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“Just take one of the pictures from the current Mars rover, Persistence, of a field with nothing in it. Just parched and dry. Then imagine a field of waist-high glowing green grass. That’s just how different it is,” says third-generation Arkansas farmer Adam Chappell of the transformation his fields have seen since adopting practices that embrace the ecosystems designed by Mother Nature.
In 2009, Chappell’s family needed to make a pivotal decision. A seemingly unstoppable weed, palmer amaranth or “pigweed,” was taking over his fields. “We were going broke and we had all the strains that come with that,” he recalls. “We came up with a plan to change the way we farm. We just did it. Then when we ran into problems, instead of running back, we just figured them out and kept moving forward.”
By planting cover crops, he was able to shade out the aggressive weed. Not only did the practice begin to rebuild his soil, but also shifted him from near-bankruptcy to profitability by reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and fuel. His use of regenerative practices such as no-till and diverse crop rotations would even protect him from the calamities that came next....
In 2011, he and his family endured a 100-year-flood. In 2012, there was a drought. Then in 2014, a granary that owed his farm and many others money went out of business. “Any one of these events would put us completely out of business,” says Adam. “It was just our farming practices were efficient enough, and we didn't have the input costs, so we were able to absorb the blow of those events.”
This time of year is planting for farmers—one of the reasons why they are often too busy to pay Earth Day much attention. Planting days start before sunrise and continue until darkness or weather shuts them down. “If you don’t get it planted, you’re definitely not going to harvest it, so it’s got to be the most important part of what we do.” This means Earth Day comes and goes without much focus, though every farmer wants to leave the land better than how they found it. “We all believe that we are doing what’s best for that piece of land,” Chappell says.
“This time of year, in years past, our fields would have been sterile, bare soil. But now our fields are green until we plant them. That’s the difference.” Now his soil has ample earthworms and fungus. The quail have returned, as well as wild turkeys. “It’s a big system working together,” Chappell says, a self-described “science nerd” who earned a degree in entomology before returning to the family farm. He’s optimistic about the idea of carbon farming, where carbon is valued as a commodity just like corn or soybeans:
If you look five, 10 years down the road, if you can lay out a piece of ground and plant a cover crop mix and just absorb as much carbon as possible, your trend yields over time are going to go up. So it'll be a financial boost to you, not just from selling the carbon or paying to store the carbon or emission abatement, but also a boost to your crops two, three, four years down the road. I would love to incorporate that into my rotation, to be able to depend on carbon as another crop and to preserve the farm for the next generation to come.
The content in this document includes testimonials from individual growers. Results and outcomes may vary based on each farm’s individual circumstances and are not guaranteed. You should independently consider all risks and benefits of the adoption of any agronomic practice as they relate to your specific farming operation.