Regenerative agriculture: how it works on the ground

Nick Jeffries
Mar 4, 2019 · 20 min read

“The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of us all” — Wendell Berry

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Photo by Siniz Kim on Unsplash

Treating the farm like a machine

How did we get here? Most industrial agriculture relies on add-ons that focus on improving the efficiency of one specific part of the system: yield, size, durability, growth rate, trawling area, harvesting speed and so on. Whereas this approach may be a viable way to optimise something mechanical and predictable, like an engine, the same approach does not apply to a complex, natural system like a farm. The system of a farm sits within and relies on interactions with the larger natural system. For example, the crops need insects to pollinate, surface and groundwater to irrigate, microbes to cycle nutrients, and soil to provide a strong and fertile growth medium.

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“The system of a farm sits within and relies on interactions with the larger natural system.” Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

Rotational (‘holistic’) grazing

Livestock farming gets bad press due to the environmental impacts associated with certain types of meat and dairy production. The list of negative impacts is long: large land use requirements for growing feed, overuse of antibiotics for fattening operations, poor manure management leading to air and water pollution, and 50% of total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. These headline facts hide a more nuanced story. While it is undeniable that battery or feedlot operations are environmentally disastrous, other livestock operations can have a beneficial impact on the fertility and health of soils.

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Gabe Brown’s ranch. Image: Brown’s Ranch

Agro-ecology — multi-species integrated

Vuon — Ao — Chuong (VAC) are the Vietnamese words for garden, fishpond and pig or poultry shed. The trio of words refer to a small scale system of intense and highly productive domestic agriculture. VAC integrates different types of plant and animal cultivation into a compact space, linking the different growing enterprises to create an interconnecting flow of materials, powered by gravity. VAC is an example of farming in a way that brings natural ecological processes into the agricultural production system, also called ‘agroecology’. In areas where VAC is practised, farmer revenue can be 3–5 times, even 10 times, more than growing two crops of rice per year.

Zero budget-natural farming

There are about 500 million smallholder farmers around the world, feeding 70% of the world’s population using only 30% of the resources. Clearly this group plays an important role in feeding the world, but at the same time they are exposed to some of the planet’s worst climatic conditions. For example, smallholder farmers are at the front end of droughts, torrential rains and other extreme aspects of climate change. Meanwhile, half of the people that suffer from chronic hunger globally are from smallholder farming households. In the 1990s, agriculturist Subhash Palekar set about to improve the lives of his fellow farmers in Southern India. He developed a set of farming methods now known as Zero Budget Natural Farming. Subash’s aim was to simultaneously address two issues: improving food security and preventing crippling debt cycles associated with loans for farm inputs.

Large-scale regenerative

Can agroecology work at scale? This is a question that Doug Tompkins asked himself as he gazed out onto his 7000 acre farm in Argentina. Tompkins, an intrepid adventurer and successful businessman, had retired from commerce and turned his attention to wildlife conservation. As he contemplated how to revitalise the degraded and highly eroded area of land before him, foremost in his mind was how to deal with the ‘biodiversity crisis’. Global wildlife populations have fallen by half in the last 40 years due to human activities, and the number one culprit is agriculture.

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Laguna Blanca farm. Image: Tompkins Conservation

Natural ecosystem restoration

In the take, make, waste food system, the demands of a growing population have led to agricultural expansion into such as savannah, jungle, and forests. These ecosystems are valued for biodiversity, carbon storage, and other important services.

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Farmers using zai holes in South Africa. Image: Brandon Lingbeek


In the early 80’s, a Swiss farming pioneer called Ernst Gotsch moved to South America and bought a farm called Fugidos da Terra Seca. The name means ‘escaped from the dry land’, as the farm was located in a drought prone area of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest that had been deforested, degraded and abandoned. Immediately he set about restoring the forest, in one year planting over 500 hectares of cocoa, bananas and other greenery. His efforts restored the ecosystem, rebuilt soil fertility and produced many high quality cash crops. He even bought back water, reviving 14 long forgotten springs, so that soon it was renamed as Olhos D’Agua, or ‘Tears in the Eyes’.

Exploring new frontiers: seawater agriculture

Agriculture accounts for 70% of the planet’s freshwater demand, a massive proportion of an increasingly pressurised resource. But freshwater is only 2.5% of the overall water supply on the planet. Imagine if we could make productive use of the vast amounts of salt water that makes up the rest. Feeding the world population in 2050 will require almost 60% more food than we produce now. What if we could grow crops with seawater in areas with low economic opportunity costs such as coastal deserts or even the ocean itself? A number of pioneering farmers have proved that such a radical idea is possible.

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Can regenerative agriculture live up to this potential?

Probably the biggest challenge to overcome relates to yield. We must continue to feed our growing population whilst regenerating natural systems and ensuring their future productivity. On the surface, industrialised approaches of neat monoculture rows, turbo-charged by chemical inputs, can address both of these needs. What’s more industrial methods have proven high yields, and therefore lower land requirements, meaning less expansion into natural land.

A change of perspective

The work that Haber, Borlaug and others undertook in the early and mid 20th Century to protect against famine and improve the lives of farmers was incredibly important and beneficial for that time. Since then the context has changed. The global population has increased dramatically, as has our understanding of agricultural science, ecosystems, human health impacts and the complex issues around climate change.

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