We've all seen it on company websites and ad campaigns "our regenerative promise" or "commitments to stop climate change" but what does it all mean? What is at the heart of regenerative and sustainable agriculture? How did we get to the point of needing regenerative agriculture? And what can you as a consumer do to support it?
The heart of regeneration is in the soil. Historical farming practices and poor land management have led to a degradation of our soils. Heavy tillage, pesticide use, fertilizer use, monocropping, and bare soils have had an enormous effect on the earth's agricultural lands. The loss of topsoil, organic matter and the decrease of soil microbiology has led to the desertification of our croplands. I am not here though to tell you the doom and gloom about the degradation of the earth's soil or the loss of farmland, you can go down that rabbit hole yourself. I would rather talk about regenerative agriculture and how we as consumers can support it, but also how us farmers can practice it.
Regenerative Agriculture: What is it?
What is regenerative agriculture? We hear it everywhere but what does it actually mean? Essentially regenerative agriculture takes the holistic approach to growing. How farming and agriculture works as a system, from the smallest microbe in the soil, the overall plant health, and the surrounding environment it is growing in. Regenerative and sustainable agriculture is the continual effort in protecting our soils, improving our water cycles, and protecting our plant and animal diversity. This will help fight climate change (it's amazing how much carbon is stored in living soils), creates reliable food systems, has less food milage and healthier ecosystems.
How does agriculture work to improve the system as a whole? The answer lies in soil organic matter or SOM. Through the loss of topsoil we are losing our organic matter. Organic matter not only feeds bacteria and fungi, but it also adds structure to the soil via micro and macroaggregates. Structure allows for more water infiltration, more water retained, more aerobic soil and more nutrients cycled. The binding of aggregates creates soil that is less likely to be blown away in high winds. This leads to more microorganisms living in the soil, more topsoil retained, less water runoff, better crop health and better resilience. Our climate is changing more and more every year but using regenerative agriculture can help mitigate those changes. By increasing soil structure our soils and crops are more resilient to high winds, drought and even flooding.
Regenerative Agriculture is essentially getting back to the basics. Using less tillage, more cover cropping, increasing plant diversity, and introducing livestock /rotational grazing, leads to better water retention. It is all about building and keeping the SOM. Other practices such as compost and manure applications, no-till, crop rotations, creating permanent cover crops and creating windbreaks all build up SOM and soil biology which create healthier soils.
Whole Systems Thinking or Holistic Thinking
Holistic thinking goes beyond plants and soils. It is about building up the natural ecosystem. Reintroducing native plants into the area to support the life under and above the soils.
It is about creating a system where humans can thrive alongside pollinators, where larger prey will be attracted, and where the system can work as a whole and regulate itself. Bringing things back to nature with as little human disturbance as possible.
Protection of natural wetlands, watersheds, grasslands and natural wooded areas will help maintain biodiversity. These ecosystems provide habitat and protection for local wildlife but they play and important role in soil protection as well. Grasslands have some of the most extensive root systems under the soil. They cycle nutrients, hold water, and hold soil. Wet lands and watersheds provide flood protection, filter groundwater, and are an important habitat for wildlife. These ecosystems alone are mitigators for climate change, they both store carbon and will provide ecosystem services to help adapt to the changing climate.
To learn more about these ecosystems click here: Nature Based Climate Solutions
The last step in regenerative agriculture lies with the consumer. One of the biggest parts of holistic thinking is the human system. Regenerative agriculture is people centered. It is farmers supporting other farmers, it is support through all the distribution channels and it support from the community. True regenerative agriculture is small scale farming to support local communities. It is minimizing the carbon footprint in food production by selling locally. Buying from local farmers reduces the food mileage and food waste. Local food is harvested at peak ripeness and is sold to the consumer within that window, reducing the food waste caused by improper ripening.
The best way for consumers to support this is to buy local. Join a local community shared agriculture (CSA) program, shop local farm markets, and shop at your local farms.
To learn more about our federal approach to regenerative ag read the Sustainable Agriculture Strategy (SAS) report here.
More posts about different aspects of regenerative farming will come soon. There is too much information and different aspects to talk about in one post. Our focus is biological soil science, so a large portion of the information will be related to that.
If there is anything you would like to see in the posts please comment below or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org