Conventional Farming Ruined The Soil On Our Farm—Here's How We Saved It

Carbon farming helped this novice farmer revive soil affected by years of chemicals and tillage. It may just help save the planet, too.

February 13, 2017
flock of sheep in front of barn
Cally McDougall

On a cold spring day in 2013, I walked into one of the hayfields on our farm in Vermont and began to panic. For three generations, my wife's family had tended 50 acres of luxurious, green hayfields. But now, one season after my wife and I took over, all I saw was gravel, moss, slime, and washouts.

Seventy-seven years earlier, my wife's great-grandparents, Thomas and Candace Stevenson, bought the hilltop farm in Shaftsbury in the wake of the Great Depression. For 40 years, my wife's aunt, Edie—the Stevensons' granddaughter—had tended to the land. She managed the hay-production operation using tillage and chemicals to clear the fields of weeds so they could produce the clean, uniform grass bales that packed the barn every summer.

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In 2011, Edie was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. The next year, at 56, she passed away. My wife, Cally, and I suddenly inherited a farm, but there was one problem: We weren't farmers. I was a semi-ecoliterate web developer. Cally had spent summers on the farm growing up but had never given much thought to soil or agriculture.

The first decision we made—suspicious of the toxic chemicals used on the land—was to stop spraying pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. We did this naively assuming that once we stopped spraying, nature would flourish and the lush, green fields would remain lush and green.

The following spring, we found dirt patches under the snow. By June, we could walk across a field without stepping on grass. We spread composted manure to little effect. We cast seed with no results. In fall and the following spring, we saw more gravel, moss, and slime, deeper washouts. We entered winter 2013 tormented by the idea that we would fail the farm.

Related: Here's Why Big Ag Will Never Solve World Hunger

I called organic farmers and organizations for help. I called conventional farmers. I asked the same question: How can we manage 50 acres of hayfield without chemicals? I was told, "If you figure it out, let us know."

I turned to books, videos, and Google. I spent many bleary-eyed nights that winter combing the internet for clues. One evening, I found a TED Talk by Allan Savory, a biologist working to reverse desertification in Africa's grasslands. Savory listed eerily familiar symptoms: gravel, moss, slime, deep washouts. The culprit? The soil was devoid of carbon.

For the first time, we understood that our fields had been depleted of microbes, organic matter, and carbon--a molecular building block of all life forms. Suddenly, our farming imperative shifted from pulling crops from the ground to pushing carbon into it. We started soil triage.

sheep in a field
Cally McDougall

In our research, we learned there are two ways to kill soil: chemicals and tillage. Our farm had subjected the land to both for decades. Tilling the soil exposed any buried carbon—as rotting organic matter—to the elements. The exposed carbon bonded with oxygen and floated away as CO2—starving the soil's microbes of food. Pesticides then killed the surviving microbes.

The degraded land I found in 2013 wasn't the result of our decision to stop using chemicals but rather the true state of our soil. Grass grew only because, after seeding, the farmers on this land applied water-soluble pellets containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK)—the bare-minimum macronutrients needed for growth. The soil itself was dead.

Related: The 1 Thing In Your Garden You're Not Paying Enough Attention To

The question was: What could we do about it? Savory explained that he was able to return carbon to the soil by returning animals to the land and managing them in a way that mimicked a herd's natural "bunch, munch, and move" behavior. Savory had re-created a system of animal management that had kept grassland soil fertile for millennia.

By doing this, Savory had restarted the ecosystem's process for carbon sequestration: Grass draws in carbon as CO2 and converts it into plant matter; animals eat the plants and dump carbon as manure; the animals then trample it into the soil—where it improves soil structure and feeds the soil microbes. The plants grow back stronger, which attracts more animals, and so on.

Farming in a way that restores ecosystems is known as carbon farming, or regenerative agriculture. Ray Archuleta, a soil-health specialist at the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, confirmed, for me, its effectiveness. "Farming," he said, "should promote biology—life."

We were nervous about raising livestock, but we now knew that grass needs grazers as much as grazers need grass, so we took the plunge. We started slowly, in spring 2014, by putting 50 chickens in a mobile coop in our hayfield. We moved the coop along every 12 hours, and the chickens scratched, pecked, and fertilized. On the patches of ground where the chickens had done their work appeared tall, lush, green grass. The anxiety that had gripped me for nearly two years faded.

In the years that followed, we raised more chickens and added turkeys, sheep, and pigs. After three years—by focusing on restoring the farm's ecosystems—the grass has rebounded across our 50 acres of hayfield. The bugs, worms, deer, and birds have returned, too—adding balance and resilience to the land.

We're also producing chicken, turkey, lamb, pork, and hay on acres that used to produce only hay. We've replaced the expense and degradation of chemicals and tillage with the revenue and regeneration of the animals. Our farming models are now regenerative: The more we produce, the more we can produce. Our farm is growing more profitable every day—economically and ecologically.

Related: 400 Million Acres Of Farmland Could Disappear—Unless This Woman Gets Her Way

Globally, we face a climate crisis not because there's more carbon in the world than before. (There isn't.) It's because we've broken the carbon and water cycles by breaking our ecosystems. We send too much carbon into the atmosphere while preventing ecosystems from returning it back down—by building parking lots, by bulldozing forests, and by sending carbon to the air through tillage.

Pioneering farmers around the globe—on small plots and across millions of acres—are experimenting with managed livestock grazing, no-till vegetable and grain production, perennial fruit- and nut-tree production, restorative ocean farming, and other methods to produce food while sequestering carbon and restoring ecosystems.

Be a pioneer in your community. Learn more via regenerationinternational.org and support carbon farmers. Ask your grocer for regenerative food. Talk to your legislators about regenerative agriculture. Be a part of the cycle.

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