Mollie Engelhardt’s farm looks messy.
Every inch of Sow a Heart Farm in Fillmore, Calif., is growing one of more than 300 types of plants. In between the rows of fruit trees, Engelhardt has got organic peppers, garlic, broccoli, and cauliflower, all covered with a thin layer of grass or clover. On a recently harvested plot, chickens and sheep are eating the scraps, churning the soil so it’ll be ready to plant again.
“The neighbors’ farms are perfect rows of the exact same thing with bare soil underneath. The trees are managed by spraying herbicides,” Engelhardt says. “You can see that every inch of my farm is covered.”
The chaos is all by design.
This farm is an experiment in regenerative agriculture, intended to grow healthier food at the same time as tackling climate change.
This is still far from the norm in farming – less than 1% of American farmland uses regenerative ag techniques. But this year the Farm Bill, a major piece of U.S. agriculture legislation, is up for renewal, and regenerative agriculture practitioners hope that could change.
“Folks in D.C. are already starting to think about what they want to see changed in the Farm Bill,” says regenerative agriculture expert Arohi Sharma with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The fact that we’re talking about soil health, the fact that we’re having hearings on regenerative agriculture, is a huge step in the right direction.”
The world’s oldest carbon capture technology
The term regenerative agriculture refers to a handful of practices that create healthy soil. The most visible is the wild mix of plants in Englehardt’s lush, chaotic plots. She carefully picks what grows where so the plants work together to thrive.
“Fennel is actually an insectary. So the fennel is keeping the bugs off of the kale without spraying any pesticides or anything,” she says.
She grew corn next to young avocado trees a few years ago, so the tall stalks could provide shade during a hot autumn. When she harvested the corn, she planted fava beans, since they’re good at restoring nitrogen in the soil
Englehardt’s also keeping the ground covered and hand-harvesting her crops. All of that makes the soil healthier.
“By diversifying what you grow, you’re providing different kinds of nutrients to the soil. It’s like diversifying our human diets,” Sharma says.
Better dirt means more plants photosynthesizing, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, pulling it into their roots, and shoving it into the ground. That makes it a useful climate change tool. Sharma estimates if every farm in the U.S. operated this way, it would remove as much carbon as shuttering 64 coal plants.
Englehardt says the climate benefits don’t stop with carbon capture.
“Not only are we sequestering carbon, I’m recharging the aquifer far more than the neighbor is,” she says. “And the water filtering through my soil is clean, has no glyphosates, has no Roundup, it has none of that.”
In drought-ridden Southern California, Engelhardt’s soil is better at soaking up whatever water it gets. After the giant storms last month, her dirt roads were flooded but her plots were just soft and damp.
The future of farming?
Making regenerative agriculture a mainstream practice has been an uphill battle.
“It’s an overhaul of our food and agricultural system, which is rooted so deeply in our commodities, in our subsidies, in our insurance policies, in our financial system,” says Jesse Smith with the White Buffalo Land Trust just north of Santa Barbara, which does trainings and courses on regenerative agriculture.
Sharma agrees: “From the 1970s onwards, decades of agricultural policy have prioritized unsustainable farming practices over regenerative ones,” she says.
Take the way crop insurance is structured. Right now, a corn farmer who had a bad year can claim the loss on that crop, and the government helps them out. A farmer growing corn and soy would write two claims. But what if you, like Englehardt, grow 300 different crops?
“It’s a lot harder for them to write an insurance policy or claim insurance rewards because of just the number of crops that they have to keep track of,” Sharma says.
Plus, farmers using these techniques need to pay for more labor, because mechanical harvesting harms the soil.
Englehardt says she grows more food per acre than the conventional farms next door, but four years in she still hasn’t turned a profit.
“You can’t expect to be making money right away in any business. The guy down the street? The first four years, he had lemons and avocados planted, he certainly wasn’t making money either,” she says.
But convincing a farmer who’s currently turning a profit to change their practices even though they won’t make money for a few years is a tough sell.
Still, Smith says he’s seen an increase in people coming to the farm for their regenerative agriculture trainings and courses.
“We’ve had cowboys from the Midwest, young up-and-coming farmers from the inner cities, to grandparents looking to figure out what to do with their property, to people who don’t have land looking to get into agriculture, to people who are in computer programming, figuring out how to put their skills in service of natural ecosystems,” he says. ”It’s such a broad range of people.”
The farms trying it so far are small, Smith says, not like the thousands of acres devoted to Smuckers jam or Cuties mandarin oranges.
While some farmers wait on the government to make regenerative agriculture more profitable, Smith says it’s catching on with people like Englehardt prioritizing their positive impact.
“There is a misconception that this is a fringe niche movement. And it’s not. People are transitioning large, large swaths of land,” Smith says. “It may not be a windfall, but in the hearts and minds of people who are watching, what is being demonstrated is greatly impactful and will set the stage for the coming decades of agricultural production in this country.”
Caleigh Wells for KCRW. Broadcast version by Suzanne Potter for California News Service reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration