyle.
If we can build enough momentum around these common-sense systems, the future of food is very exciting.
Rock Bottom Ranch Director