No-till soybean field

If you pay attention to news in agricultural production, you have probably seen the term “regenerative” somewhere lately. Regenerative agriculture and regenerative ranching. It has been hard to avoid in ag media. In the last year, I've been seeing the term nearly every day.

For many folks in agriculture, new and popular terms can be confusing, overused and interpreted in many different ways. I’ve been an ag professional long enough to have seen several hot terms come and go, or at least fade. A few have stuck, but many have faded or are permanently blurred, meaning different things to different people.

Wikipedia defines regenerative agriculture as “a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting biosequestration, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil. Regenerative agriculture is not a specific practice itself. Rather, proponents of regenerative agriculture utilize a variety of other sustainable agriculture techniques in combination.” The definition goes on to describe some of the practices that can be included in the larger concept of regenerative agriculture, such as no-till planting.

A well-known, reliable source of information is the ag research and consulting organization known as the Noble Research Institute LLC, based in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Noble is an independent, nonprofit agricultural research organization dedicated to providing solutions to agricultural challenges. In materials that I regularly read, I have been noticing Noble is taking a lead in research and education pertaining to regenerative agriculture.

Noble defines regenerative agriculture as “the process of restoring degraded soils using practices based on ecological principles,” and goes on to say “regenerative agriculture requires managing a farm or a ranch by considering the interactions among the soil, water, plants, animals and humans — interconnected pieces of one whole system.”

Noble emphasizes that regenerative ag is not as much about practices, as it is about following certain principles to achieve desired outcomes. The principles are: know your context (this is understanding your individual situation, including your climate, geography, resources, skills, family dynamics and goals), cover the soil, minimize soil disturbance, increase diversity, maintain continuous living plants/roots, and integrate livestock. The outcomes include, but are not limited to, increased soil organic matter and biodiversity, healthier and more productive soil that is more drought and flood resilient, and increased carbon captured in the soil to combat climate variability. There is no recipe to follow to achieve these things. It requires observation and adaptive management, meaning what needs to be done will likely differ from farm to farm.

Don’t mistake regenerative agriculture for organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is based on a set of standards developed at the federal level. It includes approved practices and materials. Inspections and certification are done by independent organizations. However, there is a newer organic category which includes regenerative principles. This is known as regenerative organic. More information is available at regenorganic.org and rodaleinstitute.org.

Several companies have jumped on the regenerative ag bandwagon. General Mills has made regenerative ag a major initiative and is working with groups of farmers to try to achieve more outcomes. Cargill has also established an initiative to foster regenerative ag. You can read more about these company’s initiatives on their websites.

As is often the case in agriculture, much of the leadership and experimentation in the regenerative ag movement has been provided by farmers. Individual farmers and groups of like-minded farmers have been working on pieces of this puzzle for several years. Their persistence and observations have played a large role in developing the principles mentioned earlier.

Chances are very good that you have some of the pieces of regenerative ag already in play on your farm. No-till, cover cropping, precision manure management, or perhaps intensive grazing management might be part of your program. They are all recognized as beneficial practices and have been promoted for many years as cost-effective and good conservation exercises. It may be necessary to add more applications like these to achieve the desired regenerative outcomes for the farm. It will likely be a work in progress. But, enjoy the journey and keep chipping away at it!

Do you practice regenerative agriculture?

November 6, 2021

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