ATTICA, Ind. — Dan DeSutter has seen a lot, has learned a lot and knows a lot about the highs and lows of regenerative farming. Because of his willingness to share his practical experience and knowledge with his farming colleagues, he has become one of the leading voices in the soil health and regenerative farm movement.
He’s also hosted numerous soil health workshops on his 4,900-acre farm in Attica, Indiana, including most recently, the Soil Health Academy’s world-renowned three-day school.
The 25 attendees who travelled from all over the country witnessed, first-hand, how DeSutter implements organic-regenerative principles and practices in his operation and the impact those efforts are making in the farm’s ecosystems and economics.
They were also able to see what happens when things don’t go as planned.
“We spent afternoons out in our fields showing how we put soil health principles into practice, but we weren’t shy about saying ‘Hey, here’s one that turned out really well, and here’s one that didn’t,’” DeSutter said. “We’re still learning. Without all the Band-Aids, farming organically is like learning to walk again.”
But it’s those failures, he said, that often yield the most salient lessons.
“It’s natural to highlight the successes,” he said. “But you can often learn more from the failures.”
Another important regenerative-farming benefit on display during the SHA school was how soil health-improving, diverse farming operations and consumer-centric offerings can enable opportunities for future generations.
“Perhaps the most exciting aspect to those in attendance is that all three of our sons are now involved in the farming operation,” DeSutter said. “We talked about providing the next generation with opportunities and how our approach is feeding into an inter-generational business here.
“It’s probably because of our regenerative approach that all three of our kids have chosen to come back,” he said. “Frankly, I’m not sure they would have, if we were farming conventionally.”
Getting closer to the consumer by providing more nutrient-dense foods, grown with climate-friendly farming practices, is central to DeSutter’s departure from “the same old thing.”
“We wanted to be more consumer-driven while remaining soil health-driven, which has always been a key strategy for us,” he said. “We really wanted to get closer to the consumer and one of the steppingstones was organic certification. Once you have that, you can get your foot in the door to raise some alternate crops. We haven’t gone down that road yet. There are so many new things to learn, that we’ve stuck with the crops we’re familiar with and we have local demand for, but that’s one of the areas we want to try to develop.”
Marketing advantages notwithstanding, DeSutter believes the future will go beyond organic.
“Organic markets can be destroyed with the stroke of a pen—by policy changes or legislation,” he said. “But what’s real is nutrient density. You can’t fake that. That takes biology.”
According to DeSutter, technology which allows consumers to assess the nutrient density of food in the grocery store by simply scanning produce or fruit with a phone, has already been developed and will be a game changer for those farming with regenerative methods that enhance soil biology.
“The technology is here, as it becomes more cost-effective and user friendly, it’s going to be a bigger part of our future,” he said.
Despite DeSutter’s reservoir of soil health knowledge and on-farm experience, the soil-health teacher remains an eager soil-health student—someone who found himself held in rapt attention by the Soil Health Academy’s cadre of instructors throughout the three-day school.
“I’m as much a student of this as anyone,” he said. “I read a lot and have been to a lot of different schools and conferences, but the Soil Health Academy is one of the few truly unbiased venues where producers can get this kind of knowledge.”
Consequently, DeSutter said, SHA is a unique and valuable resource for those looking for more profitable and more rewarding ways to farm.
“Let’s face it, universities are not going to get in this space because it conflicts too much with their major funding sources,” he said. “SHA has a science-based approach and doesn’t have a product to sell or a hidden agenda. Their only agenda is to help you understand how soil works.”
— Soil Health Academy