Here at FoothilBio, we’re always learning from the farmers we help. Recently, a Texas rancher gave us his own view of just how far regenerative farming methods can take us.
His conclusion: it’s unrealistic to expect commodity production at modern scale with no synthetic inputs at all. Obviously, we disagree. But it was a great conversation, as usual.
This rancher is well aware of the importance of soil biology, and the techniques that allow us to rapidly develop microbial life. He sees the benefits in the lush grasses of his pastures and those of his clients, for whom he periodically sends soil samples off to FoothillBio. Those samples have consistently correlated increased microbial populations with reduced pathogens, greater plant production and improved animal health.
Even so, this rancher harbors skepticism, and we have to say it’s understandable. Unfortunately, modern conventional farming still labors under the heavy influence of the mineral- and chemical-centric approach fostered by 20th Century public policy, and therefore public research. After decades under conventional management, many of the pastures in Central and East Texas (much like farm fields and pastures everywhere) harbor fungal pathogens and infamous bad guys like the root knot nematode which, like other root-feeders, thrives in compacted, reduced-oxygen conditions. Our rancher friend is succeeding in gradually building soil biology, but amid this confluence of factors, it’s been an uphill battle.
For starters, it’s tough to find good inoculum. The only known producer of biologically rich organic material is in Houston, three hours away. Many farmers are learning to produce their own, but it means starting a new enterprise, often a daunting proposition to a busy farm operator. Meanwhile, remedies recommended by agronomists may prove effective at countering immediate symptoms, but they’re generally toxic to the microbes we’re trying to nurture.
So in most cases, growers try to implement new practices, but find themselves only taking half-steps – dipping a toe into regenerative practices, but not going all-in. It’s for these reasons that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has found that producers can improve their bottom lines gradually, over the several years following implementation of one or two new techniques, like no-till or cover cropping. Growing ranks among Midwest commodity producers have stuck with it long enough to see gains and save the family farm. But such gains shouldn’t be happening in several years. They should be happening in the space of a single growing season.
For every obstacle to full implementation of biological farming, there is a solution. Rather than use chemical pesticides, we can apply biology-based inputs like predatory nematodes or Trichoderma fungi, inputs proven effective in beating back pathogens enough to help trigger a comprehensive biological remediation. To cultivate microbial density and diversity, we can implement a small-scale composting operation, producing biologically rich organic material in single-yard batches; we can further develop the microbes in this inoculum and place them in water solution, allowing efficient inoculation of large acreages.
These techniques can be combined with a wide variety of field practices to achieve biological health within a single year. That means quick decreases in water usage and input expenditures, along with prompt spikes in production, product quality and farm profits. And that’s to say nothing of the high nutrient density common to plants grown in this way, so important to the health of not only humans but also the livestock and farm animals that are crucial to the health and solvency of our farms.
There is, in fact, a solution to every problem, and there is always a clear path to biological health. But we can’t get there with efficiency using half-measures.