Regenerative Agriculture?

What is “regenerative agriculture” anyway? 

One thing is clear - it is certainly a buzzword - and it is increasingly often co-opted by large agribusiness as part of ongoing green-washing campaigns.  Because "regenerative", as yet, has no widely accepted specific definition, we have come up with our own:

In our view, an agricultural practice or enterprise is regenerative if it:

  1. Builds soil organic matter (topsoil).
  2. Increases soil fertility / forage production / carrying capacity.
  3. Increases biodiversity: insect, bird, plant, animal.
  4. Sequesters carbon.
  5. Improves the hydrological function of the landscape.
  6. Builds resilience to shocks.
  1. Builds soil organic matter (topsoil).

Conventional agriculture, particularly that which involves tillage (plowing), causes topsoil (organic layer or “a-horizon”) loss through a number of mechanisms including mechanical disturbance, wind erosion, and water erosion. As topsoil is depleted, it is less and less possible to grow food, and farmers are more and more dependent on external inputs. The history of tillage agriculture is in many ways a history of topsoil depletion. Civilizations rise and fall with their ability to manage the soil.

Regenerative agriculture, by contrast (and like many indigenous food-production systems) focuses on actively building the organic matter in the soil and preventing erosion through rotational grazing, animal based fertilization, perennial crops, and water management. We aim to demonstrate ever increasing soil organic matter (as measured through soil samples), year over year.

2. Increases soil fertility / forage production / carrying capacity.

If we hope to feed our communities while regenerating the soil, we must be able to observe a continual increase in the productive capacity of the land. In conventional agriculture this is achieved by doing a soil test, seeing what element is missing (eg. N,P,K), and adding that element (often synthetic, often purchased in) to the land.

We believe there is a better approach. By conceiving of the farm as a complex whole (systems thinking), we can find ways to increase productivity while minimizing expensive and ecologically questionable inputs. Careful observation, planning, and measurement of many variables over time allow us to improve the productivity of the land using biological means that are already available to us on the farm: plants (eg. nitrogen fixing plants like Bird’s Foot Trefoil) and animals (like our grazing ruminants).

In 2020 we undertook and extensive soil sampling survey, and we will use the data generated to monitor the changes to the soil over time under our management. Another measurable data point is forage yield, and we are looking to demonstrate year-over-year improvements here. Increased forage yield results from high fertility, which results from better management. This in turn increases carrying capacity, a key measure of productivity in a livestock farm.

3. Increases biodiversity: insect, bird, plant, animal.

Loss of biodiversity is one of the great ongoing tragedies of our time, a twin threat alongside climate change. Compared to climate change, which often seems impossibly large, biodiversity is something we can measurably improve in manageable scales of time and space. It all comes down to habitat. If there is no habitat for wildlife, there will be no wildlife. We conceive of the farm as a habitat, not just for our domestic species, but also for any number of wild, feral, volunteer, and visitor species. We view our role as facilitators, helping to make more room for all of these creatures to co-habit in the landscape. Through our management choices, like not tilling, maintaining perennial pastures, planting trees and shrubs, and encouraging the return of native species, we make space for more life, which in turn makes space for even more life!

In our first year of operation, 2020, we conducted an extensive survey of biological diversity in our pastures. We call it the Evermeadow Plant Atlas, though it also includes insects and other animal life. Despite the fact that our pastures were planted as a bi-cultural crop (alfalfa and orchard grass) we catalogued over 60 unique species, both introduced and native. We will continue to monitor our fields for newcomers, welcoming them as they arrive. And we will continually expand our efforts to increase biodiversity by bringing more species and habitats onto the farm.

4. Sequesters carbon.

One of the major claims of regenerative agriculture advocates is that by increasing soil organic matter (carbon), regenerative practices can help draw carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, sequestering it and helping to mitigate climate change. The reality is more complex, and under intense study by a number of research institutions. It is known that the roots of plants like grasses do sequester carbon, as does the intricate web of living organisms that make up healthy top soil, but the longevity and quantity of this carbon storage is debated.

So while we hesitate to claim that pasture based farming will singlehandedly put the brakes on climate change, one thing we can say with conviction is that healthy perennial grasslands interspersed with trees and shrubs will hold onto significantly more carbon than annual tillage and monocropping systems.

We look forward to monitoring carbon content of our soils and participating in future studies on sequestration via regenerative practices. More clarity is emerging on the relationship between ruminants, grasslands, soil, and atmospheric carbon, and we are excited to be a part of the conversation.

5. Improves the hydrological function of the landscape.

If you want to get rid of fertile topsoil, your surest bet is to leave the land uncovered by plants and roots. Spring snows melt, and seasonal heavy rains can then easily wash soil and organic matter into valleys, gullies, ditches, and ravines, and then into rivers, lakes, and, ultimately, the ocean. As a bonus, leaving the land bare also contributes to seasonal flooding, drought, and desertification, as well as catastrophic events like landslides.

If you don’t find these things appealing, there is a simple solution at hand: keeping the soil covered. The best way to do that is to reduce or eliminate tillage, to use cover crops, and, best of all, keep the soil permanently woven together in a protective tapestry of living organisms. Plant cover in perennial grasslands regulates the flow of water through the landscape: roots hold onto more water and prevent erosion, and foliage helps check runoff down slopes. The complex ecology of life in healthy grassland soil also keeps the soil structure open and porous, ready to absorb water and make it available for uptake by plants roots.

Ultimately we hope to move away from deep-well water supply for our operations and move to surface water capture through swales and ponds. In the meantime, we expect to observe improved hydrological function (ie: less runoff, more moisture retained in dry periods) of our pastures as their overall heath and productivity improves.

6. Builds resilience to shocks.

Take together, all of these characteristics define, for us, regenerative agriculture. They form the basis of our plan to increase our resilience to the shocks that are already upon us, as well as those that are sure to come in the not-so-distant future.

As a farm, as an ecological community, and as a society, we need to do everything we can to ensure our landscapes will be able to support us, and vice versa, come what may. We need to be able to store water in the landscape for dry and hot periods. We need to increase the fertility of the soil. We need to increase biodiversity so that the web of life remains strong in the face of climate induced threats to individual species. We need to be able to continue to feed ourselves despite an unpredictable climate, including major weather events. Essentially, we need to be adaptive. We need to be resilient.

Regenerative agricultural practices are, then, those that build resilience.

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