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Most cropland in the U.S. is characterized by large monocultures, whose productivity is maintained through a strong reliance on costly tillage, external fertilizers, and pesticides ( Schipanski et al., 2016 ) . Despite this, farmers have developed a regenerative model of farm production that promotes soil health and biodiversity, while producing nutrient-dense farm products profitably. Little work has focused on the relative costs and benefits of novel regenerative farming operations, which necessitates studying in situ, farmer-defined best management practices. Here, we evaluate the relative effects of regenerative and conventional corn production systems on pest management services, soil conservation, and farmer profitability and productivity throughout the Northern Plains of the United States. Regenerative farming systems provided greater ecosystem services and profitability for farmers than an input-intensive model of corn production. Pests were 10-fold more abundant in insecticide-treated corn fields than on insecticide-free regenerative farms, indicating that farmers who proactively design pest-resilient food systems outperform farmers that react to pests chemically. Regenerative fields had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over traditional corn production systems. Profit was positively correlated with the particulate organic matter of the soil, not yield. These results provide the basis for dialogue on ecologically based farming systems that could be used to simultaneously produce food while conserving our natural resource base: two factors that are pitted against one another in simplified food production systems. To attain this requires a systems-level shift on the farm; simply applying individual regenerative practices within the current production model will not likely produce the documented results.
This is a submission to PeerJ for review.
Farm characteristics for defining regenerative and conventional systems
Table S1. Trait matrix used to assign farms to regenerative or conventional corn production systems. The composite rank scores are based on the number of regenerative practices used on a particular farm. Farms whose rank scores are in the top 50% of farms are considered regenerative (shaded rows); those with rank scores in the lower half are conventional (white rows). To aid interpretation, additional traits of each system could be included in enhanced trait matrices.