What is Regenerative Agriculture?
There are many different agricultural methods used around the world. There is concentrated animal feeding versus land-based grazing. There is cropping, integrated crop-livestock operations, organic practices, permaculture, and agroforestry. These agricultural methods can be defined by what they produce and/or by how it is produced. A regenerative agricultural system is defined by how a farm’s products are produced.
The principal goal of a regenerative agricultural system is to build and maintain the soil’s ability to regenerate and recycle nutrients, and to capture and hold water, decreasing the farm’s dependence on outside inputs.
The best and most efficient way to achieve this goal is to conserve and build soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is found in the top layer of soil – topsoil – and contains carbon-based material that is, or once was, part of a living organism. The word “organic” essentially means “containing carbon,” or “derived from living organisms.” Carbon is fixed from the atmosphere into plant tissue via photosynthesis. Animals then consume plants, or consume other animals that have themselves consumed plants. When these animals eliminate waste or die, they leave carbon-rich organic material on the ground that is consumed by earthworms, insects, bacteria, and other microorganisms. When these organisms die, they are consumed by other types of microorganisms – and so-on and so-forth. This process of death and decay supports diverse communities of microorganisms within the soil, which in turn, builds stable carbon-based compounds that contain the vital nutrients needed to support the growth of new plants.
Not only does soil contain nutrients recycled from previously living organisms, but it also has the ability to capture and hold nutrients from the mineral fraction of the soil, which is the non-organic part of soil that has been weathered away from rocks by wind and water, or from fertilizers and other soil amendments. This ability helps to prevent nutrients from washing away with every rainfall and ending up in our rivers or aquifers. Soil organic matter also has a very sponge-like quality, which allows it to absorb and hold water extremely well. Among other ecological benefits, this reduces fertilizer runoff, and increases water-use efficiency, and drought tolerance. Therefore, the more organic matter there is in the soil, the more resilient a farm will be, and the more equipped it will be to sustain itself.
On its own, nature is constantly building soil organic matter through the death and decomposition of living organisms, the life cycle of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Every agricultural activity practiced on a field can effects soil organic matter, both directly and indirectly, but some human interventions disrupt this process of accumulation and storage of organic matter within the soil. One of the most devastating examples of this is the man-made agricultural disaster known as the Dust Bowl, a period during the 1930s in which excessive tillage of the rich, fertile grasslands followed by a severe and prolonged drought caused the loss of 100 million acres of topsoil across the American and Canadian prairies. Today, according to the NRCS, topsoil loss from erosion is still a problem on millions of acres of farmland across United States. A regenerative agricultural system counters this by facilitating the buildup of soil organic matter by minimizing human intervention and endeavoring to mimic nature.
It is easiest to understand how agricultural practices can mimic nature by simply thinking about what you don’t find in nature. In a natural setting, one will never find a mono-culture. Nature is by definition a poly-culture, a vast array of different life forms, all depending on each other for survival. With the exception of degraded land or areas suffering from desertification, one would be hard-pressed to find bare soil in a natural setting. Nature always wants to cover the ground with life, and it does so with great efficiency. Nature has the capacity to produce large quantities of plant biomass without the addition of outside fertility. It has the mechanisms to efficiently release and recycle nutrients to make them available for new growth. Additionally, there are no instances in nature in which the soil gets regularly cut, flipped, and crumbled the way agricultural soils do every time they are plowed and cultivated. Nature uses large animals to trample the ground, and earthworms and other insects to move and aerate the soil without turning it, breaking it up, and exposing it to the forces of erosion.
The concepts and management practices behind regenerative agriculture are nothing new. In fact, prior to the widespread adoption synthetic fertilizers and chemical pest control used in large-scale mono-cropping, farmers relied on integration and diversity to maintain fertility and remain productive. By using cover crops, long rotations, and grazing animals, farmers could build organic matter, maintain nutrient cycling, and encourage healthy cash crops. In many ways, regenerative agriculture is a nod to our ancestors, an acknowledgment that when it comes to farming, nature knows best. Therefore, a regenerative agricultural system seeks to reduce tillage overall, by eliminating it in every instance possible, as well as by minimizing the impact of tillage when it is necessary. In the effort to keep the ground covered with diverse species of plants, cover cropping and companion planting are essential. When adding fertilizer to the soil, the use of composted animal manure and other natural amendments will enhance the natural cycling of nutrients. And because a lush, diverse green pasture grazed by cattle, sheep or goats is as close to a natural setting as one can find in an agricultural context, integrating livestock into a crop production system is key to working with nature. Long perennial pasture rotations will provide rest and regeneration for crop fields, while maintaining a farm’s productivity.
Without human disturbance, earth’s ecosystems are a net carbon sink. That means that more carbon is stored in earth's many carbon sinks than is released into the atmosphere. The closer we can get to mimicking nature in our agricultural endeavors, the more we can harness the power of nature to take carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in the soil. With the agricultural wisdom of our ancestors in mind, we can begin see that agriculture can be more than just food production. Regenerative agriculture can benefit our natural ecosystems, rather than degrading them. It can provide key ecosystem services, such as improving water quality, reducing flood risk, and reducing pollution from fertilizer runoff. Most importantly, regenerative agricultural methods facilitate the natural processes that store carbon from the atmosphere within the soil, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing the effects of climate change.
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