Regenerative Agriculture, Regenerative Thinking

Shifting Our Models, Changing Our Minds

When you picture a farm, what types of images come to mind? 

Do you visualize lush fields, clusters of varying crops planted side-by-side, all accented by bursts of color and every imaginable shade of green?

Or do you imagine endless rows of corn stalks neatly arranged in long strips, rolling on into infinity, interrupted only by a stray tractor in the field?

Both of these images are realistic, as both versions of farms (and many more versions, at that) can be found all over the U.S. and the world. Depending on your geographic location, you may live down the street from a community farm or an urban plot. You may have a slice of Eden in your own backyard in the form of a home garden. Maybe an orchard graces your hometown. Or, perhaps you drive by those infamous fields of monocropped corn and soy everyday on your way to work.

It’s true that farms take many shapes and forms. It’s also true that no matter where people settle, the urge to plant seeds and grow food seem to travel with them. Indeed, that urge is an evolutionary instinct and a fundamental necessity.

As a farmer and an environmentalist, I’m interested in putting that classic image of monocropped corn on the shelf for a little while, and instead talking about other ways farming can look. As a person working in this industry, I’m acutely aware of the outside view of farming as an ecosystem-destroying,  land-desertifying behemoth of an industry. And farming can be that, indeed it is that, when practiced in certain ways. But like anything, there are a number of ways to farm, some of which actually have the capacity to heal ecosystems and strengthen communities. The approach I’m referring to is called regenerative agriculture.

According to Rodale Institute, the industry leader in organic agriculture research, regenerative agriculture is “a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual wellbeing.”

That’s a lot for one approach to offer, but regenerative agriculture really can usher in all of these benefits — and at the very least, it holds more promise to do so than conventional, industrialized agriculture.

Let’s break down each of Rodale’s regenerative pillars: Environmental, social, economic, and spiritual.

The environmental impacts of regenerative practices are immediately evident when comparing the regenerative approach to industrial agriculture. Industrialized agriculture is defined by monocropped fields, heavy use of chemical inputs, and intense soil disruption. It is scientifically proven that these practices destroy topsoil, lead to desertification of land, release tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year, and leak chemicals into our food and our water systems. 

In contrast, regenerative agricultural practices can actually turn that damage around and improve the resources used, rather than depleting or destroying them. For example, regenerative ag can take carbon dioxide from the air (where it does damage) and put it back into the soil in the form of carbon (where it actually does a whole lot of good) through a process called carbon sequestration. 

Regenerative agriculture is a holistic systems approach to agriculture that encourages continual on-farm innovation for environmental, social, economic and spiritual wellbeing.

From a socio-economic standpoint, regenerative agriculture holds the capacity to be deeply healing not only for ecological communities but for human communities as well. Investing in regenerative agriculture at the community level inevitably creates space for the establishment of local businesses and the generation of revenue to stimulate a local economy, while making healthy, nutrient-dense food available to community members. As the global pandemic and economic crisis reveal the weaknesses in our social systems, the value of regenerative models, in agriculture and beyond, offer less fragile structures in the face of social and economic turbulence.

Finally, there’s the spiritual, or cultural, perspective. The shift from industrial to regenerative models takes us, individually and collectively, from a “use, abuse, and abandon” mindset to an “if it’s broke, fix it” mindset. In other words, regenerative models of growing food, supporting economies, and feeding communities takes the attitude of extraction and exploitation that rules our current industrialized agriculture system and replaces it with an attitude of responsibility to preserve, protect, support, and work with rather than against nature. This step is perhaps the most crucial, as the physical shift toward regenerative models requires first and foremost a shift of mindset. The cultural implications of adopting an attitude of responsibility in our ecosystems, economies, and communities are enormous, and are certainly a major reason why more regenerative farms are cropping up across the country and the globe.

There’s a quote of Aldo Leopold, the American author, scientist, conservationist, and environmentalist, that reads: “When we see land as a community to which we all belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” This perspective, to me, encapsulates the environmental, social, economic, and cultural implications of shifting to a regenerative mindset, and ultimately toward tangible regenerative models in agriculture and beyond. 

To protect and defend anything, we must first identify it as something to which we belong and as something that we respect. To imagine that we will change anything in this world — be it environment, social fabric, economy, or culture — without first deeply resonating with and respecting that thing is naive and unrealistic.

The regenerative mindset offers us an invitation to cultivate that resonance, respect, and ultimately, rebellion. 

The resonance of a gardener planting a seed, turning over a bed, feeding the soil.

The respect of a naturalist touching the bark of a maple tree before harvesting its sap to boil.

And the rebellion of a farmer, planting something other than all those rows of corn.

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