For years, “sustainable” has been the buzzword in conversations about agriculture. If farmers and ranchers could slow or stop further damage to land and water, the thinking went, that was good enough. I thought that way too, until I started writing my new book, “One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture.”
I grew up on a cattle ranch in western South Dakota and once worked as an agricultural journalist. For me, agriculture is more than a topic – it is who I am. When I began working on my book, I thought I would be writing about sustainability as a response to the environmental damage caused by conventional agriculture – farming that is industrial and heavily reliant on oil and agrochemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers.
But through research and interviews with farmers and ranchers around the United States, I discovered that sustainability’s “give back what you take” approach, which usually just maintains or marginally improves resources already degraded by generations of conventional agriculture, does not adequately address the biggest long-term challenge farmers face: climate change.
But there is an alternative. A method called regenerative agriculture promises to create new resources, restoring them to preindustrial levels or better. This is good for farmers as well as the environment, since it lets them reduce their use of agrochemicals while making their land more productive.
What holds conventional farmers back
Modern American food production remains predominantly conventional. Growing up in a rural community of farmers and ranchers, I saw firsthand why.
As food markets globalized in the early 1900s, farmers began specializing in select commodity crops and animals to increase profits. But specialization made farms less resilient: If a key crop failed or prices tumbled, they had no other income source. Most farmers stopped growing their own food, which made them dependent on agribusiness retailers.
Under these conditions small farms consolidated into large ones as families went bankrupt – a trend that continues today. At the same time, agribusiness companies began marketing new machines and agrochemicals. Farmers embraced these tools, seeking to stay in business, specialize further and increase production.
In the 1970s, the government’s position became “Get big or get out” under Earl Butz, who served as Secretary of Agriculture from 1971 to 1976. In the years since, critics like the nonprofit Food and Water Watch have raised concerns that corporate representatives have dictated land grant university research by obtaining leadership positions, funding agribusiness-friendly studies, and silencing scientists whose results conflict with industrial principles.
University of Nebraska – Lincoln, data from USDA, CC BY-ND
These companies have also shaped government policies in their favor, as economist Robert Albritton describes in his book “Let Them Eat Junk.” These actions encouraged the growth of large industrialized farms that rely on genetically modified seeds, agrochemicals and fossil fuel.
Several generations into this system, many conventional farmers feel trapped. They lack the knowledge required to farm without inputs, their farms are big and highly specialized, and most are carrying operating loans and other debts.
In contrast, regenerative agriculture releases farmers from dependence on agribusiness products. For example, instead of purchasing synthetic fertilizers for soil fertility, producers rely on diverse crop rotations, no-till planting and management of livestock grazing impacts.
Agribusiness dogma says that regenerative agriculture cannot feed the world and or ensure a healthy bottom line for farmers, even as conventional farmers are going bankrupt. I have heard this view from people I grew up with in South Dakota and interviewed as a farm journalist.
“Everybody seems to want smaller local producers,” Ryan Roth, a farmer from Belle Glade, Florida told me. “But they can’t keep up. It’s unfortunate. I think it’s not the best development for agriculture operations to get bigger, but it is what we’re dealing with.”