Some farmers updating methods, trying `regenerative' farming

London Gibson
Indianapolis Star via AP
Farmer Rick Clark digs up a small batch of dirt from his field to see if he can find any earthworms at his farm in Williamsport, Ind., on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Clark is a regenerative agriculture farmer, focusing on soil health and removes chemicals and fertilizer from his fields.

WILLIAMSPORT, Ind. (AP) – Regenerative farmer Rick Clark has spoken on his farming methods in Russia, France, Spain, and 25 U.S. states — but he still has trouble finding open ears in his home of Warren County, Indiana. 

"The old adage holds true, you don't know what you're talking about unless you're more than 50 miles from home," Clark said. "I can't get anyone in my local community to understand what I'm doing, but I get calls from Russia to come and speak."

Clark, a fifth-generation farmer near Williamsport, has spent more than a decade working on the health of his soil through nutrient-building practices commonly called regenerative farming. 

These methods, which include not tilling the soil, growing cover crops during the off season and rotational grazing, help to reduce erosion and maintain organic materials in the soil, and can even help a farmer's bottom line.

They've also been shown to sequester greenhouse gases, sparking excitement from some in the environmental community, who see regenerative farming as a potential tool in the fight against climate change. 

But regenerative farming also requires farmers overcome a mental block to changing everything about the way they, their fathers and grandfathers worked the land for decades. 

"That biggest obstacle is change," Clark said. "You have to change your mindset, to 'we're not going to keep doing it the way.' Grab hold of it. You got to take a stand and try something different... it's hard."

Given that it can take years of trial and error, high risk, and some upfront expenses for a farmer to reach stability with a regenerative system, it's hard for a farmer to take the plunge and abandon their current practice.

These obstacles are part of the reason why just 8% of corn and soybean farmland in Indiana has cover crops planted on it. Soil that's not tilled, a practice that started gaining in popularity about 20 years before cover crops, represents 38% of farmland.

Several organizations, including state, federal and nonprofit groups, have offered financial incentives to help farmers get over the initial hump of implementing these practices. The administration of President-elect Joe Biden has proposed another solution in the form of a carbon market, or a measure to pay farmers back for the carbon they sequester in soil through adopting regenerative practices. 

While these programs would provide financial assistance, they won't show farmers how to start farming in a way that, for many of them, is brand new. 

That's why, farmers and experts say, there's a simple but crucial measure to getting others on board: education and support. 

"I think, really, it comes down to the educational stuff, it's a huge part of it," said Michael O'Donnell, an organic and diversified agriculture educator with Purdue University's extension program. "I think those opportunities where we're getting farmers together to learn from one another tend to have the biggest impact."

Clark knows firsthand how hard it is to figure out how to implement these practices. It's why he advocates for education, support, and networking for farmers while they go through this process.

"It's very important that farmers have resources," he said. "How do we accomplish that, I don't know... But we have to start somewhere."

Farmer Rick Clark digs up a small batch of dirt from his field to see if he can find any earthworms at his farm in Williamsport, Ind., on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Clark is a regenerative agriculture farmer, focusing on soil health and removes chemicals and fertilizer from his fields.

Northern Indiana farmer Jamie Scott remembers waking up at night to the sound of a three or four-inch rain and worrying about his fields. 

"You just couldn't hardly sleep, knowing that the ground was washing downstream," said Scott, a former president of the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Concerned about his farm's soil health and impact on surrounding water bodies, Scott started implementing regenerative methods in the early 1980s, decades before many others in the state picked them up.

Even so, he said he wasn't sure he fully believed it would save his farm — that is, until a severe drought in 2012 tested him. Regenerative farms are often better equipped to withstand droughts, as the soil holds more water. 

"It takes time to trust the system," Scott said. "I'm not sure I was 100% trusting. But after that drought year, that stressful season of 2012, we put 100% trust in it now."

The 2012 drought may have accelerated the adoption of cover crops, which has grown by more than 400% since 2011. 

One of the complications with methods like cover crops is that what works for one farmer may not work for the farmer 50 miles south. 

For some, the challenges are enough to stop them from continuing altogether.

Hancock County farmer Craig Faut's farm has been in his family for almost 150 years. In the 1990s, Faut stopped tilling his soil and found success. But when he tried implementing cover crops in the early 2000s, he struggled to make it work. 

"It kind of fizzled out for us, because we didn't see the benefit and it didn't really work for us," Faut said. "We felt like we wasted a bunch of money."

After time, regenerative agriculture can be profitable — in fact, some studies have indicated it's more profitable than conventional farming, on average. 

Regenerative farming requires fewer inputs, cutting back on costs. Clark, for example, now saves more than $800,000 each year on money he would have been spending on fertilizer, pesticide and other purchases. 

And the ability of regenerative farms to withstand drought and flooding can make them more financially stable in the long run.

"Those outcomes of using regenerative practices would make sense in terms of having more stable production, and therefore hopefully more stable financial outcomes, on the farm," O'Donnell said. "But one of the things that's challenging with that is that those benefits or results accrue over time. It's not going to be immediate."

Faut is now trying cover crops again on his farm, but he knows it'll be some time before he rakes in the benefits. Long-term, however, he hopes it will be the right decision.

"I'm 34," he said. "If I farm for another 30 years, that's only 30 more opportunities to have a successful year, because I have one shot that year, and I can't make it up very fast."

Although regenerative farming practices have been around for thousands of years, for many modern farmers they're brand new.

The average age of U.S. farmers is almost 60. That's challenging, O'Donnell said, especially when farmers have spent their whole lives farming in a different way. 

"They're sort of stepping outside of the box, the status quo of what others are doing in their community," O'Donnell said. "And sometimes they can feel somewhat isolated within their immediate community."

It's personal, too, Faut said — many farmers are tending to the same land their fathers and grandfathers tended.

"It's hard to persuade someone who survived 70 years doing what they're doing, and try to tell them to do something differently," he said. "Why should they think they need to change?"

Farmers are more likely to trust advice and information from other farmers than researchers or agencies, according to a recent report from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. 

In the years since he implemented regenerative practices, Scott said he's both learned from other farmers' successes and helped others get going.

That teamwork extends beyond advice. For 20 years, Scott and some other farmers have organized an aerial drop of cover crop seeds over around 100,000 acres in northern Indiana and southern Michigan. 

"It's a lot of work and a lot of time, but I think if it comes back to help and take care of those natural resources," he said. "I feel that the soil should always be covered."

Much like the old "teach a man to fish" adage, regenerative farmer Brian Thompson said teaching a farmer how to implement regenerative methods is one of the most important factors of getting them on board.

"We own this job and this job owns us," Thompson said. "So if leadership or administration can give me knowledge that this is good for my environment and my pocketbook, that makes a world of difference."

Of course, other changes may need to take place before farmers can feel comfortable joining the soil health movement: Adjustments to federal programs that incentivize high yield over stewardship, for one, or more financial support for helping farmers over the initial hump of getting started. A federal carbon market, too, could play a role in boosting farmer interest.

Until then, Clark plans to keep sharing what he's learned, in his home county or elsewhere. He recently established a consulting business to formalize a way to help other farmers one-on-one.

Scott, too, said he's hosted field days at his farm and traveled around North America to share his experience.

Every season brings a different challenge, Scott said, but taking up regenerative methods gives him confidence that his farm will get through tougher times. For him, he said, it all comes down to one word. It's a word you hear a lot from farmers, when they get to talking about their land: stewardship.

"We sleep better now," Scott said. "Mother Nature does what it's gonna do. We did the best we could."