TEDxOaklawn: Saving the Magic in Our Soil
posted by Kris Taylor
This spring, I had the pleasure of sharing my passion about regenerative agriculture with some fellow Dallasites at TEDxOaklawn. Today, I'm stoked to be sharing the experience with the Lumen community! This article is simply a transcript for the presentation for all of the readers out there.
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We must save the magic in our soil.
I want everyone to take a minute and think about the last time you went and picked an apple off of a tree so that you could have a snack. About the cow you raised so that you could have that filet mignon to celebrate that big deal you closed. Or about that wheat you picked to baked into bread for your sandwich. Chances are most have you haven’t done any of those things, and that's okay. I haven’t done many of those things either.
But let’s stop and think about what the common denominator is between each one of those scenarios:
Healthy soil creates a sense wonder when I think about it. I mean, we know so little about how it works. Not just we as in us, normal everyday people, but also we as in the scientists and experts studying the subject. It’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve really begun to unravel why soils have supported all of life on planet earth.
Scientists have classified thousands of unique soil types around the world, each perfectly evolved for their specific ecosystems.
There’s forests: seasonal rainforests, evergreen rainforests, semi-evergreen rainforests, temperate forests, and boreal forests. There’s annual grasslands, perennial grasslands, savannas, prairies, steppes, deserts, desert scrub, costal scrub…..
There’s a lot that we can learn from all of this diversity and how these natural systems work, yet we’ve approached farming like nature has got it all wrong. When you look at farming, of the 318 millions acres used for principal crops in the US about seventy-one percent of that land was used for three crops. THREE CROPS?! And they’re all planted using the same paradigm we’ve used for thousands of years: plow, plant, harvest, repeat. Let’s take a look back and see how that’s work for us.
71% of ag land in the u.s. is used for 3 crops
The fertile crescent of the middle east is where agriculture was born. Humans have been plowing the soil there for over 5000 years. It was once the cradle of humanity, however, poor farming has turned the region into an ecologically- and economically-unviable war zone.
The Roman empire saw massive amounts of deforestation and erosion from bad agriculture. Soils that were once fertile began to fail and reliance on imports grew, and it ended up being too much to support the massive demand from the empire.
This theme is not uncommon in our history: Neolithic Europe, ancient Greece, Central America, China, colonial regions of the world, and the American Midwest.
The Dust Bowl was brought on by drought worsened by over-plowing and fields left bare between seasons. Over 100M acres were affected nationwide, including a a large amount in Texas, with daily losses peaking in 1936 at $440M at today’s value. The wakeup call for America to improve farming practices didn’t come until displaced soils that were lifted high into the atmosphere fell onto urban areas like NYC and Washington D.C. hundreds of miles away.
1936: 100M acres affected by dust bowl
There is a pattern we can find within these stories: farm systems that are large monocultures reliant on plowing and based on annual crops leaving soils bare, disrupted, and without diversity.
We’ve made significant improvements on our lands in the US. We don’t have a dust bowl anymore. However, according to the 2007 report on soil erosion from the National Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the USDA, the average rate of erosion in the U.S. was 4.8 tons per acre per year, which is about the size of a VW bus. This rate hasn’t improved much in the last 20 years, and is still 10 times faster than soil formation.
But for us Texans, it get’s a little more fun.
Here in our home state we saw an average of 8.8 tons per acre per year eroded away, which is the equivalent of taking a dumptruck load full of soil and dumping it into the Gulf of Mexico, where we’ll never get it back.
Just like the ripple created from a water droplet, humans have made disruptive impacts on our planet throughout history, building empires far and wide. Yet, eventually that ripple disappears and much of what was changed returns to its prior state.
That’s not to say we don’t make improvements every time a ripple occurs, but one thing remains true: overworked, exhausted, and eroded farmland is fragile. So fragile that it can expedite the decline of an empire, even among the greatest of the greats.
But, problems aside, I’m here to tell you that we can have a blank slate.
We have the solutions now, and the solutions are in the soil.
As a biology nerd, this is where I get really excited. For soils, it turns out that the magic is in the biology.
Here’s a soil bio crash course: Everyone knows that plants photosynthesize and use carbon dioxide and water to make oxygen and sugars. However, most people don’t know that over half of those sugars go out of the plant and straight into the soil to feed microbes around their roots. In fact, in a teaspoon of healthy soil, there’s over 1 billion microbes.
(for non-sciencey people, skip to * * * to skip over the biology... although, that's one of the best parts. I may be biased.)
Now, why in the world would a plant want microbes around its roots?
For the same reason that a city needs doctors, policemen and women, factory workers, builders, plumbers, chefs, the soil needs a host of biology to make everything work just right.
In this maze of interactions, some of the biology serve as the doctors and nurses of the soil. They protect the plants from pest and disease pressures, reducing the need for harmful chemical pesticides. In fact, many of those pesticides actually end up killing a large portion of this beneficial biology we’re talking about.
Some bacteria and fungi serve as factory workers that turn raw materials from the air and soil into forms of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients that the plant previously couldn’t access, reducing need for expensive fertilizers.
A type of fungi know as arbuscular mycorrhizae work part time on the factory floor making nutrients but also have a side hustle as plumbers. They tap straight into roots and help pipe in hard-to-reach water to the plants, increasing drought tolerance and reducing irrigation needs.
Some protists and nematodes butcher and cook up bacteria and fungi into smaller nutrient-rich components that the plants can absorb as fertilizer.
Higher up the chain, insects and earthworms also help police the populations of those lower on the food chain. These bigger organisms also construct little tunnels as they move around, which improves air flow and water infiltration in the soil.
Now, in most cities, waste streams can get pretty big as the population increases, and the cities in the soil are no different. However, the waste from all the feeding frenzies between the soil organisms turns into something special called soil organic matter.
If the microbes are the people that make the city work, then organic matter serves as the apartments, offices, and houses for those microbes. Organic matter prevents erosion, it’s a reservoir of nutrients that plants can slowly access, and acts like a sponge for water. This stuff should make up about 6-8% of our soil, but the current farming paradigm has caused most soils to get down to the 1-3% range. That’s a bummer, because just 1% of organic matter in an acre of land can hold as much water as a backyard swimming pool!
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Needless to say, we should be doing everything we can to promote biology in the soil. Using regenerative agriculture principles, the focus is just that.
"Eating is an Ecological Act" - Michael Pollan
Can you guess which side regenerative practices are used on? I probably don’t even need to say it. The pasture on your right is what having higher organic matter and increased biology in your soil looks like.
American novelist Wendell Berry once said that "eating is an agricultural act”, which was further elaborated on by Michael Pollan, who said that “eating is an ecological act”. Just like ecology, eating is inherently involved in the relationships between one organism to another and their environment. Every time we eat, we play a roll with our dollar in deciding the type of farm ecology that’s going into growing that bite of food.
Take a moment to think about this: What forests do you know of where people have to go lay out fertilizer for the trees to grow? What mountaintop meadow do you know of that we need to spray with pesticides? We don’t need to because over millennia they evolved a means of self-regulation. The more that we manage counter to ecological processes, the more we end up making our land look like that on your left, increasing rates of desertification all over the world.
While that photo shows a pasture used for grazing, the same can be said about farms with crops growing. We can choose to support farms using ecologically friendly practices like the one on your right or farms like this one on the left.
So what’s actually different in a farm using regenerative practices?
I love this example up in North Dakota, and it’s a beautiful display of these practices across this farm’s 5000 acres.
First - You need to keep soil together...
by reducing and removing tilling. Tillage causes erosion and breaks up the soil biology that takes years to settle in just right. It’s analogous to being a spider and having your web ripped apart each time you were almost done with it. It might be a while before you eat a good meal. This farm hasn’t tilled their land in over twenty years.
Second - You need to keep soil covered...
this can be done by using cover crops, which prevent erosion and build organic matter in the soil. On this farm, there’s never a bare field.
Third - You need to keep soil diverse...
Biodiversity creates resilience and strength in the face of pressure. On this farm there’s 8 different cash crops species and 22 cover crops species.
This is a really fun part for the business-heads out there, after all, farmers have to put food on the table: this farm doesn’t waste money on chemical fertilizers, insecticides, or fungicides. They get a 20% higher yield per acre than the county average, and 65% lower costs of goods sold compared to conventional operations. They don’t take government subsidy for their crop, which is unheard of for large grain farmers.
Scenes like this never happen on farms like the previous example. This water should be soaked up and used by the plants, bit by bit in dry times. That farm in North Dakota was able to handle 14 inches of rain in a 24 hour period without any erosion.
Fourth - You need to keep soil fertile...
Cover crops, animal rotations, and specific microbes boost fertility on farms using ecology rather than adding harmful chemicals to the soils.
This vineyard uses sheep and alpaca to manage weeds and increase fertility, kind of like those fancy automated lawn mowers, but way better.
This piece of land in Greece used to be a forested hillside that was cleared hundreds of years ago. Using cover crops, this group of millennial farmers have been able to transform the hillside into a blank slate of their own.
They’ve been prepping to farm using agroforestry, which uses food-producing trees intermixed with other crops. You’ll be able to get pomegranates, lemons, figs, pistachio, olives, honey, artichoke, asparagus, grapes, blackberries, and a mix of herbs all from one spot. That’s some serious biodiversity.
Lastly, you need to keep plants in the ground...
Unlike annual crops, perennial plants don’t have to be replanted every year, which saves costs for planting and reduces the disturbance of soil biology.
This 6000-acre farm in Brazil also uses agroforestry.
The soil in the region was once thought to be too sandy for productive agriculture, but regenerative farming was able to prove that wrong.
By selectively pruning the trees, the plants have increased photosynthesis and root growth rates, which in turn increases soil organic matter buildup.
This farm has been able to transform degraded landscapes into a wonderland where you can grab apples, bananas, mango, guava, corn, and even eggs from their chickens all in one pass.
Regenerative practices have the capacity to heal degraded lands all over the world.
The population will exceed 9 billion in my lifetime. We must make sure that we care for our agricultural lands, which cover 40% of the planet’s surface, can feed all of us.
Unfortunately, erosion from poor farming practices are causing us to lose our farmlands at a rate of 59 million acres per year. That’s the size of the United Kingdom.
These losses are completely unnecessary. And if you aren’t convinced of that by now, I heard someone’s building a rocket to Mars and I think I’ll be catching the first flight.
The regenerative mindset of working with ecology can be applied anywhere, including this area of what used to be the Atlantic Forest. Once one of the most biodiverse eco-regions on the planet, over 85% of this forest has now been cleared. This photo shows what one clear cut region of it looked before and after an ingenious ecological thinker got ahold of it.
This Brazilian farmer reforested 1200 acres of the area and it’s now considered to be one of the most biodiverse and fertile regions of the rainforest. Erosion has been reversed, soils are rebuilding, and all 17 streams on the property flow year round again. This piece of land is extremely productive and the cacao harvested from it is so high quality that it’s some of the most expensive in the world.
Producing food this way is beyond empowering.
Regenerative farming rebuilds these soils and has the capacity to produce healthier, more nutrient-dense foods. Research out of the University of Texas has shown that foods are far less nutritious than they were decades ago. This is largely attributed to soil depletion from poor farming practices.
Regenerative farming has the capacity to rebuild rural economies and communities by dramatically reducing the need for costly inputs like fertilizer and pesticides. In fact, there’s an amazing ranch in Georgia that has grown to support 150 employees in a town with a population of 102. Sadly, this isn’t the norm in farming today. Depression and suicide in today’s farming communities are at an all time high, largely attributed to the seasonal six- and seven-figure loans conventional farmers need to take out. The pressure from this conventional farming paradigm is absolutely crushing.
Yes, farming is supposed to be hard work. But crushing debt and suicide means that something is broken.
In my opinion, these pressures are why we’re undergoing an awakening of just how much we are tied to nature. We’re finally realizing that we need to be leveraging ecology that’s evolved over millions of years.
Humans have been on this planet for the blink of an eye. To use a favorite analogy of mine, if the earth was 24 hours old, humans have been on this planet for the equivalent of one second.
We’ve only ever known one farming paradigm.
Plow, plant, harvest, repeat. It’s pretty egotistical than to think that, during that one second, we got it all right. In just the last few decades, we’ve really deepened our understanding of ecology. We should be observing, learning, and implementing this inherent wisdom from nature into our farming and production systems.
As regenerative design expert Brock Dolman put it, we’re on the cutting edge of 10,000 year old technology. Except now, we have the privilege of applying all of our knowledge in the sciences to bridge the gap between manmade and natural systems, creating a whole new level of efficiency.
We have the solutions now, and we can save the magic in our soils.