Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Many young people in agriculture today are looking to the past and what they are discovering is this: nature’s model works best. (Photo: Ali Jafri/flickr/cc)

Back-To-The-Future Agriculture: 'Farming Like the Earth Matters'

Courtney White

It is easy to forget that once upon a time all agriculture was organic, grassfed, and regenerative.

Seed saving, composting, fertilizing with manure, polycultures, no-till and raising livestock entirely on grass—all of which we associate today with sustainable food production—was the norm in the “old days” of merely a century ago. And somehow we managed to feed ourselves and do so in a manner that followed nature’s model of regeneration.

"Farming like water and soil and land matter. Farming like clean air matters. Farming like human health, animal health and ecosystem health matters."

We all know what happened next: the plow, the tractor, fossil fuels, monocrops, nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, feedlots, animal byproducts, e. coli, CAFOs, GMOs, erosion, despair—practices and conditions that most Americans today think of as “normal,” when they think about agriculture at all.

Fortunately, a movement to rediscover and implement “old” practices of bygone days has risen rapidly, abetted by innovations in technology, breakthroughs in scientific knowledge, and tons of old-fashioned, on-the-ground problem-solving.

Take Dorn Cox, a young farmer in New Hampshire. He tossed away the plow, preferring to use no-till practices on his parent’s organic farm, then he developed a biodiesel alternative to fossil fuels (his sister and her husband use draft animals). He also measures the carbon content of the soil through sophisticated technology, aiming to raise the content as high as possible. And he co-founded Farm Hack, an open-source, virtual café for young and beginning farmers. “Farming isn’t rocket science,” he often says, “It’s more complicated than that.”

Like Dorn, many young people in agriculture today are looking to the past and what they are discovering is this: nature’s model works best. After all, nature has been using evolution and the laws of physics to beta-test what works for merely millions of years—billions in the case of photosynthesis. Humans are pipsqueaks and upstarts in this process by comparison and the idea that we know what’s best is looking like a dangerous form of hubris. That’s why a new generation of agrarians is returning to the roots of agriculture—combined with advances in science and social justice— for a different approach.

Soil carbon is a good example. As gardeners know, building carbon stocks underground—the dark, rich soil called humus—via soil biology is critical to plant vigor, mineral uptake, and water availability. At the farm and ranch scale it helps prevent soil erosion. A short list of practices that build soil carbon include: cover crops, mulching, composting, low or no-till, and planned grazing of livestock.

Building humus is also a great way to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in the soil for potentially long periods of time, which means “old” practices can address “new” challenges like climate change. Recently, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere rose past 400ppm for the first time in millions of years. However, it is possible to bring this level back down an old-fashioned way: with plant photosynthesis. Last spring, the Rodale Institute, a research and education nonprofit, released a white paper—entitled Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming—which states boldly that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to soil-creating, inexpensive and effective organic agricultural methods.

Just a few years ago, the climate potential of soil carbon wasn’t on anyone’s radar screens, other than a few laboratories, soil scientists, and a handful of progressive farmers and ranchers. Now talk of soil carbon is everywhere. At a recent major grazing conference I attended, soil carbon was the most popular topic discussed (after cattle), with speaker after speaker extolling its virtues. And people are even talking now about slowing climate change with the stuff.

However, there are many obstacles to implementing these types of back-to-the-future solutions to food and climate challenges. Some are economic, but many are policy-based, which is why it is important to support groups like the Organic Consumers Association or the National Young Farmers Coalition in their efforts to create a policy environment that favors back-to-the-future farmers, ranchers, and eaters – which is all of us!

It all comes back to nature. I like the way the Rodale Institute put it recently: farming like the Earth matters. Farming like water and soil and land matter. Farming like clean air matters. Farming like human health, animal health and ecosystem health matters.

It all matters and regenerative practices are the way we’ll get there.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Courtney White

Courtney White’s most recent book is Grass, Soil, Hope (Chelsea Green Publishing). He is the co-founder of the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists, and others around the idea of land health.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Scientist Says Some Coral Reefs Can Be Saved 'If We Take Immediate Action'

"People need to be aware this is coming up fast, and the time to explore mitigation techniques is now," warns another researcher behind a recently published study.

Jessica Corbett ·

Ro Khanna Lays Out New Vision for American Manufacturing and Economic Progress

"Embracing a New Economic Patriotism plan isn't just about jobs. It's about unifying Americans—from the coasts to the heartland—with a shared purpose."

Brett Wilkins ·

Peace Groups Push US to Use 'All Points of Leverage' to End Saudi Blockade of Yemen

"The Biden administration must take urgent action to compel Saudi Arabia to completely lift this blockade as a humanitarian act, for the sake of millions of Yemenis in desperate need."

Jessica Corbett ·

Freelance Photographer Says He Was Fired by NYT Over Support for Palestinian Resistance

"What is taking place is a systematic effort to distort the image of Palestinian journalists as being incapable of trustworthiness and integrity, simply because we cover the human rights violations that the Palestinian people undergo on a daily basis at hands of the Israeli army."

Kenny Stancil ·

'Cruel Disregard for Life': Rights Groups Condemn Iran's Deadly Attacks on Protesters

Human Rights Watch documented lethal repression by government forces against protesters "in largely peaceful and often crowded settings, altogether killing and injuring hundreds."

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo