Back to February 2024

Getting Started in Regenerative Management

During the OPGA 2023 Orchard tour at the Great Buffalo Pecan Farm, Dr. Charles Rohla shows how the soil has changed since the team implemented a cover crop system as a start to regenerative management. (Photo by Catherine Clark)

I often get asked if we can manage pecans regeneratively and still be productive and profitable. My answer? Yes, we can, but regenerative management will be different for each producer. Each producer will have unique circumstances that will require individualized management practices. Many producers have been seeking ways to reduce input costs while maintaining or increasing profitability. I learned a long time ago, working with Dr. Bill Reid, that being profitable did not mean having higher production. Higher production typically comes with a higher input cost and operational cost. He constantly stressed to me that proper management and protecting your crop when needed while reducing unnecessary expenses (sprays or fertilizers) was the way to be profitable. Now that we know more about soil health and the potential for the soil and soil microbes to provide the nutrients and additional water required to produce pecans, I believe more than ever that it is possible to manage pecan orchards regeneratively. 

So, how do you get started managing pecans regeneratively? 

First, you must determine your actual goals for managing your pecans. Some of the producers I have worked with who have changed their management had issues in their orchards that they were trying to solve. Most of the time, these producers had tried conventional management to remedy these problems with little to no success, and that was one of the driving factors that drove them to look at something different. 

As I’ve had the opportunity to work with different producers (not just pecan producers), I have seen that the first step to managing regeneratively is a change in mindset. It would help if you saw what the problems are and had the mindset to be willing to try something different than the standard—realizing that what you’re doing is not working the way that you wanted it. Have the confidence to try other options to correct the problem. To do this, you must truly understand the root problems, start working toward a way to address the issues, and stop treating only the symptoms you see. Understanding the interactions of your entire ecosystem (land, water, trees, environment, etc.) is essential in helping you determine how to start.

As we work with producers transitioning to regenerative management, the best advice I can give you is to visit with other like-minded individuals. They do not have to be pecan growers, as you will learn from others who have tried different things to address issues with their ecosystem. Educate yourself on your ecosystem and learn how to manage your soils to improve your operation. If we want to regenerate our soils, we must start thinking about our operations as more than just pecan trees. Our operations are the entire system within our control, and so many factors interact with one another to make up that system. 

Throughout this process, we can turn to what we have learned about the soil and what we continue to discover about the soil microbes to help decide what we need to work on. I would advise you to take the “safe to learn” approach and start small. You do not have to change your entire management philosophy all at once. Try something small and effortless; this way, you’re not risking the operation as a whole, and it is easier to recognize the results. You can decide on the following action as you see the positive results. One of the most impactful things I have seen pecan producers begin with is to reduce mowing. Decreasing the amount of mowing allows the forages to produce more leaves to capture more solar energy. The increased energy drives many ecosystem processes that will improve your situation. 

The next thing to do is to become better connected to your operation (not just your crop or trees). To have a good understanding of what is happening with your operation, you need to have some baseline information so that you can track changes over time. This information is critical in helping you make management decisions. This information can be as simple as taking a Haney soil test to see how healthy your soils are, but I would encourage you to go deeper than just the soil. I recommend that you evaluate your orchards separately and collect information on the issues with each orchard (soil issues, disease/insect problems, quality, tree health, canopy density, production, etc.). If you are concerned about profitability, capture your financial costs and profits from each orchard. It is beneficial to see where you are spending your money and evaluate if there are ways to reduce these expenses. Knowing what you are spending on fertilizers and the different chemicals you use can be very telling if a large portion of your costs come from just a few areas. 

All this information will help you determine where you need to start and help you realize when you see results. The other major part of managing your operation regeneratively is understanding the four ecosystem processes. Almost everything that occurs in our operations is impacted by these processes. If you are trying to improve a problem, it most likely involves fixing one or more of these processes. 

Ecosystem processes:

Energy Flow – The energy that drives the entire system comes from the sun. Leaves of plants are the solar panels that convert the sun’s energy to drive the energy flow or energy cycle. Plants use this energy to turn carbon dioxide into food for themselves and soil microbes. Plants with living leaves must be present throughout the year to ensure this process is optimal. Having different species of plants, both warm and cool season, increases the energy captured.

Water Cycle – Water cycles through evaporation, precipitation, infiltration, runoff, and transpiration. Increasing water infiltration into the soil after a rain or irrigation event is the only way to capture and store water in the soil to be used by the plants and trees. The more plants and residue we have on the soil surface, the more they will help slow runoff and also help decrease the evaporation from the soil. The more soil microbes you have and the higher the amount of organic matter in your soil, the more your soils act as a sponge to soak up the water when available, allowing it to be available later for your crop.  

Nutrient Cycle – Nutrients are transferred between living organisms and the nonliving parts of the environment. Biotic activity, such as earthworms, insects, and microbes in the soil, improves the nutrient cycle. Good plant diversity is needed to optimize the nutrient cycle, and the soil must be covered to protect this biotic activity. 

Community Dynamics – Community dynamics are the changes to the community structure and composition over time, including changes in microbiology, plant life, and animal life. Plant community management is critical to the other three cycles. Year-round, diverse plant communities improve the nutrient cycle, optimizing the energy cycle. If the plant community is managed properly, it will help increase the water and nutrient cycles. Managing various plant types, perennials, and annuals—both cool-season and warm-season species—contributes to a healthier ecosystem. 

By understanding these four ecosystem processes, you will develop a deeper knowledge of your operation and the factors that affect almost every aspect of producing pecans. Because these processes are intrinsically tied to your orchard, you’ll often find that when there’s a problem in your orchard, the solution most likely involves fixing one of these. That is why regenerative management is based not on practices but on principles. There may be several different practices that can impact a problem, but understanding how the practices can affect the other processes will lead to the results that you desire. 

Getting started in regenerative management begins with you. After changing your mindset, you start by taking small steps toward accomplishing your goals. Along the way, you can turn to like-minded individuals who are also working to farm regeneratively. And ultimately, you’ll develop a better understanding of your orchard and ecosystem. Each step will lead you deeper into regenerative management and closer to your next goal and the one after that.

Author Photo

Charles Rohla

Rohla is Manager of the Center of Pecan and Specialty Agriculture at the Noble Research Institute, Ardmore, Oklahoma.