Soil as a Solution
Jun 27, 2019 11:14AM
By Jen Miller
Prarie Wind Family Farm
Terms like “organic”, “local” and “sustainable” are frequently heard when it comes to food and farming, and there are also a few new terms like “regenerative agriculture” and “soil health” that are important to the conversation. We may be hearing them because there’s a movement related to farming, food and climate change happening on a global and local scale. Regenerative agriculture is not something completely new and different from organic and sustainable farming; rather, its focus lies in understanding and valuing how soil really works.
Soil is a cornerstone of life on our Earth, but it is in trouble. In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that 33 percent of soil is moderately to highly degraded through erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, chemical pollution and nutrient depletion, hampering its function. Soil is a valuable, non-renewable resource that deserves thoughtful care and management.
According to the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, California State University, Chico (CsuChico.edu/regenerativeagriculture) and The Carbon Underground (TheCarbonUnderground.org), regenerative agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity, resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. Specifically, regenerative agriculture is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density.
When a farmer allows soil life to flourish, the soil cumulatively performs a variety of invaluable functions from which we all benefit. Deep-rooted cover crops build a lively soil food web that makes plants healthier and the food farmers’ produce more nutritious. Living soils can absorb more water during big storms and hold onto it even in drought periods. Native wildlife and insects find the landscape friendlier for their survival. In a time of increasing climate change, soil “draws down”, or absorbs, carbon from the atmosphere.
Research shows the damaging effects to soil from tillage and applications of agricultural chemicals and salt-based fertilizers. While some farmers are beginning to transition their land management practices to a more regenerative way of farming, soils throughout the world are in need of greater attention and care. Now, individuals are coming together in this global effort.
Regeneration International (RegenerationInternational.org) is a network of organizations and partners throughout the world, including the U.S., South Africa, India, Canada, Belize, Mexico and Guatemala, united around a common goal: to reverse global warming and end world hunger by facilitating and accelerating the global transition to regenerative agriculture and land management.
Dr. Vandana Shiva spoke at the founding meeting of Regeneration International, in La Fortuna de San Carlos, Costa Rica, on June 8, 2015, and inspired many across the globe with these simple words: “If governments won’t solve the climate, hunger, health, and democracy crises, then the people will.”
Regenerative agriculture is gaining momentum globally and locally. In our state, Regenerate Illinois (RegenerateIllinois.org) is an organization comprised of 15 partner organizations and farmers. It collaborates and supports regenerative farming practices to “cultivate an equitable food system that empowers Illinois communities to create local food options that are nutritious, viable for farmers and regenerate Illinois’ precious soil, water and wildlife.”
All living things depend on soil to live, and there’s much reason for hope. Regenerative agriculture has the ability to slow the effects of climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity, resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. Farmers have the potential to not just keep things from getting worse, but to actually make things better.
Ways to support local regenerative agriculture include:
- As summer arrives, visit farmers’ markets and talk to farmers about the care they put into their soils, and then “vote” for healthy soil by buying high-quality, nutritious food grown on land where soil health is recognized and valued by its farmer.
- Learn more about this international movement and the science behind soil health.
- Support legislation that defrays costs of cover crop seed to facilitate the transition to regenerative agriculture for local farmers.
Jen Miller is co-owner of Prairie Wind Family Farm, in Grayslake. For more information, visit PrairieWindFamilyFarm.com.
- Cows Save the Planet, by Judith Schwartz
- The Call of the Reed Warbler, by Charles Massey
- The Carbon Farming Solution, by Eric Toensmeier
- From Dirt To Soil, by Gabe Brown
- Growing A Revolution, by David Montgomery
Prairie Wind Family Farm
Last December, a group of 18 farmers from across the nation and Puerto Rico convened at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (StoneBarnsCenter.org), in Tarrytown, New York. The Center hosted a highly competitive program called the Entrepreneurship Intensive for Farmers and selected local farmer Jen Miller, of Prairie Wind Family Farm, to attend.
Jen and her husband Jeff own and operate Prairie Wind Family Farm, a 40-acre USDA-certified organic farm that grows a wide variety of certified organic vegetables, pasture-raised hens for eggs and provides fresh fruit to CSA members. They also attend the Oak Park Farmers’ Market from May to October. The farm is located in the heart of Prairie Crossing, a conservation community in Grayslake.
The Intensive’s facilitators recognized, “Farm owners and managers run complex, nuanced businesses. Those seeking to do so in a manner that is both economically and environmentally sustainable must apply creativity, vision and grit to their work.”
The previous farming season’s extreme weather events decimated one of the Miller family’s most important crops—tomatoes—so the Millers were no strangers to creativity and grit. “After we lost thousands of dollars due to our tomato crop failure, we realized that we needed to farm differently,” says Jen Miller. “We re-envisioned our business to farm in ways that would better adapt to our changing climate, regenerate our soil and positively benefit our customers and our community.” With a vision in place, in 2019, the Millers began to dedicate significant time and effort toward building their soils and incorporating more regenerative farming practices onto the farm.
Prairie Wind Family Farm is already home to a variety of native plantings, marshlands and hedgerows that protect soil and serve as natural habitat for insects, birds and mammals. Even still, the Millers work diligently each day to increase soil health as they experiment with low-tillage, vegetable-growing strategies, integrate a wide variety of cover crops, improve composting systems, build a permaculture “food forest” to increase the number of long-term, deep-rooted, perennial plants grown and balance the soil’s health.