Within Understanding Ag, we teach what we term Adaptive Stewardship. We believe this to be an integral part of regenerative agriculture because without a good understanding of stewardship, we cannot be good practitioners of regenerative principles. The dictionary defines stewardship as “the responsible overseeing and protection of something considered worth caring for and preserving” or “the position and duties of a steward, a person who acts as the surrogate of another or others.”
Meaning of Steward
If we look at the ancient Hebrew definition of a steward, we find that the root word is oikonomia, taken from oikonomeo, which means to manage a property or household, to look after another person’s affairs. For those who follow the creation account spelled out in Genesis, chapters 1 and 2, we understand that God placed man in the garden and told him to “work it and to keep it.” The two Hebrew verbs used here have great meaning. The first is le’ovdah, meaning “to serve it.” The second verb is leshomrah, meaning “to guard it.” This immediately placed humankind in the position of being the guardian of property that belongs to someone else and that, while guarding, we must also exercise vigilance and be personally liable for losses due to negligence.
My immediate response to that is “Wow.” What an awesome (even fearful) responsibility we have to be stewards over the earth and all that is contained therein. It also tells me that I, nor anyone else, owns this earth, nor do we own nature. Psalm 24:1 states, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” That means we are stewards on behalf of God and we are bound to respect His creation and to care for it. To nurture it. This mandate applies to every man, woman, and child, without exception.
Considering that no one individual ever possesses land for more than his or her lifetime, we all owe debts to those who came before us and to the future generations. We inherited the land in its current state and we will leave it in a certain state for those who follow us. In the case of most of us alive today, we inherited a significantly degraded resource. The question before us is, “Will we continue to be extractive or will we be regenerative?”
So, what is included in our charge to be stewards of the land we have been blessed with? The answer is quite simple: all life. The life that starts beneath the soil surface and extends to the ecosystems around us. We are not just responsible for our livestock or the crops we grow. We hold responsibility for the life in the soil, for the function of the mineral and water cycles, for the life of beneficial insects and pollinators, for birds, wildlife, and plants. Whenever we make a decision to do something or apply something that harms this life, we must ask ourselves “Are we being good stewards? Are we perpetuating life and regeneration or are we perpetuating further degradation?” The simple act of asking ourselves those questions on a routine basis can have a profoundly positive impact on our farms, our communities and our quality of life.
This is why we teach and operate by what we call the “6-4-3” rule. This refers to the Six Principles of Soil Health, the Four Ecosystem Processes, and the Three Rules of Adaptive Stewardship. Operating under these guidelines helps hold us accountable for what we do on our farms and encourages good stewardship.
The Six Principles are:
- Context – We must understand our context. That includes goals & objectives, farm and family history, desired profits, production system, and markets.
- Minimize disturbance – Nature doesn’t till for a reason. We should minimize disturbance through minimizing tillage, chemical and synthetic applications, or any practice that potentially harms the very life we are charged with protecting.
- Keep the soil covered (armored) – Keep residue or living plant material on the soil at all times. Do not expose the soil surface to harsh temperatures, wind and water erosion, and rapid evaporation.
- Keep living roots in the soil – Living roots feed soil microbes and vice versa, so plant cover crops after cash crops. Do not leave bare soil. We have witnessed living roots and green plants buried beneath deep snows through the upper Midwest and in Canada.
- Encourage and facilitate diversity – Most think this refers only to plant species diversity. While that is incredibly important, we are also referring to diversity in all life, including soil microbes, plants, insects (including pollinators), birds, wildlife, livestock. The greater the diversity the greater the positive impact.
- Incorporate Livestock – The vast majority of landscapes around the world functioned under the impact of grazing, foraging and browsing animals. They were primarily responsible for the tremendous fertility and A horizons that most soils across North America once possessed. They created the habitat for ground nesting birds and many other species of wildlife. They fostered the incredible plant species diversity that once existed. It is impossible to have fully functioning ecosystems without this grazing and foraging impact.
The Four Ecosystem Processes are:
- Water cycle – When rain or snow falls on our land, we are responsible for its fate from that point forward. Will it infiltrate and be retained? Will it pond and pool and evaporate or run off? Will it cause erosion and harmful runoff to others? Can we keep it, or do we lose it?
- Mineral cycle – There are three phases of an effective mineral cycle. They include: Moving minerals from beneath the soil surface to above the soil surface; placing those minerals back down on the soil surface; and moving the minerals from above the soil surface back down into the soil. The mineral cycle is a crucial part of the larger carbon cycle. A highly functioning water cycle facilitates a highly functioning mineral cycle. Grazing, foraging and browsing animals are an important part of this process.
- Energy Flow – Energy flow is all about solar energy or photosynthesis. Unlike the water cycle and mineral cycle, solar energy does not cycle. It flows from the sun to the earth. It is necessary for everything on the planet to survive. Leaving enough plant material behind for this process to occur is crucial to all life.
- Community dynamics – This is also sometimes called biological succession. It involves the changes in and the development of all living things. There is a fundamental rule of succession that is defined by a statement from the Bruce Ward Legacy Trust, “A species will move into an environment when the conditions are suitable for its establishment and will move out of that environment when conditions become unsuitable for its reproduction.”
The Three Rules of Adaptive Stewardship are:
- Rule of Compounding – There are no singular effects. Everything we do creates and fosters compounding and cascading effects, either positive or negative. Once we understand this, we can make better decisions.
- Rule of Diversity – Nature never creates or facilitates monocultures of any kind, whether in plants, animals, birds, soil microbial life, insects, etc. Neither should we. The greater the diversity of all forms of life on our farms, the better our farms function.
- Rule of Disruption – Nothing ever stays the same in nature. Nothing is static. The communities we deal with on a daily basis are incredibly dynamic. Nature is consistently introducing disruptions that build strength and resiliency into the system. Likewise, we can introduce planned, purposeful disruptions that create strength and resiliency in our farms. This starts with realizing that prescriptions, formulas, and recipes do not work long term. They will always fail at some point. We must be flexible and adaptable in order to keep making progress and profits.
As a truly good steward of the land, we have been entrusted with this noble calling, but it brings with it deep and sobering responsibility. How we handle that responsibility affects not only our lives and the lives of our immediate family, friends and neighbors, but it also affects the lives of those who come after us. We must always ask ourselves, “What kind of legacy are we leaving on the land?” By using the “6-4-3” rule as a compass for your farm or ranch, you can confidently answer: “A legacy of regeneration and of life.”