Degenerative vs Regenerative Agriculture
There are as many ways to farm as there are farmers. But farming methods can be broken down into two categories: degenerative or regenerative.
Degenerative farming practices destroy the soil while regenerative practices create a healthier soil structure. I can’t imagine a farmer saying his farming practices were degenerative, were degrading the soil, or destroying the planet. But there are farming practices that have serious negative consequences for the long-term health of your farm.
Let’s look at degenerative, or conventional, farming practices and their impacts.
- Bare soil
- Synthetic inputs
- Deep tillage
- Monoculture crops
- Increased yields
- Decreased nutrient density of crops
- Decreased biodiversity
Not to mention erosion by both wind and water and the lack of microbial activity in the soil.
Here’s a checklist of what you want on your farm if you consider yourself a regenerative farmer.
- Cover crops
- Active microbial communities in your soil
- Low external inputs
- Diversified crops and rotations
- Increased yields
- Increased nutrient density of crops
- Increased biodiversity
And the list goes on. Regenerative farming is holistic and includes not only the soil but the people who work the soil, the community, and the air. Regenerative farming sequesters carbon, taking carbon dioxide out of the air and putting it into the soil.
The Evolution of Farming
Farming has been evolving since the beginning of time.
Conventional farming, by the way, has only been around since the 1920s.
Organic farming, in one form or another, has been with us ever since the beginnings of agriculture.
Many farmers use a mix of these farming practices to grow profitable crops. In the early 1980s, a new/old farming practice was introduced by the Rodale Institute. It was called Regenerative Agriculture. Organic had incorporated the importance of soil health but crop yield was still a primary concern. Conventional farming has focused on crop yield to the detriment of soil health. Regenerative agriculture looked primarily at soil health to create healthy and profitable crops. Farmers have always known the importance of soil health for profitable crops but didn’t always connect crop health to consumer health.
Regenerative Ag looks not at just yield and the health of crops but at the health of the microorganisms and soil dwellers as a whole. It also looks at the health relationships between soil, food, and the people and livestock who eat the food. This is a radical departure from earlier ways of looking at food and agriculture.
We are used to seeing corn and soybean fields that span many acres – a monoculture. Those fields are routinely sprayed with synthetics, plowed before planting, and the harvest residue plowed under in the fall. The soil sits bare until it is made ready for planting the next year. Usually, there is a crop rotation of corn, soybeans, or another crop.
An orchard is also a monoculture. If synthetics are sprayed on the blooms and fruits, it is a conventional farm. Most fruit produced in the United States is through a conventional farming system. Commercial vegetable farmers usually use a modified monocropping system with acres of peppers, tomatoes, or squash and use insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides to control pests. They also fertilize with synthetics.
These practices produce a “perfect” product in the produce department of the grocery store. That’s what we have asked for and agriculture has responded. It looks beautiful and blemish-free on the outside, but these same products have a decreased nutrient value. Scientific analyses of modern varieties of grains and vegetables “…have confirmed that some modern varieties of vegetables and grains are lower in some nutrients than older varieties due to a “dilution” effect of increased yield by accumulation of carbohydrate (starch, sugar, and or fiber) without a proportional increase in certain other nutrients.” That dilution effect is the outcome of crop breeding for high yields in conventional farming conditions.
Conventional farming leads to higher yields but not necessarily to higher nutritional value of our food.
According to the PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), “ Biofortification is an approach being used in crop development to help address specific nutrient deficiencies…” Biofortification improves the nutritional value of food through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology. Many foods are fortified through manual means during processing. However food is fortified, next time you get a gallon of milk out of the refrigerator check to see if it’s been fortified with Vitamin D. Probably you hadn’t considered it before but does your food need fortification to be as nutritious as the crops your grandfather raised?
Organic farming moved away from the synthetics that conventional farming uses. The synthetics do decrease pest problems on the plants, but they also decrease the living organisms in the soil. Pest and disease issues are not as prevalent on healthy plants, and soil with millions of microorganisms is necessary for healthy plants. Farmers who use organic practices improve the quality of their soil and the nutrient density of their products. Organic farming has changed over time. More consumers are demanding organic products and not only vegetables. As time has passed, and consumers have demanded more organic food, especially grains and commodity crops, many large farmers discontinued using synthetics, got on board the organic train but have continued many of the conventional tilling practices.
A large-scale organic farmer has to make the hard choice of protecting soil from erosion or controlling weeds that compete with crops for nutrients. So, large scale farmers who rely heavily on tillage to control weeds also use cover crops between rows of crops and between seasons. A farmer can improve the soil and utilize the cover crops as a harvest of an in-between crop. The living roots of cover crops protect the soil from erosion and add nutrients. The residue from cover crops is usually plowed down. It can also be crimped to maintain a cover on the soil. Crimped vegetative matter acts as a mulch to help the soil retain moisture and to control weeds.
The goal of regenerative farming is to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm. According to the Rodale Institute, regenerative farming is “…a method of farming that improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them.” A heavy emphasis is placed on soil health, but attention is also paid to water management, erosion control, cover cropping, and the well-being of all who share that ecosystem. That includes any livestock and you and your family.
When you begin to look at your soil as an asset and not just the material your plants grow in you have made a huge mindset change. The difference between degraded soil and regenerated soil is obvious when you drive down the highway on a windy day and encounter reduced visibility due to topsoil blowing off tilled fields. Notice that a field with stubble or last year’s dead vegetation, unplowed, will lose almost no topsoil in that wind? And because those roots have been in the ground the entire off-season the microorganisms have had food, so the soil is not only keeping its topsoil, but the soil is becoming richer.
As a farmer, you are looking at your farm and seeing areas that you’ve not been able to get a good crop from in many years. Your goal then becomes how to find out what’s wrong with those areas and fix them. In the process, you will find other areas of your farm that could be more productive. If you’re a regenerative farmer you’re looking first at the soil. It all begins with the soil. Here at Rogitex, we have a product Humic Land, that will help you improve your soil and plant productivity. We can also guide you to higher yields of more nutrient-dense crops with farming consultations.
Regenerative farming also looks at bare earth and non-productive land as simply needing plants, microorganisms, and a little water. Have you wondered how the world’s deserts came into being? Closer to home, why do you have a patch of dusty soil over in the corner of one of your fields? Or an area that becomes rock hard in the middle of summer? So, as a regenerative farmer you have a great opportunity if you’re willing to look past what appears to be a lost cause and plant some clovers, water if you don’t get rain, and add some Humic Land to invigorate the soil. Wouldn’t it be great to have another part of your farm productive again?
Are You a Conventional or a Regenerative Farmer?
Are you tilling and using synthetics on your farm? Are you getting good yields, but profits are going down? Maybe it’s time to look at a new way to farm. Have you already started down the regenerative farming road but need some help?
Whether you’re farming conventional, organic, or regenerative we can help you make it a profitable year! Contact Us.