What is Regenerative Agriculture?
To “regenerate” means to “form; to create again” or “to restore to a better, higher, or more worthy state”. (source)
So what is being formed, created, or restored in a regenerative agriculture system?
More specifically, the organic matter and microbial activity of the soil.
This is the primary focus of “regenerative agriculture” which Regeneration International defines as “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity — resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”
Those practices include minimum tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, managed grazing, manure/compost applications, soil inoculants, and others.
This emphasis on soil health and biodiversity sounds great in theory, but what’s in it for the farmer?
I hosted two farmers on the “Future of Agriculture” Podcast to ask this very question. Graham Christensen and Del Ficke are both from families that have been farming in Nebraska for generations. Both are trying to incorporate more regenerative practices into their operations.
Shifting Focus from Conventional to Regenerative
Del Ficke of Ficke Cattle Company describes his shift in focus from just trying to farm more acres, to farming more effectively with an emphasis on regenerative practices:
“My cousin and I were farming several thousand acres stretched across 3 or 4 counties, just running our asses off doing all this ridiculous stuff, and thinking we were doing amazing things for agriculture. And we weren’t doing anything other than wearing our equipment out, and wearing us out, and wearing the soil out. And so we went from several thousand acres to now we’re a little less than 700 (acres). During that time we had all of that farm ground we still maintained our cow herd. We kind of rolled that into our new cow herd that we trademarked; we call them GrazeMasters. So the cows have always been a big part of what we’re doing. But with all that being said we went from several thousand acres and a couple hundred head of cattle to basically 70–100 head of cattle and a little under 700 acres, and the profits are at least 70% higher than they were when we were farming all that.”
Graham Christensen shares about the journey of working with family members to try some of these regenerative ideas:
“My father’s policy is that it has to be good on the pocketbooks as well as on the ground so we have to be able to prove these things. So we take one step at a time on our farm and we are moving our way towards the things that Del’s doing. I just want to point out that it’s very helpful when you have other farmers that are doing these things and doing them successfully in your region, so you can better understand, and better make the case that this does work. So we’re heading in that direction. We are seeing good benefits from some of the regenerative practices that we’ve started implementing on our farm, and we just feel that it’s the right thing to do, and it gives us more control and independence over our operation, which is something that we believe that we have to do if we’re going to carry our farm for the next 150 years.”
Livestock are critical for a regenerative system.
Animal agriculture is often accused of being a very unsustainable aspect of modern agriculture. It may seem counter-intuitive that livestock would play such an integral role in a system whose primary objective is regeneration.
What regenerative agriculture advocates have realized is that properly-managed grazing livestock are essential for building soil health, maximizing efficiency, and promoting biodiversity.
“It’s easier for a livestock person to get into (regenerative agriculture) with cover crops because you’re for planting it for feed, and your benefits of the animal impact on the soil” says Ficke.
As an example, one of Del’s fields has seen an increase of soil organic matter from 2.6% — 6.9% from his regenerative practices. Due to reduced tillage, using cover crops, and grazing livestock he has been able to reduce his equipment costs to less than $30 per acre. By contrast, Del mentions some farmers are spending over $200 per acre for their equipment.
“I learned about (regenerative practices) as I started going across the NE and KS and CO regions” says Christensen. “About the great work you can do by getting rid of tillage, and then starting to apply cover cropping, and reintegrating livestock with the soil. The recovery mechanisms of the ground are just unbelievable, and they sink a lot of carbon in the process, which creates more life in the ground which essentially creates more yield productivity. You just have to be just slightly a little more creative about how you go about things.”
Can this scale?
Whether or not farmers everywhere can repeat Ficke’s success remains to be seen. But full transformation isn’t necessary. Many farmers are already incorporating regenerative-type practices into what could be considered very conventional operations. Here is one great example.
The key is for a farmer to test what works for them, just like Graham and his family are testing on their operation.
One aspect that I like about regenerative agriculture is that it’s less about marketing compared to other labels. This, however, can make it difficult to determine exactly where the line is between regenerative and “not regenerative”. The practices themselves are regenerative, but how do we define when a farm can or cannot call themselves a regenerative farm? That gets a little fuzzy.
But Del’s goal is not fuzzy at all: “I only have two goals: I want the most accountable cow herd on earth and the best soil on earth. That’s all I want.”