Mar 27, 2023Regenerative agriculture: a viable option for large-scale row crop farms?
Regenerative agriculture is one of the buzzwords of the moment and it seems like everyone from grassroot organizations to large corporations are now touting it as the holy grail of farming.
But often, interesting concepts must face the challenges of the real world. And who is better than the people with boots on the ground to know what works and what doesn’t? Is the transition to regenerative agriculture worth the expense and effort? Can it be implemented on a large scale? Is it an approach that can beadopted for any type of crop?
After discussing the transition to regenerative agriculture in vineyards, I wanted to explore what the transition meant for annual row crop growers, for whom the economics and timing differ greatly from perennial crops.
To address this topic I contacted Scott Park, a first-generation farmer who owns and operates Park Farming Organics with his son Brian in Sutter County, California. Like a lot of large farms in the Golden State, they grow a mix of crops, from cereals, legumes to vegetables. This 1,400-acre farm is one of the first of its type in the U.S. to be certified as “regenerative organic” by the Regenerative Organic Alliance. Their 23 fields, spread out over 10 miles, are also certified by CCOF, Greener World and the Real Organic Project.
Scott Park said when he began farming, from 1974 through 1985, he relied heavily on chemicals.
“But I saw the soil degrading,” he said. “I was spending more money, getting less yields and using more chemicals.”
In 1986, Park started putting biomass in the ground, a practice that wasn’t, and still isn’t, widespread in their area. He said most farm practices are still “alien to the health of the soil.
But what I found is that putting biomass in the ground started solving some of our problems, and it was just a natural evolution until eventually, I started wondering why I was using chemicals at all,” he said.
In 1992, Park started transitioning to organic and received his first organic certification in 1995.
“Because I’m a first-generation grower and I had no money or support in any way, it’s been a long process, a lot of serendipitous discoveries,” he said. “I have almost gone bankrupt twice. But now we’ve grinded along and we have a very efficient farm system.”
Crop diversity, with more than 20 different crops that range from wheat, rice, corn, processing tomatoes, sunflowers for oil safflower and sorghum is key to the operation’s success, he said.
Shift from focusing on yields
Park contends that as a farmer, there are four ways to make a profit: boost yield (increase volume), increase the price of the product by improving quality, decrease variable costs or reduce overhead.
“Any of those four can have a big impact on your bottom line, but unfortunately most U.S. agriculture focuses on yield,” he said. Growers are spending more money to make sure they are getting that yield. They then spend so much money that getting a high yield becomes mandatory to stay in business.”
At Park Farming Organics, all decision-making is based on the projected effect on soil, not on boosting yields.
“Thanks to that, we’re now in a situation where the farm runs very well by itself and our input costs are low,” he said.
Park and his son are focused on quality while lowering their variable costs and overhead.
“We have no foremen. We have no accountants except for taxes. We have a very simple sole proprietorship farm,” he said. “All that matters to us is that our bottom line is good and that we will still be in business next year. And our ground’s better. We stay away from the heavy emphasis on yield, that would lead to more inputs to make sure we get the yield.”
Park maintains that a flaw in the industrialized farming system is the focus on instant gratification instead of long-term benefits.
“As an example, the price for processing tomatoes is currently really good. The canners are begging farmers to grow more and more acres,” Park said. “So it’d be very easy to produce as much as possible and make money as fast as possible. But that’s exactly what defeats our principles.
“Our emphasis is on upholding practices such as crop rotation, maintaining diversity, and building up the microbial life so that the bad guys’ population can’t build up.”
Patience, belief: the secret to a successful transition
Park does not tuck away the fact that patience is key, and that money needs to be invested during the three-year transition period from conventional to organic growing. But he recalls that when they initiated their transition, they didn’t have an investment capacity higher than most farms in California.
“If you go through that transition, you’ll get beat up for approximately three years,” he said. “But if you total up your costs and your incomes over five years, while you didn’t cut a fat hog, the fourth year and fifth year will make up for those first three years. The big difference is, your soil is now a gold mine on which you can grow high-value and quality crops, without needing as much inputs.”
He emphasized the need to have a long-term vision.
“Patience and belief are important,” Park said. “But the way we’ve been farming has solved all our other problems: our insect, water, fertility and erosion problems. The whole system ties together. A lot of people find it hard to believe. But it has worked for us.”
Social fairness and its role in certification
Attending to the soil and the surrounding environment are key aspects of regenerative organic certification. Another major difference between the regenerative organic certification and traditional organic certification is that there’s a lot more emphasis on social fairness within the criteria used to obtain the regenerative certification. For example, employees must be fairly compensated, given good work conditions, and farming operations are assessed to verify that they positively impact the community. ,
Pursuing the regenerative organic certification wasn’t something that Park Farming Organics was considering until some of its buyers, including La Tourangelle, which buys sunflower oil, and Pacific Foods, a subsidiary of Campbell Soup, drove them to it.
“Thankfully, we didn’t really have to do anything different to qualify, except for the additional persnickety paperwork that was requested by these regenerative certification companies,” he said.
Park said social requirements of the regenerative organic certification are simply good for business, rather than an additional burden for farm operators.
“If you take really good care of your employees, they don’t leave,” he said. “They learn your farm really well and care about the business. The performance level goes up, and as a farm owner, you’ll have to do less micromanagement. It makes the whole farm run better.”
Park and his son Brian also encourage field workers, through financial incentives, to come up with relevant observations and suggestions. For example, workers are rewarded for noticing the presence of a particular pest or suggesting a better way to cultivate.
Reducing risks during transition
He offers tips on how other annual row crop growers can mitigate the risk during the transition period.
“If over the years you’ve added very little biomass such as cover crops and compost, and then you start putting a lot of those inputs, your carbon-nitrogen ratio is going to be unbalanced in the beginning,” he said. “Your microbial diversity and density population hasn’t built up, your system is not running yet, so your crops aren’t gonna be very good. So during the transition period of a field, we grow crops that are low investment, low risk, that of course end up being low income. But I brought in over 34 fields in the last 35 years, so I’ve gone through this time and time again, and it works.”
He gives an example of crop rotation that has worked for him.
“You can start by planting wheat for example, and putting all the residue’s biomass into the soil after harvest,” Park said. “You can then add a summer cover crop followed by a winter cover crop. After that, you can go with a low-investment crop, which in our area could be sunflower or safflower. After harvest, plant a fall cover crop. With all this, you’ll be building up the soils and getting the microbial life going.”
Following this type of pattern during the three years required to get the organic certification is enough for the soil to start its own cycling digestive system going.
“That’s when the plants and the microbial life have a symbiotic relationship and they start solving your insect and disease problems,” Park said.
He has a warning for growers interested in transitioning to regenerative.
“Don’t grow real high-value crops that you’re going to lose a bunch of money on because your ground isn’t ready for a heavy diet of biomass.”
Patience is key.
“You need to start out slow on getting the microbe system to work,” he said. “But after that, your soil will solve a lot of your insect, disease and nutritional problems, tremendously reducing your need for pesticides and fertilizers. The improved water holding capacity will make your farm much more resilient as well.”
Universal principles, local practices
While core principles apply to all farms across the world, such as the need to focus on soil health, Park said specific practices will differ from farm to farm. The no-till practice, which he has been experimenting with since 1997, is one of those specific practices that doesn’t seem to work successfully on their farm, yet..
“We practice targeted tillage instead, which means there are areas that we sometimes have to disturb on the top two inches, to remove the weeds, for example,” he said. “We cultivate as lightly and as shallow as possible. We like to use the term ‘controlled traffic’ as all our fields are set up on GPS sub-one inch where our tractors run almost on their own. This way, the tractor path is always on the exact same area.
“Seventy five percent of all our ground never has anything pressing down on it. We’ll go through and will run a ripper to break up that compaction that maybe had six or seven tractors or a harvester’s weight passing on that area,” he said. “We’ll shatter that instead of going and ripping the whole field and messing up the microbes and screwing up earthworm housing. Targeted tillage is part of the foundation of each farm, whatever the way they farm, could fit.
The key principles are to perform as little tillage as possible, implement crop rotation, grow a diversity of crops and cover crops, and have plants grow on the soil 365 days a year if possible.
“We add an average of 10 to 15 tons of biomass per acre and per year in every field to feed the soil and all the microorganisms. Once you get the system going, you pretty much just keep feeding it. In most crops you’ll bump it a little more with compost, other crops you won’t add any at all.”
Park believes that conventional wisdom still needs to evolve.
“A lot of people want a template of things to follow, but it doesn’t work that way. It is tied to the field, to the crop, and other parameters. There is knowledge needed to do it. In our case, we do no-till when it fits but sometimes we’ve found tilling necessary, especially in organic. If I figured out how to control weeds, my system would be almost flawless. But we don’t. We battle weeds all the time. The crop and the soil are beautiful, but it’s not no-till.
Feeding the soil
Park explains that the biomass they bring to their soil comes from three sources.
One source is cover crop residue. “For example, we have a mix of wheat, corn, and rice. They are the big players in providing a lot of biomass that goes into the ground.
A second source, the addition of compost, depends on the crop that is going to be grown. For example, corn is a high nitrogen user that will require more than a legume, for which a non-animal-based compost, such as a green waste of rice hulls, will be enough. The same applies for cover crops, they need to fit with what the next cash crop will be.
“The whole idea is to just keep putting stuff in to try to keep a good carbon-nitrogen ratio, which is a big deal. You don’t want to go cereal-heavy. You don’t wanna grow a bunch of cover crops that are also cereal oriented and would get your carbon-nitrogen ratio out of whack.”
Scott admits that “this is still a big learning curve for us, even though I’ve been messing with it for so many years. That’s something that’s a little bit more of an art form and I haven’t completely figured it out yet.”
Sheep grazing at row crops farm
Reintegrating animals into crop production systems is a common practice in regenerative farming. While integrating livestock comes with its set of challenges, it can bring great benefits to growers.
Park Farming Organics farms has been counting on the help of up to 6,000 sheep on the farm, provided by a company called Kaos Sheep Outfit. Bringing animals to their farm has also been another big learning curve, one challenge being the need to have a good food source for the sheep.
“Having them feed solely on an alfalfa or corn residue diet and some seeds that fell out of the harvester might not be what’s best for them.”
Park also indicates that they are trying to carry out interplanting and coordinate how they plan their cover crops to match the cash crop timing-wise. Incorporating the animals in between can prove to be challenging.
Late March is a busy time, and they’re not trying to get sheep grazing ahead of early plantings, he said.
“For the later plantings though, we can modify our cover crop mix,” Park said. “Daikon radish, for example, is good for the animals, and then we’re getting all the advantages. We’re getting a multi-species cover crop. We’re getting it grazed. So we’ve got all the advantage of the grazing, of the exudation of the sheep pulling on the weeds and the cover crops. They are acting as a sort of a composting machine.”
Grazing could theoretically remove the need for chopping the cover crops, but Park said that it doesn’t always work out.
“Sometimes the sheep don’t like what they’re eating,” he said. “So, we do have to run the chopping machine, but it runs twice as fast, because there’s much less of a load. So it really helps lessen our work.”
The advantages are worth the effort, though. At one point, the farm had close to 1,000 sheep grazing and feeding on leftovers of fresh market watermelons, honeydews, and cantaloupe.
Focus on soil health
There is still a lot to study to fully understand the complex biology of the soil and the process of carbon sequestration, but there are some very factual advantages of focusing on improving soil health.
Park’s son recently received a call from another tomato grower, asking about a trial the farm did with Amelie Gaudin of the University of California, Davis. The caller said he is losing fields to curly top virus, which is transmitted by the beet leafhopper.
For the study, researchers took samples of the Park’s soil as well as soils from other farms, planted tomato plants on it, infested them with beet leafhopper, and then covered the plant with a net so the pests wouldn’t escape.
“The plant grown in our soil had only 2% of beet leafhopper damage compared to the plants in the soil from other fields, and some of them were organic,” he said. “They concluded that the plants sort of called the soil microbes for help. The microbes then released salicylic acid, which kept the beet leafhopper away.”
The results of the study agree with what Scott observes at their farm.
“At Park Farming Organics we have 13 tomato fields spread over 10 miles and we don’t have any beet leafhopper problem, while our neighbors are losing fields to the virus.”
The particularly intense heat wave at the end of last summer is likely the type of climate episode that is going to become more common.
“In the 49 years I’ve been farming, I’ve never even come close to seeing the heat that we had in September, with five straight days of 112 to 115°F”.
Regenerative agriculture and a focus on soil health could help growers be more resilient to such extreme weather events.
“The plant collapse was definitely more apparent in some of our neighbor’ fields than in ours, specifically the squash,” Park said. “Our squash plants were holding up quite well. The top leaves showed some burn but the rest of it looked good. In other fields that were conventionally farmed, you could see almost total collapse of some plants.”
To conclude our conversation on regenerative farming and soil health, Park affirms that soil health solved some of their biggest problems in the past 35 years.
“Of course, things can always go wrong, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a very efficient system. It is important to say that we are doing this to make money. We didn’t start because we wanted to become the most thoughtful farmers possible.”
While Scott is convinced by the efficiency of this system from a business standpoint, his motivation goes beyond this aspect.
“I believe this type of farming could have a great positive impact on human health, but that’s an entirely different topic. And I have kids and grandkids, I want a better earth for them.”
— Thomas Granperrin, business development manager at UAV-IQ Precision Agriculture. UAV-IQ helps organic and conventional growers implement biocontrol in an efficient and cost-effective manner by using drones to release beneficial insects and mites exactly when and where they’re needed to suppress pests.