Published Dec 12, 2012

Drought-Proofing Your Farm, part 1

By Margaret Chamas

Nov 30 2012

Fairfield, IA


No one in agriculture has been immune to this summer’s drought.  Crop yields have suffered and livestock have been forced to switch feeds, either because pasture growth was inadequate or because corn prices shot up too high.  For some, the solution has been banking on crop insurance payments.  For others, it’s just scraping by this year however possible, and praying that next year is better.   And for others, a solution is to start planning and managing better.  For the last group, a two-and-a-half day workshop by Darren Doherty might just be what is needed.  Doherty, a farmer and farm planner from Australia, outlined the principles and methodology behind keyline design, elaborated on the effects and benefits, and demonstrated the processes in-field.

Keyline design has been around for years but has not been widely recognized in the US.  Both keyline and Doherty’s particular “brand” of farm design, RegenAG, seek to integrate all aspects of a farm into crop and livestock systems.  His focus is not on sustainability – “would you want to say that your relationship with someone was sustainable?” – but on regeneration.

On Friday night, Doherty delivered a talk to the general public on “Regrarianism” (as opposed to agrarianism, emphasizing the need to build up the soil and land health).  Of interest were his points on the logic process of permaculture and regenerative agriculture, the Regen10:

  1. Climate – the physical weather and temperature, as well as the knowledge and mentality of the farmer
  2. Geography – the landscape and its characteristics
  3. Water – the patterns of rainfall and available water in the landscape
  4. Access – ability to get around the farm, as well as ability to get products to a market
  5. Forestry – use of trees for structural, environmental, aesthetic, and economic purposes
  6. Buildings – structures needed (if any)
  7. Fencing – subdivisions of the landscape, which should be based on the landscape itself
  8. Soils – “the foundation for the economy of life,” needs to be maintained and rebuilt
  9. PolyMarketing – how, when, and where products are marketed, hopefully soon also markets for environmental services
  10. Energy – particularly sunlight, which should be captured as much as possible to work for the farmer

These points provided the basis for the rest of the weekend in terms of farm design.  When doing consultation work, Doherty said that the Regen10 in the order above provides the steps to properly evaluate land and develop a plan of action.  Healthy, regenerative farms have the potential to endure financial and environmental hardships.  However, agriculture cannot be the only regenerative and environmentally-minded aspect of society.  What about a regenerative economy?  Without support from “the rest of the world” to encourage and allow farmers to practice proper techniques, it is unlikely to happen.

Doherty also provided some recommendations for that.  The first is one that many PFI members already ascribe to – meet your farmer and consumer!  The next few at first seemed odd: subsidize education of farmers for regenerative ag principles, and subsidize carbon baseline assessments.  Money should be invested in development of nutrient cycling engines, and regenerative infrastructure.  While for many, government money in agriculture is equated with excessive stress from regulatory programs, and “payouts” to large farms.  But subsidies and supports are there for a reason.  Hopefully, one day those reasons will shift from profit of shareholders to benefit of everyone on the planet.  And last, Doherty offered farmers the following advice: be strategic, pragmatic, and incremental.  Try things a bit at a time, and make sure you think it out first.  And cover your soil and photosynthesize!

Not a problem in PFI.  After all, we know not to farm naked!