Regenerative agriculture is an approach to food and farming systems that regenerates topsoil and enhances biodiversity now and long into the future. Regenerative Agriculture improves water cycles, enhances ecosystem services, increases resilience to climate fluctuation and strengthens the health and vitality of farming and ranching communities.
Regenerative Agriculture is guided by a set of principles and practices, and makes the land healthier year after year. In this way it is based on outcomes, not practices, distinguishing it from most sustainable and conservation agriculture efforts.
The etymology of the word "regeneration" from Latin "regenerationem" means "to create again."
Development and Influences
The current global practice of Regenerative Agriculture is based on applied and scientific research carried out by several international communities, including: organic farming, permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, restoration ecology, Keyline design, and Holistic Management.
There are several specific lineages of thought and practice that have contributed to Regenerative Agriculture.
In the 1980s, the Rodale Institute was the first organization to begin using the term ‘Regenerative Agriculture’. Rodale Publishing formed the Regenerative Agriculture Association, which published books in 1987 and 1988.
“By marching forward under the banner of sustainability we are, in effect, continuing to hamper ourselves by not accepting a challenging enough goal. I am not against the word sustainable, rather I favor regenerative agriculture.”
However, the Rodale Institute stopped using the term in the late 1980s, and it appears sparingly (in 2005 and 2008) until they released a white paper titled ‘Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change’ in 2014. A summary of the paper states, “Simply put, we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term 'regenerative organic agriculture.'” The agricultural practices described are crop rotation, compost application, and reduced tillage, very similar to most organic agriculture.
1990 Onwards: Modern Regenerative Agriculture
From 1990 to 2010, regenerative agriculture was most explicitly developed within the permaculture community. Influenced by the work of regenerative business pioneer Carol Sanford and the design and development work of Regenesis, the ecological systems approach of permaculture led to the expansion of regenerative agriculture to include whole farm design, multi-story agroforestry, and rotational livestock integration. In permaculture, a regenerative farm is one where biological production and ecological structure are growing increasingly more complex over time, but yields continue to increase while external inputs decrease.
Especially important for coalescing a global community were the 2006-2009 workshops led by Darren Doherty focused on Keyline Design and Carbon Farming. The Carbon Farming Course, a series of workshops on Regenerative Agriculture held in 2009 and 2012, combined education on Permaculture, Holistic Management, Organic Agriculture, Soil FoodWeb, Biochar, Perennial Agriculture, and Agroforestry.
Principles and Practices
Regenerative Agriculture is guided by a set of principles and practices.
- Increase soil fertility
- Work with wholes, not parts
- Progressively improve whole agro-ecosystems (soil, water, and biodiversity)
- Connect the farm to its larger agroecosystem and bioregion
- Create context-specific designs and make holistic decisions that express the essence of each farm
- Express the unique irreplaceable essence of each person, farm and place
- Make holistic decisions aimed at specific systems change
- Ensure and develop just and reciprocal relationships amongst all stakeholders
- Design for non-linear, multi-capital reciprocity
- Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms, and communities to express their innate potential
- Continually evolve agro-ecological processes and cultures
- Agriculture shifts the world
- Permaculture Design
- Soil Food Web
- Properly Managed Livestock, Well-managed grazing, Animal Integration, and Holistically Managed Grazing
- STUN (Sheer, Total, and Utter Neglect) Breeding
- Keyline Subsoiling
- No-Till Farming, minimum tillage, and Pasture Cropping
- Cover crops & multispecies cover crops
- Organic Annual Cropping and Crop rotations
- Compost, Compost Tea, animal manures, and Thermal Compost
- Polyculture and full-time planting of multiple crop intercrop plantings
- Borders planted for bee habitat and other beneficial insects
- Biochar & Terra Preta
- Ecological Aquaculture
- Perennial Crops
History and Contributors
Late 1800s through the 1960s
William Albrecht (1888–1974), an agronomist at the University of Missouri for many years. Through his writings, lectures, and radio programs, Albrecht promoted the intimate relationship between healthy soil and animal nutrition, a relationship that includes humans. Feed the soil to feed the plants to feed the consumer was his mantra.
Lady Evelyn Barbara "Eve" Balfour (1899–1990) was a founding figure in the 20th century organic movement and an organic farming pioneer. She was one of the first women to study agriculture at an English university, graduating from the University of Reading, and began farming in 1920. By 1939, she had launched a privately funded experimental farm, called Haughley, to test the principles of organic farming. The initial findings of the work there and her research were published in Living Soil (1948), which has become an organic farming classic. Haughley was the first long-term comparative research project measuring results from organic and chemically based farming. What the results of her work at Haughley revealed should have led to a global push to institute sustainable agriculture throughout the British empire and beyond, but that was not to be, as the global power of post-WWII capitalism undermined such efforts.
George Washington Carver (1864–1943), inventor and scientist of Tuskegee University, was the grand-daddy of sustainable agriculture in the USA. His contributions are too many to detail here, but among them is his development of the U.S. agriculture extension system and his many inventions in polymer science. His influence on U.S. agriculture in the first half of the 20th century is not fully appreciated nor, more tragically, even known by contemporary proponents of today's biointensive farming methods. Carver's scientific research was the foundation of US agriculture policy under two generations of Secretaries of Agriculture. His death in 1943 marked the end of organic agricultural practices in commercial agriculture in the United States until recently, as petrochemical companies and Agribusiness corporations competed successfully to control the actors in the various industries.
Julius Hensel (1844–1903), a German miller and author of Bread from Stones. In the 1890s, Hensel was an early advocate of restoring trace minerals to soil with dust from primeval stones and reported successful results with his steinmehl (stonemeal). It is said that his ideas were not accepted due to both technical limitations and financing. But, according to proponents of his method, Hensel's opposition from manufacturers of chemical fertilizers, set the stage for what would happen eventually in American agriculture following WWII when there was little opposition and the rise of the U.S. petrochemical industry. Today, Hensel's pioneer work in opposing the use of chemicals in agriculture found rebirth in the Organic Movement a half a century later. Yet, Hensel may be more modern than the most modern agricultural reformer. On the basis of theoretical chemical considerations, supported by practical tests, he claimed that his rock dust can replace not only chemical fertilizers, but all animal ones as well.
Sir Albert Howard (1873–1947), an English botanist, was an agricultural advisor to the British government in charge of a colonial research farm at Indore in India. Howard has been called the father of modern composting for his refinement of a traditional Indian composting system into what is now known as the Indore method. It was at Indore that Howard documented and tested Indian organic farming techniques. Sir Howard shared this knowledge through the Soil Association in England and the Rodale Institute in the United States. In his later years, he was the editor of the influential journal, Biodynamics Journal.
Maynard Murray (1910–1983) was a medical doctor and a pioneer in merging the disciplines of biology, health and agriculture from the 1930s when he began experimenting with "sea-solids"–mineral salts that remain after total sea water evaporation. Around 1940, he began to perform extensive experiments to determine when the proportions of trace minerals and other elements present in sea water were optimum for growth and health of both land and sea life. His extensive experiments demonstrated repeatedly and conclusively that plants fertilized with sea solids and animals fed sea-solid-fertilized feeds grow stronger and more resistant to disease. Murray recounts his experiments and presents his conclusions in his classic work, Sea Energy Agriculture (1976; republished in 2001). Largely ignored during his lifetime, his lifelong quest contributed greatly to our understanding of the role of trace minerals in the healthy growth of all organisms on the planet, including humans.
J.I. Rodale (1898–1971) was an early proponent of organic and regenerative farming and founder of the Rodale Institute in the United States. He is credited with launching organic gardening practices more broadly in the United States through his writings, research, and publishing enterprise. The Rodale enterprises continue to make contributions around the world through their advocacy, research, demonstrations, and publishing.
Bhaskar H. Save (born 1922) is creator of the highly successful Kalpavruksha ("wish-fulfilling tree") Farm in Umbergaon, India established in 1953. After practicing traditional agriculture for many years with poor results, Sri Save committed his resources to organic farming and developed a system of natural farming that Masanobu Fukuoka, the noted founder of natural farming, praised as the best example of natural farming he had witnessed anywhere. Sri Save used intensive interplanting in which short life-span vegetables (alpa-jeevi), medium life-span species (madhya-jeevi – such as banana, papaya, and custard apple), and long life-span species (deergha-jeevi–such as chikoo, coconut, mango) are combined and phased in over time until the long life-span species mature.
Ruth Stout (1884–1980) lived a long, active and productive life. By the 1950s, she had perfected a "no-till" method of gardening that she promoted as "no work" in her writings about gardening, including two books, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back and Gardening Without Work for the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent. The latter volume was republished by Mother Earth News in 2011. Her work has led to other innovations in no-till practices, such as slash and mulch in the tropics.
P.A. Yeomans (1904–1984), an Australian geologist and the architect of the Keyline design, an innovative solution to farm water management, is little known outside of Australia for his many contributions from sustainable agriculture to soil fertility to farm management in the early 20th century. His use of land topography to harvest rain water into ponds is quietly used today in the construction of swales and berms in production units ranging from backyard gardens to the monumental landscaping practices of Sepp Holzer today.
1970s through 2000s
George Chan (born 1923), former Ministry of Agro-Industry & Fisheries of Mauritius, and Mae-Wan Ho, Director of the Institute of Science in Society, are architects of Dream Farm, a model of a sustainable zero-emission, zero-waste production farm that maximizes the use of renewable energies, turns residues into food and energy resources, and eliminates the need for fossil fuels. A core principle of Dream Farm is that sustainable systems are organisms, comprising the farmer, livestock and crops. In a Dream Farm, very little input is wasted or exported to the environment; most are recycled and kept inside the system by consciously integrating food and energy production. Mr. Chan has been a pioneer in the field of sustainable recycling of waste using agro-ecological systems. He developed the Integrated Farming and Waste Management System, which involves a sustainable cycle in which matter and energy circulate through different stages, dramatically increasing yields.
Masanobu Fukuoka (1913–2008) of Japan lived a long and dutiful life in partnership with his environment. He was a farmer, activist, and author of the practices and theory of natural farming, on which he based his four core uncompromising principles: no cultivation, no (chemical) fertilizers, no weeding, and no pesticides. Among his teachings is that for a farmer to be successful, he must form a partnership with the natural environment, derive an intimate understanding of it together with the plants a farmer chooses to grow. Features of his philosophy are present in most contemporary farming practices. His "seed balls" cultivation innovation is widely used in many horticultural environments and in commercial retail products, including lawn seed.
Takao Furuno (born 1950) of Japan is the architect of the Aigamo Method, a modernization of an 800-year-old Chinese technique of using ducks to promote sustainable rice cultivation. Funuro's system is polycultural, combining rice cultivation with duck husbandry, aquaculture, and vegetable production. Together, these enterprises provide income from rice, vegetable and flower production, eggs, meat, and live ducks from the aigamo, and fish from the paddies. The aigamo ducks are a breed derived from wild and domestic ducks, whose ducklings provide the labor for cultivation, pest control, and manure for fertilization of the rice paddies. This beneficial marriage between duck and rice eliminates dependency on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, molluscicides, fossil fuels, and heavy duty equipment as costs, while sustaining a safe environment for farmers to work and simultaneously increasing net production and farm income.
John D. Hamaker (1914–1994) was a mechanical engineer, ecologist and practical visionary who from 1968 to 1994 tried to awaken the world to the crucial need to remineralize the soils and regenerate the Earth's life-support system. His motivations included a profound desire to help create a healthy, just and real civilization rooted in ecological wisdom, and his realization that malnutrition and disease followed by famine and glaciation could be ended by a total human commitment.
Sepp Holzer (born 1942) of Austria, and his wife Veronika, have created a diverse and natural way of growing food in an unconventional way by using a terraced system of mounds on the Austrian mountainsides, referred to as hugelkultur. The mounds are built on a foundation of organic materials, a traditional way of growing in the region of The Krameterhof in Lungau, Austria, just not at 1000+ meters above sea level. Holzer's edible microclimates are considered one of the few perfectly working permaculture systems in the world. After almost 40 years of continuous production, the Holzer farms contain a complex of pond culture, terraces, water power station, thousands of fruit trees cultivated among companionable plant families, thirty different types of potatoes, many different grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs and wildflowers are growing just about everywhere — in the forest, on extremely steep hills, on rocky outcrops, on stone pathways, and around ponds, all without the use of any pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. Their video, Farming With Nature: A Case Study of Successful Temperate Permaculture, is widely distributed on the Internet and a must-view for anyone looking to develop a sustainable collaborative system of food production.
Elaine Ingham, a microbiologist and founder of Soil Foodweb, Inc. in 1996, is recognized as a premier authority in soil microbiology and the soil food web. Through her pioneering research and lectures, Dr. Ingham has been instrumental in popularizing the importance of soil health and the growing public understanding of the soil food web in sustaining this health. Since January 2011, she has been the Chief Scientist at The Rodale Institute where she continues to study the microbial life of the soil and to give lectures on her findings.
John Jeavons, the inspiration and architect of a sustainable 8-step food production method officially known as Grow Biointensive, which combines elements of French intensive and biodynamics techniques. The Grow Biointensive approach is promoted by Ecology Action, a non-profit that operates a research mini-farm in Willits, CA and a retail store called Bountiful Gardens. Both projects promote the Grow Biointensive method teaching people in more than a hundred countries. Ecology Action's research and publications have several goals: (1) enabling small‐scale farms and farmers worldwide to significantly increase food production and income by (2) utilizing predominantly local, renewable resources to decrease expenses and energy inputs (labor, land, water) and (3) building fertile topsoil at a rate 60 times faster than in nature.
Jacob Mittleider, architect of the Mittleider Method, a popular contemporary method of soil-less growing. Mittleider's system is being continued and refined by Jim Kennard at the Food for Everyone Foundation.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, architects of permaculture or "permanent agriculture", a holistic approach that combines ecological design with natural principles of horticultural production. Both men are ardent advocates for creating communities that work in harmony with nature rather than in opposition to it. Permaculture is a worldwide phenomenon whose principles and practices have been published in many of the world's languages and is rapidly being integrated into public planning projects across the globe. Video presentations about Permaculture and its practitioners are broadly distributed on the Internet and can be found at YouTube.
Patricia Lanza was born in 1935 in Crossville, Tennessee, to teenagers George and Mamie Neal. An only child for eight years, she spent her early formative years with grandparents while her parents worked in Detroit, MI. She perfected and authored several books about lasagna gardening or sheet mulch gardening, a type of gardening perfected by Ruth Stout in the 1950s, but whose books had gone out of print. Lanza introduced a new generation of gardeners to the ultimate no-till method of growing in which little or no labor is wasted digging and amending soils. Instead, the lasagna method feeds the soil biota from above and encourages the soil food web to do the work of aerating and mixing the nutrients into the soil below.
Robert Rodale (1930–1990), former CEO of The Rodale Institute, was a major advocate of regenerative agriculture, fostered the Regenerative Agriculture Association, published numerous books on the subject, funded research, established demonstration fields, sponsored practitioners in the field, and spread the knowledge system of regenerative agriculture around the globe. He coined the concept of 'regenerative organic agriculture' to distinguish it from 'sustainable' agriculture.
Charles Walters (1926–2009) was an economist, journalist, farmers advocate in the first phase of his career with the NaZtional Farmer's Organization; and founder, publisher and editor of Acres U.S.A., North America's oldest publisher on production-scale organic and sustainable farming in the second phase of his extraordinary life. Walters penned hundreds of articles on the technologies of organic and sustainable agriculture and is author or co-author of several books, including Eco-Farm, Weeds: Control Without Poisons, Unforgiven, a book about visionary farm economist Carl Wilken, and many more. In 1970, shortly after he started Acres, Walters coined the term "eco-agriculture" because he wanted to unify the concepts of "ecological" and "economical" in the belief that unless agriculture was ecological, it could not be economical.
Don Weaver, a protégé of John Hamaker, is an ecologist and gardener, who assisted Hamaker in advocating for policies and practices of soil remineralization, biosphere regeneration, and climatic stabilization. He continues to promote these causes today.
Booker T. Whatley (1915–2005), a horticulturalist and beneficiary of the George Washington Carver tradition, may be best remembered for popularizing U-Pick farms and their direct marketing approach through fee-based customer subscriptions. But, he was also among the first practitioners of sustainable agriculture to focus more directly on the economic concerns of small farmers, encouraging them to identify high value crops and enterprises that were more profitable on smaller units of land, such as shiitake mushrooms, the husbandry of small ruminants, specialty cheeses, and much more.
Darren Doherty, an Australian broadacre keyline expert, founded Regrarians in 2013, a non-profit furthering the field of regenerative agriculture. His Regrarians Platform is an evolution of Yoemans’ Scales of Permanence, layering social and economic lenses on top of the original agricultural ones. They include:
John Ikerd, a successor to William Albrecht and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, continues to be a staunch advocate for the "small" family farm and farmers. Today, he is an active crusader for sustainability in the US food system. His views and writings are available on his Website and at YouTube. Ikerd is author of The essentials of economic sustainability, Small Farms are Real Farms: Sustaining People through Agriculture and Sustainable Capitalism (2005).
Kym Kruse and Georgina Kruse started and run RegenAG, an Australian consultancy and educational group.
Regeneration International is a global regenerative agriculture advocacy group directed by some of the leading voices on the subject:
- Vandana Shiva, Navdanya
- Andre Leu, IFOAM Organics International
- Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumer Association
- Hans Herren, Millennium Institute
- Steve Rye, Mercola
- Tom Newmark, The Carbon Underground
- John D. Lui, Environmental Education Media Project
- Precious Phiri, Earth Wisdom
- Renate Künast, Chairwoman of Bundestag (German Parliament)
Christine Jones is an Australian soil scientist, specializing in soil ecology and soil carbon.
Mark Shepard is founder of New Forest Farms in Viola, Wisconsin and Forest Agriculture Enterprises and author of Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers (Acres USA, 2013). His work demonstrates the possibility of growing more calories per acre than corn and soy without inputs (such as synthetic fertilizer and pesticide). He does this through a mix of regenerative agriculture crops and practices, including nut crops, livestock, and keyline.
Ethan Roland Soloviev and Gregory Landua, cofounders of Terra Genesis International (a regenerative agriculture and supply company), published a paper, Levels of Regenerative Agriculture (2016). In this paper, they describe a four-fold framework consisting of:
- Functional Regenerative Agriculture: "humans can do good through their agricultural production"
- Integrative Regenerative Agriculture: "grow the health and vitality of the whole ecosystem"
- Systemic Regenerative Agriculture: requiring personal development; "farms are woven into an ecosystem of enterprises operating in their bioregion"
- Evolutionary Regenerative Agriculture: requiring pattern understanding; "harmonize with the potential of a place," and "develop a diversity of global and local regenerative producer webs"
Eric Toensmeier, prolific permaculture designer and researcher, is the author of a groundbreaking and phenomenally well-researched book, The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security (Chelsea Green, 2016). In this text, Toensmeier outlines the fact that agriculture, as practiced conventionally, is a massive contributor to climate change. And yet regenerative practices hold the potential to sequester massive amounts of CO2 into the soil, all while providing adaptive solutions that will be much more resilient in the face of a changing climate.
- Agroecological restoration
- Biointensive agriculture
- Farmer-managed natural regeneration
- Regenerative Design
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