Published in 405HOME / Photo by Rachel Waters
To some city dwellers, dirt is dirt. Farmers know that could hardly be further from the truth. If soil looks like chocolate cake, said retired soil scientist Greg Scott, it likely is healthy. And living soil smells different because of the microorganisms it contains.
Scott is sold on regenerative agriculture, which restores soil damaged by erosion, overgrazing, heavy tilling and excessive chemical use. As an Oklahoma example, the Cross Timbers soils “are pretty fragile and probably should never have been farmed,” Scott said. “But the Homestead Act opened this land up to settlement, and then the land runs. Back then, the government said you had to farm it to keep it.”
“Soil should filter water, absorb water and sustain life,” said Amy Seiger, soil health coordinator for the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. “It contains life that supports healthier plants. When we till and chemically treat excessively, then we are killing the life in the soil.”
Regenerative agriculture is not about nagging, said Seiger, who grew up on a farm. “Producers know chemicals cost money, so they tend not to over-apply; someone in the city is more likely to over-apply on his lawn.”
Scott bought a farm near Perkins in 2001 and took it out of crop production. He has a small cow and calf operation. Crop rotations and grazing systems that imitate nature are essential, he said. “The bison would eat and trample and poop on everything and then leave for six months, and then return. The prairies evolved through episodic grazing. That’s the natural system for the highest vigor.”
Another nod to the days before the plow is keeping the ground covered. After a harvest, producers can leave the residue or put in a cover crop: cowpeas, sorghum, okra, sunflowers, etc.
“Cover crops suppress weeds,” Seiger said. “Cover crops grab nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil.” Nicol Ragland is executive director of REGENOK, a non-profit that educates about the importance of healthy soil, which produces more nutrient-dense food.
“Regenerative agriculture is traditional, indigenous agriculture,” said Ragland, who grew up on a ranch near Jones. She studied environmental science at the University of Denver, then worked for the World Wildlife Fund in Nepal.
“That was the beginning of my understanding,” she said. “We are so separated from the land and the wild and the animals.”
After returning to Oklahoma, she worked on a documentary with Dr. Zach Bush about the connection between soil and human health. Bush, a medical doctor, says rebuilding organic matter in the soil produces increasingly nutrient-dense food and insect biodiversity, decreasing the need for pesticides.
Seiger started talking to producers about regenerative agriculture in the early 2000s. She learned that some were already making the transition, but had kept it quiet. Farmers don’t always get in a rush to adopt new practices, she said, because it can be expensive and disrupt tradition. But farming costs can decrease with regenerative methods. “I wouldn’t be promoting it if I didn’t believe in it,” she said.
Scott said he spends no money on fertilizer and very little on herbicides or pesticides. He rotates his cattle among small pastures, allowing the others to regenerate. “We have slowly begun to recover the life in the soil by using a diverse plant community and using grazing animals as part of that ecosystem.”
Seiger says non-producers can get on the healthy soils bandwagon by using the highest lawnmower setting. “Add compost to your soil in the spring and fall. The compost will replace what livestock does in farming systems: It provides a new topsoil to absorb water and feed microbes.”