A hundred years ago, Canadian pioneers could break a fresh plot of land and grow a healthy, high yielding wheat crop just by putting seed in the ground.
Fifty years ago, second and third generation Canadian farmers began to realize that the land just wasn’t producing like it used to. Lucky, synthetic fertilizer was now widely available and farmers were able to make up the difference with a modestly priced addition to their crops which more than paid for itself in increased yield.
On today’s farm, many conventional farmers are now fully dependent on increasingly expensive synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to grow a profitable crop. Input costs are growing so large that a single crop failure can be financially disastrous. With these mounting input costs compounded by ever increasing operating expenses (e.g. fuel, labour, etc,.) and a volatile grain market, farmers are looking for a way to help mitigate this risk while securing profit (aka, job security).
Enter regenerative agriculture.
Just like the name suggests, regenerative agriculture is singularly focused on restoring, or regenerating, agricultural soils.
Born of an unholy union between science, economics and environmentalism, regenerative agriculture has identified soil health as the cornerstone of success on a farm. This idea isn’t new, all farmers work their land to produce what they think are ideal soil conditions for their crops to grow.
What is new with regenerative agriculture is the general approach on how to achieve healthy soils.
Traditionally, conventional farming is all about control. The land is stripped clean and every possible input is controlled: exact quantities of fertilizers are added to the soil; desired plants are seeded; undesired plants are chemically removed; pest populations are monitored and culled as needed; etc,. Everything that can be controlled is, and technology is slowly allowing more and more control; but at a price.
From a soil health perspective, conventional agriculture is focused on treating the symptoms. Short on nitrogen, the prescription is more fertilizer; low on moisture, then irrigate; got bugs, spray them; for every ailment, a remedy.
Regenerative farming, on the other hand, is more like preventative medicine — a healthy diet and exercise. And just like a healthy diet and exercise, the general goal is to improve the health of underlying systems which will subsequently increase resistance to disease, environmental stress and unforeseen trauma.
This is often called a systems approach that focuses on restoring natural systems and cycles (e.g. the carbon cycle, mycorrhizal networks, soil aggregation, etc,) that have been disturbed by conventional farming methods.
A healthy carbon cycle will help replace the carbon (i.e. seed and straw) withdrawn from the land each year. Mycorrhizal fungal networks function as a nutrient delivery system for neighboring plants. Plant diversity helps prevent disease and supports communities of microorganisms living in the soil which in turn make more nutrients available to the plants.
Restoring these systems to their full potential is a long game that can take many years of carefully managed farming. Crucially, as many of the systems are co-dependent, working to regenerate one system often has a positive, cascading effect on related systems. Cover crops, for example, have a variety of root structures which help break up hard packed soil, which in turn allows for more water infiltration and retention which in turn helps both the plant and its community of microorganisms survive drought conditions. In return these microorganisms can help with creating soil aggregates which further increases water infiltration and retention.
Ultimately, by restoring these natural systems farmers are able to reduce their reliance on more expensive conventional farming methods while increasing plant health and achieving comparable yields.