Despite naysayers, some follow Savory path to holistic farming

Savory speaks at 2018 No-Till on the Plains Winter Conference

Standing at a podium speaking to no-till farmers, Allan Savory lays out his radical plan to save the world.

Beef can reduce global warming, he tells them. Two-thirds of the world’s grasslands are turning to desert. Soil is being exported daily—as much as a 116-mile-long train.

Only cattle, he said, can stop desertification.

His hour-long speech at the annual No-Till on the Plains Conference, Jan. 30 to 31 in Wichita, was applauded by nearly 700 people. However, the 80-something-year-old Zimbabwean holistic prophet doesn’t deny his ideas are often some of the most hated in mainstream agriculture.

“I’ve had lots of arrows,” Savory said, pointing to his back during a media interview following his keynote address.

“I have been struggling for 60 years,” Savory added of trying to gain acceptance of his views. “I don’t have answers for it.”

This is Savory’s world—a man who, since the 1960s, has been working to stop the degradation of the world’s grasslands through cattle. He rarely finds support in academia or with livestock or environmental groups, he said.

“They lead the opposition,” he said. “They can’t do otherwise.”

Yet, despite only 2 percent converted—figures Savory gives himself—he doesn’t give up. He continues to preach that moving cattle to mimic wild grazing animals will heal the manmade damage to the environment. After all, he said, it only takes a relatively small percentage of the population to change their thinking and reach a tipping point.

“I think it will be hard to find someone in this convention who disagrees a lot with what Allan has to say,” said Brad Schmidt, of Brookings, South Dakota, who has been implementing holistic practices on his family’s Minnesota operation. “We are all on the same page here. That is the best thing about this whole convention. Everyone here has the same mindset.”


A Savory concept

Savory has long promoted the principle of sustainability, going back to his early days as a game ranger, farmer and biologist. Today, he is an international consultant, touting his holistic management concept around the globe through the Savory Institute, which follows Savory’s deep-rooted mission: to restore the land to health using livestock as the primary tool.

“Today, most farmers are facing real severe problems while corporate agriculture and stock markets thrive artificially,” Savory said.

For years, people have been told it was livestock, coal and oil that were the culprits of climate change, he said.

However, he added, “We were once just as certain that the world was flat. We were wrong then, and we are wrong again.”

It’s how those resources are being managed that is the problem, Savory said.

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He criticized United States’ agriculture policy for contributing to the cause, calling it “massively funded by corporate marketing of oil and technology.”

During the Cold War, he said he couldn’t understand why Americans feared the “USSR more than the USDA.”

“You’ve been told that American agriculture is feeding the world,” Savory said. “That’s propaganda. It’s bleeding the world. We have never had a more destructive, costly agriculture in the history of the world.”

Savory gave his statistics. Today’s conventional agriculture is producing 75 billion tons per year of eroding soil—more than 20 times the amount of food needed for every living person on the planet. He also criticized ethanol production saying using oil to grow corn to produce fuel “is stupid.”

“It’s inhumane,” he said. “Why is America doing it? Because it is led by institution.”

Mainstream agriculture can’t change its reductionist management mindset unless people push it to change, he said.

“If it makes sense for house wives, nurses…that, gosh, policy should be holistic and not reductionist, the moment you have that making sense to enough people, our institutions can change.”

He called the holistic approach a simple one. Livestock churns the soil with their hooves and fertilizes it. It encourages soil microbes and helps to put carbon and water from the atmosphere back into the soil.

Animals take the place of machinery and chemicals.

No-till farmers are already halfway there, Savory said. However, they are still under the same management that is causing climate change, and he encouraged them to continue embracing the holistic approach.

By doing so, he said, “you are now going to make every decision economically, socially and environmentally to better your life.”


Taking the holistic approach

There are some who already are taking holistic practices to the farm and ranch.

Among them is Julie Mettenburg, whose family applied for and was selected as one of the first 20 sites in the global Savory Network of hubs in 2014. Their farm near Princeton, Kansas, is the only Kansas hub, she said.

John Stigge, a Washington, Kansas producer, spoke during one of the conference breakout sessions that holistic management courses inspired his family to look at all aspects of their farming operation in a holistic manner.

The Stigges family had been no-till farming for 35 years—using cover crops for more than 20 years. When the family sat down to developed goals to continue to improve their operation, they agreed they wanted to create healthy soils and produce nutrient-dense food.

Among the changes they made a decade ago was introducing cattle to their farm in an effort to accelerate the benefits of soil health.

Today, he and his sons rotational graze their cattle across their cover crops. When planting grazing crops, he tries to seed at least one grass, one legume and brassicas. He’s been able to reduce chemicals. Organic matter has improved. Wildlife has increased.

“We recognize our farm as unique,” he said. “And so does everybody else. I feel real good.”

Schmidt said this is his first time to attend No-Till on the Plains. Working as an agronomist in South Dakota, he began converting the family operation in Minnesota from a 160-acre tillage farm to a 600-acre no-till operation that incorporates cover crops and cattle.

What his family is doing is not the norm.

“Coming from Minnesota, we are probably 99 percent conventional till,” Schmidt said. “It’s called the black desert and that’s what it is in the fall and the springtime.”

It was the second time Schmidt had heard Savory speak.

“I like his approach because it is something completely different,” he said. “It is completely against any science there is out there. A lot of people bash him for it because they haven’t had the experience, they haven’t tried anything.

“You have to try to change your management and how you think about things,” Schmidt continued. “That’s what you have to do when you start going on the path of holistic management or regenerative agriculture.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].