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Chasing my PhD in Regenerative Ag

Soil health and the nutrients and organic matter that helps keep our ecosystem thriving.

My name is Tucker Gibbons, and I am an agronomist and customer success lead at Continuum Ag. I grew up in small-town Michigan, where I followed my dad around to farms as he tended to livestock and horses as a veterinarian. I found my love for agriculture at a young age doing that with my dad, and throughout high school, I worked at a local farm, helping with some row crop farming, specialty crop farming, and poultry processing. I went to a small college where I earned my degree in business, and had two internships in ag retail. I worked for a few years out of college in ag retail, and now I am heading to Iowa with my wife, Abby, to begin working in regenerative agriculture. I’m very excited to be working and learning alongside the team at Continuum Ag.
Regenerative Agriculture is something that I have found a deep passion for. At my previous job, I sold seed, fertilizer, and chemical. I learned a lot about that model of agriculture. Throwing inputs at the soil results in yield, and I saw that first hand. I learned how to succeed in that system very well from some great people. However, I began to see things that made me lose hope in that system, and I began to ask questions. Do the plants really need all of these nutrients? Can they even utilize all of them that we’re throwing out there? How much of that N, P, and K are we losing into our waterways? Where do we draw the line between chasing yield and chasing profitability? Do we need all of this tillage? Seed to soil contact is obviously important, but is working the ground multiple times before planting really worth it economically and environmentally? Does the average family farm really have to be that big in order to sustain itself? Why on earth are there so many farmers that need multiple jobs to keep food on the table? And why are they all having such a hard time paying their bills? Do they truly need all of these inputs? Why does farming have the second highest suicide rate of all professions in this country?
What are we really doing here? I know we think that we’re helping, but are we actually helping?
That’s when I started searching. There had to be a better way, right? I wanted to help farmers. I was done selling them expensive seed and fertilizer, it just wasn’t for me. I wanted to, in some way, help farmers to find a better system that they can be more profitable and not have to work multiple jobs just to keep food on their table. How have we let it get to the point where the American Farmer has to work two jobs? I wanted to help farmers to see that their mental health is important, and should be addressed. I just wanted to find a way!
I began to read. Some folks have some great ideas about how our system can change for the better. Creating a more localized form of agriculture is a good thing, but that’s not necessarily scalable across the country. It’s just not realistic. I started looking into products that are marketed as profitability boosters. But at the end of the day, those are just more inputs to buy. They might have a better ROI than other inputs, but what are they actually doing to help at a systems level? Still, some try to sell this “bigger is better” mentality. If you can just get more acres, you’ll be able to pay off that tractor. If you buy that cultivator that’s 10’ wider than the one you have now, or that planter with 4 more rows, you’ll be more efficient, and you’ll make more money eventually. Or go organic! Have you seen the money these guys are making on corn? $10/bushel corn, how can you lose money on that?! 
These are all good things. But are they really getting to the root of the problem that I laid out before? In my opinion, no. 
Then I stumbled upon a podcast where they were talking about regenerative agriculture. “Sounds like some real hippy shit,” I thought. Then I read more about it. I listened to more about it. I watched videos about it. I couldn’t get enough of it. What was this new (to me) system? And why are there so few people talking about it (at least those around me)? And through all of that, I got connected with Mitchell Hora. I asked him where I could learn more about this. Is there a degree I can earn so that I can get a job doing something in this regenerative ag world? He advised me to take soil health academy, so I did. I read Gabe Brown’s book, Dirt to Soil after taking the course. I learned a lot! The five principles of regenerative agriculture was the main thing that I took away from these learning experiences:

  1. Keep your soil armored. 

What’s turning your dirt black really doing for you? Your soils are going to be exposed to the heat of the summer, and the harsh cold of the winter. If you have no armor on your soils, you could be subject to wind erosion, and those harsh conditions create an inhospitable environment for microbial communities. Topsoil takes a long time to build back. 

  1. Always keep a living root in your soil. 

Keeping living roots in your soil feeds microbes, the little bugs that make the soil alive. When microbes feed on the sugars secreted by plant roots, they “poop” out nutrients that our crops can use. It also increases water infiltration. Water infiltration is important because the less water we have going into our soils means that there is more water running off of our soils, bringing topsoil and inputs with it. 

  1. Minimize disturbance of your soil. 

We release very large amounts of carbon when we do tillage. We also destroy microbial communities. The microbes that make our soil have life and provide nutrients to our crops need a home, right? Tillage is like a tornado going through microbial communities. Tillage also destroys soil aggregates necessary in water infiltration. 

  1. Implement biodiversity in your soils. 

Different microbes feed on different plant exudates. We want our soils to be rich in microbial diversity, and if we only allow microbes to feed on corn and soybeans, we’re going to have a microbial community that is not diverse. Different plants also have different root lengths and penetration capacity, improving the soil profile and increasing water infiltration. 

  1. Integrate livestock on your soil.

Livestock can drastically improve soil quality, if managed properly. The process of livestock munching on plants and then providing manure, rich in nutrients and organic material, can trigger plants to grow more quickly, increasing soil health. 
So this all leads to where I am now. I came into this soil health community with a decent understanding of the basics of regenerative agriculture. The five principles are easy to understand, but implementing them is another question. Like I said before, I’m well trained in conventional agriculture, but now I’m hungry for real-life knowledge of how to implement regenerative practices. What works and what doesn’t work? How can I be somebody that truly helps farmers to be more resilient and more profitable?
I’m no expert, but I’m passionate about helping farmers to figure this stuff out. I’m excited to do it alongside some of the best farmers and experts in the country who practice regenerative ag. I’m going to be posting a blog weekly to share some insights that I’ve learned from some of these people, with the hope that some of you readers follow along and learn with me. I’m here to answer any questions that you may have, and although I may not know the answer right away, we can figure it out together with the help of Continuum Ag’s network of great people.
Tucker Gibbons
Sales Agronomist // Continuum Ag
(517) 204-7264

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