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Adding more of the good stuff – Midwest Soil Health Summit 1

Main Street Project’s Bridget Guiza reports from the Midwest Soil Health Summit – Stay tuned for Part 2!

At the Midwest Soil Health Summit last week in Alexandria, MN Gabe Brown of Brown’s Ranch in Burleigh County, N.D gave the keynote address. The topic was “How can we regenerate our ecosystems?” His remarks were insightful, filled with science, energy and excitement.

For Gabe the answer lies in imitating native ecosystems — in other words, working with Mother Nature. This blog is part of a series on how the future of farming needs a paradigm shift, one where micro and macro biodiversity is an advantage to farming, not a problem.

Regenerating Our Ecosystems

Why does our current production model insist on fighting natural ecosystems?

Monocultures are a detriment to soil health, yet as producers that’s what we continue to do. These soils were initially formed with a lot of animals. Some migrated, such as the bison and elk. Some stayed constant like the rabbits. We don’t think of these things when we think of soil health. Diversity drives soil health. If soils are to be improved, diversity is the starting point.

Here are Gabe’s suggested criteria for building healthy soil:

  1. Minimize mechanical disturbance. No-till.
  2. Diversify the species on the land: plants, animals, and insects.
  3. Allow for the natural protection of the soil surface. Managed more naturally, soils develop their own way of protection from wind and water erosion, and evaporation.
  4. Allow for living soil protection infrastructure: By incorporating perennial roots in the ground or leaving seasonal crop root structures as long as possible.
  5. Integrate livestock: Livestock is key to creating disturbances that keep the soil evolving creating healthy nutrient cycles.

Like Gabe and many innovative farmers, we at Main Street Project couldn’t agree more that the key to a healthier food and agriculture system is the soil, its health and its capacity to produce naturally. We have designed and prototyped production systems that incorporate economic, social and ecological diversification.

Our Systems Approach

Free-range poultry is central to our larger system design because of the benefits it provides to the soil and the land. This system design also generates low risk and faster economic returns, start-up accessibility for beginning farmers and many other highly desirable indicators of a new system proposition.

As we seek to mimic nature in our design, we have incorporated shade, and perennial crops such as hazelnut bushes to provide an ecologically appropriate (native species) source of that shade.

Chicken

These hazelnut bushes also produce nuts, a crop that can supplement farm revenue. Other revenue-producing specialty crops can be grown on the alleys between the tree rows.

By incorporating the needs of the poultry into the model, we generate additional revenue for the farm. This builds diversification into the system, increases productivity of the same space and saves tremendous amounts of labor and fertilization costs. It also builds healthier soils and infrastructure to protect them, retain water, avoid erosion, and build natural resiliency of the overall system.

Gabe referred to ‘stacking enterprises’, which is a risk management strategy already incorporated in our system design. This is more critical now in the face of climate change.

Biological Primers: Cover crops

Planting cover crops, such as barley, is a way of keeping armor on the soil surface (Gabe’s third criteria) but it also provides a valuable food source for the birds in our system. Gabe suggested asking oneself what the resource concern is, “Do you need to increase diversity? Put armor on the soil surface? Improve infiltration? Improve nutrient cycling? Or need livestock feed?”

For us, the answer is “all of the above” and our system delivers just that.

Cover crops in our system also buffer soil temperatures during the summers, one factor that needs to be taken into serious consideration in Minnesota. It’s important to keep soil temperatures cool. We’re feeding the biology that sustains life, both the aboveground (livestock) and belowground (microbes and other organisms in soil).

The soil is a naturally powerful equalizer and stabilizer of a multitude of life giving systems; it is no coincidence that there are more microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on this world. Microbes are also the key to nutrient cycles that if interrupted significantly contribute to global warming.

Microbes in the soil keep these cycles in check. According to a Michigan State University article on CAHNRS Communications Carbon stored in soil accounts for roughly three times the amount stored in the atmosphere and more than four times the carbon stored in living plants and trees.” 

representation of the global carbon cycle(Image source.)

Gabe Brown closed his address with this quote, which resonated throughout the whole summit:

The soil is the great connector of our lives; the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer, and resurector by which disease passes into health, age into youth and death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”Wendell Berry

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