National Regenerative Agriculture Day

At Yakima Chief Hops, our business is rooted in earth because we rely upon the output of Mother Nature and farming communities across the Pacific Northwest to produce the world’s finest hops. Threats to agriculture, like extreme droughts and floods, impact our business and our ability to grow hops. To drive growth and increase resilience, we need to move beyond just sustaining our planet, and defer back to our indigenous roots of regenerating it.

The agriculture sector is unfortunately one of the biggest emitters of CO2, the greenhouse gas (GHG) most responsible for the changes we are seeing in our climate today. The food system at large, including feed, fertilizer and pesticide manufacture, processing, transportation, refrigeration and waste disposal, accounts for 30% or more of total annual global greenhouse gas emissions.[1]

This might seem like a scary statistic. However, agriculture has a vital role to play in helping us end this crisis, and create a safe, sustainable future without carbon pollution; one where we can provide the growing craft industry with aromatic hop varieties grown in a sustainable soil ecosystem.

Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive sustainable management practices, which we term “regenerative organic agriculture.” These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.[2]

This article is designed to provide insight on the sustainable farming practices our growers are implementing to ensure successful hop harvests well into the future, as well as provide general information on the regenerative agriculture movement. It is our ethos as a company to be a good steward to the land. Within this article you will hear about the importance of regenerative agriculture from the perspective of our growers, YCH professional staff and member of the Yakama nation.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. It aims to capture carbon in the soil and aboveground biomass (plants), reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation and climate change. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities.

Regenerative Agriculture is an approach to farm management that aims to reverse climate change through practices that restore degraded soils. By rebuilding soil organic matter and soil biodiversity we significantly increase the amount of carbon that can be drawn down from the atmosphere while greatly improving soil fertility and the water cycle. Practices involved in Regenerative Agriculture include no-till or minimum tillage techniques, the use of cover crops, using animals to graze in hop yards, composting, and the use of animal manures, and moving away from hard chemical mixes to the use of biological applications for pest management.

Ted Strong, YCH Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and member of the Yakama Nation, says, “From a native point of view, regenerative agriculture is necessary due to the colonial type of agriculture brought by immigrants and used for hundreds of years. This poor practice reduced many life forms to extinction or left them struggling to survive. The land was used and abused leaving it without the nutrients that nature endowed in it over thousands of years. We should not blame climate change when it has been the policies and practices of the United States to pollute and capitalize our natural resources into bankruptcy. Regenerative Agriculture attempts to relieve the pain and suffering from itself. The United States has been the largest contributor to climate change with its industrial and commercial excesses. As a world polluter the United States only has four percent of the population. Yes, do all the scientific remedies but admit the blame on our own agribusiness mentality. While we are at it, let’s do something about the core problem which is climate destruction.”

What are the benefits of these types of agriculture practices? 

Regenerative agriculture practices increase soil biodiversity and organic matter, leading to more resilient soils that can better withstand climate change impacts like flooding and drought. Healthy soils bring about strong yields and nutrient-rich crops. It also diminishes erosion and runoff, leading to improved water quality on and off the farm.

Importantly, regenerative agriculture practices also help us fight the climate crisis by pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the ground.

Let's get scientific - how does regenerative agriculture suport growing hops? 

Regenerative agriculture allows growers to play an active role in mitigating an existential threat to their livelihoods.

When hop plants photosynthesize, they take carbon dioxide from the air. Using the sun’s energy, water, and nutrients from the soil, the plant will transform the CO2 into carbon the plant uses to grow leaves, stems, and roots. The excess carbon created through this process is transported down the plant and is stored in the surrounding soil, sequestering the carbon in the ground. This carbon in the soil is known as soil organic carbon and it provides a variety of benefits, one of which is that it feeds microbes and fungi, which in turn provide nutrients for the plant. Soil organic carbon is the main component of soil organic matter, providing more structure to the soil and allowing it to store more water. This is important for our hop growers as water scarcity continues to be a main concern as we approach the growing season.

Carbon can remain stored in soils for thousands of years – or it can be quickly released back into the atmosphere through farm practices like plowing and tillage, where soil is prepared for planting by mechanical agitation methods such as digging, stirring, and overturning.

For growers, regenerative agriculture is thus a win-win – it’s an approach that leads to better, more resilient crops grown using sustainable methods that at the same time fight a crisis that presents a threat to all agriculture.

What does regenerative agriculture mean for the hop industry?

Regenerative agriculture not only maintains natural resources but improves them. It’s about farming in a style that nourishes people and the earth, with specific practices varying from grower to grower and from region to region. There’s no strict rule book, but the holistic principles behind the dynamic system of regenerative agriculture are meant to restore soil and ecosystem health, address inequity, and leave our land, waters, and climate in better shape for future generations.

“The idea of improving natural resources has merit on paper but as long as rivers are being relegated to ditches and large-scale farming is driven by corporate greed, the land remains a commodity at the beck and call of the markets,” says Ted Strong. “Natives relied on a strict set of Natural Laws:  Air, Water, Light and Land. Violating any one of them meant poverty or death or both.

These native principles are important and are respected by each of our growers in their own application. Let’s hear from a few of our growers and how they are implementing these practices on their multigenerational farms.

Carpenter Ranches (WA)

Located in Granger, WA, the Carpenters have been practicing responsible land stewardship in the Yakima Valley since 1896. We had an opportunity to chat with Tyler Carpenter to share his insights on regenerative land management.

Currently, their farms are capitalizing on the vegetative matter generated each harvest to be used as compost on all of their hop fields. This recycled approach not only provides an abundance of nutrients but also reduces the need for synthetic chemical applications found in fertilizers. In the past few years, the Carpenter’s have begun planting cover crops in the drive rows to reduce dust and improve water absorption. They have also made considerable investments into their irrigation systems to ensure every drop counts.

The transition towards a regenerative approach to farming is something that the Carpenters have been practicing for years.

“In an ideal world, we would utilize all natural products and processes to achieve quality hops and profitable yields,” said Tyler. “We are constantly working to better understand how we can make this a reality. This requires some leaps of faith, but hop growers are always ready for a challenge. We now have a belief that it is possible to maintain yields, fertility, soil, and plant health while reducing your synthetic inputs. We are experimenting on our own ranch with some regenerative practices, but it is a slow process. You only get one shot at it every year. But we are in it for the long game.”

Sodbuster Farms (OR)

Located in Salem, OR, Sodbuster has been utilizing sustainable practices for generations. Alexa Weathers shared her thoughts on the regenerative agriculture movement as well as the legacy she intends to leave as a grower in the 21st century.

Her family’s farm practices regenerative agriculture by utilizing hop waste from harvest that is reapplied to cropland to provide nutrient uptake and reduces the need to use fertilizer to grow the crop, thus decreasing inputs and their carbon footprint. It is also rumored that cattle on the farm enjoy the tasty hop compost!

Sodbuster also utilizes cover cropping in their hop yards as a way to return nitrogen into the ground. On their farms they utilize a specific mix of both clover and barley that helps return the most nitrogen into the ground. In talks with Alexa Weathers, she is a passionate hop farmer who stated that it’s all about being a good steward of the land. This admiration for the land they cultivate speaks volumes to the care that is given to their fields.

“You can be an organic or a conventional grower and still be a terrible steward of the land,” said Alexa. “Your product does not determine what kind of farmer you are, your dirt speaks for itself. It is necessary for us farmers to take care of our soil and work on ways to sequester more carbon so that our farm continues to the next legacy. We spend our entire lives thinking more about the soil under our feet than anyone else. We don’t want the attention like a hero, we just want the world to see that we are working so incredibly hard out here to provide the best possible commodities for the world.”

Gooding Farms (ID)

Nestled in the Treasure Valley of Idaho lies Gooding Farms, whose connection to environmental stewardship stretches back for generations. We caught up with Michelle Gooding who provided us with her thoughts on how they are incorporating regenerative agriculture practices into their operations as a means to build up healthy soils, which they attribute to resilient hop yards. They are implementing various techniques to build up their soil health, including reducing synthetic inputs, utilizing high density rotational grazing efforts, maintaining appropriate soil balance through soil testing, low tillage, and cover cropping. While there are many practices that could be considered as aspects of regenerative agriculture, the Gooding’s believe the techniques they are implementing are generally practical, useful, and not overly disruptive to their ongoing farm operations.

It is not uncommon on the Gooding Farm to see the use of livestock grazing in the hop yards during the offseason. The use of grazing operations benefits not only animals but also the farm and the environment. These practices help to cycle nutrients and build healthy soil through vigorous vegetation growth and helps to reduce the amount of fertilizer applications.

The Gooding’s believe regenerative agriculture focuses more on the entire system and building a thriving ecology and ecosystem that can over time become self-sustaining. Michelle went on to mention, “Our soils have been working for us for generations, however, if a system is worked too hard it will eventually over time begin to lose its robustness and overall health. We are working to make sure that our soils are better than when our generation began farming, ultimately allowing future generations to continue the farming legacy.”

The Regenerative Agriculture Movement

It’s important to appreciate that this is not a new idea and not all who practice these principles use the coined terminology. In fact, Indigenous communities have farmed in nature’s image for millennia. The regenerative agriculture movement is the dawning realization among more people that an Indigenous approach to agriculture can help restore ecologies, fight climate change, rebuild relationships, spark economic development, and bring joy.  

In the culture of the Yakama Nation people, humans are deeply connected with nature; the two are equal and interdependent, even kin. The idea is reflected in ideology of guarding and protecting the environment in order to respect the ancestors and secure the future. We cannot afford to dismiss climate change as a political issue; it is a human issue. Our responsibility as a global organization is to reduce our own footprint, and work to collaborate with others to protect the future of agriculture.

As dependents on the land to sustain our livelihoods, we are working with our growers across the Pacific Northwest to empower them with the knowledge to make the conscious decisions to incorporate sustainable practices into their farm management practices through our Green Chief® program. Things are changing in our industry and it’s for the betterment of the industry and the planet – hats off to all our growers and other in the brewing community out there making an impact!

Regenerative Agricultural Practices:

  • Conservation tillage: Plowing and tillage dramatically erode soil and release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They also can result in the kind of bare or compacted soil that creates a hostile environment for important soil microbes. By adopting low- or no-till practices, growers minimize physical disturbance of the soil, and over time increase levels of soil organic matter, creating healthier, more resilient environments for plants to thrive, as well as keeping more and more carbon where it belongs.
  • Diversity: Different plants release different carbohydrates (sugars) through their roots, and various microbes feed on these carbs and return all sorts of different nutrients back to the plant and the soil. By increasing the plant diversity of their fields, farmers help create the rich, varied, and nutrient-dense soils that lead to more productive yields.
  • Cover crops: Left exposed to the elements, soil will erode and the nutrients necessary for successful plant growth will either dry out or quite literally wash away. Always remember, bare soil is bad soil.
  • Mess with it less: In addition to minimizing physical disturbance, regenerative agriculture practitioners also often seek to be cautious about chemical or biological activities that also can damage long-term soil health. Misapplication of fertilizers and other soil amendments can disrupt the natural relationship between microorganisms and plant roots.
  • Animal Integration: Integrating livestock naturally into the ecosystem through adaptive grazing is a form of “biomimicry” – it simulates the way nature works when left on its own. Animals can eat the cover crops and grass that protect the soil.  In turn, the animal’s manure can naturally nourish the soil and build the soil’s health.