I had the privilege of attending the Regenerative Agriculture Field Day at the holistically-managed 7,600- acre Paicines Ranch that was a pre-conference event for the 2018 Ecofarm Conference held in Pacific Grove, California. This day-long event featured Holistic Management practitioners Gabe Brown and Paicines Ranch Manager Kelly Mulville as well as soil experts Ray Archuleta, Dr. David Johnson, and Tim LaSalle. Over 100 people attended this field day.
We started out in a lecture setting learning about the importance of the appropriate fungal:bacteria ratio for compost from Dr. David Johnson from New Mexico State University who is focused on BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agriculture Management). The compost is so potent that people are using one pound of it in 30 gallons/acre to spray as a seed inoculate at planting time. One compost pile will yield about 1000 pounds. The compost produces a five times increase in production for a cost of only 25 cents/acre.
Then we heard from Ray “The Soil Guy” Archuleta who started his presentation with the ever popular soil demonstration to show how much better a no-till, biologically active soil can hold together in water and yet allow for better infiltration of the water during a rain event. He noted that tilled soil causes the soil to cannibalize itself. Also, the glomalin in the soil only lasts 27 days so more glomalin must constantly be created through the microbial activity around the root of plants. This soil structure, along with ground cover, helps to stabilize soil which must withstand the force of a raindrop coming 20 mph. Increasing plants in the soil also help us from “leaking sunlight” by creating more opportunity to use the solar energy through photosynthesis.
In addition, the soil organisms in the soil are busy eating weed seed. In fact 10% of weed seed are eaten every day by insects. Ray noted that there are 1,700 beneficial insects for every pest. He also noted that if farmers can learn to work with their soils, they will no longer be tenant farmers controlled by large chemical companies. The technology to help vegetable farmers also work within a no-till system is also here with Virginia Tech developing a no-till potato planter that terminates the cover crop and has a sub-soil shank to cut the space for transplanted vegetables to be dropped in.
Lastly, Gabe Brown told his story starting with a picture of cattle grazing cover crops in 40 degrees below zero temperature. He noted that the principles for regenerative agriculture are the same regardless of where you farm, but the tools are used differently. Gabe also mentioned that what some people don’t realize is that the liquid carbon pathway through the roots of the plants that feeds the soil microbes is also the source of carbonic acid which breaks down the parent material (rock) and makes the minerals available to the plants. Thus, fertile soil is a product of photosynthesis and microbial resynthesis.
Gabe noted that he has seen a 20-60% increase in net profit because of planting crops together. He can then combine them together and use them as a hog or chicken ration or sell as a cover crop mix. He says the first step when considering what cover crop to use is to consider your resource concern and then design the mix around that concern so you address that concern. There isn’t really a good blanket cover crop mix. Gabe is running up to 750,000 pounds/acre of animals and using cool season then warm season mixes to accelerate biological time to improve soil fertility and productivity.
Gabe doesn’t worry about the having seeds mixed in the seeder because if some small seeds come through after the large seeds, he figures that the large seeds make way for the smaller seeds. He also includes a plant like safflower in his mix even though the cattle won’t eat it because he wants the safflower to catch the snow and keep it on his place to improve his water cycle since snow is 30% of the moisture they receive on his land. He says he focuses on the reality that farm profit relates to carbon cycling through their farming system.
As Gabe finishes his animals he is looking for the Brix to be at 25-30. The herd may only be taking 25-30% of the biomass. 60-70% of his mix might be sorghum, although he likes to add plants like plantain which helps support the cattle’s health. With that kind of mix he is getting as much as 4 pounds of gain per day with a gross profit of $435/acre and a net of $350/acre.
Then Kelly Mulville spoke about the work being done on the Paicines Ranch using these practices and principles. In their crop fields, the land has been leased and was heavily tilled as part of an organic vegetable production system. When the Paicines staff did a baseline monitoring they found no living organisms in the soil. The first year they planted cover crops and broadcast the seeds. The plants that grew had a relative feed value of 88. They then ran cattle and sheep and are working on planting perennial plants near the sprinklers in these fields. They have a total of 68 acres they are rehabilitating and have created 98 paddocks. Last winter they planted 20 species. This year they have planted 40 species. Their relative feed value was in the low 100s. In order to control the animals they have built electric fencing over top of the sprinkler system. They are now up to a relative feed value of 230 with their most recent cover crop.
We also visited the new vineyard on Paicines which has been designed as a no-till system. A conventional vineyard often has 25 tractor passes per year. With previous vineyard trials that have incorporated sheep as a biological tool for the vineyard there has been a 90% reduction in irrigation use and a 1,260 pound/acre yield increase with superior quality of grape as well as a $450 reduction of expenses because of reduced input needs. Kelly uses a Holistic Design process that looks at creating opportunities by increasing diversity and paying attention to management.
The new vine support system in this vineyard works to get the vines out of the heat and frost zones that are closer to the ground while allowing the sheep to help with pruning the suckers. The vine supports were placed in the direction of the wind to make sure that vines were not blown across the supports. This system also creates more shade for the soil organisms and other wildlife. Kelly talked about planting other plants among the grape vines to attract pollinators and also hummingbirds, which would protect the grapes against other birds that are more interested in the grapes. They have already seen more green growing plants throughout the summer and not just near the dripline. All the varieties of grapes have been selected for drought hardiness.
While the cost of this system is $1,000-1200 more per acre than a VSP (vertical shoot position) system, Kelly believes that the extra cost of developing the vineyard this way will pay for itself in two years. Irrigation is raised up and the hope is that once the soil fertility is increased the vineyard can be farmed dryland on 8 inches of rain/year. There will be no need to run electric fencing to protect the vines from the sheep because of the design. The cover crops that have done well so far are mustards, horehound, dove weed, and milkweed.
The new 25-acre vineyard was placed on a north facing slope as the best place to grow perennials on that landscape. When they planted the new vines they put an application of compost and then ran 6 ADA (animal days per acre) of cattle and sheep. After they planted the cover crops, they were able to run 67 ADA. They were giving the sheep about ¼ acre paddocks.
The biggest challenge at the vineyard has been ground squirrels attacking the young vines. However, they are working with attracting more raptors to the area by setting up kestrel boxes. Mel Preston from Point Blue Conservation Science also talked about all the birds that have been attracted by the farm management practices at Paicines.
Paicines is running Katahdin sheep which they slaughter at 12-14 months old with an average hang weight of 104 pounds. With Katahdins the flavor peaks when they are older.
We ended the field day with an interactive installation “A Taste of Place,” an actual soil and vegetable tasting experience led by artist Laura Parker.
The next day Ray, Gabe, and David offered a day-long Regenerative Agriculture Carbon+Soil=Solutions! Regenerative Agriculture Intensive at Asilomar which was also well-attended. Then on Friday of the conference, I gave a presentation with Spencer and Abbey Smith of the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management on “Regenerative Grazing: Managing Healthy Ecosystem Processes Using Livestock.” It was a great group of attendees at that workshop who asked a lot of good questions about how to actually put into practice these principles they had been hearing all week long.
Thanks to Paicines Ranch, Globetrotter Foundation, TomKat Ranch, and TomKat Educational Foundation for their sponsorship of these programs.