What is regenerative farming? Experts say it can combat climate change

A climate reckoning in the heartland

Watch the CBSN Originals documentary, "A Climate Reckoning in the Heartland," in the video player above. 


Family farming has always been a tough business. In recent years, more extreme weather events have made it even tougher.

"The average farm across the United States has been in the red, has gone backwards, not made money, for five years in a row," said Graham Christensen, a 39-year-old Nebraska farmer whose community was acutely impacted by flooding in the spring of 2019. "Then when you have something that is devastating as what the bomb cyclone and the 2019 floods were here in Nebraska, those folks that were barely able to hang on, for some folks this was the final icing on the cake."

The record-setting floods overwhelmed levees, submerging fields and obstructing farmers' access to acres of their land. Raging waters not only destroyed crops stored from last season, but also scoured the soil that crops so deeply depend on, which will affect production for next season. For some, the water still hasn't fully subsided. Even when it does, farmers will find their fields covered with silt and debris, and it will take hard work to nurse the soil back to health. 

Christensen believes that regenerative farming, a strategy focused on the nourishment of the soil, is an effective way for farmers to adapt to the challenges of a changing climate and even help reverse the problem.

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Historic flooding in March 2019 left some towns and farms along the Missouri River completely underwater.  CBS News

Maybe it doesn't look like much more than dirt, but soil does more than just give crops life — it also serves as the terrestrial ecosystem's most significant carbon storehouse. Fertile soil is microbe- and carbon-rich. Improperly cultivating it with traditional practices like excessive tilling and monocropping (producing a single crop every year on the same land) kills off those critical microbes and releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. It's estimated that 10% to 20% of the 450 billion tons of carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution may be attributed to soil carbon losses. Carbon that is released from the soil then oxidizes in the air and transforms into carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that traps heat and contributes to warming temperatures. 

Faced with the fact that his multigenerational family farm and others like it may not survive if unprecedented flooding events become the new normal, Christensen decided something needed to change. His business, GC Resolve, offers grassroots education and mobilizes the public to support initiatives including regenerative farming. 

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Graham Christensen speaks to farmers interested in learning more about regenerative farming in March 2019. CBS News

"About 12 years ago, I started understanding the science of climate change," Christensen explains. "At that point in time, as a farmer myself, it was clear that there's a lot of things that the farming community and farmers can do to help reverse the detrimental impacts of climate change."

Christensen encourages farmers to use a range of regenerative methods to prevent soil erosion and degradation. Utilizing cover crops, or plants sown after harvesting the farm's primary crop, can help to anchor the soil in place, slow down rainfall, and increase biodiversity. 

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These conversations about sustainable agricultural practices are moving beyond farming communities and into national politics. Recent polling shows 72% of Americans consider climate change an important issue, and 48% say the science on climate change is more convincing than five years ago — mostly because they've seen evidence of more extreme weather

On the campaign trail, 2020 presidential candidates have proposed a range of strategies to tackle the problem and protect the livelihoods of Midwestern farmers. In the first Democratic presidential debate, former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke threw his support behind efforts like Christensen's, saying, "We're going to put farmers and ranchers in the driver's seat, renewable and— and sustainable agriculture, to make sure that we capture more carbon out of the air and keep more of it in the soil."

But to make headway in deep red states like Nebraska, it can't be a partisan effort. Farmers here may not buy into progressive rhetoric on climate change, but they know what they're seeing on their land.

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Brett Adams's family has been farming in Nebraska for five generations, and he's troubled by the impact of increasingly severe flooding. "When I was a kid," he said, "an inch of rain, or an inch and a half of rain, was a big deal. Now it's like we get four- or five-inch rains all the time, or six-inch rains, even. That was unheard of."

"I'm not a climate change guy, as far as climate change, global warming, or any of that stuff," Adams said. "But have I seen the weather change in, say, my 20-year farming career? Absolutely."

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