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Using Data From 1000 Farms To Heal the Soil

On cardboard zip tied to a corner of the Ecdysis Foundation’s main lab room on South Dakota rangelands, scientist-farmers have scrawled a vision of the world they hope to help create.

Grocery stores stocked with locally grown produce. A rebounding of endangered animal and insect species. More edible landscapes. A slower pace. Deeper connection to the natural world. And increased understanding that every piece of food on a plate has a story.

Lofty hopes are pinned on Ecdysis, a word which refers to the process of an insect shedding its skin to allow for growth, and its companion operation, Blue Dasher Farm.

white fence and a barn
Blue Dasher farm in Estelline, South Dakota. (Photo courtesy of Masha Hamilton)

But founder Dr. Jonathan Lundgren believes optimism combined with urgent work is compulsory if the world hopes to save its dwindling supply of fertile topsoil and, with it, most life on Earth.

Lundgren has launched a broad and ambitious experiment called the 1000 Farms Initiative to collect data that will paint a picture of how specific farming practices from conventional to regenerative and everything in between are impacting soil composition, water infiltration rates, microbial life, bird diversity and other factors that impact soil health.

Ecdysis Staff collect plant biomass measurements in California almond orchards. (Photo courtesy of Christina Lind)

The Rockefeller Foundation is helping support the work, which sent Lundgren and his team of 25 to 389 farms in 15 states, collecting 4,960 soil and water tests, 31,000 plant biomass samples, and 77,800 insect sweeps this first year alone.

Although the focus has been on the U.S., he plans to broaden the work over the next three years, initially including more farms in Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as Black-, Brown- and women-run farms.

In addition to scientific analysis, the researchers are also required to work on the 53-acre farm in Estelline where they raise sheep, alpaca, chicken, a few pigs, and bees.

“I have herded sheep, collected eggs, butchered chickens,” says Dr. Ryan Schmid, Ecdysis’s leading rangelands scientist. “To be able to ask the right research questions to help farmers, you have to walk a mile in their shoes.”

  • When scientists become farmers, 'it increases the relevance of our questions and the credibility of our work, And it goes both ways—farmers need to be our research partners.'
    Dr. Jonathan Lundgren
    Founder & Director, Ecdysis Foundation

Short-term Goal: Data. Long-term Goal: Save the Planet

Lundgren and his team devoted several hours to each farm they visited this year as part of the 1000 Farms Initiative, sometimes spending the night or joining the farmer’s family for a meal. Visits began in February with California almond orchards, sped up dramatically throughout the summer, and continued more sporadically into early fall. The team aims to visit a roughly equal number of conventional and regenerative farms.

“We are practicing a whole different type of science,” Lundgren says. “It is relationship-intensive.”

The short-term goal is data—lots of it. “This is a grassroots farmer-led movement, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence,” Schmid says. “But anecdotal evidence doesn’t persuade the skeptics. We need to ask the right questions, measure the right things, and then follow wherever the data leads us.”

The long-term goal? Nothing short of saving the planet and its diversity of life. “The food system is the biggest tool we have to solve problems of climate change, human health, the need for closer communities,” Lundgren says. “And soil health supports the food system. If we don’t focus our lives on hope and change and solutions, we will have lost before we even get out the gate.”

Consensus is still solidifying around the precise meaning of regenerative farming, and given the diversity of environments and crops, Lundgren doesn’t favor a cookie cutter definition. But he points to five primary principles to support healthy soil:

  1. Don’t disturb the soil’s microbial, invertebrate, plant and bird life by tilling;
  2. Never leave bare soil; fill in even the interrow areas;
  3. Increase plant diversity;
  4. Graze animals rotationally and integrate them into croplands;
  5. Reduce as much as possible all use of synthetic chemicals.

That last one has brought him into occasional conflict with the makers of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Lundgren, an entomologist, and agroecologist, spent 11 years as a celebrated U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist, singled out by former President Obama for praise. “I had my life mapped out,” he says.

Then he decided the USDA was trying to support agriculture as it exists rather than look for practices that heal the soil. So, during a snowy cross-country trip home from a farming conference in a rental car with Kansas farmer Gail Fuller, the idea for the foundation and the companion farm developed. It was founded in 2016.

“Now no two days are the same,” Lundgren says. “You go from running a world-class research facility to chasing sheep that just broke fence.”

man wearing a hat holding a test tube in his hand.
Lundgren looks at insects swept up from one of the farms his team visited this year. (Photo courtesy of Masha Hamilton)

The Scientists at the Farm Work Through Winter

Ecdysis’s work doesn’t end when the growing season does; back at the lab, the scientists are busy examining soil and insect samples, compiling data, and writing papers sharing what they’ve discovered.

Insects collected during land sweeps as part of the 1000 Farms Initiative. (Photo courtesy of Masha Hamilton)

Dr. Kelton Welch, Ecdysis’s taxonomist and insect collection manager, for instance, will spend this winter overseeing the development of an artificial intelligence application, Bug Box, to identify insects that are scooped up on the farms the team visits, and then sort them in a way that will be useful for researchers.

“Bugs are a symptom of the system they live in,” Welch says. “We believe bug diversity creates more balance in the soil. The Bug Box will help us gather the data to see if that’s true.”

Lundgren believes once it is finished, the Bug Box will be a useful and time-saving tool for other researchers. “We’re solving scientific bottlenecks because we need new technology for such a broad experiment as the 1000 Farms Initiative,” he says.

Although the data is still being recorded from the farms visited this year, previous research has given Lundgren an idea of what he will find. Over three years, he looked at farm fields transitioning from conventional to regenerative practices in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Canada. He found that insect predation on caterpillars, considered representatives of farmland pests, increased from 25 percent the first year, to about 50 percent the second year and 75 percent the third.

“At that point, there is no more need for chemical pesticide,” he says. “Regenerative methods made that obsolete.”

Shifting Culture to Renew and Restore Farming Communities

Ecdysis staff collecting data in Washington state cherry fields. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ryan Schmid)

Saving money farmers now spend on pesticides and fertilizers while achieving full potential in crop yield, restoring soil health, and improving nutritional value of food are all data points Lundgren expects to prove. But for regenerative agriculture to be successful, some suggest cultural shifts may be needed as well. For instance, more land may need to be planted with crops for human consumption, instead of animal feed, and cattle and sheep may need to be released from their pens.

The rewards, though, will reverberate throughout farming communities, the Ecdysis team believes. Monoculture farming, where a single crop is grown at one time, has contributed to well-documented farmer isolation, says Schmid, who grew up on a farm himself in northwest Iowa.

In the U.S., first poultry in the 1950s and then beef and pork in the 1960s were removed from crop farms and separated into confined facilities, contributing to fewer soil nutrients, decreased water retention and increased weed and pest problems. Then in the 1970s, large-scale commercial farms and concentrated animal feeding operations were born from a philosophy pushed by Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture, who insisted farmers “get big or get out.”

“Used to be that farming communities supported a beekeeper, a baker, and butcher, a fresh vegetable stand,” Schmid says. “Farmers knew everyone and would go in weekly to bring their produce or meat or honey. But with monoculture cropping systems, the farming community often just supports a grain elevator and a gas station. That’s a loss.”

Breaking Science Out of Silos

Some agricultural data:

In 2021, the United States lost about 1.3 million acres of farmland, down to about 895,300,000 acres, according to the USDA, which puts the number of farms in the United States at about 2,012,050.

Lundgren estimates anywhere between 3 to 5 percent of those farms use at least some regenerative practices, and mentions the “3.5 percent rule,” developed by Harvard Kennedy School political scientist Erica Chenoweth, which suggests that history shows 3.5 percent of the population can bring about nonviolent change.

The U.S. agriculture sector accounts for about 11 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Globally, the agriculture sector is responsible for somewhere between 21 to 37 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions and consumes 70 percent of freshwater.

Soil erosion, meanwhile, is costing the Midwest about 1.9 millimeters of topsoil per year from agriculture fields, nearly double the rate that the USDA considers sustainable. A senior official from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated in 2017 that the all the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years at current rate of degradation. This summer, the FAO said 90 percent of the Earth’s topsoil is likely to be at risk by 2050.

  • As we lose topsoil, we are also losing most of the life on Earth. The only way we can farm in the context of climate change is with regenerative agriculture. It’s the only way we can get out of this mess.
    Dr. Jonathan Lundgren
    Founder & Director, Ecdysis Foundation

As a boy, Lundgren loved animals, and he worked at both the Minnesota and the Lake Superior zoos. After taking an entomology class as a freshman in college, he got hooked on bugs. At the USDA, that led him to study soil.

“We like to silo our world to help us understand it, but in fact we do better when we look at it as a system,” he says. Regenerative agriculture recognizes that soil, water, crops, people, animals, and insects are all interconnected elements.

Lundgren says he has seen a swing to regenerative practices already, but more is needed, and the next decade is critical.

“We really have ten years to make this shift,” he says. “When farmers ask me, ‘What’s it going to cost me to change,’ I say that’s the wrong question. What’s it going cost you not to change?”

Aspirations written on a cardboard at Ecdysis Foundation.