‘Should Robert Rodale’s core principles for regenerative agriculture be the founding principles for the current soil health evolution?’
Jonathan Holmes visited the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania in the US in July 2023 to learn more.
For the farmers and growers considering adopting regenerative agriculture, Robert Rodale’s seven core principles will provide a structured strategy to adopt and apply.
Robert Rodale was born in Manhattan in 1930 and died on 20 September 1990, in a traffic accident in Moscow where he was working in the publishing industry.
His parents moved to Emmaus in Pennsylvania shortly after Robert’s birth in 1930. That was where Robert learned the basics of farming and gardening while growing up on the family farm. This passion evolved into the current Rodale Institute of in Kutztown Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to growing the regenerative organic movement through agricultural research and education.
In the 1970s, Robert Rodale played a pivotal role in getting the Pennsylvania state government’s attention through his Cornucopia Project, which stimulated the publication of state-level analyses of how readily local demand could be met by local supply. At a time of increasing energy prices, a new emphasis on eating local became his platform for a more sustainable way of engaging with his community. This initial philosophy of ‘local engagement’ still plays a key role in current strategies at the Rodale Institute and has obviously helped to re-engage the population with the food supply network. Something that has been sadly remis in the UK for many decades.
Pennsylvanian Governor Josh Shapiro July 2023 “What began in the 1940s as a family farm with a commitment to finding new ways to grow healthy produce, has grown into a premiere research institution which I believe holds the key to the future of farming in this commonwealth and across this country.”
Robert Rodale coined the term ‘regenerative organic’ to distinguish a kind of farming that goes beyond sustainable. Regenerative organic agriculture not only maintains valuable resources, but Rodale’s philosophy led to his mantra:
Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, Healthy People.
I cannot fault that logic, and certainly this makes sense if we consider the current general decline in human health and the corresponding increase in food allergies and intolerances.
Robert Rodale’s philosophy was extrapolated into his principles which are the ‘seven Ps,’ below, which are his core concepts for creating soil, crop, and human health.
Under each principle heading, ‘A’ relates to soil evolution, ‘B’ relates to expanding divergence within society, ‘C’ relates to expanding the human construct and resilience.
A. Increase the diversity of plant species.
B. Increase the diversity of business, people, and culture.
C. Increase in diversity of personal experiences, capabilities, opportunities, and openness to new experiences.
A. More surface cover of plants, ending erosion and increasing beneficial microbial populations near the surface.
B. More resistance to economic and cultural fluctuations because of quantity and variety of businesses and people, which increases overall employment and community stability.
C. Improvement of personal hardiness and an ability to withstand crisis, accompanied by a boost in the body’s immune system.
A. Without chemical fertiliser and pesticide use, a greater mass of plants and other life exists in the soil.
B. Without pollution of the environment, more people can exist in better health.
C. By ending detrimental habits such as smoking or thinking negatively, the potential for growth, happiness, and success increases.
A. More perennials and other plants with vigorous root systems begin to grow.
B. As businesses and individuals become successful and stable, they can contribute more to the community.
C. New, more positive, personal spiritual behaviours take root and provide a deeper meaning to life.
A. Past patterns of weed and pest interference with growing systems are disrupted.
B. Former patterns of violence and crime are reduced, improving overall security and wellbeing.
C. Negative emotions such as anger, fear, and hate lessen in intensity and are replaced by tolerance, compassion, and understanding.
A. Nutrients tend to either move upward in the soil profile or to accumulate near the surface, thereby becoming more available for use by plants.
B. ‘Trickle up’ economics – more resources and money accumulate and are more available to more people.
C. The positive qualities and resources in yourself and your environment become easier to access and effect more people around you.
A. Overall soil structure improves, increasing water retention capacity.
B. Overall community life improves, increasing the health and wealth of its inhabitants.
C. Capacity for wellbeing and enjoyment increases.
When I served in the Army, there was a similar ‘6 P’ mantra that I have long used to underpin Rodale’s original principles of regenerative agriculture. This mantra was ‘Perfect Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance’. Fundamentally I use this simplification to ensure that farmers and growers wanting to adopt regenerative agriculture practices fully understand the soil on the farm with which they are working.
Conducting an Albrecht soil analysis and crucially explaining the implications of the results is the key to successful implementation of any regenerative practices.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to understand, and interact with, the soil form and function to create the basis for profitable soil and farm evolution for the future.
Practical strategies to implement for regenerative agriculture.
1. Increase the diversity of plant species
1.1. Historically, UK agriculture has been encouraged to grow a monoculture. But nature abhors a vacuum, and soil form and function are detrimentally affected by growing a single crop.
1.2. Under sowing an arable crop with clover or introducing forbes and herbs into grassland is an essential strategy to adopt.
2. More surface cover of plants, ending erosion and increasing the essential beneficial microbial populations near the surface. Nutrient exchange takes place in the top 75mm of the soil, so this strategy is essential to increase crop profitability.
2.1. A relatively self-explanatory statement. But it is imperative to understand the soil type before the crop species can be matched to the soil type to generate success, and profit.
3. Without chemical fertiliser and pesticide use, a greater mass of plants and other life exists in the soil.
3.1. Inorganic fertiliser is a ‘quick fix’ for generating growth and yield. But at the cost of all soil life and evolution that has taken millions of years to evolve.
3.2. ALL standard inorganic fertilisers (nitrogen, phosphate & potash) disrupt and degrade the crucial relationship between the plant roots and the soil microbes. These applications create soil that functions as a grow bag rather than the living thriving entity that it should be.
4. More perennials and other plants with vigorous root systems begin to grow.
4.1. Especially important to implement in grassland are the deep-rooted grass species (e.g., Cocksfoot and Meadow Fescue) and forbes that are essential to stabilise soil and allow it to evolve.
4.2. Mixed cropping in an arable rotation generates the same response.
5. Past patterns of weed and pest interference with growing systems are disrupted.
5.1. Weeds are ‘plants growing where they want to grow’ Weeds will always utilise available nutrition faster than the introduced crop as they are growing in their preferred environment, whereas we introduce the crop we want to harvest. Regenerative practices successfully implemented over time out-compete the weeds and generate a healthy profit.
6. Nutrients tend to either move upward in the soil profile or to accumulate near the surface, thereby becoming more available for use by plants.
6.1. Regenerative practices involve a lower level of soil cultivation than conventional agriculture. This allows soil to ‘breathe’ and evolve naturally to increase form and function and especially in the prolific top 75mm of soil.
6.2. Deep rooted plant species increase the stability of the soil, allowing the natural microbial growth to proliferate.
6.3. This activity naturally populates the upper 75mm layers of soil so that the microbes can easily access warm air and water to thrive and increase nutrient exchange for the growing plants.
7. Overall soil structure improves, increasing water retention capacity.
7.1. Water is a massively under recognised essential resource!
7.2. Without available water in the rhizosphere, the nutrient exchange process cannot take place. This is a crucial point to use to rationalise decisions on-farm.
7.3. A diverse mixture of deep-rooted plant species encourages water retention to drive the nutrient exchange process to feed the crop plants.