Organic. Natural. Permaculture. Regenerative agriculture. It’s a great time to get more connected to the farming practices behind our food.
What, exactly, do all of those farming terms really mean? And how do we know if they’re legit or just marketing fluff?
One thing is for sure. If we’re going to create enough food without destroying our natural resources and health, we’ve got to embrace regenerative agriculture on a major scale.
What is it, exactly? I’m glad you asked.
What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
It may be beneficial to first explain what regenerative agriculture isn’t.
Have you ever driven down a country road, stumbling upon miles and miles of corn, canola or soy fields? That isn’t regenerative agriculture.
That’s a monoculture system where farmers plant a lot one one type of crop. It’s not good for the soil; it’s not good for nature, biodiversity and water supplies; and, oftentimes, the crops aren’t even good for people.
I really like this definition from the Carbon Underground and Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at California State University, Chico:
‘Regenerative Agriculture’ describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.
Regenerative agriculture treats the land more holistically, taking a big-picture approach instead of worrying only about crop yields. One way of putting it? It works more closely with natural tendencies rather than against them.
Instead of using abusive inputs like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, fumigants and GMOs to push the limits of production, regenerative agriculture uses a set of farming principles to not just create food, but a better world, too. In essence, it improves resources rather than depleting them.
BDon’t dismiss this utopian way of farming as an out-of-reach dream. It’s already happening all over the word, and it’s scientifically backed to boot, pulling from decades of research investigating organic farming methods, holistic grazing, agroforestry and agroecology. But more on that later.
Regenerative agriculture involves practices that:
- Increase biodiversity
- Enrich the soil
- Improve water quality
- Enhance ecosystem services
- Reverse climate change (This is especially important since we know climate change and nutrition are intricately linked.)
The best side effect? It also creates higher yields and helps crops become more resilient in times of climate instability.
In terms of community, regenerative farming boosts health and vitality for people living in the community. In other words, it’s better for the land and for us.
Terra Genesis International breaks regenerative agriculture into four main principles, which are further broken down into key principles.
- Progressively improve whole agroecosystems
- Create context: Specific designs and holistic decisions that express the essence of each farm
- Ensure and develop just and reciprocal relationships among all stakeholders
- Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms and communities to actualize their innate potentials
Key practices of regenerative farming include:
- No-till farming and pasture cropping
- Organic annual cropping
- Compost and compost tea
- Biochar and terra preta
- Holistically managed grazing
- Animal integration
- Ecological aquaculture
- Perennial crops
Let’s take a deeper dive into some these practices below…
Agroforestry, Including Silvopasture
Practiced around the world for centuries, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines agroforestry as the “intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic and social benefits.”
Agroforestry is gaining momentum in the U.S. today because it gives farmers more food crop options to diversify their farm sales. A 2017 study published in Agroforestry Systems shows how incorporating berry- and nut-bearing trees and shrubs with hay and more traditional row crops can increase diversity and income for a farm.
Patience is key here. For crops like chestnuts and hazelnuts, meaningful harvests could take seven to 12 years to materialize after planting.
The idea, though, is the annual hay or vegetable crops bring annual income until the trees and shrubs produce adequate yields. The main takeaway is farmers can incorporate agroforestry to move toward polyculture instead of relying on just one crop (monoculture).
The USDA points out that agroforestry generally involves the four “I”s:
- Intentional (that blueberry shrub didn’t just plant itself!)
Here in America, agroforestry is typically broken up into five categories:
- The practice of combining trees with livestock at the same place. The idea is that animals benefit from tree cover during heatwaves, rainstorms and other inclement weather, all while the trees provide timber, fruit or nut crops, and forage.
- The combining of trees and livestock is done in a beneficial way that also promotes stronger soil health.
- Silvopasture is the most common agroforestry practice in the U.S. It’s particularly popular in the Southeast.
2. Alley Cropping
- The practice of planting crops between rows of trees to generate farm income as the trees mature.
- Grains, herbs, flowers, fruit and vegetables are all examples of crops that can be planted in between tree rows.
3. Forest Farming
- Multistory cropping where different layers produce food. This is related to food forests and food gardens common in permaculture design. Here’s a great food forest guide from Desert Echo. It includes ideas for the following food forest layers: canopy, low-tree, shrub, herbacious, ground cover, rhizosphere, vertical.
- May also provide shelter for animals.
- Common on farms to help protect barns, farmhouses and other buildings, and animals from wind, snow, dust and odors
- Known as living fences or shelterbelts
- Also support wildlife
- Choose native tree species for big biodiversity bang for your buck
5. Riparian Forest Buffers
- Riparian forest buffers are natural or re-established areas along rivers and streams made up of trees, shrubs and grasses.
- These buffers can help filter farm runoff while the roots stabilize the banks of streams, rivers, lakes and ponds to prevent erosion.
- These areas can also support wildlife and provide another source of income.
What do you think about this article? Let us know your comment.