AN INTRODUCTION TO
REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

Regenerative agriculture involves management processes that reclaim and build natural
biological function in the soil and environment to provide a buffer or “insurance policy” against management practices or natural events that deplete the system.
— Michael Inwood (2011 Nuffield Scholar)

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a broad term that moves beyond the concept of sustainability. It represents a move away from conventional and high input farming techniques that degrade the quality of the soil. The movement aims to restore the fertility of the soil through a range of methods.

Charles Eisenstein wrote in the Guardian, "First, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic nature, not dominate it... Second, regenerative agriculture is a departure from linear thinking and its control of variables through mechanical and chemical means. It values the diversity of polycultures, in which animals and plants form a complex, symbiotic, robust system. Third, regenerative agriculture seeks to address the deep basis of ecological health: the soil. It sees low fertility, runoff and other problems as symptoms, not the root problem."

Is it profitable?

Charles de Liedekerke, chief executive and founder of Soil Capital, spoke to Agri Investor: “We believe that today, regenerative agriculture can be more profitable than the agro-industrial model for land managers, investors, and society at large. Farmers now have the ability to reduce their cost structure while maintaining or increasing yields and resilience to their land. This translates into better operational cash flows, but also into capital appreciation for the land.”

To read about some of the economic benefits associated with regenerative farming, refer to the Soils for Life website.

What are the techniques involved?

There are many types of regenerative agriculture, some of which are listed below and some of which are looked at more exclusively in the Sustainable Agriculture Hub

Each of the following techniques aims to increase the fertility of soils and building organic matter:

  • Farm biodiversity

"Agricultural biodiversity is the diversity of crops and their wild relatives, trees, animals, microbes and other species that contribute to agricultural production. This diversity exists at the ecosystem, species, and genetic level and is the result of interactions among people and the environment over thousands of years. 

The use of agricultural biodiversity can help make agricultural ecosystems more resilient and productive; and can contribute to better nutrition, productivity and livelihoods." (Biodiversity International)

  • Cover cropping

"Bare soil is easily damaged and washed away by rain. When raindrops hit bare soil, the impact results in a surface crust. When soil is washed down a slope it can be caught in silt traps. However, the richest part of a soil is the fine particles and organic matter. These are usually not caught by silt traps - they are lost forever.

The solution to all these problems is to keep soil covered by plants. Plants absorb the force of raindrops and slow the flow of water in a paddock.

Cover or "break" crops include grasses such as oats and millet and legumes such as cowpeas and vetch. They may be ploughed in and are called "green manure" crops. These crops may also be mulched, slashed or sprayed, then later turned into the soil (incorporated)." (DPI NSW)

  • No Kill Cropping

"No Kill Cropping is a method that sows crops into existing plant and litter cover without eliminating any other plants. It works on the complementary effects of diverse pastures rather than competition factors. It is a very low cost, flexible approach to crop growing that gives growers flexibility throughout the growing season. No Kill sows directly into the pasture or grassland with zero disturbance, no fallow period and using livestock as nutrient recyclers." (nokillcropping.com)

  • Pasture Cropping

"Col Seis has been ‘doing thing a bit differently’ on his farm ‘Winona’ for decades. About 15 years ago he started fiddling with an idea he had called pasture cropping – sowing crops directly into pasture, without first tilling the soil and turning it over. 

Pasture cropping relies on many factors to work, including timing and good forethought, but in a nutshell it allows cereal crops to be sown directly into perennial native pastures and have them grow in symbiosis with the pasture, for the benefit of both the pasture, and the crop.

This process has the effect of producing a very respectable yield from a field (as good, if not better, than conventional cropping, in terms of profit to the farmer), while retaining perennial pasture (which is also a big deal). And, perhaps even more importantly, pasture cropping preserves the soil structure, builds biomass and results in no loss of topsoil." (Milkwood)

"Planned grazing is a structured way of using animals to regenerate pasture and grassland, and to improve soil health and grazing profitability. The idea is to put lots of animals into a small area for a short time (as little as a few hours), then remove them and let the area recover (which can take from several months to over a year) before returning the animals again." (Soils for Life)