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When wheat never dies

Last summer, most of the fields surrounding Joel VanderSchaaf's Prairie farm were baked and brown, withered by one of the most severe droughts in recent memory. One stood out among the rest: A plot the Saskatchewan potato farmer had planted on a whim three years earlier with an experimental grain called Kernza, similar to the wheat used to make bread and beer.

"Our crop was pretty much the only green field around that wasn't irrigated," he recalled. "It (Kernza) is very efficient, very hardy … we were quite pleased with how it was growing."

Kernza is a perennial, which means, like a lawn, it regrows and produces grain every year without having to be replanted. Its extensive root system allows it to draw water and nutrients from deep beneath the ground. Its roots sequester carbon in the soil and boost soil health, making it a regenerative agriculture dream crop. Those environmental benefits are what first drew VanderSchaaf to the unusual crop.

Healthy soils are the world's largest land-based carbon sink, according to UN estimates. With nearly half the planet's land mass under cultivation, experts say it is critical we manage farms, orchards and pastures in ways that regenerate the soil. Most large-scale farms rely on fertilizers, pesticides and excessive tilling of farmland, which eats away at soil health, drives up greenhouse gas emissions and harms the environment.

Growing alarm at these impacts is driving interest in so-called "regenerative" agriculture, a suite of practices aimed at improving soil health that includes cover cropping and avoiding tillage. Long used by Indigenous, peasant and organic farmers, since 2010, the approach has surged into the modern mainstream as farmers, governments and big agri-businesses try to reduce their environmental impact.

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