Regenerative agriculture (RA) is an approach to food and farming systems that rejects pesticides, artificial fertilizers and aims to regenerate topsoil, increase biodiversity, improve water cycles, enhance ecosystem services, increase resilience to climate fluctuation and strengthen the health and vitality of farming and ranching communities.
Regenerative agriculture is based on applied research and thinking that integrates organic farming, permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, restoration ecology, Keyline design and holistic management.
On a regenerative farm biological production and ecological structure grow more complex over time. Yields increase while external inputs decrease.
Late 1800s through 1960s
Julius Hensel (1844–1903) was an early advocate of restoring trace minerals to soil with dust from primeval stones and reported success with his steinmehl (stonemeal). He opposed the use of chemicals in agriculture. He claimed that his steinmehl could replace chemical and animal fertilizers.
George Washington Carver (1864–1943) was one of the early proponents of sustainable agriculture.
While botanist Sir Albert Howard (1873–1947) was in charge of a colonial research farm at Indore, India, he documented and tested Indian organic farming techniques. He refined the traditional Indian composting system into what became known as the Indore method. He shared this knowledge through the Soil Association in England and the Rodale Institute in the US.
Ruth Stout (1884–1980) by the 1950s had perfected a "no-till" method of gardening that she promoted as "no work" in her books, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back and Gardening Without Work for the Aging, the Busy and the Indolent. Her work led to other innovations in no-till practices, such as slash and mulch in the tropics.
J.I. Rodale (1898–1971) was an early proponent of organic and regenerative farming and founder of the Rodale Institute. He encouraged organic gardening through his writings, research and publishing.
Lady Evelyn Barbara "Eve" Balfour (1899–1990) was a founder in the organic farming movement. She was one of the first women to study agriculture at an English university, graduating from the University of Reading to begin farming in 1920. By 1939, she had launched Haughley, an experimental farm, to test organic farming. Her findings were published in Living Soil (1948), which became a classic. Haughley was the first long-term comparative research project to contrast organic and chemically-based farming.
Maynard Murray (1910–1983) pioneered the merger 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 conducted experiments to determine the proportions of trace minerals and other elements present in sea water that were optimal for growth and health of both terrestrial and marine life. His experiments demonstrated that plants fertilized with sea solids and animals fed sea-solid-fertilized feeds grow stronger and more disease resistant. Murray presented his work in Sea Energy Agriculture (1976). Largely ignored during his lifetime, he helped define the role of trace minerals in healthy growth.
Bhaskar H. Save (born 1922) created Kalpavruksha ("wish-fulfilling tree") Farm in Umbergaon, India in 1953. After practicing traditional agriculture with poor results, Save switched to organic farming and developed a system of natural farming. He 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-lived species matured.
Australian geologist P.A. Yeomans (1904–1984) developed the Keyline design, an approach to farm planning and water management. Keyline used maps to analyse the topography to channel rain water into earthen dams for irrigation, build roads on ridges, plant trees in 'Contour Strip Forests', position farm buildings, arrange subdivision fencing and renovate pastures.
1970s through 2000s
Masanobu Fukuoka (1913–2008) was a farmer, activist and author of the practices and theory of natural farming that he based on four core principles: no cultivation, no (chemical) fertilizers, no weeding and no pesticides. Among his teachings is that a successful farmer must partner with the natural environment and derive an intimate understanding of it together with the plants. His "seed balls" cultivation innovation is widely used in horticulture and retail products, including lawn seed.
Mechanical engineer and ecologist John D. Hamaker (1914–1994) advocated remineralizing soils. His motivations included a desire to help create a healthy, just civilization rooted in ecological wisdom and his claim that malnutrition and disease followed by famine and glaciation could be ended.
Booker T. Whatley (1915–2005), popularized U-Pick farms and their direct marketing approach through fee-based subscriptions. He was among the first practitioners of sustainable agriculture to focus on the economic concerns of small farmers, encouraging them to identify high value crops that could be profitable on smaller farms, such as shiitake mushrooms, the husbandry of small ruminants and specialty cheeses.
Charles Walters (1926–2009) was an economist, journalist, farmers advocate in the first phase of his career with the National Farmer's Organization; and founder, publisher and editor of Acres U.S.A. Walters penned hundreds of articles and was author or co-author of books, including Eco-Farm, Weeds: Control Without Poisons and Unforgiven. In 1970 Walters coined the term "eco-agriculture" to unify the concepts of "ecology" and "economy" to reflect his belief that unless agriculture was ecological, it could not be economical.
Robert Rodale (1930–1990) was an advocate of RA, fostered the Regenerative Agriculture Association, published books on the subject, funded research, established demonstration fields, sponsored practitioners in the field and spread RA around the globe. He coined the concept of 'regenerative organic agriculture' to distinguish it from 'sustainable' agriculture. He served as CEO of The Rodale Institute.
Patricia Lanza (b. 1935) authored books about "lasagna" gardening or sheet mulch gardening, as perfected by Ruth Stout. 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.
Austrians Sepp (b. 1942) and Veronica Holzer created hugekultur, a terraced system of mounds on Austrian mountainsides. The mounds are built of organic materials, a traditional way of growing in the region of the Krameterhof in Lungau, but at 1000+ meters above sea level. Holzer's mounds are considered one of the world's few perfectly working permaculture systems. After almost 40 years, their farms support pond culture, terraces, a water power station, thousands of fruit trees, thirty types of potatoes, grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs and wildflowers — growing in the forest, on steep hills, on rocky outcrops, on stone pathways and around ponds, all without the use of pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. They created a video, Farming With Nature: A Case Study of Successful Temperate Permaculture.
Takao Furuno (b. 1950) is the architect of the Aigamo Method, a modernization of an 800-year-old Chinese technique of using ducks in sustainable rice cultivation. Funuro's system combines commercial rice cultivation with duck husbandry, aquaculture and vegetable production. Aigamo ducks are derived from wild and domestic ducks, whose ducklings provide the labor for cultivation, pest control and manure to fertilize the rice. This eliminates dependency on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, molluscicides, fossil fuels and heavy duty equipment, providing a safe and productive environment.
John Jeavons created Grow Biointensive, a sustainable 8-step food production method, which combines elements of French intensive and biodynamics techniques.
Jacob Mittleider created the Mittleider Method, a contemporary method of soil-less agriculture. Jim Kennard refined this method.
Ecologist and gardener Don Weaver assisted John Hamaker in advocating for policies and practices of soil remineralization, biosphere regeneration and climatic stabilization.
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 Institute stopped using the term in the late 1980s and it appeared sparingly (in 2005 and 2008) until they released a white paper titled "Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change" in 2014. Its summary states, “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, similar to most organic agriculture.
From 1990 to 2010, RA was most explicitly practiced within the permaculture community. Influenced by Carol Sanford and the design and development work of Regenesis, the ecological systems approach of permaculture led regenerative agriculture to incorporate whole farm design, multi-story agroforestry and rotational livestock integration.
Author and restorative development consultant Storm Cunningham (b. 1951) documented the rise of what he then called "restorative agriculture" in his first book, The Restoration Economy. He defined it as a technique that rebuilds the quantity and quality of topsoil while restoring local biodiversity (especially native pollinators) and watershed functionality. Carbon sequestration has more recently been added to that definition, to help achieve climate restoration. Restorative agriculture was one of the eight sectors of restorative development industries / disciplines in The Restoration Economy's taxonomy. The other seven were watershed restoration, ecological restoration, fisheries restoration, brownfields remediation, heritage restoration, infrastructure renewal and catastrophe reconstruction. 
Sheep grower, historian, regenerative agriculture consultant and advocate Charles Massy published Call of the Reed Warbler: a new agriculture - a new earth, based on his PhD studies. The book frames regenerative agriculture as a savior for the earth using case studies.
Darren J. Doherty (1967-) founded Regrarians Ltd. in 2013, a non-profit promoting RA. His Regrarians Platform extends Yeomans’ 'Keyline Scale of Permanence', layering social and economic lenses on top of the original agricultural ones. They include climate, geography, water, access, forestry, buildings, fencing, soils, economy and energy.
John Ikerd advocates for the "small" family farm and farmers and for sustainability in the US food system. Ikerd is author of The essentials of economic sustainability, Small Farms are Real Farms: Sustaining People through Agriculture and Sustainable Capitalism (2005).
Vermont farmer and farm consultant Abe Collins created LandStream to monitor ecosystem performance in RA farms.
Mark Shepard founded New Forest Farms in Viola, Wisconsin and Forest Agriculture Enterprises and wrote Restoration Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers. He demonstrated how to grow more calories per acre than corn and soy without inputs. He does this through a mix of RA practices, balancing nut crops, livestock and keyline.
Ethan Roland Soloviev and Gregory Landua, cofounded Terra Genesis International (a regenerative agriculture and supply company), published 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: "farms are woven into an ecosystem of enterprises operating in their bioregion"
- Evolutionary Regenerative Agriculture: "harmonize with the potential of a place," and "develop a diversity of global and local regenerative producer webs"
Permaculture designer and researcher Eric Toensmeier wrote The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security (2016). Toensmeier claimed that regenerative practices hold the potential to sequester massive amounts of CO
2 into the soil, all while providing adaptive and resilient solutions given a changing climate.
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 essence of each person, farm and place
- Make holistic decisions aimed at specific systems change
- Ensure and develop just and reciprocal relationships among all stakeholders
- Design for non-linear, multi-capital reciprocity
- Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms and communities to express their 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
- Natural sequence farming
- Grassfed livestock
- 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
- Agroecological restoration
- Biointensive agriculture
- Carbon farming
- Farmer-managed natural regeneration
- Regenerative Design
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- Yeomans, P.A. The Australian Keyline Plan. Sydney: P.A. Yeomans, 1954. [Source: The Holistic Agriculture Library and The Challenge of Landscape - The Development and Practice of Keyline. Sydney: Keyline Publishing PTY, Ltd., 1958. [Source: The Holistic Agriculture Library]
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- Hamaker, John D. and Donald Weaver. The Survival of Civilization. Hamaker-Weaver Publishers, 1982. 234p. Reprinted, 2002.
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