Regenerative farming - what is it?

Logo: Roots of Nature

By Caroline Grindrod, Co-Founder

Portrait photograph of Caroline Grindrod
(Caroline Grindrod)

Regenerative farming and regenerative agriculture are terms you may have heard increasingly in the last couple of years. It seemingly has appeared from nowhere and is leading to many farms achieving impressive ecological outcomes not because they are being paid to but because it makes good economic sense for their business.

But actually, regenerative agriculture is an old and new technology. Many indigenous and first peoples were practising the ecological principles that underpin regenerative farming. This traditional wisdom has been augmented by the emerging understanding of soil biology, leading to a grassroots revolution of empowered farmers rapidly rebuilding their soil fertility and profitability.

But what is ‘regenerative agriculture’ turns out to be a rather complicated question to answer in a short space, so here’s the summary.

The more detailed answer is in this video.

Let’s start with a definition;

Tera Genesis says it this way;

‘Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. 
By capturing carbon in soil and biomass, regenerative agriculture aims to reverse current trends of atmospheric accumulation. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming communities.’

Regenerative agriculture is not simply the adoption of a set of practices or a prescriptive methodology confirmed by compliance to a set of standards - in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Lineages of Regenerative Agriculture

There are several lineages of regenerative agriculture, such as; holistic management, permaculture, regrarians and practice-based folks like Understanding Agriculture in the US. Each has its own ways of describing and delivering regenerative agriculture, but several factors are common to all the ‘true’ versions of regenerative agriculture.

Features Common to Regenerative Agriculture Approaches

It requires a holistic worldview.

Closeup of a hand holding soil
(Caroline Grindrod)

Our domination and simplification of nature to try and fit it into our mechanistic ways of farming is one of the reasons we have degraded our soils and biodiversity. Our society’s dominant rational and mechanistic paradigm makes managing living systems that are complex and self-organising a big challenge.

To fully understand and successfully adopt regenerative agriculture, you must see the world as a living system of which you are part - you must become a systems thinker and work with nature rather than try and control it.

In regenerative agriculture, decisions are made ‘holistically’ considering the social, ecological and economic impact of choice, both short and long-term.

Principles not practices

Regenerative agriculture is based on natural principles. Practitioners learn ecological principles, and each farmer must take these principles and then determine what tools and practices are appropriate for their unique context.

Some farmers may come into the movement from an interest in soil health or grassland productivity practices and follow a prescriptive plan or copy what others have done. This may yield some regenerative outcomes, but if the principles and thinking behind the practices are not fully understood, results can be frustrating and limited.

Outcomes not standards

The only way to measure success in regenerative agriculture is to measure the outcomes. You don’t know if your practices are regenerative until you can see they have improved the ecosystem processes.

Ethan Soloviev (mentioned above) proposes; ‘that there is no such thing as a “Regenerative Agriculture Practice” — only systemic outcomes can confirm that regeneration is taking place.

What we measure as an outcome is slightly different for every context and lineage but it should be much more than just soil carbon and should include biodiversity and hydrology as well as economic and social indicators.

A man working in a field surrounded by cows
Cattle at Wilder Gowbarrow (Caroline Grindrod)

Unique to people and place

Just as nature does, regenerative agriculture is completely adapted to people and place - we call this the context. This is the reason some people find it hard to grasp what ‘it’ is. It looks completely different on each property, and ‘it’ will change through the years to adapt to the needs of each generation.

In regenerative agriculture, farmers develop a context which is a holistic, long-term vision for their life and the ecological and economic outcomes on the farm and set of values in which to operate. Moving towards this vision one experiment at a time, whilst staying in integrity with your values is what I call the regenerative transition.

It addresses the root cause of problems

So often in modern agriculture, we spend time and money treating symptoms. If a problem re-occurs, then you have not got to the root cause of the matter.

If every year you have to treat for internal parasites, and spray for thistles and bolus with trace minerals, then there is a fundamental problem with your farming system.

In regenerative agriculture, we carefully look for the root cause of such symptoms such as poor soil health, a simplified ecosystem, livestock that have been selected for the wrong genetic traits etc. In addition to a necessary holding action, we ensure we then adapt our management to try and prevent the issue from reoccurring.

‘It’ is hard to study

Because everybody’s ‘it’ is completely different and adapted to their unique ecological, social and economic goals, it is hard to study using conventional science. If you study a farm’s regenerative outcomes through the lens of soil carbon or wildflower biodiversity, you will probably see an improvement, but it might not be as effective as if that management had been solely for that single goal.

The HUGE benefits of regenerative agriculture are the multiple interrelated benefits to the whole system - that’s hard to quantify.

That said, there is not plenty of peer-reviewed research to suggest even when looking through different lenses, regenerative agriculture and holistic planned grazing does work.

Closeup of a purple wildflower in a meadow
(Caroline Grindrod)

When we work with nature rather than attempting to arrest succession or micromanage habitats, we can see a huge reduction in harmful and expensive inputs and energy use and an increase in ecological and production outcomes - the latter are definitely not mutually exclusive as some would have you believe!

Although each farm is aiming for completely unique objectives in my Wilderculture and Regenerative transition work, we have seen impressive results in very short timescales. Dramatically improved infiltration rates that have increased from a centimetre an hour to a litre in five minutes, a complete transformation of soil structure and rapid carbon sequestration, increased species diversity with no seeding and significant improvements in yields, livestock performance, farm/estate profitability and the enjoyment of life on the farm. Inf

filtration rates have improved from an inch per hour to a litre

Embarking on a transition process such as Holistic management training, the Roots to Regeneration program or the Wilderculture Transition for uplands, are by far the most successful ways of succeeding in regenerative agriculture.

Rather than simply taking an existing farming (or land management) system and adopting a few regenerative practices (that might have been successful elsewhere in the world), a transition process uses training and coaching to support the application of regenerative design principles to craft an adapted plan to each context. Land managers are then supported in the process of applying and adapting their management to achieve their aims.

Regenerative agriculture is taking off fast. In my early years in this field, nobody had even heard of the term, but now most farmers have heard of it, and there’s a rapidly growing interest. Wilderculture broadens the scope further and is focused on using regenerative design principles to work with upland farms, estates, rewilding and conservation projects.

Events such as Groundswell - UK’s largest independent regenerative agricultural event - have grown exponentially this year, seeing thousands of delegates and over 200 speakers attend.

I have no doubt regenerative agriculture - like nature - will evolve, but I am certain it is here to stay, and it offers a hopeful future for uniting food production and environmental aims.

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Posted On: 04/09/2023

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