Farming Regeneratively: Balancing Business with Improved Soil Health

Opening a tractor shed
07 Nov 2023

Driving past Ed Hegland’s farm in rural Lac qui Parle County, Minnesota, you will notice it looks different than his farming neighbors. Corn, soybeans, and wheat grow on his 1,800 acres, but you will also find a variety of other crops springing up within the same fields.

Since his start in 1992, Hegland has taken an alternative approach to raising crops. What is now labeled regenerative farming, or climate-smart agriculture, has long been practiced here in some form.

Today, Hegland incorporates cover crops into his normal crop rotations and practices no-till farming. A partnership with a local cattle producer occasionally brings livestock into the fold, satisfying an additional principle of soil health. As greater attention is shown to regenerative or climate-smart agriculture, early adapters like Hegland demonstrate how conventional farms can introduce a new style of farming to their operation.


Starting Small

Hegland’s father planted the seeds of regenerative practices prior to Hegland taking over the family business. Hegland describes his father as “very conservation-minded” as an early adopter of the chisel plow while many were still utilizing the popular moldboard plow. The goal was to use a method of less intensive tillage on their soil.

In the late ’90s, they switched to a no-till approach for soybeans. In 2005, Hegland experimented with strip- tilling before fully utilizing the practice a few years later.
Cover crop residue
Hegland began experimenting with cover crops through his participation in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), two United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs that help farmers and ranchers integrate and build on existing conservative farming practices. Varieties of millet, oats, radishes, vetch, peas, and rye have been used to provide cover at different times of the year.

Over the past three growing seasons, Hegland has been 100% no-till farming. At first, it took some getting used to. “My fields look a little tougher for the first four to eight weeks in the spring but come August they start catching up with the neighbors,” he says.

With a cover crop in place, Hegland waits a little longer than the average conventional farmer for the temperature of his soil to heat up before planting his cash crop. No-till farming leaves more residue on the surface to protect against erosion and water loss, and to moderate soil temperature. This can cause the soil to warm more slowly in the spring than it would if left bare.


Seeing Results
Since switching, the financial savings have been apparent to his operation. Hegland recalls when he first transitioned to strip-till, his fuel provider stopped by the farm to ask if he had switched providers, after noticing Hegland’s usage had significantly decreased. “I didn’t,” chuckled Hegland. “I am just not using as much fuel.”

Differences were noted in the amount of applied fertilizer when strip-tilling was introduced. Using soil testing, Hegland focused application on areas requiring more nutrients, creating a more uniform yield across his acres despite the varying types of soil found on his farm.

Additional savings resulted from less equipment. The farm features a planter, combine, and sprayer. “I farm 1,800 acres with one tractor,” states Hegland.
Ed looking at his tractor

Upon renewing a line of credit, an appraiser stopped to look at his operation. As the appraiser looked through his sheds, they asked, “Where is the rest of your equipment?” Pointing at his strip-till machine, Hegland informed the appraiser “it is all there”. The appraiser left the farm stunned.
Despite initial uncertainty, increased yields have resulted since he began no-tilling into cover crops. Hegland believes the seed-to-soil contact and moisture savings play a big role in the improvements he’s witnessed.

One of the main tenets often associated with regenerative agriculture is improving soil health. On Hegland’s farm, one early observation that continues today is a lack of soil erosion after introducing strip-tilling and no-tilling. With a living cover established, Hegland retains more moisture and prevents exposed soil from washing or blowing away.

That is not the case for other farms around him. Speaking about his nearby area, Hegland states, “I see a lot of wind erosion in the winter. That is a lot of money that blows and washes off those fields.”

When asked why he believes more farmers do not practice strip-tilling or no-tilling, Hegland responded, “Tillage is fun. It smells great. It is nice to look back and see that black strip behind you, but I would argue it is not necessary.”

Hegland is quick to point out farming is a business. For him, this farming method is a way he can achieve his financial goals. “I enjoy the soil health benefits of it greatly. It’s been fun to see the organic matter increase and the soil biology increase. But for me, my bottom line is the bottom line.”

One perk that cannot be quantified is the efficiency during the growing season and fall harvest, which leads to more family time. “Because of that reduced labor, I am able to go to baseball games and track meets in the spring, and football games and cross country meets in the fall.”


Advice For Getting Started

Always happy to share his experiences with people, he opens his farm to those who want to learn. “There is a lot of interest,” says Hegland, who regularly receives phone calls from interested parties.

After speaking with many people, Hegland notes the hardest part of making the switch or trying something new may be psychological.

“It takes a mindset shift. Many people are afraid to do something different. I am probably talked about in the coffee shop as being out there with these practices, but I am okay with that. Some people want to do what they are comfortable with, and this makes you uncomfortable.”

Like any style of farming, there are challenges. Hegland acknowledges he has not had any “large-scale negative experiences” so far, but does point to a few areas he found difficult.

Ed in soybean field

For example, finding good information that is readily available was an early challenge for Hegland. “It is out there, but you have to dig for it.” One event that helped him was attending a national no-till conference, which connected him with information and more experienced fellow attendees.

A greater focus is being shown on regenerative agriculture from both the government and private businesses. Farmers and ranchers will soon see more resources available to climate-smart projects as the USDA announced a commitment of $3.1 billion in support. More funding could also be made available to EQIP and CSP in the next farm bill. Likewise, large companies like General Mills and Cargill are incentivizing farmers and ranchers to adopt new practices.

Additional planning is necessary to farm regeneratively. Beyond annual decisions on whether to plant corn, soybeans, or wheat, Hegland must determine which cover crops will yield the best results.

Much like muscle memory, it can be hard to make changes when you have been farming a certain way for much or all your life. Hegland encourages fellow farmers to try something different but start small.

“Do not be afraid to try something new. Do it on part of the field that is behind a grove that no one can see if you are nervous about that.”

Despite his success with regenerative farming, Hegland believes that every farmer needs to make decisions that are best for their operation. He emphasizes any participation in climate-smart programs should be voluntary.

“I think everyone should look at these practices. I am not going to preach to anyone or tell them what to do but looking at the results on my farm where I have a variety of soil types, I have proven it can work