First let me be clear. we’re not experts on Regenerative Agriculture. Our farm isn’t regenerative Organic “yet”. We did eliminate the use of herbicides in 2022. We’re on a mission to make our farm Regenerative Organic. We’re incredibly excited about the opportunity to improve our farms soil. It will leave our farm better for the next generation and something we can share with you.
Deep diverse soils on our Chelan Valley Farms.
So why am I writing about regeneration if I’m not an expert? Well, we’d like to share what we have learned and our journey. My Journey with soils began with my studies at WSU. As an Agricultural Economics undergraduate, I worked for the Winter and Spring Wheat Breeding programs. The jobs took me all around the wheat growing areas of Washington State. Then as I moved on to Graduate School in Crop Science – I got deep into soil, pathology, genetics, and systems. A big thank you to those inspiring professors – Dr. Steve Jones, Dr. Alan Busacca, Dr. Tim Murray, Dr. Bill Pan, Dr. Joe Yenish, Frank Young and many more. In the soil arena – soil pedology was a light bulb semester (thanks Alan). Our state has incredibly diverse soils.
In this post we’ll share
- What is regenerative farming?
- Why Regenerative farming?
- Examples in the industry.
- What’s our plan?
- And we’d like to leave you with some resources.
1. What is regenerative farming?
The simplest definition I found: “Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming that focuses on soil health.” – Source: World Economic Forum. Ok, so what is soil health? It might help to first understand that soils around the world vary in their “ingredients” (sand/silt/clay, organic matter, biology, parent source) and depth. Let’s just say, our earths soils are very diverse and flourish when their biology can resemble what happens in nature. To explain further – when Bison roamed the prairies in large numbers – the Bison would graze intensely, defecate, and move on. This cycle is something Allan Savory talks about (visit https://savory.global to learn more). It’s been eye opening to learn how much animals and their manure can help create healthy soil. Something we’ve moved away from in much of today’s farming practices.
What are ways we’re harming our soils? We can harm our soils biology by introducing artificial materials. Example: salt-based fertilizer. Contrast this in a Regenerative Organic system where natural animal manure or compost as fertilizer are used. Which – if applied correctly – can help create healthy soil. There’s also an understanding that intense tillage contributes to soil loss because it leaves the soil vulnerable to different types of erosion, releases carbon into the atmosphere and interrupts the natural biology in the soil structure. Imagine an undisturbed soil full of plant roots. Those roots (via photosynthesis) introduce glucose into the soil which feed soil microbes – which then help the soil biology flourish – a process interrupted by tillage. Without going further – we can understand two basic things – soil health is supported by: 1. animal manure & compost, 2. elimination of tillage if possible.
2. So why regenerative organic farming?
A lot of the “why” can be answered in #1 above… why, because we want to build our soil, build a healthier and more vibrant farm. This gives us a better product to serve each of you, which in turn can help sustain our farm into the future. The other considerations in the regenerative organic system are for the people and the animals. The people who work on our farm must be able to receive a competitive wage and be treated well. The animals on our farm should have great living conditions. For us striving to become regenerative organic will happen in small steps. But let’s talk for a moment about the broader world of farming. In the United States we’re experiencing a massive transition of farmland ownership. Farms are rapidly getting larger as corporations or other large growers purchase them – why, because in many cases there isn’t a viable successor. This is no different than other industries we’ve witnessed consolidation in – grocery chains, telephone companies, etc.. Its impact may feel different because of each of our interests in being “connected” to farming, being “connected” to where our food comes from. Let’s save “why” we all want to connect to farming for another time. It might be easiest to say – food is the most powerful medicine we put into our bodies – typically three times a day. I think most of us like knowing where our food comes from. This motivates us to move our farm to regenerative organic. As farms get larger faster – our farm gets smaller faster. Introducing animals, eliminating tillage, and transitioning to organic farming practices won’t be easy – but we believe it can help sustain our operation. And that’s not all…
One thing to add to the “why” – is the climate impact. It’s something I’m getting to know the numbers on. Regenerative organic farming practices have tremendous potential to accumulate atmospheric carbon. Here’s how. Humans, cars, equipment, etc emit carbon into the atmosphere. Plants consume CO2. During photosynthesis this CO2 is converted into Oxygen released for us to breathe and glucose that gets released into the soil and accumulates in plant tissue. IF we don’t till the soil, the CO2 stays in the soil. In other words – farms can become CO2 consuming factories. When tillage occurs, the CO2 stored in the soil gets released into the atmosphere (and as described above harms the biology). There are millions of acres of farmland in the United States and billions globally. Imagine how a regenerative farming movement can impact atmospheric CO2. That’s a big why.
3. Examples in the industry, i.e. who the heck is doing this?
I’ve spent my career in agriculture around the world – living and working in 4 different states and traveling extensively in the U.S., Europe and New Zealand. I’ve worked for some of the largest agriculture companies in the World and some of the smallest. Funny thing is – the first time I heard about Regenerative Organic Agriculture was in 2018 when a good friend forwarded a Goop Podcast (Gwyneth Paltro) for me to listen to. They spoke of Yvon Chuinard (who we love b/c of his rich history as a climbing and fishing pioneer) and Patagonia’s® involvement. Then slowly the last few years the term “Regenerative” seems to have become more well known. We even occasionally get asked this question on farm tours. I just listed a leader in it – Patagonia®. In the winemaking, winegrowing/vigneron space, Tablas Creek was the first Regenerative Organic CertifiedTM, (ROCTM) certified Winery in America. They are a great company to follow on Instagram (@tablascreek). Located on the Central Coast of California, they grow wine grapes, incorporate animals, farm organically, make wine – leading the way. I had the chance to correspond with one of the viticulturalists about equipment – come to find out – they don’t even use wheeled tractors. To reduce soil “compaction” – they use tractors only on tracks (the track distributes the weight over a larger area). We really appreciate how much Tablas Creek shares and is modeling the way. Another one to check out is Paicenes Ranch – again located in California. At the end of this article I’ll list a bunch of resources.
4. What’s our plan? Baby steps.
Because we’re a small operation with only one of us working full time on the farm – we need to make the transition one step at a time. We’ve got animals on the farm… but we’ve not started incorporating them in a way that makes a difference. We have used some of the chicken manure in the orchard. Bringing animals in at scale will require us to invest in mobile fencing, mobile housing and making sure our livestock guardians (Jade and Angel) will be up to the task of watching over them. So, more to come on the animal front. In the meantime, we’ve eliminated the use of herbicides in our orchard and vineyard (we don’t use them in the flowers or pumpkins). We also don’t use any type of tillage in the permanent crops. Our next step is to move over to an organic spray program in the grapes – we’ve got a plan. And a big step we took in 2022 was to sign up for the Sustainable WA program. With our current practices we should be in good shape for our audit this year. After making a few of these moves – we’ll start our move to the 3 year transitional organic certification. Then… somewhere in the midst of this, we’ll be using animals for weed control, start more seriously composting and we’ll be on our way to Regenerative Organic Certification.
Looking down the vine rows you can see the clover and grasses actively growing in what used to be a bare weed strip from the application of herbicides. Until animals are incorporated we use a weed eater.
- Regenerative Organic Alliance: https://regenorganic.org the organization started to create an independent certification process.
- World Economic Forum, Agriculture, Food and Beverage, What is Regenerative Agriculture. October 11th, 2022. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/10/what-is-regenerative-agriculture/
- The Rodale Institute. https://rodaleinstitute.org . An organization working on regenerative organic research since 1947.
- There’s growers all over the world practicing regeneration… and a lot of them are on social media. You can follow: @tablascreek, @oatmanfarms, @regenerativeorganic, @regenerativefarmersofamerica, @alexandrefamilyfarm
- The movie Kiss the Ground. https://kisstheground.com
I hope this has been informative – really exciting times for agriculture and for our food system. We appreciate your support – it WILL help us make the transition to a healthier farm for you to connect with.
All the best in 2023.