Feeding the world
Regenerative practices can feed the world, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Here are two examples of food production intensified sustainably – and intensification will be the key to feeding a growing global population.
The first example is a rancher named Sam Montoya who ran 220 head of cattle on 93 acres of land profitably and sustainably for years.
When I first visited Sam on his tiny farm, located on Sandia Pueblo, a Native American reservation located a few miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was astonished – 220 cattle on only 93 acres of land?! In the arid Southwest, that many cattle typically need 10,000 acres or more to be managed properly. The difference is water – Sam’s little farm was irrigated, but that only makes his story even more intriguing.
Most irrigated land in the West produces hay or alfalfa for animals, not food for people, and those farms that run cattle instead do so at a stocking rate of about one cow per acre. Sam’s stocking rate was more than twice that, which means Sam produced twice as much food per acre on irrigated ground than could accomplished by conventional management. And his method often resulted in more grass on his little farm than his cows could eat!
This is important because the human population of the planet is on course to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, raising a critical question: how are we going to feed an extra two billion people without destroying what’s left of the natural world, especially under the stress of climate change?
It’s not about poor people either. The food well-fed Americans eat comes from a global production system that is already struggling to find enough arable land, adequate supplies of water and drought-tolerant plants and animals to feed seven billion people today. Add two billion more and you have a recipe for a devastating raid on the natural world. Where is all this extra food and water going to come from, especially if the climate gets hotter and drier in many places as predicted?
Industry has an answer: more of the same. More chemicals, fertilizers, GMOs, monocropping and heavy fossil fuel use. A second ‘Green Revolution’ is required, they say, even though the consequences of the first one are now haunting us.
Sam Montoya’s little farm provided a completely different answer: regeneratively intensify food production on the same amount of acreage.
How did Sam double the stocking rate while growing more grass? Here’s how: After retiring from a career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Sam decided that he wanted to return to his agricultural roots. Upon receiving permission from the tribe to rehabilitate 93 depleted acres of a former sod farm, located a short distance from the Rio Grande, Sam laser-leveled the land, built a central watering source, planted a variety of grasses, and then divided the ground into 33 paddocks – three acres each – with electric fencing. When the last dairy in the area shut down, due to subdivision pressures, Sam scored an economical supply of manure for fertilizer. Then he turned the water on. When the grass grew lush, he turned the cattle out.
The animals grazed as a single herd in one paddock for only one day. When the 24-hour period was up, Sam walked over from his house in the nearby pueblo, lowered a gate in the electric fence, watched the cattle walk into the adjacent paddock, secured the fence when the move was complete, and went home. The entire process took less than half-an-hour, meeting Sam’s requirement that he “not work too hard” in his retirement, as he explained to me.
The rotation of the herd through the entire sequence of paddocks took a little more than a month. By carefully managing the irrigation water, Sam assured that the grass was ready for another harvesting by the time the herd came back to a particular paddock. And he repeated this cycle all year round, even through the winter.
“I’m trying to mimic what the bison did,” Sam told me. “They kept moving all the time. You, me, the land – everything needs a break. But you shouldn’t sit on the sofa all week. Too much rest is as bad as too much work. It’s all about balance.”
Pursuing that balance, Sam didn’t use pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals. Eventually he stopped adding manure as well. He recycled everything and wasted nothing. Better yet, other than the delivering and hauling away of the cattle, Sam’s operation required NO fossil-fuel dependent machinery either – a fact that pleased the economically-minder farmer.
“I don’t want anything that rusts, rots or depreciates,” said Sam, grinning. “Plus, I feel good that I’m not polluting the air.”
That included not emitting greenhouse gases (other than cow belches). He was also sequestrating CO2 in the soil as well – by building new soil on farm land that had been stripped of it. It all meshed together because his operation worked on the original solar power: photosynthesis. In fact, Sam called himself a “grass farmer” – which meant he considered grass to be his principle product, not beef. The cattle were his “lawn mowers,” as he put it.
Perhaps as importantly, Sam made money. Profits from the sale of cattle – Sam was a studious observer of business cycles in the livestock industry – allowed him to quickly pay back the loan he took out to get the farm started. In only a few years, he operated in the black, due to his very low costs. Eventually, he switched from running his own cattle to custom-grazing cattle from other pueblos for a fee.
The only serious challenge he had was staying ahead of all the grass he grew – not that the large flock of Canadian geese I saw in his field were complaining! In fact, he grew so much grass that at one point Sam considered adding more cattle to his herd, which would have raised his stocking rate even higher.
“It works pretty well,” Sam said the last time I visited. “It’s been pretty good to me. And I know it’s been good for the land.”
And good for us.
Although Sam is retired now from his farm, what he accomplished on his 93 acres. With two billion more people to feed in only two more decades, Sam’s lesson is an option was certainly should heed.
Here’s a picture of Sam that I took:
Another practice that can feed the world is pasture cropping, which I learned about while visiting Colin Seis on his farm in New South Wales, Australia, a few years ago. I quickly learned that pasture cropping has the potential to feed a lot of people regeneratively – meaning it can replete, rather than deplete, land and people.
Colin and his farm were living proof.
In 1979, after a wildfire burned the family sheep farm, Colin decided to rethink the way he had been practicing agriculture. His new goal was to rebuild the soil’s fertility after decades of practices had unwittingly depleted it. Colin decided first to take up holistic management, which is a way of managing animals on pasture that mimics the graze-and-go behavior of wild herbivores. But it is what Colin did next that really caught people’s attention.
After a discussion with a neighboring farmer, Colin decided to explore a radical idea: what if he no-till drilled an annual crop into his perennial grass pastures? Meaning, could he raise two products from one piece of land: a grain crop and an animal product? This was way, way out-of-the-box thinking. According to conventional agricultural practices, crops and grazing animals were supposed to be kept separate. But that’s because the traditional practice on cropland is plowing, which eliminates the grasses. But what if you no-till (no plow) drilled oat or wheat or corn seed directly into the pasture when the grasses were dormant? Would they grow?
Fast forward to the present and the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’ Pasture cropping works well and has spread across Australia to some 2000 farms. Today, Colin produces grain and wool – and, if he wanted, a harvest of native grass seed, which was an original food source for the Aboriginals of the area. It’s all carefully integrated and managed under Colin’s stewardship. Talk about win-win!
For a full description of pasture cropping: http://www.awestthatworks.com/essays.html
Listening to Colin, I thought “What challenge could be bigger than feeding nine billion people?” Fortunately, pasture cropping is just one example of regenerative practices that build topsoil, increase yields, and conserve the natural environment. There are many others, involving soil, seeds, water, plants, livestock, trees, organics, and people as the stewards. Building topsoil, for instance, stores more water, grows healthier plants that can feed more people while sequestering carbon – which is good for nature too.
Is this all pie-in-the-sky stuff? Perhaps, but consider the alternative: more of what got us into trouble in the first place. With two billion more people to feed, clothe, house, warm, and slake thirsts, contemplating alternatives is crucial. Fortunately, answers exist – as Sam and Colin have demonstrated.
Here’s a picture of Colin in one of his pasture cropped field:
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