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The Leading Voices in Food

E147: Farmer-scientist Measures the Real Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
November 1, 2021

Today’s podcast is part of our Regenerative Agriculture series of podcasts. We’re talking with agroecologist Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, CEO for Blue Dasher Farm in South Dakota, and also founder and director of the ECDYSIS Foundation. Dr. Lundgren connects the worlds of science and agriculture, and his working regenerative farm is also a scientific research hub.

Dr. Lundgren is an agroecologist, Director ECDYSIS Foundation, and CEO for Blue Dasher Farm. Lundgren’s research and education programs are helping applied science evolve in ways that foster the movement in regenerative agriculture. He received his PhD in Entomology from the University of Illinois in 2004, and was a top scientist with USDA-ARS for 11 years. Lundgren received the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering by the White House. Lundgren has served as an advisor for national grant panels and regulatory agencies on pesticide and GM crop risk assessments. Lundgren has written 129 peer-reviewed journal articles, several book chapters, authored the book “Relationships of Natural Enemies and Non-prey Foods”, and has received more than $6 million in grants. He has trained 5 post-docs and 15 graduate students from around the world. One of his priorities is to re-envision how science is conducted to help fuel a revolution in regenerative agriculture. He regularly interacts with the public and farmers around the world regarding ecologically intensive farming and how diversity fuels the resilience and productivity of an agroecosystem and rural communities.

Interview Summary

Jonathan Lundgren has a humble goal to foster a revolution in our food system, and demonstrate feasibility and sustainability of regenerative agriculture. So Blue Dasher Farm in South Dakota sounds like a fascinating place. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about it?

Blue Dasher Farm is an operating demonstration farm and regenerative Ag, located here in the middle of kind of nowhere, South Dakota. We wanted to be on the front lines of where change needs to happen, and we’re at this great interchange here between corn, soybean, row crop ground, as well as rangeland systems, but also this is where a lot of the nation’s honeybees ended up being too. We’ve got this kind of trifecta of crop lands, orchards, rangelands and honeybees. What this is intended to do is not only be a regenerative farm and integrated into a farming community, but also be a training ground for the next generation of scientists in practicing hands-on, get your fingers dirty agriculture, and that’s really important. That firsthand perspective really shapes the questions that we ask, and how we ask them in science.

Tell us about what’s grown on the farm. Is it animal agriculture, plant-based agriculture, both?

It’s an integrated system. You know, it’s not a very large farm with 53 acres, and half of that is actually a native, unbroken prairie that’s one of the finest that I’ve seen. We also have a lot of wetlands that are integrated into this matrix here too. We have sheep. Our biggest moneymaker is honey. We have 200 beehives this year. We have an orchard, chickens, an egg production, as well as a number of other poultry products. We raised a couple of pigs this last year. We have some annual and perennial crops that we harvest for seed, especially native grasses, and things like that, and it’s all fused into one big farm that presents us with consistent, unpredicted hurdles and opportunities.

So the concept of integration here is really important. Sounds like each of these pieces you’ve mentioned, and there are a lot of them, work together, and that if anything were just taken out and done by itself, it wouldn’t work as well as having all these things together, and that’s the overall concept here, isn’t it?

That is absolutely correct. The integrated system is intended to increase the resilience of the farm, but also provide stacking of enterprises that increases the likelihood of success.

Our listeners will vary, because people come from lots of different backgrounds, and some will know a lot about agriculture, but others less so. Can you give us an example or two of something on the farm where the integration really helps?

We have annual crop ground that we are working on right now. We don’t spray. We’re not certified organic, but we don’t spray anything, and we also don’t till, and those are two really important premises of regenerative Ag, if you ask me. And so we use our sheep as ways of managing vegetation out there, and then we work with the land, and so in the case that we don’t end up getting, like this last year, the drought was horrible in South Dakota. We ended up not getting an annual crop to establish in there, but perennial plants, the prairie ended up coming in, and so off of that piece of ground, instead of an annual crop, we took meat from the sheep and honey from our bees.

That’s a fascinating example. So the no-till is an interesting concept, and I’d like you to describe a little bit more about that. I know that a goal of yours is develop and evaluate ecologically-based test and farm management solutions, and you do this in order to reduce disturbance. I’m assuming that has to do with a no-till, but I’m not entirely sure, and then that you want to increase biodiversity in crop and livestock production. Can you explain this concept of disturbance?

Pests are never the problem within a food system, right? Pests are always a symptom. The pests are trying to correct what we have monkeyed up from a natural system. They’re trying to reset the balance in the biological community, and until you solve the underlying issues with that system, you’re going to continue to battle pests, and you’re going to have to spend more and more money on input costs like pesticides. So what we determined is what the underlying problem is, is a lack of diversity, lack of life on the farm, and too much disturbance, and disturbance comes in many ways. Tillage is a disturbance, agrochemical use is a disturbance, and so when you start to eliminate that disturbance, you find that life ends up doing a lot of the things that we’ve been trying to replace with technology. Regenerative farming is much more knowledge-intensive, and less technology-intensive.

So what’s the problem with tilling?

Tillage is one of the worst things that you can do to your farm or garden. What happens when you do that is number one, you break down organic matter in the soil, which is the soil’s fertility, and you disrupt the balance of nutrients within that soil. The only way that you can replace that organic matter is with life, right? Be it worms, or insects, or microbes, or fungi, that’s where the soil’s fertility ends up coming from. And the one-two punch with tillage is that not only does it disturb the nutrient balance of the soil, but it also kills most of the life from the soil, and so it removes your ability to recover. We end up seeing a lot of farmers, you know, they want to do the right thing, and they’re faced with this conundrum, do I spray or do I till? And boy, I think I’d pick, and I don’t like either of those options, and we don’t use either of those options on our farm here at Blue Dasher, but I would pick spraying over tilling any day of the week.

Thanks for that description. So let’s turn our attention for a moment to science, because you were trained as a scientist, and you’ve done lots of science yourself over the years, and you support science on your farm. So with your permission, I’d like to read a little quotation from your website, because I think it captures your approach to science, and then like to talk about a little bit. So here’s the quote,

“Scientists have to become farmers to increase the relevance and credibility of their research. Scientists also have to become part of the farming community, and farmers need to be intimately involved in producing scientific research. The metrics that scientists assess their success by have to be reinvisioned to incorporate outcomes that farmers care about.”

So explain a little bit about why science is so important, and maybe you could give us some examples of some science that’s been done on the farm, or even some things that might be underway.

For regenerative agriculture science is essential. Stories are really important, right? Anecdotal examples of, “This farmer did this, and it worked super well, or didn’t work at all.” Those are really, really important foundations for science, but until we replicate it, and use consistent methods for measuring the outcomes of these different systems, those are anecdotes, right? And so science is going to be essential for us to take and increase the credibility of this regenerative movement to show that it always works, where it works, where it doesn’t work, what aspects of it are driving the success of those farmers, and there really isn’t a whole lot of primary data that’s being generated on regenerative farming right now, and we saw that niche, and decided we needed to be a part of that.

Just to give our audience a sense of what kind of outcomes might be important here, let’s just say somebody is doing a study where they’re randomizing a hundred acres here, a hundred acres there, using a regenerative versus traditional Ag. What sort of outcomes would one be looking for? What are the most important things that people doing research on regenerative agriculture need to show?

Regenerative food systems increase soil health, and improve biodiversity, while producing nutritious food profitably, and so outcomes that need to be measured in these systems fall within those general four categories, soil health, being carbon sequestration, water balance in the soil, micronutrient availability, biodiversity being life, be it microbial life, or insects, or worms, or plants, birds, all would fall into that category, nutrient density, nutritious food yield. We actually have to feed the planet. We’ve lost 40% of the nutrient value of our food over the last several decades through our farming practices and destruction of our natural resource base. We need to restore that. Food isn’t as nutritious as it used to be. And then finally profit. All of this as well and good, but if the farm goes out of business in the interim, then it didn’t work. We’re showing these on actual farming operations all over North America right now. We have boots on the ground science that is generating the data that shows that this does work in all of the systems that we’ve examined so far.

You know, Jonathan, with these podcasts, I always have a series of questions that we prepare in advance, but you’ve stimulated so many interesting ideas, I’m going off-script like crazy. So there are a couple of things I really wanted to dive into here. When you were mentioning outcomes, I assume one outcome is how many external inputs are needed, like pesticides, and herbicides, and fertilizers, and things like that, and I’m assuming that that’s important for a number of reasons. I’m imagining profitability as one, because if you can produce crops without having to buy those things, you’re able to be more profitable. But I’m assuming these things are really important for the environment as well. Is that true?

So with regenerative farming, it ends up being a win-win for just about everybody in the situation. By improving the resilience of their operation, and the profitability of the operation, the farmer wins, right? By reducing the environmental exposure to agrochemicals, their families win, communities win, conservationists win. We find that increasing the nutrition of food, suddenly the medical field wins, society wins. We can use this to combat many planetary-scale problems. One estimate is that by changing to regenerative grazing lands across the U.S., we can largely offset, if not completely replace, most of our carbon emissions, while producing healthier beef, and making healthier rural communities. That makes a heck of a lot of sense.

Do you think there would ever be a time when instead of measuring productivity as yield per acre, number of bushels, let’s say, and people might change that to think about nutrition per acre?

We have found that corn farmers in our area get prizes if they are the top-yielding corn producer, right? And we found in one of our studies, the first one that was published that used regenerative Ag, and compared those two systems from a primary literature standpoint showed that yields were actually not correlated with profitability. You know what was correlated with the profitability of the farm was how much soil organic matter they had generated on their farm. Yeah, so I think that that’s going to be a really important metric, and, you know, as these soils start healing, the nutrition of food comes from the soil. It’s not from a jug that the farmer is putting on the plants, right? It comes from the soil itself.

You know, I’ve often thought in this context about whether consumer pull for certain types of products might help drive this market. So for example, let’s say you have two carrot farmers, and one is using conventional methods. The other uses a different set of methods along the lines of what you’re talking about, and that farmer produces a more nutritious carrot. Could consumers be attracted to the carrots with the most nutrition? Might, is there any talk about this in the farming community?

Oh, absolutely, farm to table and farm to school programs are really important. I think we talk about labels. We talk about all kinds of ways of increasing the value of regenerative. Regenerative has to be cost-competitive with conventional if it’s going to be successful, and it is. In every system that we’ve studied it is. It’s cost-superior. These producers are more profitable, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with a premium. At the end of the day, what is incorruptible is consumers knowing their farmer, and that is the answer to so many of these issues within our food communities right now is people starting to learn who their farmers are, and that relationship-building, and that trust, and that’s going to put a lot of value on a food item.

I can second that. As a person involved in this field, and a consumer, like everybody else, that does really make a difference. So my colleagues and I at the World Food Policy Center have spent a fair amount of time on farms and meeting farmers, and I really want their products, because I know who they are, and those personal connections mean everything. So I totally agree with what you said. It’s interesting to hear that that’s part of your perspective as well. Speaking of honey, let’s go back to the bees for a minute. You mentioned this early on in the podcast. Why are honeybees so important?

Honeybees are a character, at the end of the day, and what we’re trying to show is the massive extinction event that the planet is currently facing right now. We are undergoing a massive evolutionary experiment, and we’re losing species at a rate that the planet has never experienced before. Honeybees are a character that people understand, and they see the benefits, and even if they’ve been stung a few times, they still love these little insects, right? The honeybees are dying at a really rapid clip, and the reason that they are is because they’re such a good bellwether for what’s going on in the environment. I mean, they forage for up to five miles from their nest, or their colony, their hive. They sample multiple plant species, numerous, if not hundreds of species of plants, and they pull all of the chemistries that are out there in the environment, and bring it back to the nest, and most of agrochemicals are actually lipophilic in that they like fat. Guess what their hive is made out of? Wax. And so they end up aggregating a lot of agrochemicals. Those agrochemicals make them sick, and stressed, and diseases come in, and pests come in, and wipe them out. But, on the flip side of that, regenerative systems provide a tremendous opportunity for conserving life, and we’ve been working on trying to demonstrate that with the honeybees and tell that story.

Do I recall right, you said you have 200 hives? Wow, so how much honey can you produce from that number of hives?

Well, this year, not much at all, but last year, I think we got a thousand pounds, or something like that. You know, people that go to the grocery store, and buy honey at the grocery store, they don’t know what honey tastes like. That’s not real honey. A lot of that is actually adulterated rice sugar from Asia that they ended up circumventing U.S. trade restrictions on, and most people tell me, “I don’t like honey, but I really like your honey, John.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s because it’s made from prairie flowers, it’s got no additives whatsoever, and it comes out with this breadth of flavor that most people have never experienced before.”

It sounds so good. I want some right now. So let me ask you one final question. This often comes up in the context of discussions of regenerative agriculture, and has to do with how scalable it is. People might say that, okay, the results from regenerative agriculture are impressive, but you still need the feed the world, and can that model be used on a big enough scale to accomplish feeding the world? So how do you respond to that?

If you want to feed the world, grow food is the first step in the process, and right now we have about what is it, 176 million acres in the continental U.S. that’s devoted to corn and soybeans that we really don’t eat? And so if you want to feed the world, let’s start there. Can regenerative farming feed the world? We have shown that yields are equivalent in regenerative systems, if not superior, and the caloric content of products that are generated off of a regenerative farm versus a monocrop of a conventional farm are pretty superior, actually. So we really need to be measuring actual food production, things that humans are eating directly, and the efficiency of that system, as well as how stacking enterprises increases the resilience and efficiency of a farm.

You mentioned just now that there are vast amounts of acreage that are devoted to corn and soybeans that we don’t eat. What do you mean we don’t eat them?

Well, when’s the last time you went down and grabbed a handful of corn, yellow number five, and took a bite? We end up burning it in our cars, 40% goes into ethanol production. We end up putting another 40-50% of that into cattle that would rather be eating grass, and so when we hear arguments against beef production because of the methane production that’s ended up being produced there, that’s not an artifact of the cows. That’s an artifact of poor management of the cows, and if you put them on grass, and manage them correctly, cattle production is a carbon sink. It’s not a source.


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