Kansas farmers work with food processor to build healthier soil
A realistic assessment of the agriculture sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is a complicated affair. By some estimates, agriculture emits 10.5 percent of total US greenhouse gases and a similar amount in Canada. But farming also can help reduce emissions and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In this series of stories, Kansas farmer Jim French explores how regenerative agriculture practices are improving soil health, storing carbon, and improving farm yields in Kansas, Germany and at a new MEDA project in Senegal, Africa.
Ray Archuleta, soil scientist and educator with Understanding Ag, looked intently at the fifty Kansas farmers and ranchers in front of him and asked, “Sustainable agriculture?
Why would you want to sustain an agriculture that loses topsoil, creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and is the livelihood with the highest number of suicides and decreasing profit margins?”
His audience was in large part made up of farmers participating in a pilot program funded by the General Mills food company, focused on regenerative agriculture and the principles of soil health in their wheat supply chain.
Farmers who took part in the program had extensive soil testing and consulting done on a field, and access to education seminars.
There was also a future potential for higher prices being paid for crops grown on land sequestering carbon and protecting water.
Archuleta challenged farmers to think about the soil. According to the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN), soil “is the biggest terrestrial carbon sink.” By increasing carbon in the soil by 1% worldwide, farmers could capture more carbon dioxide than is emitted annually by human emissions. Increasing carbon in the soil could also impact water quality and food security.
General Mills and Understanding Ag began working in Kansas because of a long-standing history of soil conservation and water quality work in the watershed.
The watershed spans almost 633,000 acres, just under 950 square miles. It provides over 70 percent of the water for the municipal area of Wichita, with a population of just under 400,000.
Faced with an increase of pollution and sedimentation in Cheney Reservoir, farmers and ranchers helped form a partnership with Wichita and federal and state agencies to address the problem.
In 1994, the Cheney Lake Water Quality Project was started. Its governing board included all farmers and ranchers in the area. Board member and former chairperson Derek Zongker recalled that in the early days, the focus was mainly on projects bent on “controlling water” with projects like grass waterways, filter strips, and terraces.
“About 10 years ago, we started moving from controlling the water to finding more ways to retain the water longer in the soil,” he said.
“Farmers were spending increasing dollars on fertilizers and other inputs and didn’t want to see their dollars run-off into the lake. Of course, the folks in Wichita weren’t too happy with what those substances were doing to the water.”
Retaining and capturing rainfall, farmers would need to focus on how a healthy soil functions in nature, he said. “We started creating incentives to improve grazing practices, decrease tillage, and plant cover crops. We also held field days and educational events where farmers could learn from national experts on soil health and from their neighbors.”
In the fall of 2019, General Mills, at the recommendation of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, approached the Cheney Lake Watershed, Inc. company wanted to establish a soil health project in the wheat-growing area in their supply chain.
Steven Rosenzweig, a soil scientist at General Mills, said that in a 2014-15 study, the company “found that 50 percent of its carbon footprint existed in the farms that supply us. So, the biggest opportunity for carbon mitigation would be on that front.”
General Mills currently works with farmers and dairies in Canada (oats), Michigan (dairy), and now, Kansas (wheat).
“We arrived at the Cheney Lake Watershed because an innovative group of farmers and ranchers there were already working on soil health.”
While the project engages partners like Understanding Ag and other soil and biological scientists, its success would depend on being farmer-led and implemented, he said. “We did not want a top-down approach.”
Rosenzweig also emphasized that the project would be based on applying management principles rather than recommending specific tools or practices.
Each farm and location are different, and “the tools and practices have to fit the context of the operation. That can only be determined well by the farmer working with a team in his or her own locale,” he said.
When General Mills and their partners came to the area, they asked for farms to apply for the regenerative agriculture project. Two of those selected were Longview Farms, co-operated by the John Riehl and Mike Miller families, and the farm and ranch owned and operated by Cassondra and Chad Basinger.
The Basingers grow wheat, soybeans, alfalfa and cover crops.
“We also manage a cattle operation, and direct market a portion of our home-raised beef on- line and in local stores,” said Chad.
The beef that is marketed off the farm is fed grain sorghum that has been grown with companion crops that help provide nutrients and weed control, he said. The “grain crop receives no synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. We sell the beef as a healthy-raised product.”
The direct marketed beef also delivers a premium price to the family.
Chad and Cassondra have long been committed to improving soil health to enhance their production and profit. Through the General Mills project, “we are now opened up to more advanced knowledge, better ideas, and other members to network with.”
Since starting on this regeneration path, “we have seen improved yields, increased soil organic content and more family time for our four children, ranging in age from four months to eight years,” Chad said.
Cassondra emphasized the importance of family along with improving soil and profit. “Regenerative agriculture must also revitalize families and communities,” she said. “It must provide opportunities for our children to have a role on the farm.”
In another part of the watershed, John Riehl co-operates Long View Farms with fellow farmer and MEDA staffer Mike Miller. They began using cover crops between a rotation of mostly beans and corn in the fall of 2013, Riehl said. (Continued...)
“Originally we were motivated to make this move to address problems with erosion first and, second, weed control in our no-till system.”
“Soil health wasn’t much on our minds,” he added. “But as erosion and weeds decreased, we saw that the soil was improving.”
Currently, the main cover crop planted on Long View Farms is a mix of cereal rye with a small amount of tillage radishes and hairy vetch. As they move forward with the regenerative agriculture project, they want to increase their rotations and use of diverse covers, Riehl said.
“We would like to expand to five crops in rotation, possibly adding both sunflowers and grain sorghum to corn, soybeans, and winter wheat, all integrated with cover crops.”
“I would love to get to the point where we can dramatically decrease herbicide and pesticide use, as well as other synthetic inputs.”
Regenerative agriculture will take more than commitments from farmers, he noted. “At some point, the public must recognize the downstream benefits of regenerative agriculture and be willing to share in the investment we are making in clean water, carbon sequestration, and healthy food.”
As part of the contract with General Mills, selected farmers agree to attend Understanding Ag’s Soil Health Academies and webinars, as well as participating in field days and discussions hosted by others in the program. In this way a community of learning and sharing is established.
As Ray Archuleta concluded his presentation at the Soil Health Academy, he followed his question about sustainability with this challenge: “Wouldn’t it be better to be involved in an agriculture that regenerates and builds life? Not only in the soil, but in our rural communities, and our world? We have the potential to build on the words of the prophet Isaiah (46:1-2), The desert will rejoice, and flowers will bloom in the wastelands... ; it will be as beautiful as the Lebanon Mountains and as fertile as the fields of Carmel and Sharon.” (Continued...)