Grassland Farming Could End the "Planet vs. Profit" Debate
This is the second in my series of articles about the regenerative agriculture movement. Read the first one here.
EcoSun Prairie Farms
For ecologist Dr. Carter Johnson, the sound of frogs is a signal that he's doing things right. "We would restore some of the wetlands in one year, and then the next year, there were so many frogs you could hardly hear yourself think,” he boasts. He is telling me about the seven years he spent experimenting with grassland farming: a model of agriculture that makes farming and conservation two parts of the same goal.
Dr. Johnson is a wetland ecologist and professor at South Dakota State University. Perhaps his grandest achievement is the development of EcoSun Prairie Farms, a living experiment in preserving native prairies and wetlands while simultaneously running a profitable agricultural business.
Can't We do Better?
Almost as soon as Johnson picks up the phone, he launches into the story of EcoSun. “This is a strange situation,” he begins. “We have some of the best soils in the world here [in South Dakota], but really, the farmers are not doing all that well. And they’re only doing well because there are subsidies. We thought, can’t we do better than that?” Convinced they could find a way for both farmers and the environment to prosper, Johnson and his colleagues dreamed up an idea: “We thought, let’s take a farm and convert it to native grassland, restore the wetlands, and see whether we can market the products like hay, native grass seed, and grass-fed beef.”
“In a place where the plants should be so productive because the soil’s just so good,” he quips disapprovingly, “[agriculture] should be very profitable, it shouldn’t have to be subsidized, and it shouldn’t have a very marginal profit. So, we thought, maybe we should have started off differently when we started plowing up the prairie.”
Native prairie is rarely cultivated on farms. Of all the prairie that once spanned the center of North America from Canada to Mexico, less than 1% remains. The other 99% was plowed, sprayed, and overgrazed in the name of modern agriculture. While many farmers are fine with the results of that development, Johnson believes something has gone terribly wrong. “In a place where the plants should be so productive because the soil’s just so good,” he quips disapprovingly, “[agriculture] should be very profitable, it shouldn’t have to be subsidized, and it shouldn’t have a very marginal profit. So, we thought, maybe we should have started off differently when we started plowing up the prairie.” Early settlers, he laments, “didn't realize the potential for the grassland that we had. And we [Johnson and his colleagues] thought maybe we should go back and try that over again.”
So back to the grasslands of South Dakota they went. Johnson's team rented one square mile of land, and from 2008 to 2014, the researchers cultivated native grass species and grazed cattle. I ask Johnson if it was a struggle to restore the prairie ecosystem that was destroyed over a century ago, but he rhapsodizes about the success of the project.
“It took right off,” he says. On his farm, Johnson explains, the grasses grew six to eight feet tall and would be hardly recognizable to people who have only seen the grasses that manage to survive in roadside ditches and other marginal areas. I remember once showing a friend of mine photographs of restored grassland. Upon seeing the multi-colored grasses and hearing about the animals that lived there, my friend sheepishly confessed that he’d always thought of the prairies as just “some crunchy brown grass.” How should anyone know better, when almost all of the prairie has vanished?
Lush landscapes notwithstanding, EcoSun Prairie Farm was intended for more than impressing the public with the beauty of grasslands. The farm was meant to be a profitable business, a model of how prairie restoration can be integrated into the market economy. EcoSun was a chance to transform the “planet versus profit” debate into a marriage of planet and profit, ecology and economy.
The experiment was a total success. In 2013, EcoSun made a net profit of $68,000, over a third greater than the median South Dakota income at the time. The income came from selling hay, native plant seeds, and grass-fed beef. However, Johnson saw his work pay off in far more than dollars. He repeatedly refers to “ecosystem services,” rattling off the merits of grassland cultivation: soil protection (instead of the constant erosion faced on most farms), water filtration, wildlife habitat preservation, and carbon sequestration (pulling carbon out of the air and storing it underground).
"Really healthy soil is the way farmers made any money at all 100 years ago....[Today,] it’s just a substrate you can put plants into, but there’s nothing in there that you need."
Some of these ecosystem services can be marketed today, such as selling carbon-offsets to businesses that want to reduce their carbon footprint. Other services might find a market in the future, as topsoil and clean water become increasingly rare. And some services, such as protecting biodiversity and maintaining nutrient-rich soil, are valuable to humankind whether or not they ever find a market.
According to Johnson, the importance of soil cannot be overstated: “Soil health is a big deal. Really healthy soil is the way farmers made any money at all 100 years ago….[Today,] it’s just a substrate you can put plants into, but there’s nothing in there that you need.” The result of this impoverished soil is that farmers must use their profits to replace the nutrients that their farming methods have depleted. In conventional farming, explains Johnson, “you put nitrogen on [the soil]; you put phosphorus on it; you put potassium on it. You keep amending the soil to make it work for your crop. You’re not keeping the soil healthy on its own.” EcoSun’s unconventional farming methods, on the other hand, required almost no chemical inputs, yet the farm still produced flourishing crops and reduced erosion levels to near-zero.
Enabling Bad Practices
EcoSun Prairie Farms proved its worth many times over. Yet as soon as the experiment ended and the researchers left, the next farmer to rent the land immediately reverted to a corn-and-soybean rotation. By now, the singing frog chorus and the vibrant soil are probably gone. This turn of events bewildered me, but Johnson didn’t seem surprised.
"Farmers are locked in to what they've been doing,” he explained to me. “Some of the farms go back for generations, and [the farmers] don't know what else to do.” He continues: "People don't know anything about these grasses...they don't know how to plant them, they don't know how to manage them. They're so wedded with the traditional [methods of] growing corn and soybeans."
In this broken system, not only are farmers discouraged from trying new techniques that might solve our agricultural crisis, but the bailouts and subsidies encourage practices that cause many of the problems, such as erosion, that the policies then have to pay out for.
I want to know more. Why are farmers so reluctant to adopt new methods, when the data show that our traditional methods are barely working? Johnson agrees that it's about more than attitude. One thing holding us back, he asserts, is misguided agricultural policy—specifically, crop subsidies for corn, soybeans, and wheat.
The details of farm policy have always left me feeling dazed, but Johnson is able to explain the issue in a straightforward way: “If you plant [subsidized crops such as corn and soybeans] and they fail for whatever reason, maybe a hailstorm or a drought, then you're subsidized. But in a grassland system, there is no such [security]." As long as our Farm Bill offers financial support for a handful of crops, farmers will likely choose to plant monocultures, even at the cost of their own soil's health. In this broken system, not only are farmers discouraged from trying new techniques that might solve our agricultural crisis, but the bailouts and subsidies encourage practices that cause many of the problems, such as erosion, that the policies then have to pay out for.
Johnson envisions a future in which the agricultural playing field is fairer. Without extensive grain subsidies, he suspects, "farmers would farm differently, and they probably would farm more ecologically," including leaving the less productive parts of their land to grow native plants, rather than planting every single acre of their property. With the current system, farmers are encouraged to plant crops on relatively infertile land, because their low yields will be compensated through taxpayer funds.
As Johnson continues to explain the myriad problems with the Farm Bill, I'm astounded that such a short-sighted system still exists. “By subsidizing [certain crops] the way they do,” he finishes his critique, “they are just maintaining a system that's really not that sustainable. [Conventional crop farmers] get bailed out every year if something happens. Well, we [alternative farmers] don't, we endure the hardships, and our budgeting and the way we run our operation has to be done very differently. By subsidizing [conventional farming techniques], they're enabling bad practices."
It’s a harsh appraisal, coming from a man raised in the corn belt. But Johnson believes that reforming the Farm Bill would offer greater opportunity to everyone in the agriculture industry. He wants to see the government invest in grassland farms, not only because it would support the farmers, but because taxpayers wouldn't have to shell out as much money. The effects of a disaster are less destructive on a resilient prairie farm than on a corn or soybean farm, he explains. Perennial crops (such as grasses, which re-grow from their root systems each year) will return in the spring without being re-seeded, even if a drought or hailstorm ruins a harvest.
Even without government support, EcoSun Prairie Farms demonstrated that stepping out of the subsidy cycle can be a fruitful venture. At the end of the day, there are simply fewer costs associated with farming perennials, especially if the farmer prioritizes water retention and healthy soil, which reduces dependency on fertilizer and pesticides. Once a healthy grassland system has been established, Johnson posits, "I don't see any reason why you'd have to take out any more loans." How much better off might we be with a debt-free agricultural sector?
The Future of Grassland
Though a full reform of U.S. agricultural policy feels a long way off, change is stirring. Johnson believes that farmers will eventually warm up to new ideas if they can observe them working first-hand. “Farmers would come and look at what we were doing,” he remembers from his years at EcoSun, “and be quite suspicious, but they were curious. They’d ask, ‘you plant this every year, don’t you?’ And I said ‘no! you plant these once, and if you take care of them, they grow back every year.’”
The grasses may no longer wave in the wind at EcoSun Prairie Farms, but Johnson is still on a mission to bring grassland farming into the public consciousness. He is in the planning stages of developing a “grassland center” near Sioux Falls, where farmers can come to observe prairie farming in action and learn how to tap into the rich natural resources of their land. Some day, big bluestem, cordgrass, and other indigenous plants may again stand tall throughout the Midwest, and choruses of frogs will fill the spring fields once more.