Regenerative Agriculture

Cows grazing on a multi-species cover crop. (Photo by Jim Johnson)

By Sarah Blaney and Greg Scott

Regenerative agriculture is a term coined in the early 1970s by Robert Rodale of the Rodale Institute as “a holistic systems approach to farming that encourages continual innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual wellbeing.”

The term was initially used to describe a method of farming that goes beyond just “sustainability.” The term “regenerative” implies that our ecosystem is, in fact, degraded. We use the term regenerative because we do not want to merely maintain the status quo, we want to restore the ecological functions in the ecosystem.

While Rodale was speaking about organic farming specifically, the principles and many of the practices of regenerative agriculture can be applied to conventional farms. In recent years, more traditional farmers and ranchers have begun looking at regenerative agriculture as a way to improve their own operations. This movement of trying a new approach to farming and ranching is highly collaborative.

The definition of what “regenerative agriculture” means is still being discussed among farmers/ranchers and stakeholders. The following definition was created by a collection of folks and says what many of us in conservation think when we hear the term “regenerative agriculture.”

“Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soil, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability and higher health and vitality for farming and ranching communities.”

The overall theme that I hear from farmers and ranchers engaging in regenerative agriculture to soil scientists encouraging this approach to researchers and authors describing the movement is that the goal of regenerative agriculture is “bio-mimicry” or to mimic nature. Simply put, this just means to work with nature rather than against it – and that makes a lot of sense.

Farmers and ranchers understand better than most people that nature is beyond our control. Humans cannot control the rain, the speed of the winds, or the temperature and while we can mitigate some of our surroundings’ less desirable characteristics by utilizing technology and tools, it can be expensive and time consuming to do so.

An example of a typical challenge for farmers in Oklahoma is lack of moisture in the soil. The conventional approach to farming would be to set up an irrigation system that provides the needed moisture to the plant. While that approach might work in the short term, it is not a long term solution to the issue.

Whereas the conventional approach focuses on one isolated problem (moisture) and a solution (irrigation) is developed to fix that specific item, the regenerative agriculture approach evaluates the overall health of the ecosystem and tries to find a solution that fits within the entire ecological system to improve soil, water and biodiversity.

Learn more in the February issue!