We introduce the idea of weeds, and touch on how the production agricultural model views weeds. As the first in the Merit or Myth series on weeds, we’d like to introduce an alternative way of viewing weeds namely, to understand their ecological role as the “scabs” or “ambulance workers” of the land. The natural job of a weed is to cover disturbed soils and through tillage and monocultures, we create ideal environments for weeds. With the ecological way of thinking of weeds and by using a systems approach to our farming systems we can, according to Dr. Dwayne Beck, outsmart them. Rather than wage a full-on chemical warfare with weeds (and do everything the same) we can use natural systems to perform a little ecological ju-jitsu on weeds and not only reduce their populations but save on herbicide costs. Take a peek at this 2 minute video that sets us up for a three part series with the ARS’s (Brookings, SD) Dr. Randy Anderson.
While research showing that tillage actually reduces infiltration into the soil, and that cover crops actually enhance infiltration is proven, the refrain of “it won’t work here” is nevertheless often heard when it comes to applying soil health principles. This is not unique to South Dakota, soil health, nor to farming, but this phenomenon is common. In Merit or Myth’s final video on soil water movement, we are giving a perspective from three producers, one from way East River, one from the center of the state and one from way West River. Our point is: these principles work across landscapes and indeed across the state of South Dakota. As Doug Sieck says in the video, “we need to stop making excuses for why it won’t work here” and rather say “how can we make it work here”?
Extinction is a perfectly normal part of nature. Scientists of all backgrounds, belief systems and areas of study can agree on this. What is often overlooked, however, is the potential cost of extinction – whether within a single ecosystem or multiple.
Still, no one plays a larger role when it comes to the loss or gain of a species within an environment than farmers. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, as of 2012, a little over 40% of the United States was made up by farmland. This means that farming is power and farmers play a massive role in deciding what species thrive and what species don’t. So why should farmers choose the former? Well, a recent study from just one state over shows that in promoting the livelihood of multiple species, farmers can actually see an economic return.
Saving the environment while earning money? Sounds like a late-night infomercial. Nevertheless, it is backed by a unique research project published this year in Science Advances, and it offers one of the most convincing arguments yet for biodiversity.
THE TRUTH BEHIND BIODIVERSITY
The first thing to note when it comes to diversity (which is a principle that also happens to be one of the four principles of soil health), is that its effects go well beyond simply what we put in the ground.
“Biodiversity evokes exotic birds, tropical forests, the beauty of nature,” says the research project’s co-author and Texas Tech professor Natasja van Gestel.
Understanding that biodiversity benefits and works along with nature is the very foundation of regenerative farming. As alluded to above, however, the principles of regenerative farming can also be profitable farming… though it typically isn’t seen this way.
“Money isn’t usually what comes to mind,” Professor Natasja van Gestel continues. “But biodiversity has monetary value, and in this study, we figured out how much value for one critical ecosystem service: carbon storage.”
While science has an understanding of the value of photosynthesis (use of the sun’s energy by plants to convert carbon dioxide to carbohydrates for energy and growth) it’s rare that scientists explicitly relate photosynthesis to economic value. This research project, however, has managed to assign a dollar value on species diversity through monitoring its effects on carbon storage.
The first question that needed to be asked, therefore, was “does biodiversity even influence carbon storage?” The short answer they found: YES!
BIODIVERSITY: A STUDY OF ECONOMIC VALUE
The scientists involved in the research, brought together by The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), used a pair of long-term studies based just next door in the Minnesota grasslands. To find their answer, they first had to identify how much more carbon is present per added species. Their findings were fairly straight-forward: For every new plant species added, carbon storage increased. Further, the increase of carbon storage through plant diversity is most realized on land that is the least diverse (which, unfortunately, is mostly traditional farmlands).
This brings us back to a common theme we’ve discussed. Whether it’s in considering the change to no-till, adding in cover crops, or an all out shift towards regenerative farming as a whole, these decisions aren’t made lightly. Nevertheless, this study and many others like it are proving that it’s these very soils, the ones unaccustomed to such practices, that benefit most from these changes!
To put it in numbers, the increase from five to six species within a plot yielded 10 times more carbon than the increase from 15 to 16 species. In various observed plots of around 2.4 acres, increasing from one to two plant species over a period of 50 years would yield an additional 20,500 lbs of carbon per acre (with probable savings of over $335 per acre). Author Glenys Young in her own article on phys.org regarding species diversity shows this on a larger scale:
“Cost savings could hypothetically be significant. For example, adding just one species to the 12.3 million hectares of cultivated lands restored by grasslands by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program could save more than $700 million. The biggest cost savings come from restoring the most degraded, species-poor lands.”
CARBON STORAGE IS JUST THE BEGINNING
In short, the four principles of soil health are beginning to be quantified in terms of economic value. The increase in at least one of them (diversity) also leads to an increase in diversity of all forms of life. We surely live in an exciting time for agriculture!
“This is one of the first studies to estimate the economic value of biodiversity,” states Brad Cardinale, who spearheaded this study by bringing economists and ecologists on board. “It provides what is almost certainly an underestimate of value, but I still expect the study to become a classic as others repeat and improve these estimates for other ecosystems.”
Seeing this study as an “underestimate of value” seems like over-selling. However, Cardinale can feel confident in such statements as these because the reality is that biodiversity carries a multitude of benefits well beyond carbon storage. The point? This study is just the tip of the iceberg. Efficient, low-input, sustainable farming will soon be an option for farmers around the world, even those who farm atypical crops and in extreme conditions.
The future is bright,
This spring (2017) SDSU Extension’s Anthony Bly and farmer, or shall we say “citizen scientist,” Al Miron got together to look at the influence of tillage, cover crops and manure on infiltration in a number of fields in Minnehaha County, SD. They compared soils in two long term (9 year) no-till fields, two conventionally tilled fields that had not been tilled for a year and one field that was deep tilled in the fall and then again tilled with a field cultivator in the spring. Al and Anthony did 4 repetitions at each site and came up with some interesting results as concerns the effect of cover crops and tillage. The “aha” moment experienced by the grower who loaned the team some tilled land to do the study on is important as his paradigm was “more tillage = less infiltration”. As this farmer saw the results, especially of the 5th (double-tilled) field, he was sold on the idea pretty quickly!
Pop quiz: What farming practice prepares the land for growing crops through the digging and stirring of soil?
If all of us were posed this question, I’m just about certain we’d all be screaming the (conventional) answer: conventional tillage. In a way, we’d be right on the money, but there’s also another acceptable answer: earthworms.
Okay, earthworms aren’t exactly a “farming practice”, but in a sense, they can be viewed that way. After all, there’s a reason they’ve been coined, “nature’s plow.”
EARTHWORMS: A FARMER’S BEST FRIEND?
So what role do they play exactly? Soil Ecology expert Clive Edwards has the answer:
“Earthworms dramatically alter soil structure, water movement, nutrient dynamics, and plant growth. They are not essential to all healthy soil systems, but their presence is usually an indicator of a healthy system.”
To break down some of the more prominent benefits, earthworms:
For a more in-depth look at how earthworms can be a farmer’s best friend, check out the The University of Ohio State’s Clive Edwards’ informative breakdown here.
EARTHWORMS AND TILLAGE
So why are we pushing the earthworm agenda?
Unfortunately, the very practice of tillage is devastating earthworm populations. This seems to be yet another reason of why SDSU’s Dwayne Beck, who also knows a bit when it comes to farming, says that, “Tillage is a catastrophic event.”
As far as earthworms go, researches from University College Dublin, Ireland as well as University of Vigo, Spain have been studying this reality for over 65 years. Their research spanned 40 countries and involved over 200 fields. The results?
“What we see is a systematic decline in the earthworm population in the soil after continued ploughing and a significant increase in the abundance of earthworms in less disturbed soil, although some soils would need more than 10 years to show good signs of recovery.” – Olaf Schmidt, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science, University College Dublin.
That’s not where the research ends, however.
“Our study also identifies the conditions under which earthworms respond most to a reduction in tillage intensity,” says University of Vigo Professor Maria Briones. “These findings can be translated into advice for farmers in different parts of the world. For example, strong results are achieved in soils with higher clay contents (>35%) and low pH”
TRUTH IN YOUR OPERATION
Can earthworms help your crops? Is their role really worth considering when it comes to your farming operation? Of course, the only way to know for certain is to find out for yourself, in your own fields. This, to a degree, takes an admitted leap of faith. As Olaf Schmidt admits, some soils require over 10 years for their native earthworm populations to fully recover. That reality in and of itself should show us how deeply conventional practices have devastated our lands.
The transition to no-till and regenerative farming is not realized over-night, but if this research is of any indication, increased earthworm populations have a bevy of benefits that are tough to ignore. After all, that’s the reason they’ve been called, “nature’s plough.” Could they be put to work for you?
JOIN THE REVOLUTION!