What does regenerative agriculture actually mean?

RESTORATION 101 | October 13th, 2021

A holistic approach to agriculture focuses on resilient techniques that consider the generational health of the land.

What is regenerative agriculture?

A system of farming practices that replenishes the surrounding ecosystem through processes that facilitate carbon sequestration through healthy soil, water, and fertilization management while supporting the livelihood of the farmers.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to regenerative farming. Restorative efforts can look vastly different between acres, but there are 5 guiding principles that can lead to effective implementation.


The 5 principles of regenerative agriculture

  1. Reduce soil disturbance.

    Compact soil stores sequestered carbon and contains a multitude of beneficial organisms that support crop growth and healthy land. Adopting no-till farming practices ensures the longevity of an area's soil for long-term crop output and reduces carbon release through soil aeration.

  2. Protect the soil.

    Cover crops shield soil from potential erosion while improving nutrient cycles, building habitats that aggregate water storage, and moderating soil temperatures.

  3. Support living roots.

    Photosynthesizing plants capture carbon and feed the soil through living root systems. These roots revitalize and build soil aggregates to bank nutrients and minerals for current and future crops, ensuring and diverse microbes within the soil.

  4. Grow a diverse range of crops.

    Monocultures, a single crop grown on the same land repeatedly, rapidly deplete the surrounding soil. A bounty of varying plants will yield diverse nutrients that improve soil health, support grazing livestock, and output higher quality crops.

  5. Integrate animals.

    Akin to the in balanced ecosystems, introducing grazing livestock will facilitate a mutually beneficial exchange. Livestock can break up capped soil, create wallows for water collection, disperse seeds, lay armor, and provide nutrient dispersal to improve soil biology and the health of the managed ecosystem.

A few examples:

Reduced or no-till farming.

This cost-effective practice reduces soil disturbances while improving the soil microbiome through a rise in diverse microbes. The growth of organic soil matter supports nutrient and water retention and yields a higher quality crop over time by increasing resiliency to crop stressors. The change in labor techniques, fertilization, and irrigation costs makes this an affordable option for farmers in transition and offers an opportunity for multi-generational land stewardship.

Agroforestry

The introduction of trees into a farming environment to create a biodiverse agricultural landscape. Crops are planted in between trees to yield a wider variety during seasonal planting. This practice increases plant diversity, improves soil health, reduces run-off, protects against soil erosion, and offers a habitat for a range of native organisms. Forest farming can offer financial opportunities for local populations, supporting social development alongside improved crop yields.

Composting

An alternative to synthetically produced fertilizers, composting breaks down organic matter into nutrient-rich, carbon-filled material. This process accelerates natural decomposition and improves previously degraded soil for continued growth.

Crop rotation

Sequentially planting different crops on the same type of land to combat the effects of monoculture planting. Rotating crops allows the soil to gain new nutrients from a diverse range of plants that revitalize the soil and deter pests. A farmer might plant corn, a heavy nitrogen-consuming crop, and following that harvest plant beans, a nitrogen-releasing crop. This change in plant facilitates nutrient retention and a balanced soil microbiome.

Why is regenerative agriculture important?

As the effects of climate change impact current farming methods, we see the effects of rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns that put farms and their communities at risk. Water cycles have been pushed to extremes. From devastating flooding that decimates crop fields and pollutes run-off to drought conditions that can exacerbate desertification and a loss of farmland entirely. These challenging conditions cause erosion in all climates and could ultimately deplete food reserves across the globe. An increase in biodiversity and attention to soil health are the first steps in creating adaptive ecosystems that can respond quickly to environmental changes. This holistic approach to agriculture focuses on resilient techniques that consider the generational health of the land.

Carbon sequestration plays an important role in mitigating climate change. During photosynthesis, a process using sunlight, water, and soil nutrients, plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and synthesize it into carbon for energy to grow. Excess carbon travels down the root system and is sequestered into the surrounding soil. Here, it can be stored for thousands of years, feeding the soil biome and supporting living root systems. Adopting reduced and no-till farming practices cultivates long-term carbon storage solutions and more structure for a healthy landscape.

Soil is the foundation of our food production systems. With an emphasis on soil health and biodiversity, farmers are working to improve and maintain these ecosystems through restorative management to ensure long-term crop output and reduce global carbon emissions. Regenerative farming practices work by building viable organic matter. An increase in organic matter is an increase in water and carbon storage capacity. By implementing rehabilitative techniques, farmers can alter the impacts of climate change and develop resilient, empowered food systems.

How can I participate in restorative farming?

In the United States, farmers make up less than 2% of the working population. It's up to the rest of us to support regenerative agriculture endeavors by taking part in a few practices:

Shop locally

For those able, purchasing from local growers and farmer's markets is the most direct way to put dollars into farms invested in regenerative ag. Find your closest community co-op's or market stands and ask questions before you buy.

Subscribe to a CSA

Signing up for a CSA, a community-supported agriculture box, is another way to support farmers early in the season and make sure they have the resources needed to commit to a restorative harvest.

Learn and share

Documentaries like Farmers Footprint & Kiss The Ground can offer valuable insight for anyone just getting started. Create conversation with your friends and family and ask them to share resources.

Support equitable eating

Let's acknowledge that accessible, healthy eating is a privilege though, and when possible, support organizations that offer subsidized or free produce to communities in need. Check out local growers to find out more about their programs.

Organizations to follow

  • The Land Institute - Based out of Salina, Kansas, the institute focuses on developing perennial grains to support diverse crop mixtures and ample food production often seen in industrial agriculture.

  • Noble Research Institute - Leading innovative agricultural solutions out of Ardmore, Oklahoma, Noble facilitates land stewardship through managed grazing working with farmers and ranchers on profitability.

  • Rodale Institute - Rodale has been at the forefront of the organic movement since 1947. With a focus on soil health, the institute supports the growing movement through research, farmer training, and consumer education.

  • Young Farmers Coalition - The coalition works to provide opportunities for networking and business development for young farmers while facilitating access to land. With an emphasis on BIPOC land stewardship, Young Farmers are creating invaluable resources for the next generation of growers.

  • SARE - Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education offers decentralized grants and education programs focused on farmer research and restorative growing practices.


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