The switch to sustainable farming can be quick and profitable. Just add microbes.

There are farmers out there, working mostly at smaller scales, who have proven that healthy soil biology and bigger farm profits go together.

But when contemplating a move in this direction, farmers’ apprehensions are justifiable. There’s an investment of time, energy and money, with uncertainty over how quickly dividends might come. There’s the investment of learning and implementing new techniques, compounded by a shrinking of profits during the several years of transition.

What’s the missing piece that fixes most of these problems? The ability to quickly improve soil biology. The current industry approach involves improving field conditions to support microbial growth, and waiting for nature to find its way back. But there are techniques, adoptable at any scale, to efficiently get microbes reproducing and growing quickly. And it all happens with minimal extra investment because the new approach offsets its own cost by replacing existing field practices.

Current research on agricultural soil health tends to rest on two practices in particular: cover cropping and reduced-or-eliminated tilling. Growing ranks among commodity growers are adopting both practices, and many are achieving gains. Field trials through USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education program have shown corn and soybean yields improving slightly, on average, in the first year of cover cropping, with greater increases by year five.

But growers also report losses in profitability in the first year or two, with gains only occurring after three to five years. The numbers are, of course, averages – some growers report lower results, some higher. Variability can come from challenges in the field: growers adopting reduced- or no-till techniques might find fungal pathogens in mowed or rolled fields; they might encounter difficulty controlling weeds without the use of herbicides, which can set back microbial development. Meanwhile compaction layers created by decades of plowing tend to persist, along with the low-oxygen conditions that promote pathogenic bacteria and fungi.

The problem at the root of all these symptoms is a lack of microbial diversity. Healthy biology builds soil structure, allowing oxygen penetration to support a diverse array of aerobic organisms. In such a healthy community, there are all sorts of buffering elements – nature’s checks and balances – that prevent any one species from running amok.

USDA’s research shows that combining practices, like no-till and cover cropping, creates complimentary effects and faster results. Adding a system for microbial development and delivery is the missing link that can create a seamless transition to regenerative agriculture, on any scale. Field results have reliably shown water use decreasing by half in the first year of biology-centric production. Crop expenses meanwhile shrink by up to 20 percent.

Any farm can adopt a system for proper composting to build microbe abundance and diversity, and learn techniques for applying those microbes to soil and foliage. At first glance, it may seem to further complicate matters, presenting another thing to learn and implement. But it’s a powerful approach that brings big improvements quickly.

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