Better Ground

Regenerative Agriculture

Equipping the next generation of farmers.

Regenerative agriculture is just what its name implies—it’s a way of farming the land while at the same time regenerating the natural functions of the farm ecosystem. This way of farming aims to improve soil health, water quality, and biological diversity simultaneously.

Regenerative agriculture takes the “conservation agriculture” approach a step further to create an overall agro-ecosystem that mimics nature, using natural processes to the farmer’s advantage (UNCTD, 2013). The key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only “does no harm” to the land but it actually aims to improve it, using practices that rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity. 

Because regenerative agriculture practices rebuild soil, rather than accepting a “tolerable loss of soil,” it allows farmers to realize the benefits associated with improved soil health, such as increased yields, improved water infiltration rates and retention, increased resilience to droughts and floods, and a reduction in the need for costly external resources such as fertilizers and pesticides (Rodale Institute, 2014). 

Not only is regenerative agriculture a holistic and sustainable approach to farming, it has been recommended as a top solution to reversing climate change. The Carbon Farming Solution extensively analyzes regenerative agriculture systems around the globe and has quantified the huge potential regenerative agriculture systems have for sequestering carbon in soils. As more states consider carbon trading or tax programs, the ability of farms to sequester carbon using these techniques could provide an additional source of income.

Principles and Practices 

Regenerative agriculture seeks to achieve the following goals: 

  • Increase soil fertility, soil health, and crop yields while reducing the application of synthetic fertilizers. 
  • Reduce riverbank scouring and reduce sand deposition on the landscape.
  • Improve the soil’s ability to retain water for crops during dry months and infiltrate water during wet months. 
  • Improve water quality of groundwater and nearby waterways. 
  • Improve agriculture’s resilience to predicted climate changes.
  • Improve habitat, biodiversity, and ecosystem health. 
  • Reverse a system of carbon emissions to one that sequesters overall carbon. 

In order to achieve these goals, regenerative agriculture uses a wide variety of practices such as conservation tillage, multi-species cover crops, multi-cropping, crop rotation, pollinator strips, hedgerows, integration of animals into cropping systems, and application of compost, compost tea, and biochar. 

Regenerative agriculture uses key soil health-improving principles to rebuild soil:

Minimize or eliminate tillage.

Building or rebuilding soil is fundamental to “regenerative” practices. A key first step in achieving this is to minimize or eliminate tillage. The general goal is the least amount of mechanical disturbance possible. Tillage breaks up (pulverizes) soil aggregation and fungal communities while adding excess carbon to the soil for increased respiration and carbon emission. Tillage can also greatly increase soil erosion and plug soil spaces for water percolation. 

Protect the soil and increase fertility.

Regenerative agriculture increases soil fertility through the use of cover crops and application of compost, biochar, and animal manures. Compost increases soil biodiversity, organic matter, nutrient cycling, disease suppression, and enhances soil structure. These soil benefits translate into greater soil health and productivity, while reducing water or fertilizer needs. The benefits are significant and accrue quickly: after just one application season of amending with compost, soil  organic carbon and aggregate stability increase significantly compared with non-amended soils (Rodale Institute). Regenerative agriculture also focuses on protecting the soil that already exists—efforts to improve fertility are wasted if soil is then blown or washed away. Reducing erosion by keeping it covered or “armored” with living plants such as cover crops is key.

Increase biodiversity.

Regenerative agriculture builds plant diversity through intercropping cash crops (growing two or more crops in proximity), crop rotations, and multi-species cover crops. Cover crop mixes in regenerative agriculture can range from 10 to 60 or more species. This plant diversity helps to build and sustain a soil microbial population to supply plants with the nutrients they need, greatly reducing or eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers. Application of composts also helps to restore the soil microbial community population. The planting of hedgerows and tree crops further improves soil biodiversity and also increases habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects that are crucial for natural pest control.

Holistic grazing.

By integrating managed grazing of livestock into a regenerative agriculture system, farmers are able to add diversity to the products they produce and add value to cover crops (annual forage crops). Managed grazing practices improve overall pasture and grazing productivity while greatly increasing soil fertility through the application of animal manures.

How to Begin? 

By integrating managed grazing of livestock into a regenerative agriculture system, farmers are able to add diversity to the products they produce and add value to cover crops (annual forage crops). Managed grazing practices improve overall pasture and grazing productivity while greatly increasing soil fertility through the application of animal manures.

References 

Coleman, Joel. 2007. Riparian Buffers – The Very Best Protection. Habitat Herold. Vol. 12 DEC, Vermont. Values of Riparian Buffers. Accessed 9/2018. Available at  https://snocd.org/riparian-values 

Dwyer, J.P., Wallace, D., Larsen, D. 1997. Value of Woody River Corridors in Levee Protection Along the Missouri River in 1993. Journal of American Water Resources Association. 33(2):481-489. 

Rodale Institute. 2014. Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming. (20869)

Wallace, D.C., Wayne, A.G., Dwyer, J.P. 2000. Waterbreaks: Managed Trees for Floodplain. Agroforestry Notes. USDA Forest Service. AF Note-19

UNCTAD. 2013. Trade and Environment Review 2013. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2013, available at unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf.