What is Regenerative Farming? The Ultimate Guide for First-time Homesteaders

May 21, 2023

Hi, I'm Paige, half of the duo behind Fairway Stables™

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regenerative farming

Most people are unaware–or only vaguely aware–of the impact of industrial agriculture and factory farming on our planet, our animals, and our health. 

Our current growth practices for food, fiber, and livestock are damaging our planet at a staggering rate, leading to the loss of biodiversity, habitat destruction, devastation of topsoil, desertification, and pollution.

With our poor understanding of ecosystems and soil, our large-scale agriculture systems are degenerative and rapidly destroying the systems we need to survive on this planet.

Regenerative farming could be the answer to stop the damage to our ecosystem through a variety of agricultural management practices that align with natural systems.

What Is Regenerative Farming?

Both a philosophy and an approach to land management, regenerative farming (or regenerative agriculture) considers how all aspects of agriculture are connected through a network of entities who cultivate, exchange, distribute, and consume goods and services.

The goal of regenerative farming is to nourish the people and the earth, though the specific practices vary between growers and regions. There are no strict rules, but the dynamic system of regenerative farming is intended to restore soil and ecosystem health and leave land, waters, and the climate in a better place for future generations.

Regenerative farming may be getting more attention, but it’s not a new idea. 

Far from it, in fact.

Indigenous communities have farmed according to the rules of nature for thousands of years. Now, modern farmers are realizing that the Indigenous approach to farming has the power to restore ecologies, forge economic development, rebuild relationships, and spark joy.

The Philosophy of Regenerative Farming

The heart of regenerative farming is being in harmony with nature. Working with the land and natural resources, not against them, and realizing that we do not control nature.

Practitioners of regenerative farming take a broad view of their role in global farming, particularly with soil and nutrient cycles. Working the land is not just for the purpose of getting products but nourishing the ecosystem with services like water recharge and carbon sinks. It’s agriculture that doesn’t deplete our carbon and our people.

This is a far cry from the industrial agriculture system that’s prominent in Western food and fiber supply chains. Industrial agriculture incentivizes unsustainable practices that encourage soil erosion at a rate between 10 and 100 times more than soil formation, monocropping, nutrient runoff and devastating algal blooms in freshwater and coastal systems, and risk to local biodiversity – particularly for crucial pollinator species.

We can’t compartmentalize natural resources in this manner to increase yields of individual crops. We’re missing the forest for the trees, both literally and figuratively.

regenerative farming

Regenerative Farming Principles

Unlike industrial farming, regenerative agriculture has purposes beyond crop yield and profits.

Nurturing Relationships Within and Across Ecosystems

Regenerative farming seeks to protect relationships between the land and its waterways, wildlife, livestock, and people.

For example, the early transitioning of livestock out of cropping systems in the 1950s and into confined feedlots and enclosures created ethical and ecological problems like algal blooms and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The livestock and the land are integrally connected and can help relieve issues with nutrient cycles, water retention, pests, and weeds, all without the use of damaging chemicals.

Safeguarding Soil Health

Regenerative farming has many practices for nurturing the soil, but the common thread is the limitation of mechanical soil disturbance. These farmers feed and preserve the biological structures that bacteria, fungi, and other microbes create underground, reaping the rewards in their surface soil.

Minimizing Synthetic Input

Farmers and ranchers practicing regenerative agriculture strive to reduce the dependency on synthetic inputs like pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. 

This goes along with prioritizing soil health and allowing helpful insects, wildlife, and livestock to manage the micro-ecosystem naturally, making it healthier and more resilient. Limiting the use of synthetic chemicals also reduces the human and animal health risks, not to mention eliminating the recurring costs of synthetic management.

Sustaining Communities and Economies

Some regenerative farmers and ranchers started out with local sustainability farming to support their families or local communities. When these farmers scaled, they kept the principles of fair labor practices and communal decision-making. They understand the historical contexts and social value of regenerative farming and how it acts as a small step toward righting the wrongs of the American agriculture industry.

This is no more apparent than in the Black and Indigenous communities – two communities that developed our food systems. Regenerative agriculture can remedy the social injustices that still persist, especially the systemic discrimination that kept farmers and ranchers of color from accessing land and support.

In 1920, there were one million Black farmers in the US. With a century of racist policies, systemic discrimination, and land theft, out of an estimated 3.4 million farmers, only about 45,000 of them are Black. White farmers own about 98% of American farmland.

We’re slowly acknowledging and seeking to correct historic racial and gender inequities that created unequal access to wealth and land ownership, but there are still monumental challenges to overcome.

Regenerative agriculture may be focused on sustainable farming practices and techniques, but it has broader potential social and cultural benefits.

regenerative farming

Regenerative Farming Techniques

Though there are common principles, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to regenerative farming philosophy. Here are the practices that align with a regenerative philosophy:

  • Cover cropping: This is the practice of planting crops in soil that would otherwise go bare after a cash crop is harvested. Living roots reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, increase water retention, and increase biodiversity.
  • No-till farming: This is a technique that leaves the soil intact when planting instead of disturbing it with tilling and plowing.
  • Intensive rotational grazing: Also known as holistically managed grazing, this is an Indigenous practice that seeks to replicate the way grazing animals would migrate across natural land. Livestock is moved between pastures regularly to improve soil and allow pasture grasses to regrow.
  • Composting: This is a natural process of turning organic waste, such as manure or food, into fertilizer.
  • Reduced fossil fuel inputs: Building soil health with natural systems to manage pests is a tactic to reduce or eliminate the reliance on fossil fuels or pesticides, even if a farmer isn’t seeking organic certification.
  • Conservation buffers: This practice populates parcels of lands with plants to manage specific environmental issues. Riparian buffers are vegetated zones located near streams to provide habitat, conserve water quality, and reduce flooding. Another example is hedgerows, or lines of shrubs that are planted around farm fields to serve as habitat or provide windbreaks.
  • Agroforestry: This comes from Indigenous practices that mimic forest systems by using trees and shrubs with crops or livestock.

How to Get Started with Regenerative Farming

Gain Farming Experience

It’s great that you want to start regenerative farming! But it’s a lot of work, so it’s best to get some practice on working farms before you embark on your own. Otherwise, you may get overwhelmed and give up before you get started.

Every farmer and farm is different and you have opportunities to learn from each of them. At its core, farming is about planning ahead and managing chaos. Even with the best-laid plans, weird weather can be enough to derail your progress.

If your livelihood depends on the well-being of plants or animals, the weather becomes your worst enemy. When you have experience working on different farms in different regions with varied weather or climate conditions, you’ll be better prepared to handle those situations on your own farm.

Learn from the World’s Best

Short of getting first hand experience, the next best thing is learning from the experts. Books, courses, and educational resources can prove invaluable for helping you prepare, adapt, and overcome with your own farm.

Create an Emergency Fund

Starting a small farm is a significant time and financial investment. You can expect to spend up to $10,000 just getting started, and you won’t see income from those crops for months.

Having at least one year of savings in an emergency fund or hanging onto a side job is necessary for financial security in the interim. It will be hard, but you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing you’re protected as you learn the rope.

Follow the 85/15 Rule

Wondering what crops to plant season to season? Having new and unusual crops is a good choice, but it’s best to follow the 85/15 rule for security. 85% of the crops in any given season are tried-and-true crops that are likely to produce solid yield, profit, and demand. 15% of the crops are devoted to new or unusual crops with unknown yield, demand, and performance.

Get Land

Often, farmers choose to buy land or lease land. Your choice depends on the land quality and availability and your own circumstances.

While both of these are an option, you may be able to get land from local owners in exchange for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. You save money and the owners benefit from land use, helping a local business, and getting profit-share in regenerative farming.

Before committing to a purchase or lease, reach out to local landowners and evaluate your options.

Get Your Infrastructure and Tools in Order

Depending on the specifics of your farm, you will need:

  • Crop plans
  • Crop protection
  • Wash stations
  • Irrigation
  • Packing or storage bins
  • Power and water sources
  • Seed starting equipment
  • Basic cropping tools like seed sowers, pitchforks, wheelbarrows, and shovels

Standardize for Efficiency

Profits are measured in numbers. If you standardize your land use, you can estimate supply needs, crop yield, comparisons, profit projections, and more with apples-to-apples comparisons.

For example, keep your rows the same width and length. Then, you can compare the yield of one row with the next row, and so on, to compare them. You’ll also know exactly how much you need to plant in each row.

Treat It as a Business

You care about people, animals, and your planet, but regenerative farming isn’t a non-profit. If you’re not profitable, you won’t be helping the planet for long.

A lot of bad long-term decisions are made due to financial desperation. Making poor decisions for profits – such as paying workers less while you’re getting started – will only leave you with high turnover that costs you. Cutting costs by not investing in your soil health may give you yield now, but how will that impact your next growing season? Think holistically and in the long term.

How to Support the Regenerative Farming Movement

Invest in Regenerative Farming

Only a small percentage of US farms have adopted regenerative practices. This is in part due to the US farm policies that don’t prioritize and incentivize them. Some states have begun to encourage farmers, ranchers, and private landowners to adopt practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, however.

These initiatives serve as a model for other states to reward farmers for regenerative farming practices. You can fuel change by supporting lawmakers with holistic policies toward transformation changes in our food systems, as well as community leaders, farmers, organizations, and artists creating a wave of change.

Connect with Local Farmers and Ranchers

Knowing where your food comes from is an important step in building regenerative food systems. Connect with local farmers at a farmers’ market or farm visit and discuss their food practices. You could also subscribe to a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.

Buy Regenerative Products

When you know how your food is sourced, you can make sound decisions in buying meat, dairy, and produce that’s grown with regenerative practices. Choose products and dine in local restaurants that source ingredients from local regenerative farmers.

Compost at Home

Composting at home is a small contribution to the regenerative farming movement. Learn about composting and divert your household organic waste from the landfill, closing the loop of our nutrient-and-soil cycle.

Start a Regenerative Garden

Maybe a small-scale farm is out of reach, but you can have a regenerative garden no matter the size of your parcel.

  1. Feed your soil: Build the below-the-surface ecosystem of microorganisms that infuse the soil with nutrients with compost or worm compost and apply to your soil.
  2. Planet cover crops: Cultivating cover crops maximizes the living roots in the ground and nourishes and builds up your soil. These crops are planted after the primary crop has been harvested – or in bare areas – to prevent erosion, suppress weeds, sequester carbon, and improve soil quality. A few common cover crops to consider are hairy vetch, buckwheat, clover, alfalfa, peas, and marigold.
  3. Maintain wildlife habitats: Biodiversity is important for regenerative farming. Your garden should imitate the natural biodiversity to help the planet heal, such as native flowering species for pollinators, green, leafy plants for caterpillars, milkweed for monarch butterflies, and shrubs for nesting birds. You can also set up a wood pile to shelter snakes, lizards, and fungi. Bee nesting boxes and bat houses are also helpful for a wildlife-friendly garden. Remember to supply a reliable water source, if you don’t already have one. Fish can help keep pests like mosquitoes at bay.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Organic and Regenerative Farming Practices the Same?

Organic and regenerative farming practices are not the same, though they have some common elements. All forms of agriculture, including organic farming, can become more regenerative. Think of organic farming as a step in the right direction, while regenerative farming is the ideal we should strive to meet. Currently, organic farming is 1% of the global agricultural acreage and regenerative organic is just a small fraction of that.

What Is Carbon Farming?

Carbon farming is a practice of taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turning it into plant material or organic matter in the soil. Composting, rotating livestock, cover cropping, no-till farming, and using organic mulch contribute to carbon farming.

What Is Alley Farming?

Alley farming is planting rows of trees with wide spacing and filling the alleys with companion crops. This practice helps farmers earn more diversified income from trees in the form of fruit, nuts, or other produce, while the trees provide a shield for companion crops.

What Are the Types of Agroforestry?

Agroforestry is a regenerative agricultural practice that focuses around the use of trees in farming. Silvopastoral systems combine grazing animals with forestry, agrisilvicultural systems combine trees with crops, and agrosilvopastoral systems include animals, trees, and crops.

How Long Does Soil Take to Regenerate?

Soil regenerates slowly. It takes about 200 years to form 1 centimeter of soil. To make soil fertile takes about 3,000 years. In smaller areas, you can concentrate materials to expedite this process. On a large scale, the time involved highlights the importance of regenerating the soil we have now to protect it for future generations.

What Is Industrial Agriculture?

Industrial agriculture is large-scale farming with an intensive production of crops and animals. Most industrial producers use chemical fertilizers or antibiotics in animals to combat the unhygienic conditions. It may also include genetically modified crops or animals, heavy pesticide use, or other unsustainable practices that deplete the land, compromise animal welfare, and increase pollution.

What Is Vertical Integration?

Vertical integration is a transition from small, diverse farms with a variety of livestock and crops to an industrialized system run by multinational corporations. The corporate giants reap the benefits while small-time farmers, growers, ranchers, and workers see profits and wages deplete.

What Is a CAFO?

Factory farm is a common term used to describe large, industrialized facilities that raise livestock for food or animal produce, but the official name is a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). This is defined as a facility that has a high volume of live animals confined for over 45 days each year. These animals are given food in their enclosures, rather than natural grazing.

A large CAFO may have over 1,000 beef cattle, over 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs, or 82,000 egg-laying hens. Small CAFO have a lower concentration of animals, but they’re no less damaging for animal welfare or the environment.

What Is Monoculture?

Monoculture is the practice of planting a single crop on the same parcel of land year after year, which negatively impacts soil health. The soil is depleted of vital nutrients, leading to farmers using increasing amounts of synthetic fertilizer, further depleting the soil.

Monoculture also promotes soil erosion and leaves the soil bare outside of the growing season. Pests that prey on that plant wait around for the growing season as well, causing farmers to use pesticides to control the population.

What Are GMOs?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are laboratory-created organisms. Modern genetic modification takes place in a laboratory where scientists identify genes for desired traits, such as drought resistance. Once the gene is identified, it’s copied millions of times to implant into an organism and integrate it into the organism’s DNA.

Genetic modification has been taking place for thousands of years, but it’s been cultivated naturally through selection. Like breeding dogs for specific personality or aesthetic characteristics, farmers planted seeds from the best-tasting crops, generation after generation, to increase the likelihood of passing that trait on to the resulting crops.

GMOS aren’t always a problem, but they have potential implications for environmental health. For example, genetic modification for corn or soy makes the plants hardier and more resilient with herbicides like Roundup. Farmers can spray herbicides indiscriminately, leaving only the GMO crop behind. Weeds may develop resistance to the chemicals as well, leading to increased herbicide usage and environmental and human health impact.

Support the Planet to Support Ourselves

Regenerative farming seeks to not only mitigate the damage to our ecosystem but improve it while continuing to produce food, fiber, and animal products. The practices can vary, but the common thread of regenerative farming is that we are part of nature, not separate from it. 

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