This is a preview of an article for Progressive Crop Consultant magazine.
Recently, two types of evidence have emerged to indicate that farmers must make substantial changes in their crop production systems in the future. The first is economic. If farmers want to preserve their markets, they must use farming practices in alignment with buyer preferences. This concept appears front-and-center in the You Tube video, “How to future-proof your farm (and not become obsolete!),” by Pennsylvania farmer Steve Groff.
“Is your farm becoming obsolete?” Groff asks. “There are changes coming over the horizon in our industry that have ripple effects and are forcing farmers to make difficult decisions about how they manage their soil. The reality is that you will come face-to-face with the supply chain that you are a part of.”
As Groff points out, if you don't improve the way you're doing things, your markets will disappear.
This economic point was further driven home in the opening keynote address by Nestle vice president Patricia Stroup at last fall's Sustainable Agriculture Summit in Indianapolis. Stroup spoke to over 650 of the world's major food brand and market representatives. “If you want to sell your food to us, you'll meet our specifications,” was her stern admonition.
Nestle, by the way, is the world's largest food company – buying and selling food in every country on the globe.
Now, just what are these “specifications” for how crops are produced? Where do they come from and what are they based on? The answer is simple. It's all about HEALTH – soil health, farm health, and human health. Strengthening connections between these three dimensions of planetary health is now gaining momentum in the public, markets that farmers rely upon, but also increasingly by medical health experts. There is now a growing recognition that human health is intimately connected to the nutritional quality of the food we eat, which in turn is connected to the health of farms that produce the food, and ultimately to the health of the soil in which crops grow. These converging values lead to the recognition among a growing sector of society that ‘food is medicine' and that nutrient-dense, pesticide-free food comes from healthy farms with biologically active soils.
There are now several visionary physicians and healthcare administrators on the front lines of this emerging arena calling for us to build bridges between human health, farm health and soil health. ALL IN Alameda!, a collaborative initiative led by Alameda family physician Dr. Steven Chen, MD, is a shining example of integrative medicine. Recognizing the value of high-quality food, county clinics in Alameda are partnering with local organic urban farmers and writing vegetable prescriptions for patients. They are making remarkable positive impacts on a number of health indicators,including diabetes and hypertension, conditions that frequently afflict the largely low-income population in urban “food deserts.” Dr. Chen is fond of quoting writer and environmental activist Wendell Berry: “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.” Dr. Chen adds, “and both the food and health industries pay no attention to the agricultural industry.”
The evidence that supports new food and crop production paradigms is growing stronger. Markets are leaning toward supporting farmers who use practices that contribute to a healthier food system and ultimately, healthier people, and, in turn, lower-cost healthcare. Focusing on an “agricultural revolution” will compensate farmers for cultivating the land and delivering “public goods” in terms of climate change mitigation, ecosystem conservation and public health outcomes. Governments, including Great Britain, are moving to scale up incentives to farmers employing such practices.
There is also strong ecological evidence in support of a farming revolution. Overall soil health is directly affected by reducing disturbance, keeping the surface covered and encouraging biodiversity both above and below ground (Photo 1). Research shows that farmers who use ‘natural systems' gain a host of important benefits, including the ability to use less fertilizer and water, capture and store more carbon, and require fewer inputs overall. Our research in California's San Joaquin Valley, for instance, has demonstrated that the combination of no-tillage (reduced disturbance) with cover crops reduces water applied over the course of the season by 13%, the equivalent of about 4 to 5 inches. In addition, no-till cuts dust emissions from the field by over 75%,and combining no-till with cover crops leads to increases in soil carbon, water infiltration, soil aggregation, water holding capacity and biological diversity. The ecological evidence from many other sources around the world support these soil care, conservation agriculture practices.
The early-generation pioneers who have become successful using these techniques tend to be organic farmers who seek to emulate natural systems. A group of California farmers who have been leaders in soil care, worker health and farm health are now working together through an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) project to develop crop production system alternatives for vegetable crops. (Photo 2). More information about this group is available at our Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) website and by joining our project's Collaborative Tools network http://casi.ucanr.edu/? Blogpost =40712&blogasset=14128.
It's now time to work together to scale-up improved farming systems across the board. We should no longer view food as just a substance to be bought and sold as cheaply as possible, but rather food as medicine. Paul Muller, a Guinda organic farmer and member of the CIG project, puts it this way: “We are at a point where many people are asking how our farming systems can do more for the common good. Long-term soil stewardship and health soil is a common good; thinking through water stewardship in healthy soils enhances the common good; finding strategies to support and nurture those who grow our food and tend or steward our resources for the long-term is a common good; putting more carbon through cover crops and reduced tillage of the soil and keeping carbon as a food for a teeming microbial universe there is a common good; keeping that soil covered, minimizing dangerous pesticides in the food system is a common good; growing more nutrient-dense food is a common good. It is all related and companies can invest in this supply chain and support its growth and create a supply chain of value where all parts are rewarded for doing something good for consumers. The question is, ‘Who pays for the defense and enhancement of the common good?'"
This is not going to be an easy question to answer. Fortunately,innovators are beginning to put the pieces together. (Photo 3). One such effort involves the National Cotton Council, the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, Cotton Incorporated, and cotton farmers, such as John Teixeira of Firebaugh, who has many years of experience with soil health management systems. The organizations are working with companies like Wranglers, Levi-Strauss, and Walmart, and researchers with experience in both the soil and human health domains. Read more about this effort here: http://casi.ucanr.edu/?blogpost=39614&blogasset=14128.
Federal and state government agencies are also involved in similar soil health initiatives. In 2012, the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service launched “Unlock the secrets of the soil,” a major national education and awareness campaign about the core principles of conservation agriculture and soil health. This initiative will have a broad impact in many regions of the country. The California Department of Food and Agriculture's Healthy Soils Program, started in 2017, is now also having similar impacts and benefits (https://wwwcdfa.ca.gov/oefi/healthsoils/). Indeed, CDFA has invested over $50 million and supported 307 projects incentivizing adoption of core soil health management practices.
However, it is ultimately the pioneering, visionary farmers who are leading the movement (Photo 4). As renowned author David Montgomery puts it in “Growing a Revolution – Bringing our soil back to life,”“the movement is growing bottom-up, fueled by individual farmers rather than governments, universities, or environmental advocacy groups.” The excitement and the future of our food system is now in the hands of farmers who see a better way forward and are working hard to get there.
There are now clear roles that professional crop consultants can play. Imagine contributing creatively to the development of a completely new paradigm for farming systems that emphasize soil, farm and human health. Imagine becoming part of the effort to push far beyond IPM strategies that have been developed over the past 50 years and creating systems that are pesticide-free. The economic and ecological evidence suggests that we have a commanding mandate to do so.
Jeff Mitchell is a Cooperative Extension Cropping Systems Specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California, Davis. Anil Shrestha is Professor and Department Chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at California State University, Fresno. Jeannette Warnert is Communications Specialist with the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
April 1, 2020
CASI Web Blog
A podcast describing the growth of no-till and strip-till in California, produced by the National No-till Farmer Association, is now available at their website, https://www.no-tillfarmer.com/articles/9557-podcast-the-growth-of-no-till-and-strip-till-in-california
In the podcast, Frank Lessiter, Editor of the National No-till Farmer Magazine, interviews CASI's Jeff Mitchell in about an hour-long discussion of the evolution of reduced disturbance systems in California.
A written history of these innovations is also available in the article that several CASI members published in the scientific journal, Soil and Tillage Research.
A history of tillage in California's Central Valley, 2016. J.P. Mitchell, D.C. Reicosky, A, Shrestha, G.S. Pettygrove, K.M. Klonsky, D.B. Marcum, D. Chessman, R. Roy, P. Hogan, and L. Dunning. Soil & Tillage Res. 157:52-65.
Go to the no-tillfarmer.com website
Then click on the No-Till Farmer drop down at the top on “resources”
Then you can click on the “No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators” tab and your podcast is the top one.
If you'd like to join the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) network of California farmers and partners who're working together to develop and evaluate practices for reduced disturbance vegetable production, please send an email requesting that you be added to our Collaborative Tools Network to Jeff Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org. He'll then send you an invitation to join. From that, all that you'll need to do is follow the instructions that will be given in the invitation, and you should be good to go! If you encounter any problems, please email Jeff Mitchell or call him at (559)-303-9689.
Farmers and other agriculture professionals interested in cotton are invited to a field day 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 26 to find ways to revitalize the California cotton industry.
The meeting will be at Teixeira & Sons Farm, 11323 Erreca Rd., Dos Palos. For free registration, email email@example.com or call (559) 303-9689. Lunch is included.
There was a time when cotton was king in California. Acreage reached a peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with more than 1.5 million acres in the Central Valley planted to cotton. The crop was California's most valuable agricultural commodity. Due to world market conditions, water limitations, state pesticide regulations, government policies on trade, and competition, annual cotton acreage is down to about 300,000 and shrinking.
“Cotton is an expensive crop to grow, but low in value,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist. “High input costs and low commodity prices are a recipe for farm failure,” said Mitchell, citing David Montgomery's book Growing a Revolution – Bringing our Soil Back to Life.
Mitchell and his field day partners believe using sustainable cotton production methods will cut the input costs and open the door to fiber and textile buyers who want a product grown in a way that supports soil health, worker health and human health.
“The health of the whole system is increasingly important,” Mitchell said.
Traditional cotton production practices lend themselves to improvement. In the past, cotton was grown with open, exposed soil between the plants and applications of pesticides that inhibited soil biodiversity. A new approach would involve cover crops, surface residues and reduced tillage.
“The meeting will be a straight forward sharing of new information and ideas aimed at helping farmers avoid obsolescence and become more attractive to buyers,” Mitchell said.
On Thursday, March 26th from 9 AM to 1 PM, you will have an opportunity to participate in an event that will explore ways for keeping SJV cotton in the global marketplace.
By taking part in this meeting, you will learn about and see why a variety of soil and crop management approaches that are currently not widely used in cotton production in California may have relevance to your farms and your ability to access markets in the future.
In addition, you will have an opportunity over a catered lunch to interact directly with a representative of the Soil Health Institute in Greensboro, NC, and a number of textile and clothing brand people in a discussion of their initiatives for soil health-based cotton production and what these initiatives mean for how you produce cotton.
Needless to say, this will not be a “business as usual” gathering in which the same old topics are trotted out. Rather, the meeting will be a straightforward sharing of new information and a dynamic give-and-take of ideas aimed at helping you to avoid obsolescence and become more attractive to buyers.
We hope you will join us at Texeira and Sons, LLC, 11323 Erreca Road north of Hwy 152 just east of Turner Island Road.
Please RSVP via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or phone Jeff Mitchell at 559-303-9689.