The journey to regenerative agriculture with regenerative farmer, Angela Knuth.
Angela Knuth grew up on a small family farm. It was a world away from the monocultures and row crops that stretch beyond the horizon in many agricultural regions today.
“It was our version of Noah's Ark – my parents raised hogs, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys and dairy cows to name a few, along with 10 children” said Angela.
Now, Angela, her husband and fourth-generation farmer, Kerry, and two sons own and operate a transitioning regenerative farm in Mead, Nebraska.
Angela started farm work by washing equipment, taking seed and inputs to the field, driving tractors and soon introduced the first computer to the business for bookkeeping and record keeping. The introduction of a technology that seems simple now, turned into the catalyst for the Knuth family using technology as a powerful farm management tool.
“I quickly became fascinated with precision agriculture and started keeping track of field actions, making prescription files for planting and introducing variable rate irrigation.”
Beyond technology, it was Angela’s eye for observing nature and finding ways to work with it that spurred on the transition to a more profitable way of farming—regenerative farming.
Prior to starting the transition in 2013, the Knuth farm was a conventional operation growing row crops year after year. With a fresh set of eyes, Angela started observing the plants, soil, and life on the farm and began to question ‘the way things have always been done’.
“I started scouting the fields and I noticed an emphasis on farm equipment but no real thought to how it was affecting the soil. When I checked the seed depth after tilling and spraying the field before planting,
I noticed that the topsoil was dry and powdery, and I'm thinking: why is that good?”
Angela continued questioning the conventional wisdom of farming and started testing regenerative practices in the field.
Farming is the combination of a lot of hard work and science. Advancements in technologies have transformed farming into a prescriptive science that can help farmers make decisions on what their soil and crops need to flourish.
Angela first put her theories to the test when the tractor lab at the University of Nebraska conducted a study that tested the compaction of tractor tires on land.
“They watered our field and then drove a daisy chain of weighted tractors over it and compacted our ground beyond recognition. It was terrible.”
Working with nature, Angela and her family planted nitro radishes along the track to break up the compaction and used a penetrometer to measure the results inside and outside the tracks over time.
“I found it fun and interesting. I could see where the compaction layer was on the radishes because they would grow and then it would curve and then go down again.”
The radishes proved to be a highly successful experiment with the compaction barely noticeable by the next spring and by fall, they were dug up and shared among family, friends and the mailman. Angela continued to work with the intelligence of nature by introducing cover crops that make nitrogen—a central component of photosynthesis.
“Cover crops aren’t there just to be pretty or cover up weeds. Cover crops stimulate the diverse biological life that keeps the soil fertile and healthy, boosts plant health, and flocculates the ground, which makes planting easy. That was my Aha! Moment. I realized I can do this – it’s not that difficult.”
Farmers, like Angela, know that carbon is key in soil storing water, maintaining its structure and keeping it fertile. But many are ready to learn more about the fundamental, helpful elephant in the field that can increase carbon in their soils: photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis is the process by which plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, with water and sunlight, create simple sugars that fuel healthy plant growth—it is a simple and effective untapped resource for farmers looking to improve the health of their land.
“We don't get the process of the plant. We just don't talk about it here,” said Angela.
Regenerative practices can help farmers ride the tailwind of natural processes, including photosynthesis, to improve the soil, the environment, and importantly, their bottom line.
It’s a matter of learning how.
The cost of land, equipment and inputs makes turning profits a challenging pursuit. For Angela, she asked a simple question: so, how do we make this work? The answer she was looking for was right under her feet, in the soil.
“It just makes sense. If your soils are in good shape, they’re going to produce more for you and the profitability is there—we’ve seen it.”
Instead of turning to neighbours, Angela turned to her computer to find a community of farmers who were transforming the foundation of their land and succeeding, financially. “I started researching and connecting the dots. I started learning about cover crops, small grains, grazing animals, and soil health pioneers, like Gabe Brown. Our farming decisions come down to what’s good for the soil which has involved moving away from chemicals, synthetic fertilizers and tilling.”
“Transitioning to regenerative practices has meant stepping back from technology and letting nature do its thing. We do this by observing, learning and putting into practice the 6 principles of soil health—being able to back the benefits with data will help bring it home.“
The proof is in the metaphorical soil pudding when it comes to farm health. However, it’s difficult for farmers to make data-driven decisions when faced with the vastness of agricultural land, a lack of accurate soil measurement tools, complex test results and the cost of traditional soil testing methods.
While Angela prioritizes regular soil tests at traditional labs, cost is the main barrier that restricts the Knuth farm from more extensive testing.
“We need to cover a lot of the acres and we can only test so many spots in the field because it’s expensive.
The results can be complex when what we need is simple recommendations. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of numbers on a sheet.”
Farming requires better, more accurate and lower cost soil testing to make it accessible to all farmers – regenerative or not.
“I hope that technology can help us see and quantify our progress in building our soils and producing healthier food.”
Growing more harvestable crops per acre—known as yield—is a primary metric in agriculture that determines not only how many mouths a field can feed, but how much money is being put back into farmers’ pockets.
As farmers face significant and rising input costs to boost yields, regenerative farmers like Angela, base their decisions on the often-hidden costs of conventional farming. Angela tracks everything from input costs to equipment to labor to depreciation values to skyrocketing fuel prices—when farming conventionally, the math did not add up.
“It's not just about yield. How do you get to that yield? Does it help you build healthy, productive soil? Are you aware of your true costs?”
Overtime, Angela’s holistic approach to accounting proved that their highest-yielding conventional crops were no profitable match to their lower-yielding regenerative crops.
Angela’s findings are backed by wider studies that show that regenerative farms are 78% more profitable than conventional farms.
As the Knuth family continues to grow strong roots in the regenerative community, Angela is clear on the legacy she wants to leave her sons: a more profitable farm with healthier soil that produces more nutritious food.
Angela and Kerry have taught their sons the importance of using technology to make decisions based on the true cost of farming.
“We have a lot of conversations with them about financing and they understand that we don't need the new equipment. I'm proud that they’ve learned that you don’t need the latest and greatest to run a successful farm.
“We just have to make sure that the soil is doing all the work and we're not buying more inputs. We know we can do it—we’ve got to do it.”
Happy National Ag Day! Thanks to the farmers who are producing the food we eat and growing a climate for tomorrow.
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