This Michigan farm is changing the game in the name of climate

Regenerative farming methods can revive soil, help climate

Verdant Hollow Farm. (Verdant Hollow Farm.)

This article first appeared in the “In This Climate” Newsletter. To sign up, click here -- or use the sign up form at the bottom of this article. 🌾

Changing the farming game

🚜 One of the most interesting climate solutions is right beneath our toes, in the soil: Regenerative farming.

If you’ve never heard of this, you’re not alone: It’s not very mainstream yet. But it’s one of the biggest ways we can reverse effects of climate change. Here’s some bullet point info to get started from Regeneration International, a non-profit helping farmers in this space.

🌾 Regenerative farming or regenerative agriculture “describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”

🌾 Why should we be doing this? “According to soil scientists, at current rates of soil destruction (i.e. decarbonization, erosion, desertification, chemical pollution), within 50 years we will not only suffer serious damage to public health due to a qualitatively degraded food supply characterized by diminished nutrition and loss of important trace minerals, but we will literally no longer have enough arable topsoil to feed ourselves. Without protecting and regenerating the soil on our 4 billion acres of cultivated farmland, 8 billion acres of pastureland, and 10 billion acres of forest land, it will be impossible to feed the world, keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, or halt the loss of biodiversity.

🌾 So how does it work? “The key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only “does no harm” to the land but actually improves it, using technologies that regenerate and revitalize the soil and the environment. Regenerative agriculture leads to healthy soil, capable of producing high quality, nutrient dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading land, and ultimately leading to productive farms and healthy communities and economies. It is a dynamic and holistic, incorporating permaculture and organic farming practices, including conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, composting, mobile animal shelters and pasture cropping, to increase food production, farmers’ income and especially, topsoil.”

🚜 Over in Southwest Michigan, Molly, a manager at Verdant Hollow Farms, has implemented regenerative methods -- I talked to her about the process, how it has worked out, and what advice she has for other farmers looking to switch up their methods in the name of climate.

Molly and her husband live on the farm full time with their three children. In 2016, they decided to create “a regenerative farm retreat haven” in Southwest Michigan with their friend and business partner Susan.

Molly and Brett with Verdant Hollow Farm. (Verdant Hollow Farm.)

“We have a small garden space where we grow seasonal produce, flowers, and herbs using low till methods almost year round. We are also an Animal Welfare Approved farm that raises certified grass-fed lamb, forest raised heritage pork, pasture raised eggs, and dairy goats,” Molly said.

Q: Why did you decide to shift to regenerative methods?

🌾 Molly: The previous land owner of the farm had raised livestock for many years on the property, however, at some point in the last decade they began leasing the “tillable” acreage to someone who grew conventional soy and corn. We had the benefit of moving to the farm without a background in conventional agriculture (Brett was a teacher, and I was a chef) and knew that we wanted to somehow restore the soils, forests, and wetlands at Verdant Hollow. After working with a permaculture design team (Peter Bane and Ketih Johnson) we came to realize that the best way to do this would be through multi species livestock rotation.

Q: How is the process different, being a farmer in Michigan, compared to warmer areas?

🌾 Molly: I can’t speak to what it is like to farm in warmer climates since my only experience has been in the Midwest. However, I do think that we have some benefits that come with farming in our Michigan climate. First of all, most years we have an abundance of rainfall which makes it possible for us to grow forage and hay for livestock without any irrigation. We are able to collect enough rainfall from our barn roofs year round so that we don’t need to pull from our ground water for livestock. We also welcome a good hard freeze throughout the winter. This breaks the cycle of many non beneficial insect species and greatly reduces the parasite load on our livestock. With other holistic practices this allows us to use little to no chemical dewormer on our ruminants.

Q: How have these methods changed your farm overall? What have you learned?

🌾 Molly: I would say that the largest impact we have seen is the amount of biodiversity on the farm. Running hogs and goats through our woods has reduced invasive species and we are now seeing native understory return on its own. Rotational grazing has noticeably improved forage quality, diversity, and abundance. We didn’t see an earthworm in the soil for two years and now they are everywhere. There’s more beneficial insects and song birds and less flooding in the fields and pastures because there is always forage and cover crops to absorb the excess water. The animals, plants, and our family are healthier and more vibrant because of the system.

(Verdant Hollow Farm.)

We learn something daily and it never stops. Since we don’t have backgrounds in agriculture we needed to start from the beginning. We are so grateful for all of the resources out there from our community, great conferences, books, and You Tube!

Q: What advice would you give other farmers in Michigan who are thinking about shifting methods but haven’t done it yet?

🌾 Molly: Start slow and build from there. The first step we took when we moved to the farm was converting to no till and planting cover crops. This made an immediate difference in soil fertility and has been shown to increase yields and soil health even in monoculture production. Find other like minded farmers in your area that are interested in making the shift or have already done so. There are so many nuances to farming this way and everyone could benefit from learning from others mistakes and successes, especially on a regional level. Plus, farming can be a lonely and stressful lifestyle and it’s always nice to have a community to lean on. Utilize grant programs to implement changes, there are many opportunities out there and farming is not cheap. Lastly, listen to the land you are farming. Different soils and landscapes require different management practices, and it is important to recognize what Mother Nature needs help with in each scenario.

Thanks to Molly for taking the time to share her experiences with us. You can learn more about the farm on their website right here.

🧊 Break the ice

Thanks for reading the In This Climate Newsletter! I appreciate it. If you have a topic you’d like me to cover or just want to say hello, feel free to email me!

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Ken Haddad is the digital content manager for WDIV / He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter.