There’s a new-ish phrase getting a lot of press and attention in media sources about agriculture these days; regenerative agriculture.
Books have been written, some movies have had their day on the screen, farmers and agriculturalists are engaging in speaking series, magazine articles have been published, and social media posts have all picked up on the term. I figured I would take a stab at a quick introduction to the topic and highlight some of the key practices that regenerative agriculture embraces.
While we might think of regenerative agriculture as a new wave, or a new way to do things, plenty of the concepts and ideas are shared by other philosophies of sustainable agriculture and landscapes, and have been around and in practice for quite a while.
According to the Terra Genesis International regenerative agriculture organization, the definition of regenerative agriculture is a system of agricultural practices that increases biodiversity, enriches the soil biological system, improves the water cycle of an area, sequesters carbon in soil organic matter, and provides for a more resilient agricultural landscape in the face of changing climates.
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Regenerative agriculture highlights many practices that enrich and develop a strong soil ecosystem over time as part of a successful agricultural enterprise. Practices such as no-till farming, which leave crop and plant residues on the surface of the soil and never expose mineral soil to the open air through tillage are coupled with cropping and planting strategies that increase the diversity of species being grown, and always keep a living root present in the soil. A continuous living root, and diversity of roots from different types of plants are important for the soil fungal and microbiological community. Soil microbes feed from plant root exudates, or sugars that plant roots leak into the soil. A strong soil microbiological community supports a healthy beneficial ecosystem for plants and crops to grow in. A diverse plant community will have different types of roots, at different depths, which look for different nutrients out of the soil. The complexity of a diverse system supports the whole system better than the simplicity of a monoculture, or near monoculture.
Other regenerative agricultural practices include the integration of livestock into an agricultural system. Instead of having isolated and separate farms for crops and ranches for livestock, we bring them together, and allow animals to graze on crop residues, terminate cover crops, use hoof action to pound plant organic matter into the topsoil, and spread urine and manure across the fields, adding to the soil fertility. It’s an opportunity to diversify farm income streams, add benefits to the soil and landscape through the presence livestock, and may even create new farm enterprises in which to engage other members the family business.
The practices and pursuit of agriculture can be dynamic and intriguing for those who do it. For some people it is a garden plot in the backyard, and for others it is measured in landscape-sized fields. And while lasagna no-till gardening isn’t for everyone, cover crops aren’t for others, and goats can be a challenge to integrate into a space, we can all agree that protecting and feeding our soil resource is a worthy endeavor we should all spend time researching and learning more about.