Simply put, regenerative agriculture is when we farm in a way that prioritizes the health of the soil. We take lessons from nature and apply them to our farm. Which leads to the unconventional path of generalization instead of specialization. It’s a holistic approach where the farm becomes a prolific, intricate, and interconnected ecosystem.
Taken a layer deeper, regenerative agriculture is when we maximize the diversity of the microorganisms in the soil. When successful, we have a beautiful complex food chain of bacteria (typically the dominant species), fungi (these are the key to making the system work), Protozoa (that eat bacteria), nematodes (some worms eat bacteria, some eat fungi, and some eat other nematodes), and arthropods (insects that are higher up in the food chain).
With this diversity the plant can excrete sugars into the soil and trade them for minerals and nutrients. These sugars are the foundation of the food supply for all the microorganisms in the soil, and originate from the atmosphere. The carbon for these sugars come from carbon dioxide (CO2 - a greenhouse gas) through photosynthesis. The microorganisms mine the minerals from the rock, sand, silt, and clay and give them to the plant on demand.
However, when we use synthetic fertilizers, the plant no longer needs the microorganisms to get these nutrients, so they starve. The plant no longer has the relationship with the microorganisms. But we can’t fertilize for every micro-nutrient that can be found in the soil, and the resulting plant has a measurably lower nutrient density. However, it’s not only some nutrients that are lacking. The plant is also missing phytonutrients and defence chemicals which leaves it vulnerable to pests and weeds.
With conventional farming practices, we become addicted to fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides. If we simply stop using these products, the plants won’t grow. The only way to break this addiction is to follow the 5 principles of soil health.
- Biodiversity - we need the diverse populations of microorganisms, but also plants and animals on the farm
- Minimize disturbances - All the micro-organisms are vulnerable, but the fungi are especially sensitive to disturbances. As soon as there is any tillage, compaction from large equipment, or sprays of any sort, the fungi are the first to die.
- Living roots - There needs to be living roots in the soil all year round, because the microorganisms can only live in association with roots.
- Armour on the soil - We need to protect the soil from the harsh sun rays that will dry out and heat the soil and make it inhospitable for microorganisms
- Animal impact - Farm animals are critical for improving soil health. They trample the vegetation which brings it into contact with the soil and add nutrients in the form of manure.
Regenerative agriculture is mostly done in the form of rotational grazing. When we move the animals on pasture every day, we naturally follow the 5 principles of soil health, but they can also be applied to row cropping, fruit production, and vegetable production. No matter the kind of farm, regenerative practices improve soil health, nutrient density, the environment, and animal welfare.