Regenerative agriculture is the answer to extreme weather

The many rippling effects of climate change in Canada surround us all, and one sector where this is extremely prevalent is in agriculture.

Mel Luymes is a farmer in Wellington County and the founder of Headlands Ag-Enviro-Solutions. Headlands supports farmers who are looking for support in personal growth and wellness as well as environmental sustainability.

“For me, the hardest part about working with agriculture and climate change in ‘conventional’ agriculture is that many farmers believe climate change is a government [or] corporate ploy to get more money from farmers and citizens,” Luymes says. “They don’t deny there is extreme weather obviously, but there is an underlying tension that makes it hard to have this conversation in the first place.”

‘Regenerative agriculture’ is something Luymes introduces to farms she works with through Headlands. Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming that, among other benefits, attempts to reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.

Luymes explains that both organic and conventional farmers can be regenerative. “I really like it as a unifying term,” she says.

Regenerative farming practices have always been the bedrock of biodynamic farming but its practices are being incorporated into organic and conventional farming as farmers acknowledge the integral roles soil, plants, and animals play in keeping a farm healthy.

Healthy soil equals a healthy climate

Due to regional variations, conventional farmers look different in every province. In Ontario, that often means doing a lot of soil tillage and planting in rotation.

Conventional farmers generally plant GMO corn, GMO soybeans and wheat. The corn and soybeans will most likely be Monsanto’s Roundup ready which requires the use of Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide, for the GMO crop to thrive as well as a fungicide and chemical fertilizers.

Because it requires little to no tilling, this rotation is excellent for encouraging soil health. However, it requires a lot of up front financial input and the chemicals take a toll on soil microorganisms, the surrounding environment and contribute to climate change – from extraction of oil through production and finally, with application.

On the other hand, organic and biodynamic farmers who till their soils also kill microorganisms – but they’re doing it without the additional monetary and environmental costs of using chemicals.

Luymes says there is a dearth of research on soil health. Partly, because it’s a complicated matter, but also because we can’t see microorganisms and what they accomplish. Adequate funding needs to be allocated for long-term studies.

However, Luymes believes that soil health is the answer to climate change and more farmers are in agreement.

For regenerative farmers, it’s important to grow a cover crop once they harvest their cash crop. Cover crops like winter wheat and cereal rye can be planted in the fall and left on the field over the winter.

Conventional farmers generally plant into the cover crop in the spring and then spray Roundup to kill off the cover crop. Organic and biodynamic farmers use it as forage or leave it as mulch to regenerate the soil. This is known as ‘green manure.’

Luymes says one of her neighbors is trying to adapt to extreme weather using a fall rotation because the summers have been too hot and dry. His rotation will include GMO canola, buckwheat, winter barley and then, winter wheat.

Luymes points out that many conventional farmers prefer the term ‘extreme heat’ over climate change. They often argue that climate is always changing and may also believe that crops become genetically modified over time as a way of adapting to these changes.

But Luymes argues this blurs the definition of a GMO which undergoes changes through DNA editing as opposed to the changes that nature makes over time.

She explains that conventional farmers tend to equate adapting to extreme weather conditions with planting GMOs. Scientists can splice in a gene for drought tolerance or tinker with a master gene so it switches on during heat stress producing salicylic acid that’s needed to fight diseases and pests.

“The problem is when you think it’s the only tool in the tool box, then you are setting yourself up for complete disaster,” says Luymes. “Because something designed in a lab doesn’t have the same diversity and hardiness that went into the breeding of it.”

It’s very similar to the flu shot many people get each year. The formula is based on the current strain of flu, but will be used to prevent next year’s variant. So, while scientists can develop crops that are naturally drought tolerant, it’s uncertain if there’s going to be a drought every year.

According to Luymes, the only constant is that whatever the weather is going to be, it’s going to be more extreme.

Luymes knows soybeans hate standing in water and having wet feet. But severe rainstorms often flood fields. Winter wheat needs a really good blanket of snow that’s not disturbed all winter. But the freeze-thaw cycles we’ve been experiencing melts the snow and then the deep freeze freezes the wheat grass. No crop does particularly well when heat stressed or deprived of water.

She says scientists would need to genetically modify each plant for drought, heat, frost, and wet conditions in order to cover all the bases.

Instead, Luymes looks to soil health built by keeping it covered with green living crops with healthy roots, a minimum of disturbance by either chemicals or tillage, and having livestock manure on it for microorganisms.

Finding alternative ways to fertilize and drain

Synthetic nitrogen is often the fertilizer of choice for conventional farmers. It is also the fastest growing source of emissions in Canadian agriculture.

Canadian conventional farmers generally use more synthetic fertilizer than their fields actually required. That means, despite the ill-informed rantings of Alberta Conservative MP John Barlow, farmers can safely decrease the amount of synthetic fertilizer they use without impacting yields.

Farmers for Climate Solutions, a national coalition of farmer-led and farmer-supporting organizations, actually suggested a reduction in synthetic fertilizer use, along with 18 other recommendations, in their 2022 report Rooted in Climate Action.

Luymes’ crops have been experiencing more drought stress than heat stress. This year, it was wheat that didn’t get that ‘million-dollar rain’ – the right amount of water at that critical stage of growth.

She says wetter springs and falls have been sandwiching drier summers with more freezing and thawing in the winter. And it’s going to get more extreme because the jet stream doesn’t have the same energy to keep things moving. So, whatever the weather, it’s going to be around for extended periods of time.

Controlled drainage is the popular new kid on the block. It’s so new that it hasn’t been tried in Ontario.

Fields are lined with tile drainage, or weeping tile, placed every 30 feet to pull out excess water. The down side is that it scours out soil. That’s how phosphorous ends up in waterways giving rise to algae blooms which are fueled by extreme weather like heavy rains and warmer than normal water temperatures.

However, without tile drainage the excess water erodes the soil creating dirtier water as well as soil loss.

The secret to success is putting the tile in at a low grade on the contour of the land with a control gate at the end so that once the water reaches one foot it can outlet.

Although expensive to implement, it drastically improves yields and conserves precious water. “A huge change to becoming more resilient to drought is ‘don’t let go of your water,’ maintains Luymes.

In drier years, farmers can sub-irrigate by pumping water into the tile where it’s absorbed by the soil and plant roots. Think of it as reverse irrigation that is much less expensive than pivot irrigation systems.

Another choice is to have the outlets of a field drain into a wetland. That water will percolate back down into the ground water, create habitat, micro-climates, and you can still pump the water back into the field when needed.

Luymes is also a huge proponent of crop insurance, but would like to take it one step further. “I would like to see soil health practices be a prerequisite for premium reductions on crop insurance. But, no one is really willing to talk about that because it’s a sacred program.”

The ‘future of food’

Ontario Agricorp is the Crown agency of the Government of Ontario that delivers risk management programs to the agriculture industry.

Unfortunately, it sees planting into a cover crop as risky even though it improves soil health. Luymes would like to see Agricorp get on board and help farmers manage the risks involved in trying out new ways to adapt to extreme weather.

Surprisingly, most market gardeners don’t qualify for crop insurance because Agricorp doesn’t have programs for specialty crops. That’s why market gardeners need to diversify their crops to ensure some varieties do well despite weather conditions.

Thomas Elcome is one of those market gardeners specializing in organic micro-greens on his farm Nature’s Nurturing where he embraces permaculture principles.

Elcome is currently planting goji, schisandra, haskap, elderberry and nut trees at a neighboring farm in order to improve the tree canopy which helps regulate temperatures.

On his own farm, Elcome grows heirloom wheat, red fife wheat, rye, oats, barley, buckwheat, and peas. He also grows hemp for animal bedding and to use as a mulch in gardens. The market for hemp and hemp products is huge with even the construction industry is finding carbon reducing ways to use this amazing crop.

Elcome intentionally farms heirloom crops to counteract the loss of varieties, species, and biodiversity attributable to increased use of GMOs and monocropping in conventional farming.

Elcome ensures his soil is healthy and able to absorb rain when it does come by using compost tea. He brews up the ‘tea’ that cultivates soil microbes. Then, sprays the diluted tea onto his crops.

After years of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide use, conventional farmland is depleted of its essential nutrients and microorganisms. The ‘brew,’ as Elcome likes to call it, replaces what was killed off by chemicals and monocropping.

He also uses biochar, a more stable form of carbon, and composts it for a year to build a home in which soil microbes flourish.

Elcome believes peak oil has happened and doesn’t understand why we are, “Burning through oil for a little bit of a buzz (video games, fast fashion) and not for the transition we need to make. I am hopeful that after the pandemic there is a shift that is not back to normal because normal wasn’t that great.”

Instead, Elcome says, “One of the most important things to do is to build community where we’re learning about all the relationships in our ecological home and our community. That’s the most sustainable way to look at agriculture and climate change.”

Luymes and Elcome invite you to explore the future of food in Wellington County so you can cultivate your own food community.

This article is part of rabble’s series “The Boiling Point.” The Boiling Point examines the ways increasingly high temperatures due to the climate crisis are affecting our summers in Canada on a social, institutional, and ecological level. The series also explains how Canadians can take action against climate change and make real differences in their communities. Follow more stories here.

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