Updated: Apr 27, 2020
Today I listened in on a Zoom 'Happy Hour' with a bunch of farmers talking regenerative agriculture.
If you ever want to have a bit of a giggle, watch several dozen farmers simultaneously crack their beers, then try and figure out how to mute their video with their dogs barking in the background.
High-level executive sort of meeting this was not. 'Working on changing the world for the better' sort of meeting? Well yes.
If you don’t know what regenerative agriculture is, don’t feel bad. Most people don’t. But I think (and hope) that’s going to change.
So, what is regenerative agriculture?
Well, it’s a lot of things. Mostly to do with soil. But also, quite a bit more than that. At its very primal essence, regenerative agriculture is about renewal. And, to get a little bit spiritual, it’s about rebirth.
It’s also about second chances and fixing things that have gone awry. Putting back in as much as gets taken out. Then creating a self-sustaining loop where that happens over and over again. Naturally.
The word is (and science backs this up), regenerative agricultural practices have the potential to sink carbon, reduce climate change AND yield more nutrient-dense food for human consumption.
So, I can guess just what you’re thinking…
“Oh great, so we have a NEW thing that’s going to save the world? Puh-leaze, tell me more.” (eye-roll).
What Makes Good Versus Bad Farming?
Or Is That the Right Question to Ask?
I get it. There’s been a lot of noise in the last thirty years about what makes good versus bad, farming.
Farming and food production used to just be about growing food. Farmers were all just farmers. Food was just food. We didn’t have conventional vs. organic vs. biodynamic vs. non-GMO vs. glyphosate-free vs. free-range vs. pasture-raised vs….
I had been growing food for my family and selling at my local farmer’s markets for several years before I even heard the words “do you grow organically?” This was in the early 1990s, about when the push for organic certification began. (The National Organic Program, which oversees the federal regulations for the organic food program, was established in 2001).
I had to go look up ‘organic.’ I hadn’t been thinking about HOW I was growing food; I was just doing it the way that seemed simplest. Manure from the neighbor and compost for fertility. Lots of weeding and mulch to help out with that. Pick things before the darn bugs got to them.
It turns out I was following the ‘organic standards.’ But I hadn’t planned to - I was just growing food.
I could have been using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but I hadn’t. Why? Well, frankly, because they were expensive. And my plot was small. It was a lot of labor, but I was getting a premium price by selling direct—no need for expensive chemicals.
This was all pretty ironic, looking back now because my father — who farmed 400 acres of our family land mostly in hay and grain crops while I was growing up before we lost it —had been what is now called a ‘conventional’ farmer. If there was a chemical, he had used it. Probably doused himself in it in the process a time or two as well. If there was a new and bigger tractor and a fancier plow or rototiller, he had it.
But, if he wanted to make any profit, he had to maximize his yields while reducing his losses. This was the 70s, the era of the shrinking farm profit margins that have continued to this day.
The way to succeed seemed to be via chemicals and extensive cultivation and tillage. My father didn’t adopt these practices because he thought they would be harmful. He did it because that was what ALL farmers were told was the smart thing to be doing at the time. They would make him a more efficient farmer and better able to provide for his family.
Of course, he was going to do that. Who wouldn’t?
Hindsight is Always 20-20
But it Took Years to Really Notice the Farming Screw-Ups
We now know those practices that seemed so smart came with a whole host of problems. These issues raised their heads slowly, over time.
The loss of fertility, nutrient and water-holding capacity of our soils has raised the dire predictions that we have less than ‘60 harvests left.’ Increasing weed and pest resistance to herbicides and pesticides have polluted biosystems. Monocrop plantings decreased the diversity of species.
And farmers have increasingly had a harder time providing for their families. That promise was broken as well.
Then came the solutions.
Organic certification prohibits harmful chemicals. Was organic farming the answer? But while crop diversity and carbon-building soil fertility practices like cover cropping are encouraged in organic farming — and certainly part of the original principles behind it — they are not required in the standards. Organic farming might have kicked the chemicals out of the process, but they didn’t require farmers to build up soil health. Some conventional farmers simply skipped spraying the chemicals for the organic label (and better price).
Up next — ‘beyond organic’ solutions.
Permaculture and biodynamic are two “Beyond Organic” farming philosophies that DO focus on soil health, crop and species diversity. They are amazing concepts and foundational to the regenerative movement and have been embraced by many small, diversified farms.
But, they have proven hard to scale up for larger operations and ‘bread-basket’ type farms focused primarily on pulses and grains. How do we support those farmers in doing a better job as well?
Then we heard about non-GMO. Which was confusing. Items that were never introduced as GMO in the first place were now proudly claimed themselves to be ‘non-GMO.’ And now, we have a new ‘glyphosate free label’ that tests foods for any glyphosate residue. Even crops grown without glyphosates, may be exposed to drift, or cross-contaminated in processing.
Under the “Glyphosate Residue Free” movement, while actual exposure may be miniscule, even the slightest bit of glyphosate is now a source of alarm for consumers. But a ‘zero tolerance’ rallying cry forgets that other chemicals are routinely used and in some cases, farmers have merely replaced glyphosate for a different chemical compound.
But neither non-GMO foods or glyphosate-free foods are any guarantees that they were grown with practices that build up soil health and promote actual regeneration. Or grown without even worse chemicals. You can still grow non-GMO food, not use glyphosate and be a crappy farmer.
These labels are great marketing tools for selling products, but they are not mutually exclusive when it comes to farming for building soil health and climate change.
Nobody Puts Farming in a Box!
Labeling Farming Practices Has Missed the Big Picture
As much as marketers and brands wish it were so, farming and food production is not a black and white world.
The worst part of all these labels and different movements have been how they have fractured the farming community. This has caused divisions between not only the farmers and producers of food — from big to small — but created mass confusion amongst consumers.
They missed the big picture. If we don’t improve soil health, it doesn’t matter what label we want to slap on a box of pasta. We’re using up all our resources and not rebuilding them.
Regenerative agriculture, however, is different. A farmer can be organic and be regenerative. They can plant GMO’s and be regenerative. They can use glyphosate and be regenerative.
Regenerative agriculture’s focus is on the outcome. And that means increased soil fertility and soil biological life — a reflection of the carbon the soil captures and retains via no and minimal tillage practices combined with cover and interplanting cropping strategies. Plus, managed animal grazing when appropriate.
It’s a holistic look at the whole picture recognizing everything starts with healthy soil.
And the cool part? The picture changes depending on where you’re looking and what you’re doing! A regenerative pulses and legumes farmer in the arid mid-west plains of Kansas uses practices that are ENTIRELY different than what a diversified vegetable farmer in the wet and moderate climate of the Pacific Northwest does.
Regenerative agriculture is okay with that. It recognizes that a cookie-cutter solution doesn’t work. It doesn’t set a bar and say, hey, nobody gets to join the team unless you can jump THIS high. Regenerative agriculture realizes that to succeed, EVERYBODY has to be able to join the team. No matter where they start from.
In some cases, regenerative no-till farmers have significantly increased the carbon holding capacity of their soil, building fertility and watersheds and crop and species diversity. But, to do it and still pay their bills, they use maligned chemicals — like glyphosate — to control weeds. When you eliminate tillage for the sake of your soil health, you sacrifice a farmer’s primary tool for eradicating weeds.
This put those farmers in a pickle. Because if they can’t control the weeds their crop yields will be so low, that the investment in soil health building wouldn’t be economically viable and they couldn’t justify doing it.
Especially in the short term. In most cases, regenerative ‘no-till’ farmers do reduce their use of glyphosate over time, sometimes eventually eliminating it, as they bring their soil back into balance.
But it’s not a one and done process. Reclaiming soil health takes time. And regenerative agriculture recognizes that too.
It’s an outcomes-based process.
Regeneration is a Choice We Can All Make
Including All Sorts of Kinds of Farmers
We all need to do better when it comes to our planet and climate change. To learn how to ‘regenerate’ instead of simply ‘take.’
Even if it’s sort of a messy process getting there, we need to work together, embrace a diversity of solutions and make it happen.
Regenerative agriculture is a very ‘human’ solution to the human-made crisis of climate change. And I guess that’s why this old farm-girl loves it so much.
It brings out the best in everyone.
About the Author
Georgie Smith is a fourth-generation farmer and freelance writer.
Known as “Farmer Georgie” to her friends and customers, Georgie writes about regenerative agriculture, farm tech and farm living. She is passionate about helping the public understand the farm story.
Georgie writes from her farm on an island in the Pacific Northwest.
Find more of her work at www.farmergeorgiewrites.com