Pennsylvania Legacies #159: The Ground Beneath Our Feet

People need plants to live. Plants need carbon and nitrogen to grow. But there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere and not enough in the ground, especially on farmland degraded by generations of unsustainable practices, while rivers and streams are full of nitrogen that should be nourishing crops. Can regenerative and holistic farming methods set things right? A conversation with Hannah Smith-Brubaker of PASA Sustainable Agriculture, ahead of PASA’s upcoming 2022 Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Lancaster.

Dealing with climate change means drastically reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. But to get to net-zero and beyond, carbon sequestration will need to be in the picture. Industrial emitters have already invested billions in technologies to capture carbon pollution at the source, and even more expensive and technologically ambitious efforts are underway to pull carbon directly from the air. But what if there were a way to direct-capture carbon from the atmosphere and put it to productive use without relying on middlemen, new technologies, or massive infrastructure investments?

Hannah Smith-Brubaker

Regenerative agriculture presents a huge opportunity — not only to reduce overall greenhouse-gas emissions, but to do it in a way that centers farmers, supports rural communities, promotes stewardship, and feeds people. Currently, modern, industrial agriculture is a leading source of climate-changing emissions. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

“In areas, particularly in more developed countries, certainly here in the U.S., where it has been a more extractive type of agriculture…we not only are not helping the environment, we are adding to this climate crisis,” said Hannah Smith-Brubaker, Executive Director of PASA Sustainable Agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture is a return to the “whole system” approach to the land that was common for thousands of years. 

We want to have practices that really in the end are leaving the earth better than we found it.

“We couldn’t be taking more from the land than what we were giving back, or we wouldn’t have soil to grow in. And as often happens… as industries grow, as agriculture grew, as our planet has grown, we have sided – often, larger nations – on this type of extractive agriculture that is taking more from the land than we’re giving back. And there will be consequences for that,” said Smith-Brubaker. “So many of us who have been either through multiple generations or in returning to farming are focusing on that indigenous knowledge of farming as part of a broader ecosystem.”

Regenerative agriculture can look different depending on the farm: organic vegetable farms will use different practices than row crop farmers, who will take a different approach than farmers that raise livestock.

“It’s not always the same prescriptive practices for every land that really results in these benefits,” said Smith-Brubaker.

According to Smith-Brubaker, many practices focus directly on soil health, like keeping the soil covered through planting (ideally perennial) cover crops. This helps keep soil cool and prevent compaction, which makes it difficult for plants to grow. Added organic matter in the soil can also help prevent flooding by absorbing additional water. Many farmers also strive to reduce soil disturbance with no-till practices.

Incorporating animals and pollinators into crop fields can also have benefits, including better yields.

“We want to have practices that really in the end are leaving the earth better than we found it,” said Smith-Brubaker. “That’s essentially the goal of regenerative agriculture.”