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Farming Systems: Conventional, No-Till, Carbon Farming & Climate Smart, Regenerative, Organic & Biodynamic

There are now many ways of broadly describing farming systems, but the variation within each can be large, particularly around the concept of conventional, which is rapidly evolving due to the influence of organic and the emerging concepts of climate smart and regenerative farming. We promote programs that move farmers to adopt regenerative, climate smart, organic and biodynamic practices, which can all be described as more biologically integrated. Below we offer explanations and some history related to these labels.

Conventional means farming systems that are generally used by the vast majority of farmers today. This approach is more chemically based and emerges from decades of research and instruction from agriculture colleges and universities that believe an industrial approach to achieving efficiency is the best way to maximize yield and profitability. Conventional systems typically allow genetic-engineered seeds and the use of glyphosate (see more here) and other tools prohibited by certified organic and biodynamic approaches. Although there are conventional growers who do not use genetically engineered seed or glyphosate because they seek to meet the desire of specific markets. Many conventional farmers have adopted practices used in organic systems, including enhanced biodiversity around the farm, use of livestock to deliver manure and its nutrients to the soil.

In the last decade, conventional growers have begun to put more emphasis on soil building by reducing or eliminating use of the plow or disc. This is called a no-till approach to farming, which offers many benefits to farm resilience and the environment. USDA estimates that up to 40% of US soy and grain farmers are practicing no-till. They do it because it reduces erosion, improves fertility, soil structure and water capture. It also improves retention of carbon in the soil, reducing emissions into the atmosphere that contribute to global warming.

It should also be noted that the chemicals used today in conventional systems are, in almost all cases, less toxic than those of the past. Smart regulations have moved agrochemical companies to create compounds that target pests more precisely, break down more rapidly and result in less harmful impacts to humans or other species not meant to be targeted. Companies are increasingly looking to mimic nature’s approach to plant protection and some companies produce compounds that are allowed in organic systems. Yet, there are still very dangerous compounds like atrazine and chlorpyrifos (both banned in Europe) used widely in the US. California is the most aggressive state in banning dangerous agrochemicals. In May 2019, the Newsom Administration ordered the banning of chlorpyrifos use in the state.

The variation in approach found among “conventional” growers is vast, and in many cases moving in what we believe is a positive direction.

Carbon Farming and Climate Smart agriculture are terms used by advocates, practitioners, academics and policymakers who see agriculture as part of the solution to our existential climate challenges. We are firmly in that camp. The intent and focus are to build the soil’s capacity to capture and retain carbon from the atmosphere or lower emissions of greenhouse gases. It has been estimated that up to 15-20% of human caused carbon emissions in the atmosphere have resulted from 400 years of plowing fields. Excessive plowing has destroyed soil health. Supporters believe that with a concerted effort to improve soils around the planet, agriculture can create massive carbon sinks to pull the excess carbon from the atmosphere, thereby helping to mitigate the climate challenge. Additionally, soil building enhances the capacity of soil to hold water in place and thus lowers the need for irrigation. Lessening irrigation lowers the use of energy often produced with fossil fuels that harm the climate. Lowering water use is critically important in hot dry lands such as the American West. California is among the world leaders in promoting climate smart agriculture through several programs that provide farmers with incentives to lower emissions, build soil and maximize water use efficiency.

Regenerative is an emerging term that is still developing. The basic concept is that rather than degrading soil, water, and ecosystems and exploiting labor due to the impacts of toxic chemicals and other practices, regenerative farming aims to enhance the productive capacity of a farm or ranch and its people. Soil-building is the primary activity. Regenerative farming would typically mean no till, spreading of compost, use of livestock in ways that mimic nature, elimination or large reductions in toxic chemical use, a focus on crop diversity and rotations. There are now efforts in the private sector to establish certification for this approach. We expect the use of the term and the production approach to grow rapidly in the years ahead.

A little history to set context.

Organic was basically the approach to farming until the middle of the last century. There were few or no toxic chemicals available. Farmers used human labor to control weeds, crop rotations, manure, compost, cover crops and land fallowing for fertility and to maintain farm health. Toxicity of farm products was not an issue.

There were still problems however. With the increasing availability of tractors an over dependence on plowing led to compaction, oxidation and loss of organic matter in soils. This contributed to the devastating dust bowl of the 1930s. In response, the nation promoted soil conservation as the key to sustaining productive farms. Following WWII and the advent of agrochemical farming more problems emerged. As with the plow, farmers became, and most remain, highly dependent on toxic compounds to control weeds and pests.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which detailed the impacts of toxic agricultural chemicals and the hiding of the facts by chemical companies. The public reacted and the first regulations were imposed. Moreover, members of what has been called the counter culture began to look for safer ways to grow food. Those seeking alternatives found the works of J.I. Rodale who had been influence by Sir Albert Howard and his wife Louise of the United Kingdom. They had published a groundbreaking book in 1940, An Agricultural Testament. It was the first to promote the idea of organic farming. Their work moved Lady Eva Balfour to spread the concepts even further by her book The Living Soil and her subsequent founding of the Soil Association in 1946, a body that continues its education and advocacy to this day, primarily in the UK.

By the late 60s, the organic movement was underway in the US. It called for abandonment of all toxic chemicals, the building of soil and crop rotations to achieve healthy food. Still, a very tiny group of dedicated farmers and back-to-the-landers embraced organic.

Then in the 1970s, the farm policies that pushed farms to “get big or get out” created additional problems that continue to this day. Rural communities lost jobs as highly mechanized farms used much less human labor per acre. Farms began to plant fence row to fence row, abandoning the lessons of the Dust Bowl by eliminating cover crops, rotations, use of animals and other forms of biodiversity. Giant monocultures of one or two crops began to predominate, increasing pest pressure and requiring the use of more toxic chemicals. Weeds became resistant to herbicides and bugs to pesticides. The chemical treadmill intensified.

This call to enlarge the farms also led to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or animal factories. These massive operations cause a plethora of negative impacts on public health. For more on CAFOs see Grass-finished & Meat Consumption.

Industrial systems have made food cheaper in the grocery store, but more impactful on human health and the planet, and per unit, less profitable for farmers. The biggest winners in the now dominate industrial system have been chemical and machinery companies, banks and insurers, and the processors who need cheap ingredients to create highly processed and fast food. The postwar move into industrial agriculture has also contributed to the obesity and Type II Diabetes epidemics witnessed today.

As the obvious harms to people and the planet grew, so did the demand for organic food, leading to development of the natural foods industry. Organic prices proved better for the farmer, driving some small farmers to adopt the approach. Organic began to a rapid acceleration in growth in the 1980s. It is now the fastest growing segment of the retail grocery sector. Organic food is typically more expensive because the real costs of preventing environmental degradation are included in the cost of production, meaning higher prices at a farm gate are required to keep a farm financially viable. This complicates the need to achieve food justice.

Today, organic farming is defined by lists of approved and prohibited chemicals and a commitment to build soil health. National and international certification exists and is increasingly controversial. As larger farms adopt organic practices, particularly in animal agriculture and hydroponic systems, industrial-oriented producers have put pressure on the USDA to alter the definitions and lists of approved chemicals. Many organic pioneers and proponents see recent changes by USDA as corrupting the original intent.

Despite the great success and contributions of organic agriculture to human diet, ecological systems and improvements in conventional farming, organic acreage is less than 2% of the US’s agricultural land. A large percentage of organic products that flow into the US market come from Mexico and other regions of the world.

Biodynamic agriculture is what might be called a philosophically-based approach that seeks to move the farmer or rancher into as close a relationship to nature as might be achieved by a human steward of managed land. The farm or ranch is seen as a whole living system and the goal is to maintain the health of the farm’s immune system, its dynamic balance of negative pests and pest predators, its flows of energy in the form of nutrients, minerals and water. The practitioner seeks to maximize the synergies available from natural biological, mineral and chemical cycles by providing compost-based preparations of what might be called micro nutrients at certain times of the year.

This system emerged from the teachings of Austrian scientist and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. His farming philosophy grew out of a concern for human health and the need to ensure soils, plants and animals contained the optimum level of nutrients to maintain the well-being of humans consuming them. He believed that science had not yet developed the tools to perceive what might be called the quantum interactions and cycles underway that contribute to health. Therefore, humans did not recognize, appreciate or utilize these interactions and cycles to benefit agricultural production. He developed a philosophy of farming that is increasingly being adopted, particularly in the wine industry. There is a certification system for biodynamic farms called Demeter.

In our experience, the most beautiful and vibrant farms are biodynamic. We believe that the farmers that practice biodynamic are the most perceptive and attuned to the land’s health. These farms can also be very labor intensive. The food quality is exceptional, and the price is often very high.

To hear a podcast focused on regenerative and biodynamic farming hit this link.