What's the challenge to soil health that even organic production isn't yet able to master? Just what does it take to restore unhealthy soil? How can understanding regenerative agriculture empower you to find the flavorful, healthy food you are looking for despite a sea of misleading marketing?
Last week we discussed what we mean when we say Tasting Terroir. My co-host Dr. Jill Clapperton, a soil scientist and plant physiologist, explained how the flavor of food is connected to many factors – including most likely, the way it was grown and the health of the soil the food was grown in.
This week, we dive into understanding what makes soil healthy and what it takes to restore unhealthy soil.
To start, I will give you an overview of the principles of regenerative agriculture - a way of farming that restores and renews the health of the soil by working with nature instead of against her.
Finally, we will hear more from my interview with Dr. Jill Clapperton about a challenge to soil health that is widely used in both conventional and organic farming systems – tillage – or plowing up the land to plant a new crop – and how this practice compares to the use of applying chemicals.
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Hello and welcome back to our podcast, Tasting Terroir, where we are on a journey to explore the link between healthy soil and the flavor of your food. I'm your host, Sarah Harper. Last week, we discussed what we mean when we say Tasting Terroir. My cohost, Dr. Joe Clapperton, a soil scientist and plant physiologist, explained how the flavor of food is connected to many factors, including most likely the way it was grown and the health of the soil that the food was grown in. This week, we dive into understanding what makes soil healthy and what it takes to restore unhealthy or depleted soil. To start, I'll give you an overview of the principles of regenerative agriculture, a way of farming that restores and renews the health of the soil by working with nature instead of against her. Finally, we will hear more from my interview with Dr. Joe Clapperton about a challenge to soil health that is widely used in both conventional and organic farming systems tillage or plowing up the land to plant a new crop and how this practice compares to using and applying chemicals. To understand what makes soil healthy or depleted, we need to first understand a concept called the microbiome. Specifically, we're talking about the plant and soil microbiome, which makes up an entirely different world living below the surface of the ground. As the North Carolina State University Plant Soil Microbial Community Consortium puts it, the Plant soil microbiome is the dynamic community of microorganisms associated with plants and soil. This community includes bacteria, archaea and fungi and has the potential for both beneficial and harmful effects on plant growth and crop yield. The composition of any particular microbiome is influenced by a myriad of factors, including environmental, soil physical properties, nutrient availability, and plant species. If you are into health and nutrition, you may have heard how important gut health is to the overall health of people. In our intestines, we have a microbiome that is host to many different organisms, which are interdependent and can create healthy or unhealthy conditions for us, depending on a number of factors. This microbiome supports our immune system, our ability to fight off infection and stay healthy. The same principle is true for the microbiome that exists underground where there are billions of organisms. At least in healthy soil, these organisms play a number of roles, from breaking down and recycling old plant matter to providing various forms of nutrition for plants and many other things. The microbiome can be different from one farm field to the next, let alone one state or country to the next. One of the ways that scientists can evaluate the health of a particular piece of land is by examining and even counting how many organisms or life are living in microbiomes. By looking at it under microscopes, they also can measure how active that life is. For many different reasons that we're not going to go into right now, farmland can become very depleted, meaning that it is not full of a lot of life underground. And as a result, additional inputs, whether synthetic, manmade or natural, need to be added to help the crop grow to meet its full potential. Regenerative agriculture is a term that describes the intentional process of restoring soil health by using a set of natural principles and practices. There is no one checklist of practices that makes a farm regenerative, and it's certainly not regenerative just because a farm added one new practice. This is because farming is so different from one place to the next. And regenerative refers to a systems approach, not just piece by piece. A certain practice that helps a crop grow sustainably in one place could be disastrous in another. Instead of judging regenerative by a checklist of practices, a better approach, in my opinion, is to know the mindset of the farmer. Is he or she focused on continuously improving? Do they have a curiosity about what's happening underground and how they can help it? Do they see nature as the real powerful force and their role as helper or steward rather than conqueror? I know that sounds confusing, and how would you possibly know the mindset of your farmer when you often don't know where your food came from? That's a whole other discussion which we'll have later in this podcast. But don't worry, we are going to help you see regenerative agriculture or hear about it through the stories of many regenerative farmers that Jill and I have gotten to know through our online community, the Global Food and Farm Network. These farmers can explain what we mean by telling you what it is that they do and how their mindset has changed over time. While there is no one checklist, there are five main principles that are widely agreed on as defining what it means to be on the regenerative journey. First, regenerative farmers promote soil health by avoiding tillage the process of plowing up the land, clearing away the weeds ahead of planting a new crop. Second, regenerative farmers cover and protect the soil, creating something that they call soil armor. This is created by residue from previous crops and cover crops, which are plants that are not harvested, but planted strictly to help build up the health of the soil. The armor that this plant residue creates protects the soil from the wind blowing away and the rain being washed away, and it keeps the underground microbiome cooler than it otherwise would be. Third, regenerative farmers add biodiversity to the land. They do this through many different strategies, like planting multispecies cover crops. Again, crops that are not harvested but are planted strictly to feed the soil microbiome and help build soil structure, and by rotating crops strategically to help ensure that the soil is replenished and not just mined continually for resources. Fourth, regenerative farmers have a goal to keep a living root underground all year round. This means that there is no time when the land is bare and nothing is growing because the microbiome is fed through the roots of plants and it needs food all year long. Finally, regenerative farmers work to integrate grazing animals, livestock like cattle or sheep, to manage cover crops by eating them, and to add natural fertilizer. These principles hold the key to understanding what brings flavor and health to food and how you as a consumer can cut through the many marketing claims and actually find the flavorful, healthy food you're looking for and the farmers that you want to be connected to. Okay, so you understand a bit more about regenerative agriculture, but how does that connect to the flavor of food or its health? Well, as we talked about last week, the practices used in the health of the soil that those practices can create often leave a flavor mark, if you will, on the food. Remember the discussion about blueberries? But finding that mark is hard. One of the ways that you will be able to find it is by knowing the mindset and the practices in the system of the farmer that's growing your food. We'll get to helping you do that in later episodes of the podcast. Understanding the impact of these principles can become a great way for you as a food consumer to look for the things that may make a difference for you, both in the taste of your food and in its health. Many of these things aren't widely marketed, or you may think you're already finding them in the marketing that exists. For example, many conscious food consumers buy only organic food, but they don't realize that most organic farms, like their conventional counterparts, are depending on a practice that can have significant impact on soil health, something called tillage. To get more insight on this here's plant physiologist. Dr. Joe Clapperton.Speaker B:
Putting a plow in the soil is very disruptive. I mean, it really would be like killing up a city because there's so much more diversity below the ground than there is above ground.Speaker A:
Well, along those lines, one of the topics I wanted you to just touch on and to introduce people to is tillage and the disturbance of the soil. And they may be familiar with obviously chemicals and organic and buying organic so that they don't have chemicals on their food, which is a perfectly lovely thing. But they are less familiar with the fact that chemicals aren't the only way that the microbiome that world underground is disturbed. And tillage for a long time, filling up the field to clear away the weeds so that you can start fresh with a crop especially needed inorganic because you're not using chemicals to control the weeds. But that has its own level of disruption. And it's back to your point, I think that it's all connected and there's no just one easy button, no easy thing. So maybe explain to people the complexity of tillage because we're not saying tillage is always bad either. Because that goes the other extreme. But people don't understand that actually no tell. Farmers who are also regenerative, which is a big caveat, because just because you're no tell doesn't mean you're regenerative. But no two farmers who are also regenerative and have done all this work to build up their soil. Working with you and people like you to add the right kind of plants to help. Are able to actually grow crops using small amounts of chemicals and not tilling that have no pesticide residue on their crop at the end of the process and have all these benefits of storing carbon in the ground. Not disrupting the underlying community. So I know Dwayne Beck talks about it as sending an earthquake through like these microbiome communities every year, but maybe just share some of your thoughts about tillage and balancing all of that with.Speaker B:
I've obviously taught you really well.Speaker A:
No, I know. Oh, good.Speaker B:
From a biological standpoint, which very much I think I identify myself with soil health. And looking at the living things in.Speaker A:
It really is putting a plow in the soil is very disruptive. It really would be like killing up a city because there's so much more diversity below the ground than there is above ground. And so you destroy all that habitat, you destroy the soil structure that they've been putting a lot of energy into building and so now you've destroyed it all. And the benefit we get from tillage is not this is the part that people don't understand. The benefit you get from tillage is because you killed everything. Because all the bacteria, not so much of the bacteria, but all the fungi and all the soil animals. So you really benefit from destroying all the soil animals, the fungi and the bacteria will grow back because bacteria are really small, so you disrupt them a little bit. Okay, well, they'll deal with it. And the fungi, you disrupt their network and then they have to repair their networks, like knitting it all up again. But the soil animals, you completely demolish them and they're the predators.Speaker A:
People don't know that there are soil animals. Tell them about that.Speaker B:
So many soil animals, so many mites, so many dilembola, so many nemo. I mean, there's just so many things that live in there because if they didn't, then the bacteria would eat up all the nutrients and we'd never have a plant.Speaker A:
Oh wow.Speaker B:
Because the bacteria and the fungi are so much faster at growing and they need the same things that the plants need. So they start using up all the minerals and everything. And if we didn't have the protozoa going around and munching them, and if we didn't have other things going around munching the protozoa and that whole predator prey relationship, we wouldn't have nutrient cycling in the soil. And I learned that from all my friends that were worked in soil fauna. I personally didn't understand all the animals that were in there. I worked on Earthworms, but they're really at the end of that whole cycle there are all these tiny animals that live in there, all the mites and that I didn't even know until I started working with Val Dean Pelkay out of Canada in Ottawa and he was a specialist in mites. And then when we started to do that, I started to realize that we'd been missing, we totally been missing the predator prey relationship and all that. And then I started to work with people who worked on nematodes and we'd always been focusing on nematodes as this problem because they cause root nuts and all these other diseases of roots. But what we forgot was that 80% of them prey on other things. Wait a minute. And then there's fungi that prey on nematodes. And you're like, okay, we just did not get this whole predator praising because the whole recycling of the nutrients in the soil doesn't even work if we don't have predator price. And the animals, it's the animals that are totally destroyed by tillage. Earthworms mites, whole assemblages of soil animals are totally destroyed by tillage and we lose our ability to recycle. Now, having said that, we still need potatoes, we still need to eat carrots, we still need to eat beets, we still need to eat some root crops and we're not always going to grow them. No till. I mean, we have to dig them up somehow, onions, all of that and they're all really good for us. But then, well, how do we mitigate that? The question becomes then is I've done this, I've destroyed that. So how can I help everything come back together? Well, the answer is grow a cover crop afterwards. So you're halfway through an onion field. Your drill should be following you. When you're halfway through harvesting onions or potatoes or carrots or any of those crops, your drill should be following you with that covered crop and you should be receiving the soil so that you.Speaker A:
Don'T lose any of it right away.Speaker B:
Right away. But I got to do my healing and stuff. Well, fine hill and also companion crops. You can grow companions between the hills of potatoes and you can do it. There are plenty of people who do it very successfully and they see the benefit on the lack of diseases, on the increase in yield in their potatoes. I mean, we had actually shown yield increases of yields of potatoes and sugar beets and all these things when we have companions between the rows. But it's outside of comfort zone and it's true you need to learn how to do it and that means you need to take time out to learn how to do it. And you will fail. Sometimes we fail just as an example. I shared my failure. We fail sometimes, but it's not about quitting after you fail. I think that Brene Brown talks about this beautifully in her leadership books. It's about how you get up off the gladiator floor. It's about getting up and taking the first step back and going, okay, I fell on my face. Wash your face off, dust yourself off, stand back up and go, okay, how can I do this? And who do I go and talk to about how I can make this work? I think it has to be about how do I get back up off the gladiator floor?Speaker A:
The issue of tillage and the disruption it can cause to the microbiome is a good example of how our conventional understanding of things like factory farming or organic don't really fit in this new regenerative mindset. Regenerative is beyond organic, and it's certainly not conventional. It's its own thing, and it just might be the key to finding the flavors that you enjoy that also happened to be connected to healthier food and food grown in a way that's better for the planet. Next week, we will begin learning from some of these regenerative farmers, hearing about how they define it, how they practice it, and how you might be able to buy food directly from them. Come back again next Thursday as we continue our journey into the connection between soil health and the flavor of your food. You've been listening to Tasting Terroir, a podcast made possible by a magical collaboration between the following companies and supporters, all working together to help farmers, chefs, food companies and consumers to build healthier soil for a healthier world. Risotera owned by Dr. Joe Clapperton, Rhizotera is an international food security consulting company providing expert guidance for creating healthy soils that yield tasty, nutrient dense foods. Check us firstname.lastname@example.org that's Rhizoterra.com in the Global Food and Farm online community, an ad free global social network and soil health streaming service that provides information and connections that help you apply the science and practice of improving soil health. Join email@example.com and from listeners like you who support us through our Patreon firstname.lastname@example.org Tastingtawar. Patrons receive access to our full length interviews and selected additional materials. Patrons will also have the opportunity to submit questions that we will answer on the podcast. Tune in next week to hear more interviews and insights with myself, Sarah Harper and Dr. Joe Clapperton, as well as the regenerative farmers, chefs and emerging food companies in the Global Food and Farm online community and beyond. If you like our work, please give us a five star rating and share the podcast with your friends. Thanks so much for listening and for helping us get the word out about this new resource to taste the health of your food. Until next week, stay curious, keep improving, and don't stop believing that better is possible when knowledge is available.