Beware of a fatal flaw in some "Regenerative Farming" programs

It has taken 30 years, but major farm media are publishing excited reports on how healthier soil raises greater profits per acre. But many of these "sustainable" systems fail to deal with a critical vulnerability: Dependence on toxic weedkillers. 

April 24, 2021 By Jerry Carlson   Consider this three-year comparison between conventional NPK-intensive farms and biologically focused crop rotation farms. The data says "No-till with cover crops and a corn/soybean/wheat rotation system yielded more than a $125 per-acre increase in profits over the no-till/no-cover-crops operation, and more than a $130 per-acre increase in profits over the conventional operation featuring tillage."

The Soil Health Academy report shows three comparisons on farms in the same area with similar soils:

  • Conventional tillage corn/soybeans/corn 
  • No-till corn/soybeans/corn
  • No-till corn/soybean/wheat with cover crops.

Although wheat made less profit per acre, bigger profits with corn and soybeans more than offset the dip in wheat revenue. Reason: Costs dropped sharply for the three-crop rotation with covers, creating that $125 to $130 per acre increase in operating margin. Ohio farmer David Brandt, president of the Soil Health Academy, says, "Money in the bank account is better than bushel bragging rights."

You can read a summary of this study by the Soil Health Academy on the No-Till Farmer site, dated April 21, 2021.

We have to presume that all three systems use GMO crops, and the no-tillers also use glyphosate, the most common cover-crop terminator. That's the catch.

Our definition of truly Renewable Farming has a severe standard: No glyphosate. No neonicotinoids — nerve-acting insecticides. No dicamba or glufosinate. When you get rid of such herbicides, you'll find equal or better yields from non-GMO hybrids and varieties. (Plus a price premium in many cases.) North  Dakota farmer Gabe Brown, a leading advocate of healing the soil, doesn't need toxic chemicals. Here's a paraphrased on what he says: "I used to wake up each morning thinking, 'what should I kill today? Weeds? Insects? Fungal disease?' Now, I wake up thinking about increasing life on our farm naturally."

Frank Lessiter, owner and publisher of No-Till Farmer, is a longtime journalist friend. He stands among the trendsetters in advocating the new catchword, "Regenerative Agriculture." Lessiter also dared to publish an article in 2010 exposing part of the downside of glyphosate. Title: "Are we shooting ourselves in the foot with a silver bullet?" Lessiter told me after that article hit farm mailboxes, "We got a lot of pushback on that."

That's understandable. Bayer, Syngenta and the other global seed/chemical giants harvest billions from those technologies. Most no-till farmers depend critically on killing weeds and cover crops with herbicides. Getting glyphosate out of the cropping cycle is the huge challenge. Here in Black Hawk County, IA, many of our neighbors are starting to vertical till in the fall, then seed cereal rye as a cover crop. Then today in late April, my wife had to retreat from picking up the mail because a sprayer with a 100-foot boom was misting glyphosate on the 8-inch-high rye cover crop. We can't make soil biologically healthy by spraying mineral chelators and powerful bactericides like glyphosate on the soil. 

Update April 30, 2021: This morning's No-Till Farmer website posted an article urging growers to reduce reliance on chemical weedkillers. The subtitle: ~Herbicides alone aren’t going to be enough to control weeds in the long run, says Jon Spreng, a no-tiller and crop consultant from Perrysville, Ohio. The current herbicide choices available on the market may last 10-30 years, but unless new active ingredients come along, the fourth-generation grower says he believes that weed resistance will only get worse."

 

Cereal rye cover crop, just sprayed with glyphosate,
will turn brown in a few days

This is why we caution growers to study the entire program proposed by proponents of "Regenerative Ag" or "Sustainable Farming." The obvious clash: No-tilling to preserve roots and mycorrhizal structures requires a non-tillage, or very light tillage, or some other technology to manage weeds. 

There are three sources of vulnerability for growers who've accumulated large acreages based on herbicide-tolerant crops and their companion weedkillers: 

1. Public pressure is intensifying in many countries to ban glyphosate. This has intensified during the siege of cancer lawsuits against Monsanto/Bayer. All three major verdicts went against Bayer, depressing the firm's stock values and requiring potentially billions of dollars in settlements.

2. Potential liabilities could force some chemical makers to stop making them. Dicamba's volatility has proven tough to control, for example.

3. New health evidence on glyphosate dangers — some of which emerged in the three liability trials — could shock lawmakers enough to demand an end to EPA registration. We're anticipating release of a new scientific paper which could touch off a viral political demand for legislative action.

4. If none of those happen, weed resistance will. In much of the planet, glyphosate is useless against the worst weeds like palmer amaranth. Weed scientists have confirmed amaranth resistance to glufosinate, and also dicamba. 

One of our colleagues, crop consultant Bob Streit, is constantly sniffing out new technologies. He's exploring a potential glyphosate replacement from the German firm Helm Ag.

For several years, we experimented alongside the developer of an enviro-friendly burndown herbicide, Contact Organics, but its currently US-approved market is limited to home and community use. Its current cost restrains its use as a burndown on huge acreages of cover crops.

So the search is still on for an environmentally safe way to chemically control weeds and terminate cover crops. No major new modes of action are in immediate sight.

Meanwhile, a few Regenerative Ag pioneers have learned how to manage weeds by planting green, using livestock and rotations, and sophisticated weed cultivation implements.

Dave Brandt is among the most passionate leaders of Regenerative Ag concepts, along with North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown and former NRCS soil specialist Ray Archuleta. Gabe and Ray are also featured in a movie, "Kiss the Ground," produced by Understanding Ag.

In 2018 the Soil Health Institute also sparkplugged a feature-length movie, Living Soil, available on YouTube. Living Soil has been viewed almost 2.5 million times. 

When I was Managing Editor of Farm Journal in the late 1960s, we had access to some of the country's best agronomists. One of them insisted:  "Farmers only need soil to hold up the plant. Everything the crop needs, farmers can provide with NPK and chemicals." 

In that era, the editors' implied goal of ag technology was "the chemicalization of agriculture."

I perceived this objective as a dead-end mission. We moved our family from Philadelphia to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Co-founding Professional Farmers of America in 1972 led to writing and farming with Renewable Farming concepts in the 1980s. That encouraged our family to manufacture WakeUP, which makes crop biologicals and nutrients perform better. Now we're one small factor to help renew soil life and increase crop nutrient density. 

Farm Journal expressed a burst of enthusiasm in the theme of soil health. It's a broadly based initiative, Trust in Food. This is a coordinated effort to leverage corporate sponsors and eco-farming enthusiasts, plus major food brands, to apply technology for healthier soils. Stated goal: spawn widely based acceptance of enhancing soil biology. But look closely at the sponsorship... does "America's Conservation Ag Movement" address the de-chemicalization of agriculture?

Meanwhile, track one thriving eco-agriculture advocate I appreciate: ACRES USA magazine. Started by another old buddy, Charles Walters, it has been acquired by a Colorado publisher who's pumping new vigor into its truly Renewable Farming mission. 

Do you have some helpful answers for Renewable Farming advocates? E-mail us.