Future of farming
The rise of “organic” and “sustainable” brands has made it increasingly difficult for consumers to discern one product claiming to be socially responsible from the next, diluting the meaning of the terms all together. But a new crop of farmers is trying to change the narrative by championing a practice they say could reverse climate change.
“Regenerative agriculture” — a farming philosophy that uses plants, grazing animals and healthy soil to naturally sequester carbon — has become the farming industry’s latest buzzword, but a deeper dive shows that it’s a practice with specific guidelines, leading to significant backing in the local farming community due to its impact on the land and animals who call it home.
The City Paper talked to the owners of three independently owned farms leading the regenerative movement.
Trial and error
Jeff Siewicki had no farming experience before moving to an 8-acre Wadmalaw Island property with his wife but decided to explore the possibility of raising chickens. After much research, he learned about regenerative farming’s positive environmental impact and decided to give it a go.
Three years later, Siewicki runs Vital Mission Farm with a well-tested method of rotational agriculture that naturally pumps organic matter — or decomposed plant and animal tissue — back into the soil.
“Our mission is to grow food that’s healthy for people, animals, land and the environment,” he said. “So, we’re also helping the land by putting carbon back into the soil and reversing those climate change effects while building a habitat for wildlife.”
Siewicki, who now raises ducks on his farm instead of chickens, has his system down pat.
Eggs from full-grown ducks are kept for hatching. The ducklings stay in a temperature-controlled tent for the first 2-3 weeks of their life. Then, they’re moved to another part of the property, where they live and grow in a 2,500-square-foot fenced outdoor area.
Every 2-4 days, the ducks are moved to another area of land, where they eat grass and bugs and fertilize the soil with manure. When the grass has been eaten down to the ground, the root systems underneath release carbon, adding fertility back into the land. After another 5-6 weeks, the original grazing area has completely regrown, and the cycle begins again.
“Everything starts with the soil,” Siewicki said. “If you don’t take care of your soil, you’re not going to be farming long. Farmers who use heavy tillage, chemical fertilizers and pesticides are just killing their soil and will have to stop farming or become heavily reliant on artificial fertilizers just to grow anything at all.”
To put this process into perspective, factory farms cram some 15,000 chickens beak-to-beak in poultry houses. Even organically raised chickens are raised in similar circumstances — the only difference is that the animals are given organic feed and have access to a pint-sized 2-by-2-foot outdoor area. “It’s not good for the animal, and it’s not good for the consumer,” Siewicki said.
The ethical, environment and health implications of factory farming is a hotly debated topic, but for Siewicki, encouraging people to learn more about regenerative processes that support our environment and create a healthier outcome is vital.
“If we took all the farmland, rangeland and grassland in North America and increased organic matter by 1%, we can completely sequester all the CO2 in the atmosphere back to pre-industrial levels and completely reverse all the damage that we’ve done,” he said.
Reversing climate change
Like Siewicki, Joyce Farms owner Ron Joyce lays out strict guidelines for regenerative agriculture, practices the 59-year-old owner of the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, farm has researched for years.
“Joyce Farms’ Honest with Nature Regenerative Agriculture produces flavorful, nutritious proteins, while protecting animal welfare and contributing positively to the environment,” according to its website.
“Regenerative agriculture is something that is very important to me,” Joyce told the City Paper. “Regenerative farming can absolutely reverse climate change. What we’re trying to do is get the message out for why this is important. Regenerative doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody, unfortunately. To us, it’s very serious and very important. We have a very strict definition — we don’t deviate from it.”
Joyce follows these guiding principles at his regenerative farm that’s home to chickens, cows, pigs, ducks and turkeys:
• Build soil health
• Diversify plant life
• Avoid tilling and chemical inputs
• Integrate animals through adaptive, rotational grazing
For Joyce, regenerative farming starts with the first principle — soil health, measured by the percentage of soil organic matter that makes up 3-6% of productive soils. He says he’s increased his soil’s organic matter by 2% in the last three years.
Joyce grows a diverse collection of 18-24 cover crop species and rotates his animals throughout the farm — when animals graze over the plants, they create an armor of plant life protecting the soil. According to Joyce, his plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it’s stored in the soil — healthier soil loses less of this sequestered carbon. Recent data shows that regenerative farming “could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions,” one of the reasons Joyce, Siewicki and others think these practices could slow climate change.
“We found that when there’s no living plant on the land, you’re not pumping carbon into the soil. We learned that you don’t want bare soil,” Joyce said. “You start building soil modules, and there’s almost a network of living organisms in the soil, and you start supplying what the plants need without outside inputs.”
Outside inputs such as chemicals and fertilizers are a detriment to the land, Joyce said, a belief that’s shared by most regenerative farmers.
“Quit killing the good things in the soil that these chemicals kill,” he said.
Joyce sells meat and poultry to several Charleston area restaurants, including 60 Bull Cafe and Red Drum. Joyce doesn’t use antibiotics, growth stimulants or animal by-products, additives that are commonplace for large industrial farms.
These farms focus on yield and yield alone, Joyce said, and while it’s still possible for regenerative farms to turn a profit by avoiding costs like fertilizers and trucks, the mission goes beyond that.
“My goal starting out was to make the best tasting meat and poultry, but what I’ve learned along that journey is you had to improve animal welfare — you had to maintain or improve the soil to produce more nutrient dense plants for the meat,” Joyce said. “My statement to chefs and consumers is that you need to examine where you purchase your meat.”
A new generation of farmers
Alex Russell, 29, the head farmer of Chucktown Acres, learned everything he knows about regenerative agriculture at Pollyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, which was started in 1961 by Joel Salatin, who Russell refers to as the “granddaddy” of regenerative agriculture.
“Joel was really one of the first people to invent and write about this kind of farming — especially livestock management practices, like mobile chicken coops outside, daily cow moves, pigs rotated through different wooded paddocks,” Russell said. “Those are really the heart of regenerative agriculture on the livestock side.”
After a five-month internship with Pollyface and another three years running one of its many offshoot farms, Russell relocated to Charleston and started running Chucktown Acres in June 2020. Using rotational livestock practices he learned from Salatin, Russell has managed to raise his farm’s carbon score dramatically in just one year.
Russell rotates his chickens, turkeys and cows daily through different fenced areas in a field. After the animals have grazed the entire field and laid down manure, he moves them to another one of seven on the property, leaving the original field to rest for 60 days. Pigs are better suited in the woods, so he moves them once a week to different paddocked areas.
Having a mix of animals on the farm helps keep them healthy, according to Russell, and regular relocation and round-the-clock access to the outdoors prevents disease from running rampant. “We don’t have to give our animals any medications,” he said. “We’re raising them in a way that keeps them healthy. If the public could understand how heavily medicated most factory-farmed animals are, they would never want to eat those [animals].”
Siewicki admits it was hard work figuring out the right process, animals and equipment, but his dedication has paid off, and his farm is thriving.
And Siewicki hasn’t stopped there. He wants to educate more people on rotational agriculture and regenerative farming practices to help create a better agricultural process for humans and animals, which is why he offers farmer training.
Through his course, people can learn what works, what doesn’t and what you need to get started. “I wasted a lot of time and money learning the hard way,” he said. “I want to basically share a blueprint of how to do this with others because the more people doing this, the more of an impact it’ll actually have.”
Russell sees the shifting demographic in the farming community as a major chance for change. In the most recent census of agriculture in 2017, approximately 27% of farmers were “new and beginning producers” — meaning they had less than 11 years of experience in the business.
Russell says most millennial-aged farmers are rejecting commodity crops and traditional farming practices like tilling and spraying artificial fertilizers, a shift that could drastically change the industry.
“I think rising rates of disease and climate issues coming to the forefront woke my generation up,” he said. “We now have the opportunity to push the restart button on agriculture as a whole in this country, and we can really make a huge difference.”