These are uncertain times for farmers. According to a recent USDA report, a global slump in production sent commodity prices soaring in 2022, resulting in the highest profits that many in the American agricultural industry have seen in 50 years. The same report, however, found that roughly half of all American farmers are losing money.
These trends were borne out in Arkansas. Some producers, particularly those who planted soybeans and cotton, had a record year. But many, if not most, were stricken by a wet spring followed by a prolonged summer drought, and had to contend with labor shortages, sky-high input costs, and rising interest rates on working capital.
Such problems appear likely to persist, while high commodity prices do not.
Anticipating a fall in prices, many Arkansas farmers are investing in preparation, buying land and equipment, upgrading facilities, and stockpiling inputs. Some, however, are preparing in a different way, by pursuing soil health methods that have the potential to increase profits by greatly cutting costs.
The terminology to describe these methods is evolving, but the most common is "regenerative agriculture." While precise definitions vary, regenerative agriculture refers to a set of sustainable farming practices. In all definitions, these include crop rotations and cover crops, which are usually a blend of species, so that cash crops are grown in a symbiotic, polycultural environment instead of as the sole species in a given parcel.
Regenerative agriculture also uses no or minimal tillage, so that the ground is covered year-round. It often incorporates pollinator habitat to take maximum advantage of beneficial insects. In more advanced systems, it often uses poultry and livestock rotations for pest management and to graze on cover crops and leave manure in exchange.
However it is defined, regenerative agriculture is catching on because farmers are benefiting from it. Cover crops, no-till, and livestock integration build the organic life of the soil such that the need for chemical fertilizers can be greatly reduced and in some cases eliminated.
Cover crops and no-till prevent erosion and increase water retention, so that the soil is held firmly in place while it is enriched. Cover crops also occupy spaces that invasive weeds would fill and can reduce the need for herbicides. And cultivating beneficial insect and bird habitat for integrated pest management, along with other nature-based methods, can reduce the need for pesticides.
Taken together, this means that farmers can build the quality of their soil while cutting costs. And a growing body of evidence from all over the world is showing that, if farmers apply these practices effectively, they can maintain or even increase their yields.
"We just think it is so much easier, which is why we do it," said Terry Smith who, with his son Clay, farms approximately 3,000 acres in Greene County. Eight years ago they started experimenting with cover crops and no-till.
One of the first things they noticed was that their cover crops prevented the growth of winter weeds. They didn't have to spend nearly as much on herbicides or on fuel or labor to till the ground and apply the herbicides, and consequently didn't need to use or maintain their tractors nearly as much.
Next they realized their soil was retaining water much better, which allowed them to reduce their irrigation by up to 50 percent. They cut all of these costs without losing yields, and are starting to experiment with livestock integration as well, hoping to cut their fertilizer costs.
"We can make these sandy loams a little more like Iowa soils," says Terry, who keeps a jar of black Iowa earth on his desk to remind him of the goal. "We have the best chance of building organic matter with these practices."
There are, however, many challenges that come with pursuing these methods. Both Bill Carwell, who farms in the Harrisburg area, and Michael Taylor, who farms around Helena, have been using soil health practices for years, but have been stopped from going further into regenerative farming by slug infestations in their cover crops and difficulty with livestock integration in the wet Delta climate.
Their problems may be unique to the Delta, but all over the country regenerative farmers have reported experiencing a few years of reduced yields while the organic matter in their soil is building and systems are being developed and refined.
It is clear that the transition from industrial to regenerative agriculture can be risky and expensive. But because the promise of it is so great, help is on the way. In Arkansas, groups like Heifer USA, the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance, and Delta Conservation are developing programs to research best practices and provide technical assistance to transitioning farmers. And on the national stage, an enormous amount of money is pouring into this.
In the last couple of years, several leading corporations, including PepsiCo and General Mills, have announced that they will spend billions to scale up the use of regenerative practices by their suppliers by the end of the decade. In 2022, the USDA awarded $3.1 billion in grants to farmers and groups for innovative proposals for promoting "climate smart" (regenerative) agriculture, and more funding is expected from the 2023 Farm Bill.
The stream of financial support for this keeps rising because this is one of those rare issues on which Democrats and Republicans agree. There is something for everyone. The economic benefits for farmers have already been discussed. But what is good for farmers is good for rural America, and so regenerative agriculture holds promise for rural revitalization.
It also holds promise for rural revitalization in that, while decreasing the need for chemical inputs delivered through supply chains thousands of miles long, it increases the demand for local agribusiness services, like those necessary for livestock and poultry integration, and the cultivation of beneficial insect and bird habitat.
Moreover, by reducing or eliminating the need for chemical inputs from thousands of miles away, regenerative agriculture promotes food security, which in turn promotes national security.
Apart from economic and social benefits, regenerative agriculture is generating interest for its potential to restore natural ecosystems more comprehensively than any conservation program yet devised. The potential benefits to eastern Arkansas and to the wider Delta ecosystem are too numerous to fully address in one column. They include: restoration of the water table through water retention in the soil; cleaning of the region's many waterways through erosion control and chemical reduction, which ultimately means improving the health of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico; tremendous growth in biodiversity through chemical reduction and the promotion of bird and pollinator habitat, which ultimately means better hunting and more tourism as the Delta becomes a more hospitable landing spot for migratory species moving up and down the vital Mississippi flyway; and, perhaps most importantly, massive carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reduction.
Books have been and will be written on each of these promises of regenerative agriculture. This is an important new movement in American farming. The benefits for our farmers, and for our state, are just waiting to be seized.
For more information visit www.deltaconservation.farm.
Todd Watson is the executive director of Delta Conservation, an Army JAG officer, a former journalist, and an attorney.