Regenerative Organic

The last speech of my book tour for Grain by Grain was scheduled to take place at the Climate Change Conference immediately prior to Expo West in Anaheim this past March. As our plane landed in Orange County the day before the conference and folks around me started checking their cell phones, the exclamations started immediately: “They just canceled the Expo!” I could not believe it so I checked my email and there it was, the official announcement of the cancelation of all events for the week had just been sent out an hour before we landed. My new manager of The Oil Barn operation, Drew Shanafelt, was with me on the plane and I was taking him to show him the ropes at Expo. We checked into our hotel, which was nearly empty, and went to a nice restaurant, which was also nearly empty. The folks at the restaurant were wondering what they were going to do with the week’s food that had just been delivered in anticipation of sellout crowds from the Expo. We also had to regroup and make new plans. We were able to visit a couple potential customers the next day and then went to the beach before heading home the following morning.

The talk I was planning to give was about regenerative agriculture—a big buzzword right now—and, in many circles is equated with no-till. No-till (or not disturbing the soil during the production of crops) has become a new gold standard, touted as superior to any other system of farming. I have heard many new converts speak of no-till as if it is the end-all of farming systems and so much better than organic agriculture. Many of them don’t bother mentioning they still depend on Round-up (glyphosate) and other chemical pesticides to make no-till work on their farms. I share their dream and goal of being regenerative on our farm and using less tillage. I have farmed organically for over 30 years without using inputs because we were able to grow our own, such as nitrogen which is supplied by our green manure cover crops and helps to regenerate the soil each year they are planted. We plant them every second year and till them to nourish and feed the life in the soil rather than harvest and haul the seed or forage off the field as a cash crop. This also nourished the cash crop which alternates every other year with the cover crop.

We did not use the term regenerative 30 years ago. We called it sustainable because by doing what we were doing, we could continue to farm in this manner far into the future without degrading the soil or the life in it. We found it was also regenerative because we could see that we were improving soil tilth and organic matter and by using complex rotations we were also able to manage weeds, diseases and insects. I have been able to reduce tillage on our farm. I have tried several no-till systems over the years without success but I continue to try new ideas.

There are “organic” farmers who are developing systems that stretch the letter of organic and even ignore some of the original rules, coming nowhere close to the spirit of what organic agriculture was based on in the first place. This has led to a lot of frustration in the organic community and spurred the interest in regenerative ag.

To me, regenerative agriculture that is not organic is just as incomplete as organic that is not regenerative. I am thrilled when farmers convert to regenerative techniques, but if they don’t continue to progress past the use of herbicides and pesticides, I think they are selling themselves short of reaching the ultimate goal. On the other hand, I have just as much frustration with those who come into organic agriculture with the idea that they can just substitute organic inputs for chemical inputs without considering the central role that the soil plays in the production of their crops. They are substituting industrial chemical production for industrial organic production. I believe they are missing the mark and not reaching all the possibilities that organic ag has to offer in regenerating farms, communities, our environment and our health.

For the best effect, I believe it is necessary to combine the two concepts of regenerative and organic—“regenerative organic.” By combining these terms, there is no misunderstanding. I appreciate very much the work of the Rodale Institute and their continued success with organic no-till on their farm in Pennsylvania. They have taken this concept one more step and are now offering a certification that guarantees buyers that products labeled as regenerative are also organic and products labeled as organic are also regenerative. This is what you can do with a regenerative organic certification program. They are leading the way and there are many interested in following.