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What is Regenerative Agriculture?

By Hannah Arledge

The term “regenerative agriculture” seems to mean something slightly different to everyone. In fact, in a study published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, scholars found that “across 229 academic journal articles and 25 practitioner websites… only 51 percent of research articles that used the term supplied any sort of definition. Meanwhile, among the sources that did provide a definition, the details varied dramatically.” So we figured we’d provide a rundown on definitions and processes that our partners focus on to more clearly establish what we mean when we use certain terms.

There are several elements most definitions have in common. When we talk about regenerative agriculture, we are referring to an unconventional farming approach centered around improving soil health, sequestering carbon, and increasing biodiversity. In turn, this impacts human health, food availability, and economic resilience for families and communities. The variety of techniques to accomplish these goals is just as broad: including growing cover crops, integrating livestock, or reducing tillage for a variety of intended results including better air quality, minimized erosion, increased community living standards… the big picture we have in common is that we aim to restore life of all kinds and reduce extractive practices.

Our Farmer Field Schools break down our regenerative interventions into these categories:
Soil conservation and fertilization, agroforestry, bio-intensive agriculture, and conservation agriculture.

Under each category, we define the values of regenerative agriculture and practices implemented to create healthier ecosystems.

Soil Conservation & Fertilization

Creating healthy, living soil ecosystems is the essential groundwork for all good farming things. Farming occurs on the superficial layer known as topsoil. This is the roughly ten-inch layer richest in nutrients and organic matter, that feeds nitrogen and carbon to growing plants. A farmer evaluates this soil based on its ability to hold water, texture, the amount of organic matter, availability of microorganisms and nutrients, and its pH level. After evaluating these properties, a farmer has options to decide what interventions are needed to protect this vital ecosystem:

Water Retention

Based on the amount of clay, sand, or silt, a soil will either be too good or not good enough at holding onto water. The goal is to balance soil moisture with drainage. Pumping and distributing water is not only energy intensive, but must be utilized mindfully to prevent topsoil runoff. When soil has strong retentive capabilities, less water is required for irrigation. Sprinkler and drip irrigation can reduce water waste by more efficiently focusing on the crops that need water, and even be regulated by a monitor in the ground gauging water content. 

Increasing Organic Matter

Some ways we can increase the amount of organic matter in a soil to boost up the nutrient and microbial content are through composting, green manure, and fertilizer trees. Green manure is any kind of plant cover that aids in soil fertility. In addition to keeping the soil healthy, green manure can be plants like beans or fruit trees that double as food sources for the community. Fertilizer trees are trees and shrubs that provide substantial organic matter that feed nutrients to crops. They keep water running into the soil, serve as windbreaks, and surge nutrients into the soil through their leaves and roots.

Agroforestry

Agroforestry is at the nexus of Plant With Purpose’s reforestation and regenerative agriculture efforts. By mimicking natural systems, agroforestry incorporates shrub and tree growth with food production and livestock. Forested areas are natural havens of biodiversity, which also increases the region’s ability to sequester carbon. Trees stimulate the local economy, produce fuel and food, and protect water sources. Trees also provide soil stability and risk mitigation by way of preventing erosion and mudslides, so the rural poor farmers who are often pushed to hillsides can successfully cultivate sloping land.

Silvopasture

Silvopasture is one regenerative practice within agroforestry, specific to combining forest management and livestock grazing. In many instances, livestock and grazing is a heavy burden on the environment, so the intentional management of silvopasture helps to reverse those effects. Consider it a two-for-one with dual benefits on the same plot of land. Even under unfavorable weather conditions or drought, forest and pasture integration has proven to alleviate the side effects of unexpected weather events. Livestock receive shade, protection, and food from the forest while providing weed, pest, and disease management for the trees. For both flora and fauna, biodiversity flourishes in this environment.

Biointensive Agriculture

Often our partners are working with small spaces and backyard gardens, especially in the early stages of savings. Biointensive agriculture focuses on maximizing yields on smaller plots, with the benefits of saving space, conserving water, and growing healthier, organic food than through conventional methods.

Increasing Biodiversity

Increasing biodiversity in an agricultural plot builds resilience against infectious disease and provides natural pest control. Practically, this can look like intercropping, planting cover crops, and crop rotation. For a rural farmer, this can mean greater self-sufficiency by providing more of the needed calories and income commodities on one’s land and greater food security due to a decreased threat of disease or pests wiping out a monoculture plot. Additionally, by practicing close spacing gardening, the farmer creates an underground communication network of root systems that work together to produce necessary nutrients and hold soil structure to prevent runoff and erosion. In fact, every step you take through a forest can cover hundreds of kilometres of densely packed fungal threads in what Professor Suzanne Simard coined Mycorrhiza webs. Through these networks, plants can exchange sugars, nutrients, water and more, providing mutual support and shaping the ecosystem they inhabit.

Compost and Mulch

Many of us are familiar with composting-- that bin outside where you toss your eggshells and coffee grounds and maybe harvested earthworms for fishing bait as a kid. By mixing decaying organic matter into the soil by way of compost, farmers can enhance the microbial content of soil. Compost sinks healthy nutrients and microorganisms into the topsoil layer to create a happy biome for plant growth. Mulch, on the other hand, is the layer of organic material that rests on top of the soil, providing cover to keep the soil cool and retain moisture, prevent erosion, and tamp down weeds.

Open Pollinated Seeds

Otherwise known as heirloom seeds, these seeds ensure a level of reliability because they produce a plant genetically similar to the parent. By saving individual seeds from plants that did well, the farmer can collect and build a catalog of seeds specifically adapted to the farm’s microclimate. Another benefit of this to a farming community is that it protects farmers’ self-reliance and decreases costs by taking away the price of purchasing seed.

Conservation Agriculture:

Conservation Agriculture takes into account sociological and economic factors in the integration of regenerative farming. It focuses on recycling materials to preserve soil fertility with resourceful use of organic and chemical planning. The central tenants of conservation agriculture are reducing soil movement, providing soil cover, and crop rotations.

Reducing/Eliminating Tillage

Tillage is a practice that creates short-term fertility by manually breaking down the soil structure and increasing the rate at which organic matter decomposes in the soil. But if we are playing the long game, tillage disturbs soil quality by breaking down its nutrient bank, releasing carbon stores into the atmosphere, and making it more susceptible to erosion and less able to support life. As far as cost is concerned, up to 80% less fuel and 50% less labor is needed to sustain a no-till farm. However, no-till has been adapted for industrialized farms as well, so just because a farm has implemented this singular sustainable practice, does not mean they are not using a high input of agrochemicals, GMO seeds, and monoculture crop production. 

Cover Crops

Perhaps alfalfa or ryegrass, the cover crop’s primary role is to maintain soil fertility by protecting against erosion and nutrient loss, but they also provide shade, sequester carbon, promote biodiversity, and act as nitrogen fixers. Unlike cash crops, these plants are not sold. (However, through the practice of intercropping, two cash crops can perform cover crop functions for one other). 

Crop Rotation and Intercropping

Crop rotation is the successive planting of different crops on the same plot. Rotating crops in order of what one plant demands and what plant can replenish that to the soil afterwards keeps the soil in a cycle of restoring essential elements like phosphorus, nitrogen, calcium, and potassium. Intercropping is a low-input practice of cultivating different crops on the same plot at the same time. Planting complementary crops together has proven to successfully combat pests and disease, work in relationship to provide nutrients, and function as cover crops when balanced in varied height and root depth. Both practices reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers to balance depleted soil. 

Is there a difference between organic farming, sustainable farming, and regenerative farming?

In popular use, these terms are often thrown about as if they are interchangeable. While there can be some overlap, each of these terms has a different benefit it specifically focuses on. Organic farming is (in its simplest form) agriculture without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. While it does generally seek to create ecological balance, organic farming is not necessarily concerned with maintaining biodiversity.  Sustainable farming is agriculture using what is already available without degrading systems. By definition, it is intended to sustain, or keep things the same. Generally, sustainable farming practices can be the same as those for regenerative farming, but their application and implementation differs. Regenerative agriculture seeks to create a whole system, one that restores and rebuilds to increase productivity. It necessarily impacts not only the environmental system directly involved but trickles down into every facet of symbiosis including increased public health, climate cooling, clean water availability, economic resilience, wildlife protection, food sovereignty. 

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