“To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi
One health issue that is often overlooked is the soil we walk on, build our homes on, and even grow our food on. For some reason we rarely pause to think about the earth below us that provides our sustenance.
What is soil and why is it so important? Soil is a mixture of minerals, organic matter, gases, liquids, and microbes (1). Together, this mixture combines to support life. The dirt under our feet is a living system; it is alive and supports life. Why is this important? It is important because every food, herb or supplement that we put into our bodies begins in the soil. It is the nutrition contained in the soil that produces the high-quality food and products that we eat. When the soil is not healthy our food & medicines lack potency and vitality.
A History of Farming Practices in America
For many years, agriculture in America has been moving toward a chemical management model. Since the 1950s, a farming theory known as “The Green Revolution" has become the preferred method of agriculture. "The Green Revolution" postulated that crop yields would need to significantly increase to feed the world's growing population. To achieve this, the methodology employed was to use heavy chemicals in agriculture, which meant the widespread use of fertilizers and petroleum-based pesticides (2).
At the time, this approach was not only successful, but was also considered sound in theory. In retrospect, there have been many unintended consequences of this farming policy, which over time have lowered the quality of our soils and foods. For example, chemical fertilizers increase soil compaction, resulting in reduced soil permeability by 81.4% (think aeration), a 34% reduction in water storage capacity and, over time, a 40% reduction in yields (3). In addition, chemical fertilizers form mineral salts, which acidify soils and affect plant health and reduce microbial life in the soil. Further compounding this, chemical pesticides kill microbes in the soil, beneficial insect life, and unintended animals such as birds. This upsets the biological balance of beneficial insects and animals that help control crop pests. It creates a feedback loop that requires more pesticides and more fertilizer to produce the same crop yields. Moreover, the combination of chemical fertilizers and pesticides causes runoff into waterways polluting our rivers, streams, and oceans resulting in fish die offs, algae blooms, and red tide.
The Regenerative Farming Movement: Looking to a Brighter Future
The good news is that we do not have to farm this way. Research shows that it is possible to achieve similar, albeit slightly lower yields from organic farming. Not only are yields comparable, but as soil health improves, it also supports microbial life, wildlife, increases carbon sequestration, and produces better food and medicines.
Regenerative farming methods have many benefits for the environment and for humans. The less chemical pollution in our environment, the healthier the human population becomes. Also, when grown organically, crops have better nutrient profiles and do not contain harmful chemicals. Humans are part of the larger environment, and if we strive to live in harmony with our ecosystem, we will thrive.
It is important that the consumer has an idea of what organic / regenerative farming means, so we can make informed choices when buying products. If you don't understand the foundation of healthy foods and plant medicines, it's not possible to make healthy choices. To help you do this, we have outlined some regenerative farming practices and their benefits for you and the environment.
Methods of Regenerative Farming
Regenerative Farming: Integration of livestock
One way to reduce destructive farming techniques is to integrate livestock into the farming cycle. Traditional farming in this country used this method extensively until the advent of large monocrops, chemical farming. Integration of livestock into the farming cycle is very simple and straightforward. In the autumn after harvesting, fields are replanted with a cover crop such as winter wheat or winter rye; when these plants have reached a sufficient size, livestock are brought in to graze on these crops, thus achieving some important goals. First, it reduces feed costs for livestock by reducing the amount of grain farmers have to buy to feed their livestock. Second, it uses natural fertilizer from manure which increases the phosphorus and nitrogen content of the soil. Finally, this type of crop management also increases carbon sequestration in the soil, creating rich and fertile soils while removing carbon from the atmosphere (4).
No-Till Farming vs Tilling
Soil tilling is the simplest term to describe the mechanical mixing of the topsoil of a field after harvesting. It is a method that has fundamentally positive goals. By turning the soil over, the farmer is able to destroy weeds and disrupt the life cycle of pests. This method has a few downsides. One major drawback for the farmer is that it is labor-intensive. It takes a lot of time and fuel to till a field. In addition, tilling leads to large amounts of topsoil erosion as rich fertile earth is blown away by the wind.
No-till farming, in contrast, leaves the topsoil and the underlying soil structure intact helping the soil absorb water more quickly and store more total moisture. As a result, plants have more water at their disposal and fertilizer is prevented from flowing into streams and rivers. It is estimated that no-till farming saves the farmer an estimated 225 hours of work per year per 500 acres of cultivated area (5). In addition, untilled soils have a rich composition of beneficial soil bacteria and mycorrhiza, resulting in more nutrient rich crops.
Why then do most farmers not practice this type of farming? The main reason for this is that it requires specialized planting equipment which is quite expensive. Initial investment is expensive, but over time the conversion saves money. Many people are of the strong opinion that tilling is necessary to eliminate weeds and pests, but others would argue that the same goals can be achieved through crop rotation and the integration of livestock. While there are differing opinions, no-till farming is very positive for the environment and the farmer. However, it requires a shift in thinking that is sometimes difficult to make. Fortunately, many farmers are beginning to embrace this new type of farming and the benefits it brings.
Another challenge that regenerative farming has to overcome is how to fertilize plants with an environmentally friendly means. The main approach is to reduce the use of fertilizer by controlling crop rotation and livestock integration (6). When used in concert with no-till farming, the soil slowly becomes a living system with beneficial bacteria and mycorrhiza, creating a living system rich in organic matter and plant-available nutrients. For additional fertilizer sources manure and composted organic matter provide a very balanced and safe fertilizer for the fields. These nutrients can even be dissolved in water and sprayed on the plants. Here, too, the main goal is to improve soil quality in order to minimize the need for external fertilizers.
Pesticides are important to keep insects controlled to minimize crop damage. However, chemical pesticides are non-discriminatory and tend to kill all animal life they come into contact with, including beneficial insect and microbial life that help plants thrive. Pesticides are also toxic to humans.
Fortunately, solutions to chemical pesticides are becoming more readily available. For example, Bee Vectoring Technology, a Toronto start-up, is using honeybees to deliver a benign fungus called Clonostachys rosea to strawberry plants which protects them from other fungi that rot the plants (7). In addition to biological pesticide solutions, the release of competing insects into the fields also has a positive effect. Some friendly insects used to control crop eating insects are ladybirds, praying mantises and even very specific species of nematodes (8). These innovative methods allow farmers to control certain pests while allowing their fields to remain a living biodiverse environment.
Regenerative farming involves a shift in thinking from traditional farming methods but it offers enormous benefits for the planet, the farmer and the end consumer. It is initially an investment, but in the long term it saves farmers time and money and ultimately helps the natural world and all people to thrive. It is the way of the future.
At Hummingbird Botanicals we work exclusively with small farmers who use these methods to produce superior quality hemp plants with high phytonutrient content. In this way, we give something back to the planet and ensure that our children's children have a healthy and green world to live in.