Could MegaFarmCorps do good for the land?

Every Fall, as I travel around, I’m mystified by all the freshly harvested fields, black with exposed soil, and I wonder…isn’t that a bad idea? Isn’t that nice rich dirt going to wash away when the snow melts and the spring rains arrive? But what do I know? I’m not a farmer. I never studied agriculture, so I’m just going to trust the experts whose livelihood depends on their land.

Of course, my confidence tends to be eroded by all the Trump signs on those fields.

But good news! For once, the giant food corporations are trying to do something for the environment. They’re giving farmers incentives to practice something called regenerative agriculture.

Still, the companies’ moves have the potential to expand the use of unconventional farming practices known as regenerative agriculture. The movement represents a fundamental change to the way mainstream farmers manage their fields.

Regenerative principles call for reducing or even eliminating such mainstays of farming as tilling the soil before sowing seeds. Other regenerative techniques include planting cover crops, so soil is never bare; expanding plant diversity; adding livestock to an operation; and reducing or eliminating the use of chemicals.

The system has benefits such as storing more climate-altering carbon in the soil, improving water quality by preventing runoff, and reducing the need for pesticides by increasing insect biodiversity. Research shows it can also make farms more profitable by reducing the cost of chemicals and fertilizer and spreading price risk among many crops instead of just corn and soybeans.

“It’s not just about carbon. It’s not just a water benefit,” Sirolli said. “You get all of these different benefits that you stack together that benefit the community, that benefit the planet, while at the same time making sense for the farmer.”

See? I am learning something about farming. Although to be fair, if I’d been asked, I would have made suggestions along those same lines, although having to be admittedly vague about how to implement them.

I was probably thinking selfishly, though. Fewer pesticides → more plant and insect diversity → MORE SPIDERS. Also all those agricultural pollutants are just bad for us.

Overall, the Minnesota River is unhealthy. Sediment clouds the water, phosphorus causes algae, nitrogen poses risks to humans and fish, and bacteria make the water unsafe for swimming.


  1. KG says

    From the linked article (emphasis added):

    Jonathan Lundgren, a scientist who runs a research foundation and regenerative farm in eastern South Dakota, says getting the full environmental benefit from those changes means setting some basic standards.

    “You can’t be a successful farm by only adopting a couple of regenerative practices,” said Lundgren, who has studied the transition to regenerative agriculture on dozens of farms across the country. “It just doesn’t work unless you adopt many elements of that system simultaneously.”

    Without a clear definition, Lundgren worries that regenerative agriculture could become little more than a label that corporations and farmers could use for marketing while producing only modest environmental benefits.

    Surely only a hardened cynic could think that Cargill and General Mills would indulge in greenwashing!

  2. says

    I’m mystified by all the freshly harvested fields, black with exposed soil, and I wonder…isn’t that a bad idea? Isn’t that nice rich dirt going to wash away when the snow melts and the spring rains arrive? But what do I know? I’m not a farmer.

    I grew up on a farm (never farmed as an adult, though), so I know a little bit. They shouldn’t be tilling in the fall! So I’m not sure what it is you’re seeing. I would expect the roots of the harvested plants to still be in place and that will help hold much of the topsoil. But there is often a bit of space between plants where soil will be loose. So, yes, topsoil loss is a problem and there have been technological advancements to help reduce such loss.
    However, there are sometimes tradeoffs in those technologies. For example, my grandparents and my uncle got into “no-till farming.” They’re not tilling the soil in order to help maintain the top soil (and they really need to do that in southwestern North Dakota!)…but, in order to control weeds, they have to use more herbicides. With that, I am unsure of what techniques they’d be talking about in that article where they say they are trying to “eliminate such mainstays of farming as tilling the soil” while also “reducing the cost of chemicals.” They must be speaking of techniques of which I am unfamiliar. As I say, I just grew up around farming; I’m not a farmer myself.

  3. Tethys says

    No, letting corporations run things never ends well.

    Except for the no till idea, All of those things were standard farming practices for family farms until agribusiness arose in the late 80s and 90s.

    Now they just grow two things. Corn and soybeans, which are heavily subsidized.
    No soil building. No habitat for the wild life and pollinators. No planting rotations.
    Once the fields were full of wheat, flax, oats, and alfalfa in rotation.
    Landowners are far more invested in sustainable farming, because they also live on that land. The corporations only care about wringing as much profit out of the land as possible.

  4. waydude says

    “and reducing or eliminating the use of chemicals”

    So, uh, what are they gonna water them with? My god, what if it rains?! Chemicals! Chemicals are falling from the sky! Oh, the humanity!

  5. anthrosciguy says

    When I was growing up in southern Minnesota fifty plus years ago, the normal thing was a three year rotation. Corn one year, cover crops another year (barley and alfalfa were common), and raise cows a third year. Maybe the corporation is thinking about long term viability; that’d be unusual for a modern corp, but if they were smart they’d do it.

  6. blf says

    So, uh, what are they gonna water them with?

    Since this is about large inhumane corporations: There is a current surplus of Soylent Green…

  7. kestrel says

    Yeah, we use cover crops and animal grazing on our fields. We also broadcast seed (as opposed to drilling) depending what the seed is. I think these are actually old ideas, what’s new is a big corporation saying to do them. And then actually doing them.

  8. robro says

    We had a house re-insulated recently, and the guy doing the work is also in the “pest control” business. He tried to convince my partner to buy a plan for regularly poisoning the house. She told him no way because we like spiders…literally. And then there are the birds. It’s so true. We go to some pains to cultivate a healthy environment for bugs, spiders, birds, lizards, and the plants she spends time raising. Just recently, she pointed out to me a spider under one of the kitchen cupboards so I wouldn’t accidentally harm it.

  9. imaginggeek says

    There is regenerative as used by the General Mills rep in the article, and “regenerative” as it is usually used. Sadly, the later is nothing but a cover for the anti-GMO/organic food producers. Essentially, they hit the point where their scientific credibility was nil, so they repackaged as “regenerative” but its pretty much the same ascientific nonsense we’ve been hearing from the organic industry for the past 20 years. The simple reality is that most of the advances in farming which have improved farming’s environmental footprint have come from conventional agriculture – GMO’s, no-till farming, and the like.

    @#5 The tilling in the fall is pretty normal in norther areas like Minnesota. Likely, the tilling was done as a weed control measure, followed by planting of a winter crop like winter wheat or barely. Those crops seeds need to over-winter in the soil to germinate, so if you’re using tilling as a weed control measure you need to till in the fall. As there are no GMO’d versions of those crops, no-till methods are not really an option, as standard no-till generally involves spraying glyphosate (round-up) to kill the weeds, and then planting your crop a week or two afterwards. No glyphosate resistant wheat or barley = no real route to no-till farmers, especially those planting winter crops.

    @#6 the prevalence of corn and soy has nothing to do with agribusiness. We still run a small family farm, and yet, that’s a big part of what we grow. Corn and soy are where the money is, and if you’re not making money you cannot farm.

    @#6/#9 Field rotations are still a thing, as without it you deplete your soil. In our case we run a rotation of wheat, corn, soy (which is a legume and therefore nitrifies the field). Further south the wheat is usually replaced by something else (or a straight soy-corn rotation), but its still a rotation that uses different crops to balance the soil use and repletion. Contrary to your claims, the corporate owners care deeply for their land – its required for their medium-term profitability. We lease about half the land we farm from corps, and the standards we have to meet in terms of soil protection, drift zones, water management, soil compaction, etc, are quite onerous.

  10. prairieslug says

    Ranting time! I live in southwest MN in corn and soy country. Every winter when it is windy (it is very windy here on the Buffalo Ridge) the soil blows around and the snowdrifts are sometimes black from all the soil in the snow. Nearly all the fields are tilled in the fall, and it is extremely rare to see cover crops. Often after fall plowing, manure is spread on the fields which dries up and blows around with the snow. The wind removes nearly all the snow from the fields and the snow, topsoil, and manure all collect in the drainage ditches where they go straight into the rivers. Another thing I see is drain holes in the fields where there are low spots which used to be seasonal wetlands. Just a plastic pipe connected to the drain tile in the middle of the cropland, with no grass or anything around it to filter the water going in. When the snow melts and/or there is heavy rain the low spots fill with muddy water carrying manure and whatever else is on the fields, then it rapidly drains away into the drain tile to the ditches and then to stream and rivers. Then in spring right before planting, the fields are plowed again, often filling in gullies that form each year on the sloping areas, and spreading out the accumulated topsoil that washes down to the lower areas. It is easy to see the long term effects of that, the soil on the tops of hills is now thin and yellow and has low organic matter and the soil lower down is is black, deep and has much more organic matter. The buffer strips are still totally inadequate, they are too few and too narrow and don’t effectively filter and slow the water flowing through them during heavy rain or rapid snowmelt. Some have filled with soil or have gullies cut around or through them. The last decade it seems like the corn and soy farmers have been installing more and more drain tile each year, and the streams and rivers respond by having higher floods and more erosion. Areas along rivers that used to be rocky and gravelly have been filling up with more and more fine sediment from the fields and it is wiping out the flora and some fauna that are not adapted to being buried deeply in fine sediments from bigger and bigger floods. Dont get me started on the farmers who have cows and cattle! Imagine a trampled, overgrazed eroding steep valley that does not have enough healthy grass to feed the animals on it, hay is piled there all year for them instead so it is essentially a feedlot, that is sprayed nearly every year control invasive thistle plants and each time it rains or snow melts it is like flushing a giant toilet directly into the waterways. I could go on and on, sorry for the run on sentences…

  11. wzrd1 says

    Some years back, I had a quarter acre garden plot on the home we were renting. Had some fun experimenting, one strategy that worked reasonably well was a barrier crop surrounding the main field that was potatoes, kept insects a bay surprisingly well, though pillbugs loved the potatoes close to the surface.
    Within, soy and other legumes between primary desired sustenance crops of corn, tomatoes, peppers (boy, that was a pain keeping them from interbreeding in some cases!) and spices.
    A hint: Don’t plant mint anywhere where it could get cross pollinated with basil, unless you really like mixed mint and basil flavor leaves…
    Didn’t bother the weeds, had no runoff worthy of mention, excellent soil retention and when compatible plantings were close, no stunting of growth. Left the plants to decay in the plot for summer, the roots retained the soil and not enough free flow through the decaying vegetation to allow winter run-off. Didn’t bother with winter crops, as I really don’t get along well with cold weather…

    As for fields with a drainage tile, if I had land like that, it’d drain to a captive pond, to be pumped back to the field for irrigation purposes. Stock with some appropriate fish to keep the water from turning stagnant, modest aeration, I’m sure the local migratory wildlife will supply water plant seeds to balance things out. Tweak that micro-ecosystem as needed.

  12. KG says

    standard no-till generally involves spraying glyphosate (round-up) to kill the weeds, and then planting your crop a week or two afterwards – imaginegeek@13

    Great for biodiversity, eh?

  13. says

    She told him no way because we like spiders…literally.

    My grandpa always said if there’s spiders, the house is healthy.
    I would also like to mention that biodiversity friendly gardening is a lot less work than the other kind. Win win. Butterflies and more free time to enjoy them.

  14. Anton Mates says

    Don’t plant mint anywhere where it could get cross pollinated with basil, unless you really like mixed mint and basil flavor leaves…

    immediately starts planning mint-basil sleepovers