An organic reformation?

Our head of Food and Farms reports on what she learned this year at EcoFarm, the Ecological Farming Association conference that has flowered annually in California since 1981.

For 38 years, EcoFarm has been synonymous with organic — as a production method, a movement, and a way of life. Past conference sessions have addressed everything from integrated pest management, natural weed control and beneficial insects, to certification standards, labeling protocols, state and federal policies, business development, and the broader social issues related to equity, labor, gender, and our relationship to land and to each other. The conference is itself an institution, attracting farmers, apprentices, service providers, nonprofits, and organic and natural food businesses to Asilomar the third week of January every year in a kind of annual pilgrimage.

I was a newcomer this year, and I believe what I witnessed may have been the early stages of an Organic Reformation. I attended the conference specifically to see four speakers: Ray Archuleta, 30-year veteran of the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Dr. David Johnson, a molecular biologist and soil science researcher from New Mexico State University, Tim LaSalle, former CEO of Rodale Institute and now consultant to California State University, Chico, and North Dakota farmer, Gabe Brown.

During a two-day pre-conference intensive that included an in-depth field visit to Paicines Ranch, these four preached a new gospel at EcoFarm, one that goes back to the very roots of what spawned the organic movement in the first place: soil.

The basic premise of what adherents have taken to calling “regenerative agriculture” is a focus on soil health outcomes, as measured by organic matter accumulation, water infiltration rates, and carbon sequestration. Ray Archuleta started the field day with a series of demos using water and clods of soil from farms deploying different management practices — certified organic, no-till, no-till with cover cropping, and managed livestock grazing — and compared the amount of water efficiently captured and filtered by the different soils. His demonstrations illustrated the destructive force of tillage, even in organic systems, and the boon to soil health that comes from “bioturbation” (animals grazing in a carefully managed system) and cover cropping.

Dr. David Johnson followed with exacting, detailed data from field samples and lab tests based on his research at New Mexico State University. His data backs up the premise of Kristin Ohlson’s book The Soil Will Save Us, which describes how the practice of tilling soil each year to plant new seeds wipes out the intricate underground architecture built up by the growth of plant roots and the “exudation” of carbon. Even when synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are removed from the system, as they are in certified organic operations, organic matter underground can’t accumulate if it is destroyed each year by the plow.

Farmer Gabe Brown, who is also featured in Ohlson’s book, was perhaps the star attraction at EcoFarm. Gabe manages 5,000 acres in North Dakota with his son, Paul, in a manner that has made him one of the brightest lights in regenerative agriculture. Formerly a conventional farmer, by the early 1990s Gabe recognized that his degraded soils would not support farming as a way of life for his children. After he and his wife Shelly bought their land from her parents in 1991, they converted the farm to no-till, began diverse crop rotations and cover cropping, and eventually incorporated animals. They have now eliminated the use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides, and do not use GMOs or glyphosate. They use very minimal herbicide in strategic spot applications and are striving to eliminate it altogether. The organic matter accumulation in some of his soils tops 8 percent, whereas even certified organic soils average closer to 1 percent. In an age of climate change, that 7 point difference in soil organic matter and related carbon sequestration could literally have long-term life and death implications.

Gabe is a hearty Midwestern farmer with a knack for memorable quotes. His primary message to fellow farmers is that embracing soil health as a management regime is not proscriptive or formulaic, but requires comprehensive understanding of plant biology and the embrace of complex, interconnected systems by the farmer. In the end, it always comes down to an individuals making decisions for their land, business and families. Gabe is convinced that managing for soil health is more profitable (“I’ll take profit over yield any day of the week. Farmers always want to compare yields with me, but none of them ever want to compare bank accounts!”), and more fulfilling (“Lots of farmers wake up every morning thinking, what do I need to kill today — weeds, bugs, etc., whereas I wake up thinking, how do I spur more life?”), than other approaches.

I don’t imagine many of the organic farmers at EcoFarm would argue with Gabe, as soil health and the wellness of their land, families, businesses, and communities were almost certainly the sources of their own motivation to farm as they do. As an industry however, organic advocates are wrestling with the dilution of their standards on multiple fronts. “Big Organic” farms are large-scale operations managing to the letter of the certification rather than its spirit, and simply substituting organic-certified inputs (some of which can still be quite toxic) for conventional pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The decision by the National Organic Standards Board in November 2017 to allow products grown in hydroponic systems to be certified organic further distanced the movement from its roots in soil health and restoration.

Does “regenerative agriculture” offer a path back to soil health for committed organic farmers? Could it create an on-ramp to carbon drawdown for conventional farmers? I think Tim LaSalle, former CEO of Rodale Institute who is now helping craft the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at California State University, Chico, certainly thinks so.

Other questions are being hotly debated. Is #RegenAg a marketing tool or an operations tool? Must it be codified into a certification program and labeling protocol of its own to foster adoption? Should regenerative and organic advocates collaborate to evolve the core organic standard, or is regenerative ag different because it reduces, but doesn’t necessarily eliminate, the use of all chemical inputs? How and when should the term “regenerative” be applied?

Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, and other consumer brands have recently joined together to define a new standard known as “Regenerative Organic Certification” (ROC), prominently displayed in the EcoFarm tradeshow. ROC is envisioned as a high-bar standard beyond organic that few farmers would reach, but for which many would strive. Other respected industry influencers cite consumer label fatigue and a need to engage conventional farmers in climate change mitigation via soil as reasons to keep “regenerative” more accessible.

After absorbing the magic of EcoFarm for nearly a week, I wondered aloud over lunch on my last day at the conference whether the organic farmers and advocates so core to EcoFarm would embrace and help shape regenerative agriculture. Arty Mangan, Food & Farming Director for Bioneers, who happened to be sitting next to me, spoke up to say that farmers come to EcoFarm because they are information seekers committed to continuous improvement. If Arty is right, then I think we haven’t heard the last from Gabe, Ray, David and Tim.