What is Regenerative Farming & Agriculture?
WHAT IS REGENERATIVE FARMING?
Going beyond organic and sustainable to help heal our planet and produce the purest foods possible
For years, farmers have been trying to manipulate the way in which our food is planted, grown, and harvested in efforts to industrialize and cheapen how we get food to our tables.
These unsustainable farming practices have led to the mistreatment of animals, the development of GMO crops, loss of vital topsoil, and the overuse of toxic chemicals that are destroying important insects, bees and causing water pollution. These destructive or "degenerative" farming practices also play a big part in climate change.
Happily, there is a regenerative farming movement sweeping the planet that aims to combat this. Farmers and scientists alike are finding that farming in tune with nature, eliminating chemical dependency, improving soil health, and working toward the farms becoming self-reliant is having a myriad of positive impacts on the farm, our health, and the health of our planet.
But what is regenerative farming, and why is it so important? Let's find out in the next section.
WHAT IS REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE?
Regenerative agriculture is a farming philosophy that looks to regenerate or heal the earth. The goal of regenerative farming is to restore soils that have been degraded by the industrial agricultural system. Through holistic farming and grazing techniques, it promotes healthier ecosystems by rebuilding soil organic matter. In a nutshell, regenerative agriculture advocates leave the work to nature.
Regenerative agriculture is sometimes defined as any practice that uses less fertilizer or pesticides. We are all aware of damage caused by degenerative farming methods and even sustainable farming, which is only sustaining our current way of producing food — and which very well may not be enough. 'Regenerative' refers to implementing regenerative agriculture practices on a farm that naturally improves or restores the system that it's part of, rather than harming it.
Moreover, as a natural "carbon sink," soils store several times as much carbon as the atmosphere. However, due to factors such as the conversion of native landscapes to croplands and overfarming, global soil carbon stocks have been declining gradually. One goal of regenerative agriculture is to help restore soil carbon by using some of the carbon that plants have absorbed from the atmosphere.
No-till agriculture, in which farmers avoid ploughing soils and instead drill seeds into the soil, and the use of cover crops, which are plants grown to cover the soil after farmers harvest the main crop, are examples of regenerative farming practices. Some other regenerative agriculture practices include diverse crop rotations, such as planting three or more crops in succession over several years and crop rotation with livestock grazing.
BIODYNAMIC® FARMING IS REGENERATIVE FARMING
Biodynamic® farming, certified by Demeter, is the gold standard of regenerative agriculture. Founded in Europe almost 100 years ago, this international farming model is an ethical and holistic approach to how food is grown. Biodynamic farms find a careful balance in all things on the farm without the need for chemicals, GMOs, and disruptive methods.
This farming model uses organic farming standards as a baseline and implements holistic and regenerative farming practices to help heal that farm as it produces nutrient-rich, delicious, and clean fruits and vegetables. When building White Leaf Provisions, we chose to source as many biodynamic, regeneratively farmed ingredients for our family foods as possible.
While regenerative agriculture is very similar in scope to biodynamic, biodynamic agriculture has a long history and more certification standards in place.
HOW DOES REGENERATIVE FARMING WORK?
In a nutshell, regenerative agriculture is a set of farming principles and practices that aims to restore and improve the farm's entire ecosystem by emphasizing soil health while also paying attention to water management, organic fertilizer use, and other concerning factors.
There are some key examples of regenerative farming practices used on the farms that we work with. Here's why they are so important:
1. Improving soil quality: Improving soil health is the first step in regenerative agriculture. As we know, the soil is the original source of the nutrients we use to grow crops. The nutrients move from the soil into the plants that we eat. When farmland becomes overworked, along with lots of chemical use, it loses its vital nutrients and microorganisms, which are vital components in growing healthy crops and maintaining healthy, rich soil.
For all of these reasons, improving soil fertility is a critical step in regenerative farming.
2. Minimal Tilling or no-tilling: The next step in regenerative agriculture is minimal or no-tilling.
Plowing and tillage erode soil radically and release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They can also result in bare or compacted soil, making it difficult for important soil microbes to thrive. Plowing up the soil each season also devastates the structure of the communities that live there, as well as contributing to soil erosion and CO2 emissions.
On the other hand, no-till farming regenerative agriculture practices help improve soil structure by preventing compaction and increasing water infiltration and retention rates. Moreover, regenerative farming practices help plants thrive by creating healthier, more resilient environments and retaining more carbon where it belongs.
3. Introducing animals on the land: The addition of animals to farms can help improve pastures. Letting cattle, goats, and other livestock graze appropriately stimulates better plant growth, increasing forage biodiversity. Not only do regenerative farming practices create a healthier pasture, but the benefits get passed on to the animal and the consumer, too.
Furthermore, animals such as sheep are excellent weed destroyers and will assist in keeping the farm free of unwanted plants and weeds. Besides that, animal dung is a valuable fertilizer, and because they are grazed on sub-marginal lands, their droppings are the only way to improve plant growth in such areas.
4. Increasing natural soil fertility: Artificial fertilizers make plants less resilient to the unique threats in their environment, causing them to grow vulnerable. In contrast, cover crops, crop rotations, natural compost, and animal manure can improve the functionality of the soil microbiome while allowing the plants to grow more robust. For this reason, we use only natural fertilizers under regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative farming can be a useful practice when artificial and synthetic fertilizers have created imbalances in the structure and function of microbial inhabitants in soils. This bypasses the natural biological acquisition of nutrients for the plants, which results in a dependent agroecosystem and weaker, less resilient plants.
Regenerative agriculture practices help biologically increase soil fertility in systems by covering crops, crop rotations, compost, and animal manures, all of which help to restore the plant/soil microbiome, which promotes the liberation, transfer, and cycling of essential soil nutrients.
5. Planting cover crops in the off-season: Planting cover crops is also a part of regenerative agriculture. This adds vital nutrients and sequestering carbon into the soil and also helps with soil structure and water retention.
Moreover, cover crops have several other remarkable advantages, including preventing soil erosion, adding nitrogen, regulating moisture, attracting pollinators, and aiding in weed and pest management. Besides, it also serves as mulch and a source of green manure and organic matter and is used for grazing or forage. Therefore, cover crop practices are an integral part of regenerative farming.
6. Replacing toxic chemicals with herbal sprays and natural compost: Nature has already given us everything we need to build nutrient-rich, healthy soil. Industrialized farming relies heavily upon adding dangerous chemicals, which are destroying important insects and polluting waterways.
In contrast, regenerative agriculture uses herbal sprays and natural compost, which have a number of advantages. Organic composts are high in organic matter, which aids microbe growth. In addition, natural fertilizers do not run off as easily and remain attached to the soil structure for a long time. Besides that, some synthetic fertilizers can harm the leaves and roots of plants which is less likely in the case of natural composts.
7. Setting aside land to encourage bees, butterflies, and other pollinators and important insects: In addition to eliminating toxic chemicals, our farms set aside a percentage of their farmland to create safe habitats for birds, bees, and butterflies.
This practice not only helps us as a vital link in the natural ecosystem cycle, but also boosts a farm's output significantly when pollinators are abundant. Besides, we also have increased the pollinators' activity on the farm, by providing them with safe shelter, water, and supplemental food in addition to nectar provided by crops.
8. Working in harmony with the farm: Finding solutions from within the farm and treating all animals with mutual respect and dignity is also a part of regenerative agriculture. Our farmers are in tune with their farms and let all fruits and vegetables grow naturally in their surroundings.
9. Zero tolerance for GMOs: The farms that we work with have zero tolerance for any genetically manufactured seeds, plants, animal feeds. Throughout the regenerative agriculture process, we use only organic and natural products to ensure that we do not harm the land or other natural resources like water sources.
10. Crop Diversity: Crop diversity is essential for agricultural development. It allows farmers and plant breeders to create higher-yielding, more productive varieties with improved quality characteristics that farmers and consumers want.
Our farming partners strictly follow regenerative farming practices, including crop diversity. Since different plants release different carbohydrates through their roots, which are then consumed by different microbes, returning various nutrients to the plant and the soil, crop diversity becomes more important. Growers can create rich, varied, and nutrient-dense soils in their fields by increasing plant diversity.
HOW IS REGENERATIVE FARMING DIFFERENT THAN ORGANIC FARMING?
At first glance, the principles of regenerative agriculture sound similar to organic. However, there are some critical differences between them.
According to the current USDA organic certification standards and the regenerative agriculture association, organic certification is defined more by what can't be done to farm fields, such as not using chemical fertilizers or pesticides. However, an absence of toxic chemicals doesn't necessarily mean that the land is being improved.
In contrast, regenerative farming focuses on techniques that directly improve soil and farm health. It is a dynamic and holistic approach to food production that builds upon the principles of organic agriculture with conservation tillage, crop rotation and cover crops, and other sustainable strategies.
In this way, regenerative agriculture sets the bar higher for food production than organic certification, as it demands that farm practices not only refrain from damaging the planet but also improve it in the process.
DO REGENERATIVE FARMING PRACTISES HAVE A POSITIVE IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT?
Most regenerative agriculture practices are widely acknowledged to be good for soil health and have other environmental benefits as per the various regenerative agriculture associations. No-till farming reduces soil erosion and promotes water infiltration. Cover crops have a similar effect and can also help to reduce water pollution.
In addition, under regenerative agriculture, pesticide use can be reduced by rotating crops. Additionally, good grazing practices, such as moving cattle around frequently, adding legumes or fertilizers, and avoiding overgrazing, can help to increase vegetation and protect water sources.
WHERE CAN YOU FIND REGENERATIVE FOOD?
While regenerative agriculture or regenerative farming is taking off around the world, finding food that qualifies can be difficult. The farms that have transitioned to regenerative agriculture practices are part of a small yet bold minority that is making inroads to get regenerative foods featured more prominently on store shelves.
Some big changes are coming.
In the meantime, buying Demeter-certified Biodynamic products, such as White Leaf Provisions, ensures your food was produced with a soil-building mindset, even without the regenerative certification.