I used to believe in a simplistic view of agriculture, where soil was the foundation of the food production system. It took getting personal help from a coach to see that I needed to think differently or my simplistic view would cause me to fail on my new regenerative agriculture journey.
Growing up in Agriculture the message that I received was that if you follow certain practices then you will be successful and if you do not follow those practices then you will fail. This message was accentuated by the constant comparison of “good farmers” vs “bad farmers.”
In conventional agriculture the “good farmers” were the ones who used a lot of fertilizer and chemicals to produce perfectly clean fields with no weeds and high yields. In organic agriculture the “good farmers” were the ones who used tillage and crop rotation to produce fields with few weeds and decent yields but without any synthetic inputs.
I spent some time being a “good farmer” in both of these systems at different times in my life. But then my daughter was born with severe disabilities that set me on a journey to research the best way to produce food to support her health and wellbeing. When my research informed me that regenerative agriculture was the best way to produce the healthiest food for my family I decided to change my practices again. I wanted to be a “good farmer” in regenerative food production.
The problem was that regenerative agriculture was still in its early days of development and there was no set of practices that would make me a “good farmer.” Some farmers used tillage and some farmers used synthetic inputs. Some farmers were worried about weeds and others weren’t. It was a confusing time trying to navigate what to do on my farm. And there were farmers leaving regenerative agriculture because it was too complex. Was this transition going to be too much for me to handle?
At the same time I was working with a coach to help me navigate the business side of my farm. I wanted to know how to be a “good businessman.” It took a few coaching sessions but John was finally helping me understand that there wasn’t a specific set of practices in business that would make me successful. What it came down to was whether or not I was living out of my values.
I remember sitting down to fill out the post session form after one coaching call and thinking about how important values were to business and how important they were to relationships and how important they were to living a full life.
Then it hit me. Values are important to agriculture and food production too!
This revelation helped me realize why the practices themselves weren’t that important to being a successful regenerative farmer. What mattered was understanding what my values were, choosing tools that had the potential to turn those values into reality and then testing to see if in fact those tools were doing what I intended them to do.
I quickly recognized that the #1 core value of our farm is human health. So now I manage my fields and my animals with the impact on human health as my #1 consideration. I use many different practices depending on the context including both small amounts of tillage and small amounts of synthetic inputs. Then I test to make sure that these tools are bringing me closer to my value of better human health.
Despite the complexity of managing a natural system I can easily make decisions and overcome problems because I have a clear understanding of the values that I am trying to make a reality. And because these values are very important to me I won’t quit.
Why is this important when you are looking at purchasing your food products? The labels that you see advertised on the food are almost exclusively based on the practices that farmers are doing. Those practices may or may not lead to better food depending on the context in which they were implemented and the actual values that the farmers have for seeking that certification or label. The best way to get food that aligns with your values, beliefs and goals is to purchase directly from a farmer who is in alignment with them. Soil isn’t the foundation of the food system, YOU ARE and how you purchase makes a difference to the health of people and the planet.
I always like to use diagrams to help me understand complex information. For me the simplistic view of food production looks like this:
As I mentioned in my opening story, this way of viewing a food production system fails because it doesn’t take into account 3 key elements.
- Humans are a part of the food system
- The system is dynamic
- The system has feedback loops
Here is what I use as a model for my understanding of the food system.
Humans are a part of the food system as a keystone species, everything that we do or don’t do will affect the system. SInce our values, beliefs and goals drive what we do or don’t do, then the true foundation of the food system is the human values, beliefs and goals of the general population, which are activated through farmers, by their food purchasing decisions. Farmers and gardeners then use tools to impact roots and ultimately the soil. The soil is the most critical part of this model since a failure of the soil leads to a collapse of the outcomes and success of the soil leads to compounded benefits in outcomes. The other side of this idea is that the problems we produce cannot be blamed on the tools we use but more importantly on the values, beliefs and goals that led to those tools being chosen in the first place.
The arrows show a simplistic view of the feedback loops present. In reality there can be feedback from every level of the diagram. We can glean information from these feedback loops to make better decisions both with our senses and with laboratory testing. Eg. If I use a tool like tillage I can instantly see the destruction of my soil structure. I can also see from a soil test that the soil biology and chemistry have changed from that tillage and then see in a SAP test that my calcium and micronutrients are tied up from that tillage. Seeing this lets me know that I need to choose tillage carefully to only use it in specific instances where the benefits will outweigh the harm.
As much as we like simplicity, the complexity of the food production system and the natural system that it exists in doesn’t allow simplicity to achieve the outcomes that we desire. If we begin to think of the system in this new way then we can make real change for the benefit of all.