Regenerative Agriculture – The Next Evolution of Sustainable Farming?

April 21, 2020

Looking through all the projects funded by Western SARE since 1988, you’ll find 173 with the word “sustainable” in the title, including 11 projects funded in 2019. That’s not surprising.

What might be surprising is that same 31-year period, there have been only four projects with “regenerative” in their titles – and all four of those were funded this year.

Is regenerative agriculture the new sustainable agriculture? And what is it, anyway?

First thing to know is that there isn’t one universally accepted definition of regenerative agriculture. For some, it’s all about capturing carbon in topsoil to reduce the impacts of climate change. For others, it’s a more holistic approach to farming that goes beyond just sequestering carbon.

At the American Society of Agronomy website we can read that regenerative agriculture “does not mean organic or conventional — it is a pathway for all producers to improve soil health and become more profitable.”  In this context, farmers and ranchers practicing regenerative agriculture aim at enabling landscapes to renew themselves and issues like weeds, pathogens and insect pests, nutrient deficiencies, and erosion are interpreted as signs of a poorly functioning farm ecosystem.

Built on biological and ecological principles and focused on soil health, regenerative agriculture aims at increasing biodiversity, improving nutrient and water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting carbon bio-sequestration, increasing climate resilience, and enhancing the overall social and economic sustainability of the farming enterprise.

Recent knowledge and technological advances allow farmers and ranchers practicing regenerative agricultural practices to understand the biological complexity of the soil ecosystems and unlock solutions to their specific problems through five principles:

  • Reduce mechanical and chemical disturbance
  • Keep the soil covered
  • Maximize diversity
  • Keep a living root in the ground year around
  • Integrate crop and livestock operations.

The four projects funded in 2019 with a regenerative agriculture focus embrace those principles. They are:

Conventional vs. Regenerative Almond Orchards, with Regards to Invertebrate Biomass and Biodiversity, Soil Health, Food Safety, and Profitability

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to increase biodiversity and promote key biological processes while reducing farmer investment in mechanical and chemical inputs over conventional monoculture production systems.  Almonds are California’s second highest grossing crop, and represent an excellent study system for comparing conventional and regenerative orchard management practices. This study provides an innovative systems-level comparison of best management practices in regenerative and conventional almond production in Central California. 

Developing the Western Cover Crop Council and Promoting the Regenerative Agriculture Movement through Cover Crops and Human Health

This project will build the Western Cover Crop Council (WCCC), with the overall goal of increasing cover crop adoption across the West. The WCCC will gather data on cover crop adoption and barriers to adoption by Western farmers through focus groups and a survey and use the data to inform cover crop outreach and research and build the WCCC network of cover crop-focused agricultural professionals and farmers. The WCCC network will coordinate outreach and research, foster cover crop business opportunities for farmers, and, ultimately, increase use of cover crops.

Regenerative Agriculture: connecting soil health, native bee habitat, and climate resilience through on-farm management strategies

This project will focus on and promote agricultural practices relevant to Oregon producers that effectively keep carbon-rich materials in the soil and support native bee nesting habitat, such as reduced tillage, cover cropping, perennial plantings, additions of organic matter and leaving crop stubble.

It will develop and provide educational materials focused on climate resilience, carbon sequestration and native bee health, and conduct outreach at Oregon’s Small Farms Conference.  Cooperators will  host on-farm workshops to provide peer-to-peer learning opportunities that connect soil building strategies with those that support native bee habitat, and help create climate resilience for Oregon farmers.  

Evaluating Forage Production and Ranching in Response to Regenerative Rotational Grazing on Dryland Pastures in Southwest Colorado.

This project will establish forage to support high-intensity short duration regenerative rotational grazing. A goal is to demonstrate that ecological health is improved on dryland pastures through regenerative grazing.

Related Locations: California, Colorado, Oregon, West