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Sue Lani Madsen: Investing in soil health is an investment in the future

Sue Lani Madsen is a Spokesman-Review columnist. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen is a Spokesman-Review columnist. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

We’ve been treating soil like dirt for too long. Dirt needs to be fed in order to produce. Healthy soil contains tens of thousands of microbes pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and turning it into food for themselves and for us.

Investing in soil health is an investment in future generations continuing to eat, according to David Montgomery, a University of Washington geologist. His first book, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” looked at the consequences of ignoring soil health. He recently published “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life.”

Focusing on common ground over food is a healthy way to start the new year. It’s a place where government is, as is often the case, both the problem and part of the potential solution.

“Our biggest mistake in 20th-century agriculture is we tried to make the land respond to a single set of practices. We’ve undervalued both the land and the creativity of farmers,” Montgomery said.

Ag research has focused on efficient use of expensive inputs like fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides using precision field mapping and computer-controlled application. Farmers have become experts at managing soil chemistry, but at the expense of the robust soil biology of the tall grass prairies that preceded cultivation.

Meanwhile, organic farming has been defined by avoiding chemicals. The organic-foods sector has grown from its small-scale hippie truck farmer roots to include industrial scale organic farms, often with no livelier soil biology than conventional farms. The challenge to farming sustainably for the good of civilization is to refocus from merely managing soil chemistry to working with soil biology.

The biggest barrier to change is the force of habit, as our yearly ritual of adopting and breaking New Year’s resolutions reminds us. We’re comfortable with our habits. We’ve learned a lot in the last few decades about conservation agriculture in the broadest sense, but “cultivating soil health is contrary to what’s been taught in a lot of ag schools,” Montgomery said.

Regenerative agriculture is about focusing on soil health as the way to build a sustainable farm. It will look different on every piece of land, while generally following five broad principles. Limiting tillage, biodiversity through crop rotation and leaving crop residue to protect the soil surface are common practices. Less common and more difficult to adopt on the dryland Palouse fields are the other two principles: Cover crops to keep living roots in the soil, and integrate livestock to recycle plant material. The rich soils of prairie grasslands relied on perennial grasses and manure as a natural source of minerals.

Montgomery’s research has taken him around the world talking to farmers about what works on their land. It was a visit to the Midwest where he realized “Holy crap, this can work” and he recognized the positive impact of animals on regenerating soil health. He’d been taught the conventional wisdom about overgrazing, and seeing the potential for positive animal impact on building soil health was a bolt of lightning moment.

Gabe Brown’s North Dakota farm is well-known in farming circles as an example of regenerative agriculture. Manure spread by well-managed cows and other critters positively feeds soil microbes, increasing the soil’s ability to absorb water and sequester carbon. Brown makes extensive use of cover crops as well to reduce bare soil as part of managing erosion and reducing water runoff.

But the challenge with adopting regenerative agriculture is recognizing you “can’t take ideas from North Dakota or Ohio and have them work in the Palouse,” Montgomery said. Farming is necessarily a very local enterprise.

A second barrier is the economic incentives provided by government programs. Most are based on prescribing practices rather than rewarding performance in building soil.

“Some good ideas outlive their purpose,” Montgomery said.

Bureaucracies have comfortable habits too.

Montgomery didn’t find a single recipe that would work everywhere.

“What I found is innovative farmers who tinkered with their practices always focused on improving their soil, and that cascaded up to improve their biodiversity and their performance.”

The long-term reward for the experimenters is greater productivity and higher income from the same land base.

But not all farmers can afford to take risks. Nearly 40% of all farms operate on leased land, and landlords have to be on board. The number is higher in much of the Palouse region.

There’s a significant lag time in changing from conventional input approaches to regenerative farming for soil health, with no immediate return on investment and a probable drop in income. It may take two or 10 or 20 years to fully realize the benefits.

Montgomery sees a place for government assistance recognizing growing food as a public good and supporting regenerative ag with temporary support to “transition farmers to a more self-sufficient farming model, retooling them for a new strategy” but not as a permanent subsidy.

He’s gone from being a pessimist to a guarded optimist.

“I’ve seen farms that have totally turned it around, growing more food at less cost, better food with a lower environmental footprint. If there’s one thing people in cities need, it’s farmers to feed them,” he said. “We need rural-urban partnerships focused around rebuilding soil health.”