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Why old is new again in farming, and why it has the potential to feed and save the planet

The COVID-19 pandemic response shows our potential to pull together.

Across the globe, people are pulling together to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a powerful demonstration of our interconnectedness and, more than that, our ability to work together for a healthier world.

This year, more than ever, I see an opportunity for sustainable change in the way we cultivate food from the ground up: by prioritizing soil health.

The state of the soil

It takes nature about 1,000 years to generate one inch of topsoil — which is responsible for 95 percent of all food produced for human consumption. It takes humans no time at all to destroy it with chemical-heavy, industrial farming practices.

In 2014, soil scientists estimated that a third of the world’s topsoil already had been lost and that it could be completely gone by 2075. So, it’s time to talk dirty.

As Bill Gates recently wrote, "We should discuss soil as much as we talk about coal." In my family, we’re more likely to reference my Grandpa Albert’s motto, "Leave the land better than you found it."

As Bill Gates recently wrote, 'We should discuss soil as much as we talk about coal.'
 Lundberg Family Farms was founded on this promise more than 80 years ago after my grandparents endured the Dust Bowl — a merciless lesson about what happens when over-plowing and drought combine. Since then, we’ve learned to treat Mother Nature like a member of the family by tending to soil, air, water and wildlife as carefully our crops. Today, many of our family’s rice fields have been certified organic for more than 20 years, and more than two-thirds of our products bear the "Organic" label. 

Now, a new food label is making inroads at the grocery store: "Regenerative Organic Certified," or ROC. Whole Foods named "regenerative agriculture" this year’s top food trend, and big producers are embracing it. General Mills recently committed to advancing regenerative practices on at least 1 million acres of land by 2030. Danone North America is partnering with Replant Capital to invest $20 million in support of Danone farmers as they transition to regenerative or organic farming practices. 

At Lundberg Family Farms, we’re excited to see these efforts. We’ve always geeked out on the future of organic farming, knowing it’s tied to the future of the planet. Regenerative agriculture, like organic farming, puts the planet first — building rather than degrading soil by increasing organic matter, biodiversity and fertility. 

Back to the future

Still, it’s a long row to hoe. A half-century after the modern organic movement began, less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmland is managed organically, including much of what we consider "regenerative agriculture." 

It may seem daunting to change how much of the nation produces food. But organic producers have long shown that soil doesn’t have to be mined to be productive. In fact, today’s regenerative practices elevate old ways of farming that predate the industrial era. These practices take more thought, time and planning, but good things usually do. Here at Lundberg Family Farms, we’ve cultivated eco-positive farming methods over four generations, including: 

Lundberg rice fields

Use of cover crops. Cover crops — such as oats, vetch and fava beans — are crops we grow for the soil instead of the table. We plant them during the winter so photosynthesis can occur year-round, bringing carbon out of the air and putting it into the soil. This creates a better home for microbes, which naturally make nitrogen, an essential part of the soil’s well-balanced diet.

Incorporating rice straw. My grandpa and grandma saw the value of returning rice straw to the soil long before a 1991 act was passed to curb the practice. Other farmers laughed at our efforts to turn straw into the soil because the task was so cumbersome. Now, incorporating rice straw is common practice to protect air quality — and it also builds organic matter. Between cover crops, rice straw and compost, we’re able to provide the soil with more than we take from it. 

Natural weed/pest control. We manage weeds naturally, with water. A few weeks after planting, we raise the water level just high enough to control grass weeds but not so high that it harms the rice. Then we dry up the fields to control aquatic weeds. It’s a system my dad and uncles developed as they prepared to give up on a field that had been overrun with aquatic weeds. Decades later, it’s our best defense against aquatic weeds — no herbicides or pesticides needed. We also build owl boxes and put them around the fields so the owls can naturally control pests. After all, biodiversity is at the heart of organic farming, and our fields are home to hundreds of species.

Let’s keep growing together

Desperation often precedes action, and the state of the world’s soil is reaching a tipping point. We need to increase organic production— and soon.  

For this to happen, growers and processors need to pull together to create a healthier food ecosystem. As both a grower and a processor, we at Lundberg Family Farms know firsthand that each pillar of production is complex. However, nutritional quality and environmental protection have to come first. 

Ultimately, consumers hold the power. Fair payments and living wages are an integral part of regenerative agricultural practices. On average, we pay organic growers 30 percent more so they don’t lose revenue by farming organically, which is more labor-intensive than conventional farming and produces lower yields. However, when consumers buy organic food, they’re not only saying no to chemicals and GMOs, they’re saying yes to soil health and biodiversity.

Given the economic ravages of COVID-19, I know increasing the grocery budget is the last thing any of us want to do. However, it’s up to us to eat the change we want to see in the world. And after seeing how the world is banding together to battle COVID-19, I’m convinced we can band together to tackle other crises, too.

My cousins and I are the third generation of Lundbergs to carry on my grandparents’ legacy of respect for the soil, and the fourth generation is doing the same. Let’s all do our part, as we’re doing with COVID-19, so we can keep growing together for generations to come. 

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