Regenerative Agriculture Revolution

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Source: Modern Farmer

Organic farming is the agricultural “trend” that we keep hearing about for the future, but what about a different type of farming method that is not certified organic but is still environmentally friendly? The following is the story of John Kempf, a young Amish man who embarked on a quest to rescue his family farm from worsening disease and pest problems and from it all, became a staple in the alternative-agriculture lecture circuit and founder of a consulting company, Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA). Here’s his story as shared on Modern Farmer:

Once he finished school at age 14, Kempf went to work on his family’s fruit and vegetable farm in northeastern Ohio, overseeing irrigation, plant nutrition and herbicide and pesticide applications. In the fields, Kempf used horses instead of a tractor, with a sprayer powered by a small Honda engine.

It was a trying time for the family. Pests and disease were ravaging the crops, and Kempf found himself mired in escalating chemical warfare against them, with little success. Things hit a low point in 2004, when well over half of the Kempfs’ mainstay crops – tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and cantaloupes – were lost. With the family staring at an increasingly bleak financial situation, Kempf, then 16, set off on his mission to relearn everything he’d been taught about farming.

He began by looking closer at one of that year’s few bright spots: the fact that some cantaloupes on a piece of land directly adjacent to the Kempf farm had actually done well. That year, the Kempfs had run rows of cantaloupe from their old fields to the new one, which had not been subjected to years of heavy chemical application. The results, as Kempf describes them in one of his YouTube videos, were jarring.

On the old field, powdery mildew struck with a fury. But directly on the other side of the boundary – which showed up as clearly as “a knife line,” says Kempf in the video – were identical plants cared for in an identical manner and yet which remained completely, gloriously healthy.

Unwittingly, it served as a rigorously controlled experiment. The variable was the differing histories of chemical use on either side of the property line, and Kempf looks back on it as his Eureka moment.

Why, he wondered, did the plants on the new field thrive, while the others withered? And why, more generally, were pest and disease problems on the farm getting steadily worse, despite Kempf’s best efforts to spray them into oblivion? He dug into periodicals like the Soil Science Society of America Journal and Biology and Fertility of Soils. He picked the brains of knowledgeable people. He identified gaps in his knowledge and then he chased them all down: botany, pathology, entomology, physiology, immunology, etc.

Kempf felt that the answers to his questions did indeed exist, but that the folks who held them had their noses so deep in their own work they were missing the bigger picture.

“Agricultural research and education has focused on areas of specialty,” says Kempf. “Many of [these scientists] believe that the answer to agricultural challenges lies within their own area of research, and they don’t communicate with each other.”

Kempf, though, was eager to communicate with all of them as he systematically worked to find, understand and synthesize these disparate bits of knowledge into a unified understanding of soil and plant health that he could apply to the farm. And although he was still a teenager who’d never even taken a ninth-grade science class, he found that scientists like Hatfield were eager to work with him.

“I was taken seriously,” Kempf says, “because I was able to ask really intelligent questions and I didn’t tell anyone how old I was.”

***

Kempf quickly began to suspect that the chemical-drenched farming methods he’d been using were causing, not helping, his problems.

“A lot of materials used in corporate agriculture have the capacity to enhance plant growth and performance, but they suppress soil biology,” he says.

The scorched-earth tactics he’d employed with his pesticides and herbicides, he realized, had worked all too well. The microbial life critical to healthy soils had become collateral damage. Afterwards, in a best-case scenario, Kempf could coax his cantaloupes and other crops to acceptable yields only by practically drowning them in fertilizer. He threw this approach out the window. Instead, by focusing on creating healthy soils, he’d let plants do what plants have evolved to do best when they’re given a fighting chance: grow like crazy.

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By 2006, Kempf had quit pesticides altogether and was spending an increasing amount of time talking about his ideas with scientists and farmers all over the country. His father issued an ultimatum: Stop talking or make some money doing it.

Kempf picked the second option and founded his crop consulting company, Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA) in 2006. His spiel, in a nutshell:

Healthy soils support healthy plants. Healthy plants have healthy immune systems that fend off disease. Finally, according to Kempf, plants with healthy immune systems are more nutritious. (There isn’t, however, solid scientific evidence directly linking healthy soils with more nutritious food, primarily because there isn’t an agreed-upon scientific definition of “healthy soil.”) AEA also says its approach allows farmers to realize yield gains of between 10 and 30 percent and that eliminating the need for pesticides drives farm costs down.

Kempf eschews the phrase “sustainable” because that would imply there’s much worth sustaining about the current state of farming. Instead, he calls his approach “regenerative agriculture.” He occupies a curious niche, advocating that farmers ditch pesticides while simultaneously critiquing organic farming. Mainstream organic agriculture, says Kempf, is all about “negative certification” and is preoccupied with what farmers aren’t allowed to do – no GMOs, no chemical pesticides, no this, no that, etc. While that ensures that organic products are largely free of pesticides, it provides no assurance that crops in an organic farmer’s field are thriving, or that organic produce is healthier than its conventional counterparts, according to Kempf.

Continue reading the article here.

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