About Regenerative Agriculture
Lisa Rettinger, Antigo, WI
“Regenerative agriculture” has taken its place among the many buzzwords that are floating around nowadays. But what does it really mean? I am going to tell you what it means for me, but let me first be clear that I am not an expert. However, I am greatly enjoying the journey of becoming an orchardist and I have the extremely good fortune of finding it fascinating. If you can learn something from my experiences now or sometime in the future, all the better!
Diving into regenerative agriculture and questioning everything is what has gotten my orchard turned around. Let me give a brief background. This is my fifth growing season after buying a 15-acre, conventional, semi-dwarf apple orchard, complete with bare soil from years of infamous non-selective herbicide application. The orchard was unprofitable and had gotten overgrown, and the buildings were in poor shape. What are the positives? It was affordable and it was in my hometown of Antigo, Wisconsin, which I was finally ready to move back to from St. Paul. Previously, I worked in the GMO industry for about eight years, and then spent another eight years working in the regulation of chemicals including some agricultural products. To say the least, that was extremely important background in making today’s decisions as I manage my orchard.
During the first spring of orchard ownership, I was still working full-time for my previous employer remotely, plus running a spring nursery business. Needless to say, it did not go well! I had no idea how to manage an orchard, but I made the decision that I was absolutely not going to apply any synthetic chemicals. I simply did not want to learn the “conventional” management since that’s not what I intended to do long term. It made the first year a total disaster and it was a learning curve like no other. The varieties are primarily very scab-susceptible varieties and that first year, most of my fruit was not even marketable as “seconds.” Ouch. It was a good thing I have a cider press, but it was tough to market all that cider!
I have done a considerable amount of consulting with Michael Phillips and continue to do so now. I cannot recommend that enough, and everyone should have his books including Mycorrhizal Planet. However, I also started thinking about WHY does apple scab take hold? What is the difference in the scab-immune varieties and the scab-susceptible varieties? I did not have any fire blight, but what exactly allows it to take hold of a tree? If I accept the notion that pests and diseases are nature’s clean-up crew, what is wrong with my tree and management practices? I wanted to know more than simply what I should be spraying to prevent it, and I wanted to go beyond the explanation that these are things that just happen. I did not want to accept that organic growers better just stick with certain varieties. This is also when I stumbled on regenerative agriculture and it was really a paradigm shift.
Since then, my goal has been fixing the ecosystem, including the soil life, so the orchard can do a better job sustaining itself in terms of disease resistance, carbon cycling, efficient water usage, availability of soil nutrition, etc. From a business standpoint, this means that I want to reduce outside inputs, increase my yields, and increase my percentage of #1 fruit. It’s one thing to want to do things that are ecologically sound, but our businesses also need to be profitable. Reducing outside inputs by getting our systems to work for themselves while increasing the money we get for our fruit is good business.
Regenerative agriculture is focused on the system working for itself in the long run. Yes, we need to get a good crop this year, but what am I doing to help the orchard become more self-sufficient for years to come? As Wendell Berry points out, everything we do has consequences beyond the desired effect. If I’m spraying something for a specific purpose, what else is it doing? I can’t know every consequence, but is it probably a good thing? For example, if I spray something to kill or prevent a fungus, what else is it doing? Is it killing other biology? Is it doing anything to actually boost plant health? Especially if it’s a negative, is this something that I plan on doing every year or is this something I’m reducing or eliminating?
Probably the most important tool that I have used is sap analysis. I cannot stress the importance of this enough in being able to measure improvements. Sap analysis shows what is actually being taken up by your plant as well as which forms of nitrogen are present in your plant which is an extremely important plant health indicator. In my situation with the previous management, I can do a soil test showing perfectly good levels of nutrients, yet I get a completely different sap-analysis report, because my soil is simply not able to make those nutrients available. We all have very different soils with much different oxidation states, organic matter levels, carbon cycling ability, soil biology, etc., which all make a difference in the availability of nutrients. So, I’m not saying that nobody should test their soil, I’m just saying that the sap analysis is more accurate in what is actually being taken up by your plant, as well as identifying excesses which can be equally important. I have also had excesses that have caused problems.
What are the results? Let me preface this with saying that it has taken some experimentation and I certainly do not have things all ironed out. This will absolutely be an experiment for as long as I’m an orchardist! However, Cortland, McIntosh, Paula Red, Regent and Wealthy vary from almost undetectable scab to maybe 5-10%. There is hardly any detectable scab on Spartan, Macoun, Duchess, Viking, Beacon and Honeycrisp. Not that I am disparaging their use, but I don’t use any sulfur, lime sulfur, sodium bicarb, copper, etc. I’ve been able to completely eliminate nitrogen as an input, yet my sap test shows very high total nitrogen, with nitrates and ammonium shifting below the detection limit. A complex topic, but that indicates that my plants are more efficient in producing whole proteins and becoming less digestible to leaf feeding insects/caterpillars and more resistant to disease. Both of those are visually evident.
Other nutrient inputs have become more accurate and have been largely reduced, with the exception of calcium. Fruit size has greatly improved, and I have less sooty blotch. This has all led to more #1 fruit, and I also sell a little mildly blemished or small fruit as “seconds,” for a better price than if I pressed into cider, currently my primary processing form. As I replace trees, I am not seeing the replant disease problems that I was seeing. I have had discussions with people who say this should not be such an issue when good soil biology is present. However, I cannot explain this and it is simply an observation. I should say these observations are with M7 and B9 rootstock.
There has also been an obvious flavor improvement of the apples over the last few years. We as growers are not directly compensated for flavor at this point. However, being compensated for the nutrient density of our fruit may someday become a reality through the work currently being done by the BioNutrient Food Association. We can hope, right?
One additional thing to note is that although many farmers have been able to virtually eliminate their insect problems through plant health and regenerative practices, this is not thought to be the case with the actual fruit. That is a complex topic, but my point is that we can reduce our insect pressure, but most likely not eliminate it. So, it is still important to monitor and plan accordingly.
It is my opinion that regenerative agriculture can greatly help us as fruit growers. I think there are things that organic-minded folks like us are naturally trying to do as far as considering soil health and ecosystems. All of our orchards have their nuances and unique challenges, but I think we can help our orcharding techniques — and bottom lines — when we do more exploring of “why.”
I would encourage you to steer away from the mindset that if a source of information doesn’t specifically address orchards, then it’s not relevant. There are so many excellent sources of information, but let me point out a few specific ones to get you started down the rabbit hole if it interests you!
The Regenerative Agriculture Podcast is outstanding. There is one specifically with a well-known cherry orchardist, but they are all extremely worthwhile.
AcresUSA has an excellent conference that I attended the last couple of years.
Anyone who can attend a two-day John Kempf workshop should absolutely do so, but I would recommend listening to a lot of his webinars or YouTube videos first.
There are many, many other worthwhile resources, but that is a start! Again, I would like to be clear that I am not presenting myself as an expert and things are certainly not perfect at my orchard. But improvement is happening and I’ll continue the experiment and enjoy the journey. Onward!
In a Nutshell
Practical steps often employed in regenerative agriculture:
Always have living roots in the soil. The more diverse, the better. Do your best to avoid bare soil, and understand that the fastest way to increase organic matter is having diverse plants photosynthesizing and sending sugars through root exudates into the soil. The detrimental effect on soil biology in the top few inches of bare soil on an 80 degree day is astounding.
Eliminate or limit applications of products that kill biology whether in the soil or on the plant.
Eliminate or limit tillage. Exceptions include breaking up severely compacted soil, actually planting our trees, etc. As growers of perennials, this is not too difficult.
Diversify the plants growing in the soil. Depending on someone’s scale or type of trees, there are obvious challenges to this. I have a free standing orchard so I added Dutch white clover, a little red clover, Bocking 14 comfrey, chives, and mint. Many other “weeds” come up, but those weeds are indicators of what is going on with the soil and they are slowly shifting.
Integrate animals. This is ideal, but we know that this is not practical for everyone, whether in orchard or field crop situations, although many of us are experimenting and having varying levels of success.
About the Author
Lisa Rettinger owns and operates Grandview Orchard and Nursery in Antigo, WI. Her apples are produced completely free of synthetic chemicals and are available as pick-your-own or pre-picked.They also have apple cider in half and full gallon jugs, pies made from our apples along with locally made: honey, maple syrup, jams, wild rice blends and salsa. A little of something for everyone!