‘Regenerative agriculture saves me R38 million per year!’

03 May 2023

by Chris Burgess

The approximately 400 farmers and other interested parties at Landbouweekblad and the Riemland study group’s regenerative agriculture conference in Reitz were amazed at what the renowned American seed farmer Rick Clark has achieved.

For Rick Clark it was never about yield, but rather about profit. “Am I sacrificing yield with the way I farm?” the fifth-generation American farmer asked the crowd in Reitz.

“Yes. Absolutely. Every day!” But that did not mean he was not making money. Just as cattle farmers have learned to rather measure kilograms of meat produced per hectare instead of individual animals’ production, or maize farmers that look at kilograms of maize per millimetre of rain, the money he could bank mattered more to Rick than expensive yields he could boast with.

All his cash crops like maize, soybeans and grain are planted in multispecies cover crops in both winter and summer. Instead of spraying his cover crops, a roller is used to bruise (roller crimp) the plants. Rick then plants the cash crops directly into the green material.

He says that this goal-orientated use of cover crops makes nutrients available to his cash crops in the soil, and that it retains moisture, suppresses weeds, and ensures healthy soil.

“The success of next year’s cash crops starts with this year’s cover crops.” The result of this is that he has not had to use any nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium fertilisers on his farm for the last nine years. He also has not had to use fungicides, seed treatments, insecticides or lime. This meant annual savings of R38 million on the 2 800 hectares that he annually sows. (The next article in Landbouweekblad provides a detailed analysis of his savings). 

Rick admits that this is a conservative estimate of his cost savings. Costs like labour and value depreciation of tools, for example, were not taken into consideration. “Just to make sure my calculation remains completely indisputable.”

<caption> Reitz farmer Danie Slabbert (next right), who farms with Drakensbergers and DF Fyfer (right), who farms with the Adaptor cattle breed in Vryburg, apply ultrahigh-pressure grazing and high-pressure grazing, respectively. When switching from an extensive to a non-selective grazing system, one of the issues that arise is the change in the carbon:nitrogen balance in a cow’s rumen. Competition between animals for pasture must also be closely monitored. Photo: Mlungisi Louw

‘Not uncomfortable?’

Obviously, Rick’s approach comes under quite serious scrutiny in America, but Rick pays no mind to it. “It is the people who are talked about that make the change. And change is good.”

However, as a practical farmer, he is careful to present his approach as a magical solution. He admits that in the state of Indiana where he farms, his soil is deeper and more fertile than Africa’s weathered soil. Winter snow also provides him with the moisture that makes it possible to plant something throughout the entire year. 

South Africa’s dry winters in summer sowing areas and even dryer summers in winter sowing areas are what make it impossible to plant the significant cover crops that are form Rick’s preserves. But for Rick, regenerative and sustainable agricultural practices are not just about cost savings and economy. 

“This must be achieved simultaneously through moral and ethical practices that always consider the health of the farmer, his family, employees and the rest of the world.

“It is certainly not easy to farm this way, but I note what works and what does not, and if my processes indicate a favourable or unfavourable trend. Then I know whether or not I am on the right track.

“That is how I learned to use different mixtures of cover crops at different times depending on whether I want to control weeds or deposit free nitrogen and carbon from the atmosphere.

“If you are not uncomfortable with what you are doing, then you are not trying hard enough to change. Use the time and opportunity you have left in this life,” is his advice to farmers. “I am proud to be a farmer, but I am even more proud of the way I farm.”

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