Regenerative agriculture is nothing new: why Nebraskans are engaging in sustainable farming

Fernanda Krupek, an agronomy graduate research assistant at UNL, testing soil for the Soil Health Initiative. Photo courtesy of Fernanda Krupek.

Clay Govier, a fifth-generation Nebraskan farmer, used to spray herbicides on his family farm’s crops every summer. Strangely, he started noticing himself acting meaner every year around the application time. After talking to an older farmer who experienced the same issues, the two usually-friendly farmers connected the dots.

“You start realizing how these herbicides are impacting your endocrine system, which is your emotion,” Govier said.

His personal discovery is backed by scientific research: many chemicals that are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDTs) are found in pesticides, according to research from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Govier thought more about the issue. Even pesticides, which are intended to kill just earthworms and other bugs, could negatively affect the health of the crops he’s growing, the animals who eat them and the people who eat both.

“So you start talking about the soil web and food web. Just how all of these things are interconnected,” he said.

After these realizations, he decided to cut his chemical use to prevent harm to both his own health and the environment. If he continued, he would be the most likely on the farm to get cancer from the exposure to chemicals, he said.

Govier is one of a growing number of farmers and other industry members in Nebraska turning towards regenerative agriculture for the health of their bodies, communities and businesses.

Regenerative agriculture is an umbrella term for practices that increase the natural health and biodiversity of soil to reverse effects of harmful soil management practices. It can reduce pollution, greenhouse gasses and soil erosion.

Many farmers follow the four soil health management principles: maximizing continuous living roots, biodiversity, and soil cover while minimizing disturbance to life in the soil. The basic principles help increase the amount of living microbes in the soil which keep a healthy nutrient cycle flowing, according to Fernanda Krupek, an agronomy graduate research assistant at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Some of the most common practices used by regenerative farmers and ranchers include not tilling (or mechanically breaking up soil) between crops, planting cover crops which add nutrients and root material to soil year-round, waiting longer to kill off cover crops, and allowing livestock to graze on cover crops for natural fertilizing.

The history of regenerative farming

The Winnebago and Omaha nations were the original regenerative farmers of this area, said Graham Christensen, the vice president of his family’s farm, Christensen Farms Inc., and founder of two alternative energy companies.

“They were working with the ecosystem and grooming more indegenous vegetation,” Christensen said. They also utilized the roaming buffalo to graze their grasses and provide fertilization to their soil through droppings.

Even Christensen’s grandfather used regenerative practices on their family farm just north of Fremont.

He rotated crops like corn, rye and alfalfa, which gave nutrients back to the soil and prevented weeds from taking root with certain crops. The animal feedlots were smaller and produced less noxious methane clouds than the larger commercial ones now. The animals also grazed on more natural vegetation rather than corn feed.

In contrast, Christensen grew up with fields of just one crop at a time and the need to spray chemicals all over the crops and himself.

“The lack of diversity in our system is not the norm historically,” he said of the heartland’s current agriculture practices.

To Govier, many present-day issues like the overuse of chemicals on crops and fields began less than a century ago.

After World War II ended, America had an excess of bomb-making industrial plants and materials.

“We were like, what do you do with ammonium nitrate?” Govier said. “Turns out it’s good for making bombs, and it’s good for growing corn.”

The issue now is farmers are almost reliant on these types of fertilizers and the chemical runoffs they produce are harming the water quality and other life in the soil.

“Ninety percent of what we’re doing is really trying to relearn what was done two, three generations ago,” Govier said, “and just improve upon it with much better technology and different access to different crops and stuff like that.”

The politics of regenerative agriculture

Nebraska has already attempted to give a voice to agricultural leaders across the state through the Healthy Soils Task Force. The Nebraska Legislature passed a law, LB243, in 2019 that created the 15-member task force with seats for representatives from agriculture-related government offices, production industries, businesses, academia and environmental organizations.

After applicants were selected by the governor’s office, they were tasked with creating a comprehensive action plan by Jan. 1, 2021, according to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s website.

Keith Berns, the co-owner and sales manager of a Nebraskan cover crop company, Green Cover Seeds, was elected as chairman of the committee.

Berns said the group spent time researching the soil health efforts in other states and how Nebraskan agencies and individual agencies are promoting regenerative education, practices, and support systems for producers. They split into subcommittees, drafted up goals and are gathering feedback on the draft from 25 agricultural groups around the state.

In their final report, they plan to recommend a few choice action items.

“What we found is that there’s a lot of good soil health work going on in Nebraska, but then there’s not a lot of coordination,” Berns said. “We’re going to be making a lot of suggestions around some sort of a coordinating body that can help facilitate and coordinate the work that’s already been done.”

That body, informally deemed the Soil Health Hub, would possibly create regional research and demonstration farms, a learning network and mentorship for producers and a standardized soil health measurement system for Nebraska.

According to Berns, the task force has seen concerns rise up around the realistic implementation of these plans and how they will be funded. So far there is no state budget for their recommended plans.

Berns said they may have to get creative with funding from a variety of sources like key stakeholders of soil health in Nebraska- UNL, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS), Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts (NRDs). The task force may also draw on funding from private industries and conservation-focused grants and foundations.

The economics of regenerative agriculture

The learning curve and economic risks involved in starting to use regenerative practices are often obstacles that discourage famers from changing their traditional farming techniques.

The average age of U.S. farm producers in 2017 was 57.5 years old, according to the U.S. Census. Farmers with just 10 to 15 years left in the business may be reluctant to start regenerative practices because of the steep learning curve and possible investments in new equipment necessary, Govier said.

“Why would you risk trying to grow a different crop when you can grow corn and soybeans?” Govier said. “You know your crop insurance is so heavily subsidized and there’s these different mechanisms in the farm bill that just kind of keep us back in that corner.”

The U.S. government paid farmers $9.5 billion in subsidies for certain products in 2017, according to an annual report by the World Trade Organization. Corn producers received the most product-specific assistance at $2.2 billion and soybeans received the second most assistance at $1.6 billion.

Those financial risks can be reduced by government funding programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, Govier said. Although such programs often have complicated paperwork, he said.

Govier believes the agricultural products market will be bending toward consumer-driven trends in the next 10 years, and farmers will be left behind if they don’t change with it.

“I don’t really understand why we spend all of our energy trying to educate the consumer and telling them that GMOs and herbicides are OK when they want non-GMO. They want organic,” Govier said. “Let’s just go with what the consumer wants instead of burning up all of our energy trying to re-educate the consumer.”

Steve Tucker, a farmer and producer for AgriForce Seed, gave his opinion about the direction of America’s food market based on experiences from selling his products in California. Food trends tend to start in California and push their way across the country, Tucker said in a UNL agronomy and horticulture seminar called “Regenerative Agriculture – from the Soil to the Table.”

“I walk through a food show and here’s what I see: non-GMO, gluten free, oats and chickpeas,” Tucker said. “Guess what I grow? All four of those.”

The UNL Department of Agronomy and Horticulture is also running a five-year research study about soil health with financial and technical incentives to help farmers learn more about regenerative practices on their own farm land- and create data from the experimentation.

Soil health research in Nebraska

The Soil Health Demonstration Farms and Ranch Initiatives (Soil Health Initiative) project has tracked 17 farms. Some farms started testing in 2016, others in 2017. The farmers choose what experiments to run with researchers from UNL’s On-Farm Research Network, according to Andrea Basche, an assistant professor in the department of agronomy and horticulture.

Farmers could decide between testing cover crop versus no cover crop, one variety of cover crop versus a mix of crops, the differences between crops that were grazed on by livestock versus not, etc.

“Farmers are great experimenters themselves,” Basche said. “They are always tinkering with management to try new things, to learn to be more profitable, more sustainable.”

The University’s technical guidance and NCRS’s funding just allows researchers to work along farmers with a more systematic and rigorous approach to that experimentation, Basche said.

The costs of the experiment are covered by the study so that they have little to no financial risk in trying the new practices during the sometimes shaky first one to three years of new techniques.

Introducing a new cycle of cover crops between harvests of cash crops like corn or soybean can cause a squeeze for time during peak seasons, Basche said. Farmers may have to plant a new crop right after harvest. On the other hand, failing to terminate a winter cover crop fully or in the spring or starting a no-till approach may lead to less yield of cash crops.

“That gives the farmer their ability to observe their treatment not only on years that are perfect in terms of wetter conditions, but also those years when we can have more extreme weather conditions like we observe the flooding that happened here in Nebraska last year,” said Fernanda Krupek, a UNL agronomy graduate research assistant working on the studies.

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Fernanda Krupek, an agronomy graduate research assistant at UNL, testing soil for the Soil Health Initiative. Photo courtesy of Fernanda Krupek.

Beyond interacting with farmers while getting field samples, the researchers also hosted group discussions for farmers to learn the studies’ results and give their own feedback.

According to Krupek, the research has resulted in three main findings so far.

First, they studied if adopting more soil improvement practices would cause higher efficiency soil and thus lower the amount of added nutrients needed for healthy crops. Krupek said that they are observing a positive correlation so far; the more soil health practices used the less nutrient recommendations the lab sends back in soil tests.

One soil test, the one used by NRCS, looks for physical properties like how well water seeps into soil, the water content, the soil temperature and the density of soil. The second soil test, the Haney test, looks for the Co2 cycling and nutrients available in the soil.

The improved soil efficiency caused by farmers using the four soil management practices means they can possibly apply less chemical nutrients to the soil.

The second finding focuses on whether or not healthier soil practices means farmers will see an increase in their cash crop development.

“I mean, our farmers, they are interested and enthusiastic in learning about improvement of soil health,” Krupek said, “but there are a lot of questions on how that affects their cash crops and their rotation.”

According to Krupek, the researchers used aerial imaging data to determine if cover cropping improved the growth of cash crops like corn and soybeans.

The third area of research was what Krupek calls the “human component.” She and the other researchers want to understand farmers as opinion leaders and experimenters in this larger soil health innovative network. Their trial and error testing can lead to more adoption of soil health practices because of their personal and professional communication with others, she said.

Some fields are ending their five-year research studies this year and some next year. Now that lab results are coming back and data is being analyzed for many studies, Krupek’s next step is asking the farmers what they have learned over the course of the Soil Health Initiative.

According to the 2020 On-Farm Research Network Report, farmers in February 2020 meetings said they planned to change some of their approaches to farming. These changes include using less nitrogen fertilizers, reducing the number of soybean seeds planted to save money with the same crop yield, further researching cover crops, and using imaging techniques and data analysis to apply fertilizers more accurately.

Future hopes for regenerative agriculture

The importance of these studies, political efforts, and educational attempts are multifaceted. Generally, they focus on opening up economic opportunities for Nebraskans and protecting what natural resources the state and its people have left.

According to Basche, preserving our topsoil and water quality are the most pressing environmental issues addressed by soil health practices. Currently, Nebraska experiences dust storms during the spring and fall when fewer plants are growing and the topsoil is untethered to the earth. Practices like cover cropping could reduce such dust events during rainy seasons especially.

The reduction of chemical applicants in the soil could also improve water quality, which is a growing issue for rural Nebraska.

“I use the example of Hastings, a town of 25,000 people, is putting in a multimillion dollar water filtration system,” Basche said. “And that’s a bigger community in Nebraska. There are even smaller places who are dealing with these issues too.”

Christensen sees regenerative farming as practices that encourage the health of peoples’ farms, communities and selves. The farmer and business owner stressed the importance of unifying and revitalizing rural communities with new jobs and economic power.

To Christensen, the rise of agricultural multinational companies buying up land and monopolizing the industry as a threat to the independence of farmers and their communities.

Christensen said he hopes to see more young, diverse people farming the heartland in the next 15 years. He’s involved in the political process to see that vision through.

“I’m trying to reclaim the independence of our farm,” he said, “and be a solution to the rising environmental issues that are being caused from a more extractive form of agriculture.”