You all are eating the tender grass.
You don't like the grass over there?
As a livestock grower, you are a grass grower.
[gentle music] We're at Blackwell's Farm, located here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
I'm a co-owner with my brother Seth Blackwell.
We were born and raised here on the farm.
We spent time in corporate America, the both of us, and we returned to the family farm.
We are multi-generational farmers from a multi-generational farming family.
We basically raise beef cattle and seasonal specialty crops.
We're gonna give 'em some apples today.
We're gonna give 'em a treat.
How do I feel about my cows?
I love my cows.
My cows are my friends, okay?
[gentle uplifting music] This, what you're looking at right here, is Daikon radishes.
That's mainly turnip greens in there.
And if you go all the way up the hill it's all mustard green.
It's a totally different picture, it's a different scenario, it's a different process when it comes to farming.
It used to be we would get days of rain.
Now it's kinda like a downpour.
It comes all within a limited time period.
We didn't experience those extremes.
We did have drought times, you know, growing up, where things had to be watered through irrigation.
But today it's an ongoing pattern.
- Climate change is gonna affect growers in very different ways depending where you are in the United States.
Here in North Carolina, we have some predictions on what's gonna happen.
So we're gonna see, maybe annually, the same amount of rainfall, but it'll be distributed very differently.
- It's also predicted that droughts are going to be much more common, much more intense, and last for longer duration.
When precipitation does happen, you wanna ensure that it gets into the ground.
- We were always taught you had to turn the land, you need to turn it 18 inches or so, you need to allow it to rest for the winter.
I looked at the fields of where we were with our crops that we were planting.
And I said in order for this to work with extreme weather changes and the patterns that we are now confronted with, we're gonna have to go with a no-till to limited till process.
We need to do less disturbance of the land.
- Tillage is a way of cultivating the soil or preparing it for a seed bed.
It warms the soil in the springtime.
It also can dry out the soil if it's too wet, and then it also reduces weed pressure in that soil system.
- [Alex] There are advantages of tilling in terms of, you know, seed bed preparation, but the trade off is you've broken up the soil, all the aggregates, all the soil structure is damaged.
You're losing organic matter and then the soil becomes less productive over time.
So we're standing in one of the few long-term studies here in North Carolina, looking at the impact of soil management, in particular, tillage.
- The study started in 1984 by two researchers at NC State, Paul Denton and Michael Wagger.
And they were interested in better understanding how conservation tillage could potentially prevent erosion in these really erodible landscapes of the Piedmont.
Within this field, we have randomized tillage treatments.
- Looking at things as intense as moldboard plow, where we flip the soil over completely, down to 8 to 12 inches.
Heavily disturbed versus chisel plowing, kind of semi disturbed.
And then disking, which is kind of middle ground when compared to no-till, which is where we do not touch the soil.
The only interaction we have with the soil is when we plant the crops in this tiny slot.
So, leave it be.
So this is a great example, kind of showing the dramatic differences between tillage sites over the long term.
On the left here, up higher, you can see this is the no-till site, hasn't been tilled for 38 years.
On the right here, is the moldboard plow, which again was heavily disturbed, and we've lost, you know, 1/2 foot of soil from erosion, and soil organic matter being lost.
It takes, you know, centuries to build up top soils.
So this is a permanent loss and won't be fixed anytime soon.
- Across the board, for all years, conservation tillage, and in particular, no-till had more consistent and higher yields in comparison to the conventionally tilled plots.
And in particular, we saw that we had higher yields in these drier conditions.
So we thought that potentially water could be the answer.
Are these conservation tillage systems able to increase soil moisture content, more so than our conventionally tilled systems?
- [Alex] When we till over the long term, what we're doing is we're slowly degrading the soil, we're losing soil carbon, especially at the surface.
We're losing aggregates, and we're losing the integrity of the soil.
So when rain does occur, it breaks up anything on the surface and causes the surface seal or crusting.
And once the surface is crusted, that has huge implications on water movement in the soil.
- And here is some nice evidence of crusting.
So you can even just, like peel this off.
- [Alex] When a rain event does occur, a large portion of that water will hit that crust and move off.
The only place we don't see crusting is in the no-till plots.
When we talk about no-till, and we talk about surface residue, what we mean here is, you know this is from the year before.
This is all leftover cornstalks, corn stover, having material on the surface that kind of blankets and provides armor and protection to the bare soil.
At this field site where you have no-till, where you have got nice soil structure, it allows water to move in, versus a surface seal.
These soybeans or corn are effectively having different precipitation regimes, like that water is not being moved through the root zone, and so they're kinda experiencing completely different conditions depending on your soil health.
[gentle music continuing] - This is soil from the moldboard disc plot, and Alex is going to bring in soil from the no-till plot.
- [Alex] The colors, they are pretty bold there.
I didn't expect it to be that different.
- [Cara] This soil has some nice granular structure and is darker because of higher amounts of soil organic carbon.
- 38 years ago, this is all the same soil type.
It was all, you know, one field.
They were growing probably hay and corn.
And now, after 38 years looks like you have fundamentally different soils.
You could really change the direction of the soil type just with some simple management, like no-till.
[light airy music] - You got a key?
We purchased this no-till seeder in 2019, through some funding.
See the grass coming up all in here?
This was done with no-till.
- As you look, you can see some of the spikes, and what it does, it doesn't disturb your natural grass.
All it does is just, punches a little hole there for the seeds to fall into, and to germinate.
- [Beverly] As a farmer, it's all about efficiency, it's all about profitability, and we were able to cut our costs as to the dollars that it took to go into those fields.
We were able to build the soil quality.
We were able to cut down on fertilizer costs.
So we've been able to minimize costs, as a result of going with regenerative agriculture.
- Our goal is to be able to support farmers to make these transitions into sustainable practices.
- The large majority of our land is managed either in row crops or in pasture.
As a state in general, if we wanna look at natural climate solutions, the vast acreage is managed land.
- [Cara] And so if we're able to increase just a little bit of carbon in all of those fields, cumulatively, we can have a large impact.
- You have to figure out today, what works on your farm.
There's nothing etched in stone.
It's a matter of thinking outside of the box.