Expert encourages regenerative practices

Kris Nichols, founder and principal scientist with KRIS Systems, led a soil health workshop in Manning, Alta., in early June.  |  Jeremy Simes photo

Kris Nichols says conventional farmers have no excuses, suggesting time is running out to adapt to a changing climate

MANNING, Alta. — Soil health expert Kris Nichols says now is the time for producers to implement regenerative practices, suggesting it will help ensure farms remain productive in the long-run.

Speaking in Manning during a soil health workshop in early June, Nichols said people are running out of time to adapt with the changing climate, encouraging producers to look at regenerative agriculture as a solution.

“Abnormal is the new normal,” said Nichols, founder and principal scientist of Kris Systems, pointing to severe weather patterns, the aging farmer population and high obesity rates as challenges to overcome.

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Farmers are also running out of money, she added, suggesting chemical and mechanical practices aren’t working as well as they used to.

“We have to start looking at these things and be able to address them,” said Nichols, formerly a research microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and chief scientist with the Rodale Institute.

“Our tendency is to put a Band-Aid on it. We need to go further. Our soils are bleeding carbon.”

Some farms are already implementing regenerative practices, such as cover-cropping, inter-croppingand introducing livestock, but adoption has been slow.

Better soils can improve profitability and help crops withstand drought in the long-run, but cover crops don’t provide immediate cash.

Nichols acknowledged this dilemma, understanding quick income is necessary to live, but said there are still ways conventional producers can take part in regenerative agriculture.

“Everything is on the table,” she said. “There is no reason not to have perennials and annuals, and perennials and annuals mixed together.”

For example, she said producers can look at pastures or native plants in their area, figuring out which species manage to stay productive longer.

They can also plant shrubs or trees, introduce livestock, increase crop diversity and reduce synthetic inputs.

The key to improving soils, she said, is generally always having a plant in the ground.

She explained that when photosynthesis occurs, plants are injecting organic compounds in the soil, allowing bacteria to release much-needed nutrients.

Slightly stressing plants through things like grazing also helps, she added, because it forces them to produce more organic compounds.

“You have to think of soil as the product you’re growing. It’s your major resource,” she said. “The plants and the animals are the tools that help you grow it.”

She said many farmers are already naturally gravitating to regenerative practices because they are receiving lower returns from their cash crops, whether that’s because of new diseases, stronger weeds or weather impacts.

“All of those things are becoming more of a challenge,” she said. “As with anyone who is in any business, when you face economic challenges, you look for answers.”

She believes farms in North America, on average, should strive for soil organic matter of seven percent.

For places like Arizona, she said, the percentage of organic matter can be lower, but farms in the lower U.S. Midwest should have percentages in the teens.

For farms in northern Alberta, she recommended they achieve organic matter levels of nine to 11 percent.

“I’m not trying to be unrealistic with this, but we have to tell ourselves we have unlimited potential,” she said.

“If we have unlimited potential, what can we do and where can we go? If we say we are limited, we will always be limited.”

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