SPOKANE — Farmers need to balance four basic goals to advance sustainable agriculture, which can be a tall order, says a Washington State University soil scientist.
Longtime WSU soil science professor John Reganold was the keynote speaker Nov. 14 during the Tilth Producers of Washington annual conference in Spokane.
As a member of a National Academy of Sciences committee from 2007 to 2010, Reganold helped author a report in Science magazine making recommendations for sustainable agriculture.
“Now we need to increase crop production and at the same time, improve the environment, financial performance and social well-being,” he said.
He called for farming that would use a combination of methods and technologies to balance all four goals.
“The thing about conventional ag, it does a great job with yield, but at the expense of the other three,” Reganold said.
Reganold wants to see “transformative” practices and systems, which would go beyond incremental approaches. That would include mixed crop and livestock production, grass-fed livestock, organic agriculture, conservation agriculture and perennial grains.
Annual grains provide 70 percent of calories globally and make up roughly 70 percent of the world’s cropland, Reganold said. He said annual plants have smaller root systems and are less beneficial to soil than roots of perennial crops.
Perennial wheat is in the development stage, but currently has lower yield than conventional wheat, he said. A commercial perennial wheat is still roughly 10 years away, Reganold said.
Agriculture is slowly changing, but the biggest factors keeping farmers from making the changes are markets, policy and uneven distribution of scientific information, Reganold said.
“The farmer is sitting in the middle, and this is what is affecting the farmer’s decision — it’s overwhelming,” he said.
Reganold acknowledged that the concept sounds “utopian,” noting the difficulty of being profitable, giving employees a good financial plan, have a good yield, take care of the soil and be good for the environment. It would likely be harder with livestock compared to plants, he said.
“We’re moving in that direction with crops and we should be moving in that direction with animals,” he said.
Reganold ended his presentation showing a picture comparing two different types of soil, one handful from conventional farming that he said was light, without much structure, and a handful from perennial wheatgrass with deep roots and high organic matter.
Reganold wants agricultural systems to be like the second soil.
“Those innovative systems, the common theme is, they all build the soil,” he said.