Let Nature Lead the Way: How Soil can Save Civilization

This is the fourth installment in a series of articles looking at how regenerative agriculture can heal our land, our climate, and our communities. Read part 1, part 2, and part 3.

A Looming Threat

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The Pyramid of the Magician, a ruin from ancient Mayan culture. The Mayan civilization may have collapsed when it ran out of fertile topsoil (image by Hobie Caldwell).

Sometime in the next 60 years, the world is projected to run out of topsoil. We are heading toward a day when farmers simply cannot grow food — resulting, perhaps, in wars over the last arable ground, and people starving not because they are too poor to purchase food, but because there is simply no food to buy. What is causing this predicament? We have adopted a system of agriculture that is depleting our soil and washing it into rivers and oceans at an irreplaceable rate.

Somehow, the gravity of a looming famine has largely escaped public notice. Farmers and urban folk alike, we proceed with business as usual, as if the future of our civilization were not hanging by a thread. However, two people in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, are pioneering a way of growing food that could rescue us from famine, and they are fighting to deliver their message to both farmers and consumers.

Meet Grant and Dawn Breitkreutz, owners of Stoney Creek Farm in southeastern Minnesota. They raise crops and livestock regeneratively, with the goal of restoring healthy soil. The three of us sit down over Zoom on a December morning to talk about dirt, dandelions, and the future of our planet.

Farming for Soil

Grant is a farmer by heritage; he learned the trade from his father, who ran a typical Midwestern farming operation. Dawn, his wife and business partner, had little experience with agriculture until she married Grant, and she values her outsider’s perspective. “I think that’s what makes us a pretty decent team,” she comments. “He has somebody who sees it differently right by his side.”

Our conversation soon turns to the looming topsoil crisis. Grant cites research revealing that throughout history, loss of healthy soil has preceded the collapse of civilizations. I can’t hide how much this information scares me. “The idea of having only 60 years of topsoil left is terrifying,” I blurt out. “That’s within my lifetime — the end of farmable soil in the Midwest.” The Breitkreutzes both nod in agreement. “That’s one of the reasons why we are so passionate about [regenerative farming],” Dawn shares. “We know how fragile things are and what little time we have left.”

“The idea of having only 60 years of topsoil left is terrifying,” I blurt out. “That’s within my lifetime — the end of farmable soil in the Midwest.”

Stoney Creek Farm is a stunning example of how regenerative farming can reverse our soil crisis. Soil health underpins every decision at this farm — most notably, the decision to be “no-till.” In no-till agriculture, farmers never use a plow. They leave the soil intact, which protects its complex ecosystem of microorganisms and organic matter. In place of tilling, the Breitkreutzes use “cover crops,” plants that stay in the ground after the cash crop has been harvested, guarding against weeds and maintaining soil health.

No-till agriculture has numerous benefits; one of the biggest is water retention. The fields at Stoney Creek Farm can absorb eight to twelve inches of rain per hour, while neighboring farm fields can barely absorb one inch per hour. This means that the Breitkreutzes rarely worry about their fields washing away in heavy storms or floods. As we face more frequent severe storms due to climate change, land that can handle flooding is a dire necessity.

How to Feed the World

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We look for nutrition from fruits and vegetables, but produce today may only have a fraction of the nutritional value that it carried a few decades ago (image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash).

Healthy soil benefits all of us, not just farmers. If you eat food, soil health directly impacts you: healthy food comes from healthy dirt. Modern agriculture’s disregard for soil has caused a shocking loss of nutritional value in our food. For example, you’ll have to eat eight oranges today to get the same amount of Vitamin A that you could have received from a single orange in 1950. “Look at everything that’s happening this year,” Dawn ponders. “What if the nutrient value in your produce was higher?” It’s a sobering question. If Americans had access to more nutrient-dense food, might we have fared better in this pandemic?

Regenerative farming has the ability to restore nutrient value to our food: for example, corn from Stoney Creek Farm contains twice as much protein as corn grown on neighboring operations. Unfortunately, grain distributors pay for crops based on weight, not protein content. So, instead of selling their crops directly to distributors, the Breitkreutzes use their plants to feed their livestock. “We’re never going to be corn-growing champions,” Grant declares, “but when it comes to profit per acre, our corn is producing more beef or pork per bushel, because the protein content is higher.”

Since the Breitkreutzes’ crops have higher protein content, they can produce the same amount of nutrition with less physical food. This is critical, because the earth’s population is growing, even as farmable land is shrinking. Increasing nutritional value in our food might be the only way to feed the world in the future, yet it’s the opposite of the paradigm that most farmers are taught: increase yields, even at the cost of nutrition. “How do you feed a world? It’s on crude protein,” Grant insists. “We’ve been lied to.”

Letting Nature Lead

On top of producing nutritious food for people, the Breitkreutzes are also cultivating a thriving natural environment. “As farmers, we’re managing an ecosystem,” Grant explains. “Instead of fighting the ecosystem and trying to force nature into submission, we’ve figured out how to work with nature and let her do what she does best.”

Following nature’s example, Stoney Creek Farm operates like a complete ecosystem. Numerous species of plants grow side by side. Chickens follow cattle through the pastures: the cattle’s manure harbors insects that the chickens eat, and the chickens’ manure fertilizes lush grass for the cattle.

“Instead of fighting the ecosystem and trying to force nature into submission, we’ve figured out how to work with nature and let her do what she does best.”

The Breitkreutzes have done such a good job of promoting a healthy ecosystem that their farm has unintentionally become a wildlife refuge. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Dawn admits: wildlife sometimes harm their crops. The Breitkreutzes don’t spend much time on pest-management, though. In general, they’ve found that a vibrant ecosystem has more benefits than drawbacks.

“The birds and the pollinators that we’re seeing are unbelievable,” Grant gushes. A healthy environment, he explains, takes care of its own pests. “I hadn’t seen a badger since I was a kid,” he reminisces, “but now we’ve got badgers running all over this farm eating pocket gophers, so we don’t even have to trap the pocket gophers anymore.”

Even weeds have a place at Stoney Creek Farm. Grant explains that dandelions, for instance, indicate that the soil needs more calcium. Instead of fighting the weeds with chemicals, he has learned how to manage his soil to keep the weeds at bay. “We’re letting the ecosystem function as it’s supposed to,” he emphasizes. “[Nature] runs in cycles and systems, and we just need to figure out how to fit in the cycles and systems.”

Conventional farmers often unintentionally make their problems worse when they use chemicals to replace ecosystem services. For example, using chemical de-wormers on cattle can also kill the dung beetles that live off of cattle manure. Dung beetles play a critical role in stopping the cycle of parasite infestations, so, ironically, chemical de-wormers can actually make parasite problems worse in the long run.

The Breitkreutzes have also learned to let nature lead the way in raising their livestock. They leave their cattle outside all year, even in winter, which the cattle can survive thanks to the animals’ nutrient-dense diet. The cows give birth relatively late in the spring, at the same time as deer and other wildlife, and the calves are allowed to stay at their mothers’ sides much longer than they would on conventional farms. Living this more natural lifestyle, the cattle are healthier, less stressed, and no longer have problems calving.

Dawn sums up the Stoney Creek Farm philosophy: “We have to get out of our own way. Mother Nature knows best, and if we just back off and quit fighting every part of nature, life is so much simpler — and we actually enjoy it now.”

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Stoney Creek Farm’s philosophy involves allowing cattle to live as close to a natural lifestyle as possible (image by Samuel Walker from Pexels).

Generations of Change

Regenerative agriculture does what so many proposed environmental “solutions” fail to do: it looks at the big picture, it benefits both people and the planet, and it doesn’t depend on expensive technology or complicated politics. The shift to regenerative agriculture doesn’t require anything radical except a new mindset.

So why, I ask the Breitkreutzes, has the regenerative movement met so much resistance among farmers? Grant believes it has to do with human nature. “What’s the hardest thing for human beings to do?” he asks. “Admit they’re wrong, and change.” People are understandably reluctant to question their lives’ work. In addition, many farmers are the third or fourth generation to inherit their land, and criticism from parents and grandparents can discourage change. “I’ve seen this [ideological conflict] destroy operations,” Grant tells me: “It’s split partnerships, it’s split families.”

Dawn believes that she and Grant have been successful in switching to regenerative techniques partly because of her own outsider’s perspective. She has challenged Grant to question old habits. “A lot of farmers don’t have that,” she assures me. “99.5% of farmers don’t work with their wives on a daily basis.”

The shift to regenerative agriculture doesn’t require anything radical except a new mindset.

The Breitkreutzes believe that as farmers learn why regenerative agriculture matters, their resistance will disappear. “It’s all about education,” Grant asserts. Dawn agrees, and cautions that “a lot of people seem to think that we need legislation to force farmers into this system, and that would be the worst thing you could do. Farmers are independent and stubborn, and they do not want to be told how to run their operation.” But when farmers get the chance to understand and try regenerative techniques on their own, she counters, they start to get excited about it.

Grant and Dawn Breitkreutz are determined to share their message with as many people as possible. They hold leadership positions with forward-thinking organizations such as MN Soil Health Coalition, Soil Health Academy, and Understanding Ag. They host classes and workshops at their farm, drawing farmers from around the region to learn how to let nature lead their farming operations. Their efforts have saved livelihoods and changed lives. Grant remembers a young farmer who approached him after a class on regenerative farming, wrapped Grant in a bear hug, and told him, “You just saved my farm and my dad’s farm.” One farm at a time, regenerative agriculture can give a second chance at a thriving life for farmers, consumers, and the world.

22-year-old student and environmental activist. I believe in the power of value-based communities and regenerative agriculture to restore a balanced planet.

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