In this video Nick Jorgensen provides a simple calculation related to equipment costs and economics based on what Jorgensen land and cattle may have done 30 years ago in a wheat – fallow system compared to today. By not operating tillage equipment and running a sprayer the Jorgensens are saving between $25 and $45 in reduced equipment costs. Keep in mind that Nick wisely provides a range because even in the case of one operation things change (number of tillage passes, number of spray passes, unit costs for equipment etc.), but the principles don’t change. Your operation may also vary, but the bottom line is that just on equipment costs alone by going no till, your equipment input costs (capital, maintenance, fuel) will go down. While one may argue the amounts and the range, the direction of input costs is pretty certain – they go down.
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!
This is the third part of a three part series in Dr. Anderson’s 10-minute talk on his spiral of regeneration.
Dr. Randy Anderson, Research Agronomist with the USDA-ARS in Brookings, SD, shares with us his spiral of soil regeneration. The concept of the spiral had its genesis in Dr. Anderson’s work in no-till where he observed a number of interactive biological effects at work. In this third video, Dr. Anderson provides a real-life example of two winter wheat scenarios based on tillage and crop rotation. It’s often that the farmer’s eye test is all that needs to be done to see where the advantage is, no degree in agronomy required! We hope this and the next two videos in the series give you a much better grasp of what happens when you begin to disturb your soils less!
We’ve all heard a lot of varying takes on soils…
Are they living or are they dead?
Do they require time to rest or more diversity?
Amongst all of these uncertainties, one thing can be agreed upon – they are the foundation on which all farmers are building. And laying a trusty foundation is something we are all striving to do… we just have different ways of getting there.
Farmer Al Miron certainly does.
THE MAN FROM MINNEHAHA COUNTY
You can’t help but feel a little extra sense of warmth when sharing a room with a man like Al Miron – from his welcoming of us onto his farm to inviting us for some fresh watermelon, Al is certainly as gracious and kind-hearted as they come.
But that doesn’t mean that he’s going to shy away from voicing his thoughts on soil health.
In fact, Al had one of the strongest opinions that we heard when it came to no-till practices.
Quite the statement, huh? But anyone who has spent time with Al knows that he’s a man of his word. What’s more important here isn’t Al’s quote, but that his is far from the only voice expressing the “merit” of this long-viewed “myth”.
TILLAGE? NO THANKS
When it comes specifically to management issues like no-till, we quickly found that farmers like Al don’t just have a passion for these practices, but a JOY!
That’s right, from all across The Mount Rushmore State, farmers that we met with were emphatic about the benefits of minimum disturbance not just on their crops, but on their lives! Time and time again, those we interviewed expressed probably THE most beneficial aspect of adopting this natural system – quality of life.
And isn’t that what all of this is about anyway? Quality of life for ourselves, and our families? Quality of life for our crops, our land (present and future) and nature as a whole?
We at Merit or Myth have seen substaintially positive evidence of no-till not only in the soils, but on the smiles of countless faces along the way. And we can’t wait to see who’s smiling next.
For those of you looking for more, you can check out a brief interview with Al and others in our Travelogue series. In the mean time, be on the lookout for more videos, and musings in the weeks to come.
JOIN THE REVOLUTION!