Soil quality is critical to the farming ecosystem. Many of the earth’s ecological functions are cyclical, and soil helps to regulate those cycles — from atmospheric carbon cycling to nitrogen volatilization, or surface water infiltration and absorption. Steve Schubert, Walden’s farm auditor, notes that generations of farmers before us had a basic understanding that soil is more than just a structure to support roots. “It’s a living tissue,” he says, “that when managed properly, is able to sustain itself year-over-year while providing sufficient nutrients for the crops grown at its surface.”
Approximately 95 percent of the food we eat depends upon soil either directly or indirectly, and yet we have only identified 1 percent of the projected billions of microorganisms that live in and promote soil health. Soil has the greatest composition of biomass anywhere on Earth: according to the United States Department of Agriculture, there are more living microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet.
“Microorganisms even help make substances that hold soil particles in larger aggregates, helping to make the soil more stable,” says Schubert. “Additionally, plants contribute liquid carbon produced during photosynthesis to the soil food web, effectively transferring carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.” The absence of such abundant biological life can have devastating and lasting effects on both plant and animal life.
Most people know that trees “breathe” in the carbon dioxide responsible for global warming and release the oxygen necessary for our survival. However, there are 2,500 gigatons of carbon sequestered within Earth’s soil, three times the amount found in our atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living plants or animals, making it the strongest ally we have in the fight against climate change.
Soil and dirt are not the same thing. Where soil is abundant with life, dirt is mostly a composite of sand, silt, and clay. It is devoid of nutrients and minerals and cannot be used to plant crops or a garden. According to Schubert, “It’s what happens when the essential soil ingredients are taken out of the resource cycle, or soil recipe. Dirt can form when soil is too compacted and no longer porous, blocking air and water filtration. Dirt can form when tilling breaks up healthy soil and releases carbon. Dirt can come from soil that is not protected by a layer of growth or vegetation, but left exposed to the elements, causing erosion of minerals and soil particles. As farmers, our soil can turn to dirt if we don’t take care of it every day.”
The loss of soil to dirt is happening at an alarming rate. A quarter of Earth’s soils are considered “highly degraded,” and some estimates suggest we lose 30 football fields worth of soil every minute. Some soil erosion results from high winds, heavy rains, and naturally occurring fires, but human activity potentially causes ten times more soil degradation than all natural processes combined. Deforestation and urbanization are other major contributors to soil erosion and degradation, but overgrazing, monocropping, the use of pesticides, and agricultural tillage — all characteristics of industrial farming — are the primary culprits. To combat these incredible losses, Walden supports regenerative agriculture and livestock grazing, which not only prevents soil degradation but also helps to rebuild soil and restore it to healthy levels once again.
Industrial and Regenerative Farming Differences
Advocates of industrial farming build a strong case for industrialized practices, including the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and heavy machinery. They argue that large-scale industrial farms are more efficient, and that it would take more than 109 million extra organically farmed acres of land to produce the same yield as the current industrial output. We often hear that industrial farming feeds the world today and is our only hope for providing the amount of food necessary to sustain human life in the future. However, pushing higher short-term yields while destroying the soil biodiversity could have serious negative long-term consequences for our environment and food security.
Here are a few ways industrial farming can affect the soil:
- Farmers till the land to break up roots, aerate the soil, kill weeds, and mix in organic matter. However, tilling breaks down the food web and root systems, kills subterranean microorganisms, and leaves the turned soil exposed to the elements.
- Pesticides — including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and disinfectants — are used to control pests and are designed to significantly reduce the subterranean biodiversity. Pesticides work like chemotherapy for cancer — they kill everything, not just the targeted offender, which creates dirt.
- Decreased biodiversity leads to a reduction of nutrients within the soil. When the soil health is depleted, it can’t grow crops efficiently, and farmers supplement nutrients with synthetic fertilizer. This fertilizer is expensive, environmentally destructive, and farmers need more and more to produce the desired results.
While there isn’t a single defining methodology to regenerative farming, the most important components include reducing or eliminating fertilizers, pesticides, and tillage to build soil health, and using livestock to build nutrients and hydrate the earth. A few ways regenerative farming methods differ from industrial ones are:
- Seeds are “drilled” into the ground, so there is little or no plowing of fields. Keeping the soil intact helps retain water, promote underground life, and decrease erosion.
- Regenerative farmers use cover crops to decrease erosion, preventing exposure to the elements that promote carbon release and degrade soil.
- Farmers rotate crops and plant helpful companion crops to decrease so-called weeds and promote growth. Sometimes, farmers even plant trees between row crops.
Which side of the industrial versus regenerative farming argument you land on depends largely on how you view soil. As Schubert describes it, “conventional farming uses soil to grow plants, and regenerative agriculture uses plants to grow soil.” In the next 30 years, we will have to ask the soil to produce as much food as it has in the last 500 years. To quote Jerry Hatfield, Director, National Lab for Agriculture, USDA-ARS, in the Soil Health Institute documentary, Living Soil, “Soil security is equal to food security. If we want to be sure we can feed the world’s population, we’ll have to understand how our soil has the capability to produce these crops.”
The Role of Livestock Grazing in Promoting Soil Health
Many regenerative farmers use livestock to rebuild soil health. Rotational grazing spurs the same soil-forming reaction as millions of buffalo crossing the plains have done for centuries. “Before modern agriculture, the tractor, the till, or the introduction of non-indinginous people to this continent, millions of buffalo herded back and forth across the midwestern plains, trampling half-munched grass stems into the ground and fertilizing the soil with their microorganism-filled manure,” notes Schubert. “These massive herds of large, eating — and pooping — ruminants were integral to forming the vastly rich and productive soils of the American midwest, known as some of the most fertile land in the world.”
Buffalo manure is full of microorganisms that inoculated and energized the dirt on the plains to form soil. The buffalo helped cycle water on and into the plains by drinking from rivers and lakes and then hydrating the ground, while also delivering a healthy dose of organic nitrogen. As the animals moved across the plains, the earth had time to rest, recover, and grow, which attracted more biodiversity to feed the soil with living and dead organic matter. Many regenerative farmers aim to recapture the same natural interaction between plant and animal through rotational livestock grazing. In doing so, they’re building on the agriculture methods indigenous people have practiced for generations. Many of these native cultures used intercropping, water management, grazing, and permaculture, all of which serve as models for current-day regenerative farming practices.
Soil Health and the Future of Food
Growing populations, climate change, and food security issues affect developing nations the hardest, making soil a global social and economic issue. Indigenous communities around the world are actively destroyed by agricultural deforestation and displacement. Costly synthetic fertilizers eat into already diminished profit margins for industrial farmers. Furthermore, these products are out of reach in developing nations for many family farmers, which results in lower yields from malnourished soil and furthers food insecurity. Many industrial agriculture proponents say that regenerative farms are too small and inefficient to feed the current population, but studies show that 9 out 10 of the world’s 570 million farms are managed by families, and that these farms produce 80 percent of the world’s food.
Today, more than enough food is grown to feed the world, yet 690 million people — disproportionately BIPOC communities — still go hungry. If industrial farming decreases the arable land availability, then we are trading tomorrow’s healthy, productive soil for faster and higher yields today. From Mesopotamia to the Roman Empire, there are examples of how this mentality has ultimately led to a civilizations’ decline.
Here at Walden Local Meat, we recognize the role that soil plays in our fragile global food system. We believe that proper regenerative farming can be a source of tangible hope as climate change, deforestation, and massive population growth threaten humankind. By reducing waste and pollution, naturally boosting the land’s fertility, and working with nature instead of against it, our farmers are actively making a difference in the pastures and fields they manage. By choosing Walden, you are sending a strong message of support for alternatives to industrial farming. With your support, we can help inform policy, change priorities, and dispel the myths peddled by oil companies, big machinery and pesticide manufacturers. Let’s show the world that well-managed, diversified farms that “grow soil” can shape a sustainable food future!