Regenerative Agriculture

Good for the Planet, Good for You

Sister Julie Schwab, OP

Sister Julie Schwab, OP

by Julie Schwab, OP

If you eat food, then you are intimately involved in agriculture—the source of seeds, the farmers who produce it, and the soil where much of the magic happens. Recently at Sinsinawa Mound, we hosted a two-day event for farmers and agencies focused on agriculture. There were more than 200 attendees from as far away as Oklahoma, North Dakota, Ohio, and Indiana. The farmers in the region around Sinsinawa collected over $17,000 in sponsorships that exceeded the costs of the event. We had lots of volunteers from the Academy Apartments (Sisters and lay residents) and farmers from the area who managed every detail of the gathering.

The event had two goals. The first goal was to pay tribute to an Ohio farmer, David Brandt, who was known as the grandfather of regenerative agriculture and who was recently killed in a car accident. His son and daughter-in-law, Jay and Anne, attended the event. David had a vision for a farmer-led learning center at Sinsinawa. The second goal was to explore the possibility of creating a farmer-led learning center where farmers can learn to farm regeneratively and therefore more closely align their practices with Earth’s patterns that benefit human health and the planet’s health.

Conventional farmers make up 85 to 90 percent of all farmers in the United States. The cost of fuel, artificial fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides are more expensive than ever; therefore, their income continues to decline even with high yields of harvested crops. Regenerative farmers have switched from chasing high yields (which are possible through chemical use) to increased income which can happen when they align with nature’s wisdom and decrease or eliminate chemical inputs. They might have a slightly smaller yield per acre, but they put more money in the bank per acre, AND they are taking better care of their soil and themselves. Sinsinawa land is farmed organically by organic dairy farmers Bernie Runde and Aaron Leibfried. They are exploring how to farm more regeneratively, as well.

Here are some quotes from attendees of the farming event at Sinsinawa:

  • “You cannot begin to know how much it matters that the Sisters consider our work as farmers sacred.”
  • “I’m not Catholic, but my parents are Catholic. I want to switch from conventional farming to regenerative farming, but my dad is resistant. I tell my dad, ‘If the nuns are promoting regenerative agriculture, then we should be right alongside of them.’ You, Sisters, are my leverage.”
  • “I came here to honor David and his vision. After being here, I am excited about the possibility of weaving spirituality and farming together. What better place than Sinsinawa?”
  • “Here we are, Republicans and Democrats, organic farmers, conventional farmers, and regenerative agriculture farmers all at one meeting and getting along. There must be something about being with the Sisters that we are on our best behavior. No, seriously, you create a sanctuary for differences to come together. Sinsinawa really is a sanctuary for this work.”

Regenerative agriculture has five main principles—

  1. Minimize or eliminate tillage. Tilling of soil releases carbon into the atmosphere when it is much needed underground; exposes soil to wind and water erosion; and severs beneficial underground, complex biodynamic networks of mycelium, roots, and microbes. Bernie and Aaron are learning how to use less tillage and still manage weeds. This is an added challenge for organic farmers since they do not use herbicides.
  2. Protect the soil. This involves the practice of keeping the soil covered at all times. Bernie and Aaron do an excellent job of maintaining cover crops on our land.
  3. Keep living roots in the soil. This practice captures atmospheric carbon dioxide and converts it into stable soil carbon, which supports the entire food web and regulates nutrient cycling which increases nutrient density in the food we eat. This practice also increases water absorption and retention, which creates resilience during droughts.
  4. Increase biodiversity. This can be accomplished by intercropping cash crops and using a high diversity of cover crops that can be up to 70 different kinds of plants with varied root depths and functions.
  5. Integrate livestock. Traditionally, buffalo and deer grazed the prairie plants, and grazing inherently fertilizes soil and increases biodiversity of plants.

A steering committee was formed with three representatives from each state that includes Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. There are also three representatives from a national team who worked with David Brandt and three from Sinsinawa—Sheila Fitzgerald, OP; Jeanne Tranel, OP; and Julie Schwab, OP. Out of the steering committee, there is a smaller core team on which Sheila serves. There will be many opportunities in the near future for our Sisters and Associates to serve on committees as they get up and running. Over 100 people at the conference signed “opportunity cards” volunteering their gifts and skills to create a farmer-led learning center at the Mound.

Possibilities abound right alongside the Tricon negotiations. Sinsinawa has 200 acres of agricultural land, a barn waiting for a mission, and a conference center that will be finished in the fall of 2024. What is more fertile than possibility?