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Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably

 

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Anne Fairfield-sonn

Source: Regenerative agriculture: merging farming and natural resource conservation profitably

Most cropland in the United States is characterized by large monocultures, whose productivity is maintained through a strong reliance on costly tillage, external fertilizers, and pesticides (Schipanski et al., 2016). Despite this, farmers have developed a regenerative model of farm production that promotes soil health and biodiversity, while producing nutrient-dense farm products profitably. Little work has focused on the relative costs and benefits of novel regenerative farming operations, which necessitates studying in situ, farmer-defined best management practices. Here, we evaluate the relative effects of regenerative and conventional corn production systems on pest management services, soil conservation, and farmer profitability and productivity throughout the Northern Plains of the United States. Regenerative farming systems provided greater ecosystem services and profitability for farmers than an input-intensive model of corn production. Pests were 10-fold more abundant in insecticide-treated corn fields than on insecticide-free regenerative farms, indicating that farmers who proactively design pest-resilient food systems outperform farmers that react to pests chemically. Regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over traditional corn production systems. Profit was positively correlated with the particulate organic matter of the soil, not yield. These results provide the basis for dialogue on ecologically based farming systems that could be used to simultaneously produce food while conserving our natural resource base: two factors that are pitted against one another in simplified food production systems. To attain this requires a systems-level shift on the farm; simply applying individual regenerative practices within the current production model will not likely produce the documented results.

Introduction

Materials and Methods

Table 1:

Trait matrix used to assign farms to regenerative or conventional corn production systems.

The composite rank scores are based on the number of regenerative practices used on a particular farm. Farms whose rank scores are in the top 50% of farms are considered regenerative (shaded rows); those with rank scores in the lower half are conventional (white rows). To aid interpretation, additional traits of each system could be included in enhanced trait matrices. Organic operations are indicated by an asterisk in the “Reference town” column.

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Results and Discussion

Insect pest populations were more than 10 fold higher on the insecticide-treated farms than on the insecticide-free regenerative farms (ANOVA; F1,77 = 13.52, P <0.001; Fig. 1). Pest populations were numerically dominated by aphids, but each of the individual pest species followed the same pattern of the aggregated data; none of these pests were at economically damaging levels, as observed in other work in the region (Hutchison et al., 2010Lundgren et al., 2015). Pest problems in agriculture are often the product of low biodiversity and simple community structure on numerous spatial scales (Tscharntke et al., 2012). Hundreds of invertebrate species have been inventoried from cornfields of the Northern Plains of the US (Lundgren et al., 2015Welch & Lundgren, 2016), but these communities represent only 25% of the insect species that lived in ancestral habitats (e.g., prairie) that cornfields replaced in this region (Schmid et al., 2015). Pest abundance is lower in cornfields that have greater insect diversity, enhanced biological network strength and greater community evenness (Lundgren & Fausti, 2015). Suggested mechanisms to explain how invertebrate diversity and network interactions reduce pests include predation (Letourneau et al., 2009), competition (Barbosa et al., 2009), and other processes that may not be easily predicted. What practices foster diversity in agroecosystems? In our studies, farmers that replaced insecticide use with agronomic forms of plant diversity invariably had fewer pest problems than those with strict monocultures. Reducing insect diversity and relying solely on insecticide use establishes a scenario whereby pests persist and resurge through adaptation, as was observed by our forebears (Perkins, 1982Stern et al., 1959). Applying winter cover crops (Lundgren & Fergen, 2011), lengthening crop rotations (Bullock, 1992), diversifying field margins using conservation mixes (Haaland, Naisbit & Bersier, 2011), and allowing or promoting non-crop plants between crop rows (Khan et al., 2006) are other agronomically sound practices that regenerative farmers successfully apply to improve the resilience of their system to pest proliferation.

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Conclusions

  1. By promoting soil biology and organic matter and biodiversity on their farms, regenerative farmers required fewer costly inputs like insecticides and fertilizers, and managed their pest populations more effectively.

  2. Soil organic matter was a more important driver of proximate farm profitability than yields were, in part because the regenerative farms marketed their products differently or had a diversified income stream from a single field.

Additional Information and Declarations

Competing Interests

Jonathan G. Lundgren is the CEO for Blue Dasher Farm and director of the Ecdysis Foundation. Claire E. LaCanne is an employee of the University of Minnesota, and was a graduate student for South Dakota State University during her thesis program (this work is part of that thesis).

Author Contributions

Claire E. LaCanne conceived and designed the experiments, performed the experiments, analyzed the data, prepared figures and/or tables, authored or reviewed drafts of the paper, approved the final draft.

Jonathan G. Lundgren conceived and designed the experiments, analyzed the data, contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools, prepared figures and/or tables, authored or reviewed drafts of the paper, approved the final draft.

Data Availability

The following information was supplied regarding data availability:

The raw data is provided as a Supplemental File.

Funding

The project was supported by USDA PMAP Award # 2013-34381-21245, a NC-SARE graduate student fellowship GNC16-227, and donations of farmers and beekeepers to Ecdysis Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Acknowledgements

We thank our 20 farmers throughout the Northern Plains for providing us with study sites and management information. E Adee, M Bredeson, J Fergen, D Grosz, K Januschka, N Koens, R LaCanne, M La Vallie, A Leiferman, J Lundgren, A Martens, C Mogren, K Nemec, A Nikolas, J Pecenka, G Schen, C Snyder, & K Weathers assisted field work. R Conser, M Entz, C Morrissey, & R Teague provided comments on earlier drafts. M Longfellow and L Hesler identified invertebrates. Mention of trade names or commercial products in this publication does not imply recommendation or endorsement by South Dakota State University or Ecdysis Foundation.

References

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