If you’ve spent any amount of time reading about where your food comes from, there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled across the terms ‘regenerative agriculture’ or ‘regenerative farming.’ They’re oft-discussed topics among farmers and foodies alike — and they’re particularly relevant in the organic food and locavore communities, where new, holistic approaches to wellness often gain early traction.
Unfortunately, it’s also cursed with a moniker that fails to adequately explain what it’s all about, leading many to wonder: what is regenerative agriculture, and why should I care?
Put simply, regenerative agriculture describes an approach to farm management that emphasizes rehabilitating damaged soil or continuing to improve the richness of soil that’s already high quality. Preserving the top layer of soil is critical for plant health because the vast majority of nutrients are stored in these precious few inches — and agriculture-driven erosion claims an estimated one percent of it every year.
Regenerative farms sidestep this concern by forgoing conventional tilling in favor of minimal topsoil disturbance. As a result, the root structures of harvested crops remain below ground alongside other organic material. Combined with quality compost input, this practice feeds the soil food web, resulting in a rich bounty of nutrients for future crops.
Soils are further improved with the use of cover crops like clover, beans, peas, ryegrass, oats, rapeseed, winter wheat and buckwheat. In addition to providing more organic matter, these crops help prevent erosion from harming the quality of the soil, and can encourage the presence of natural pollinators on the farm.
Aside from the benefits reaped directly by the farmer, it’s also theorized that regenerative soil practices can help turn the tide against climate change by sequestering carbon underground. At the very least, practicing regenerative farming likely prevents or limits the release of additional carbon that occurs when more conventional farming methods are employed. More scientific research will be critical to verifying these hypotheses in the future.
Beyond prioritizing soil health, regenerative farms also seek to emulate the dynamics of a natural ecosystem, harnessing the natural instincts of healthy animals to aid in crop cultivation. Common practices include plowing with pigs, beekeeping, and the use of chicken tractors to weed, loosen and fertilize soil.
Not only are these practices compatible with what would occur in nature, they also help limit the use of traditional farming tools powered by fossil fuels. They’re also budget-friendly alternatives that can help control labor costs and sidestep the purchase and maintenance of expensive farm equipment.
Although these practices can seem like the exclusive domain of large-scale agricultural operations, there are plenty of ways small farms and hobby gardeners alike can apply the principles of regenerative agriculture to their efforts. Whether you’re gardening in rows, planting in raised beds or trying your hand at growing your own food on an urban terrace, leaving organic matter in the soil and planting cover crops are great strategies for improving yields.
If you’re working in a confined space or an urban environment, chances are you won’t be building a chicken tractor or turning pigs loose on your garden. However, if you have significant enough acreage to sustain them and don’t mind a do-it-yourself challenge, there are plenty of budget-friendly plans for both online.
Whether you’re a hobby gardener or the leader of a large-scale agricultural operation, there are numerous benefits to be realized from adopting the principles of regenerative agriculture. It’s a great way to ensure you are growing nutritious food, preserving the soil for future generations and living in harmony with your local ecosystem.
Do you have a question about regenerative agriculture that we didn’t cover? Have you tried regenerative practices on your farm and want to share your story? We’d love to continue the conversation.