REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE –What is it and what you can do
The issue of climate change is so broad and how to manage or handle it is daunting. The Climate Action Team of Boulder County has been looking at ways we can locally influence or impact climate by our practices and behavior. We have gathered information through a variety of sources including a film “To Which We Belong” by (Boulder resident) director Pamela Tanner Boll and co-director Lindsay Richardson. And the NRDC Regenerative Agriculture 101, whose practices are being used by local Boulder County farmers and ranchers.
What is regenerative agriculture? It is an approach to land management to think about how all aspects of agriculture are connected through a web – a network of entities who grow, enhance, exchange, distribute and consume goods and services – not a linear supply chain.
At the core, regenerative agriculture is farming and ranching in harmony with nature. It is a broader view especially in terms of soil and nutrient cycles. The industrial agriculture system incentivizes practices that promote soil erosion at a rate of 10 to 100 times higher than soil formation, nutrient runoff, harmful algae blooms and monocropping which threatens local biodiversity, including critical pollinators.
Nature is interconnected. Soil can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with less tillage, animal grazing, planting cover crops and rotating crops. Grasses grow back taller, roots will be deeper and denser and will hold more moisture. Regenerative farmers have less reliance on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. With healthier soil, beneficial insects and wildlife return and diverse crop and livestock rotations disrupt weed cycles and the ecosystem becomes more resilient.
The care and creativity of regenerative growers showcase yield benefits on and off the land. They grow food and fiber, draw down carbon, conserve water, replenish waterways, grow healthier foods, reduce use of synthetic inputs, employ local people and ensure long term vitality of the land. Ecologically the benefits improve soil health and fertilization, reduce soil erosion, reduce water pollution due to fewer chemical inputs and improve water holding capacity in the soil.
The techniques employed include:
- cover cropping – planting crops after the cash crop has been harvested, thereby keeping living roots in the soil, reducing soil erosion, increasing water retention and improving soil health.
- Holistically managed grazing which moves livestock between pastures on a regular basis to improve soil fertilizer and allow pasture grass time to regrow.
- No till farming, leaves soil intact when planting.
- Composting – a natural process of turning waste (manure or food) into fertilizer. Reduced or no fossil fuel based inputs including pesticides.
- Agroforestry – the indigenous practice of integrating trees and shrubs into crop and animal systems.
- Conservation buffers like hedgerows and riparian buffers.
Soil is one of the earths greatest carbon sinks thanks to photosynthesis and microbes and with proper care, soil can draw down 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – equivalent greenhouse gases every year in the US. About 10% of US greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to farming according to the EPA, the largest source from livestock (cows), agriculture soils and rice production. Regenerative no till farming, cover crops and rotation grazing can decrease this and increase food production.
Currently, only a small percentage of farms are adopting regenerative practices in part because US farm policy does not prioritize them. Some states are starting to encourage practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. California has the Healthy Sol Initiatives. Iowa pays $5 per acre as a good farmer discount on crop insurance premiums to farmers planting cover crops. CSU has the STAR program which is working with conservation districts in the state to encourage regenerative agriculture practices. In Boulder County the Parks and Open Space Department are working with farmers on leased agricultural land on innovative practices in encourage soil health. It also includes agravoltaics, but that is another story.
What can you do?
- Be a voice for the soil. Demand proper stewardship through regenerative agriculture.
- Talk to farmers and ranchers and know who is growing your food, how they grow it and where it is grown.
- Connect with farmers and your local Farmers market. Consider subscribing to local (CSA) farms.
- Compost at home.
- Be a regenerative agriculture consumer. Know how your food is sourced and choose meat, dairy and produce that are grown to help regenerative land. Talk to your local grocery store and find out where the food comes from.
- Grow your own food – not always possible, but think some pots.