This blog has been adopted from Ethan Roland Soloviev’s original article “Lineages of Regenerative Agriculture” with permission. Ethan is a friend and colleague that I highly respect. You can sign up for his mailing list for a complete and expanded version of this article, including graphics and structured analyses of such lineages.
Regen Network was formed with a core assumption that agriculture is one of the most important intervention points in addressing the planet’s most pressing challenges, and that regenerative agriculture is the key.
A question we encounter often as this term continues to gain global attention from frontline players like Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, and Fibershed, is what does ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ even mean?
It is important to understand that there are a number of different interpretations of regenerative agriculture. Though Regen Network’s founders have our particular leanings, it is unlikely that the term is going to take on a singular definition. What’s most important at this point in time is being aware and understanding of the different ways the term is used, the biases therein, and to engage the conversation with this knowledge.
My friend Ethan Soloviev, EVP of Research at HowGood and an owner of High Falls Farm, knows quite a bit about regenerative agriculture. His research has found that there are 5 primary intellectual and practical lineages of the term “Regenerative Agriculture”. Each lineage has a different definition, farming philosophy, and approach relating to that community. Ethan shares a bit about each and shares his thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses inherent in each. His insight can help you discern what people are talking about when they use the term, and what perspective they are coming from.
An important note here is that all five lineages have a rather ethnocentric bias to them and represent primarily an anglo-North American perspective. Let’s remember that most native peoples of this planet lived for tens of thousands of years, and some still do, in what may be referred to a “regenerative” relationship with the natural systems with which they co-exist. Whether that was the conscious promotion of acorns and sugar pines on the Pacific coast of what is now called California, swidden practices of SE Asia, taro and palm polycultures of the South Pacific, or the extremely complex agroforestry approach at the headwaters of the Amazon, humans have a long history of positive impact on the planet. As permaculture reminds us, we have a lot to learn from remembering our roots and rediscovering the practices of past and contemporary native peoples.
The contributions of African Americans to the story about Regenerative Agriculture are also greatly overlooked. I’ll name a couple of notable examples. George Washington Carver is one of the grandfathers of crop rotations, which has surging popularity as part of the low-tillage “Regen-Ag” movement. Carver’s work contributed greatly to an understanding of how legumes fit well into a diversified cropping strategy and rebuild soil health. And in the 1980s, Booker T. Whatley pounded the table about a concept that he referred to as the Clientele Membership Club and maintained that it was a key component to successful smallholder farming. The concept is now widely known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and according to the USDA, there are over 12,000 CSA farms in the US alone providing food to over 1,000,000 families!
Here are the Five Lineages of Regenerative Agriculture in Ethan’s words:
1. Rodale Organic
Basic organic agriculture practices promoted by Rodale since the 1970s, re-dubbed “Regenerative Organic” in recent years and requiring the tenets of organic agriculture as a baseline. The focus is soil. CPG brands have been strongly promoting this lineage, most notably through the Regenerative Organic Certification.
This lineage seems to think that “regeneration” is a combination of 40-year-tested conservation farming practices — cover cropping, crop rotation, compost, low- or no-till. These are great practices for reducing erosion, inputs and (if practiced with great skill) beginning to increase soil carbon.
However, I propose that there is no such thing as a “Regenerative Agriculture Practice” — only systemic outcomes can confirm that regeneration is taking place.
Permaculture as a global movement loves the IDEA of regenerative agriculture, but for the most part, fails to achieve significant levels of agricultural production.
Along with a strong focus on small-scale design and unproven beliefs about reversing climate change, this lineage of Regenerative Agriculture tends towards ideals from the human potential movement, focusing on how to create “thriving” and “abundance” for all.
Regrarians, emerging from but transcending the scale and idealism of permaculture, has for decades integrated Holistic Management, Keyline, and ecological design processes at farm-scale around the world.
In my opinion, some of the best regenerative agriculture farm design comes from this lineage — they effectively integrate agroforestry, comprehensive water-planning, soil-building, and holistic livestock management while building farmer capacity and economic viability.
3. Holistic Management
Promoted by both the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International, focusing on a comprehensive decision-making framework designed for animal-centric ecosystem regeneration.
In 2018, The Savory Institute released its Land to Market Ecological Outcome Verification system, with the backing of some significant food and fashion brands. This is the best standard on the market, in large part because it is outcomes-based (instead of practice-based) and requires a positive trend-line for ecosystem improvements.
4. Regenerative Paradigm
Over 50 years ago, the term ‘Regenerative’ was developed by Charles Krone to describe a radically different paradigm of approaching human and systems development.
Guided by the Carol Sanford Institute, a small but effective community of praxis including Regenesis, Terra Genesis International, Regen Network and others has applied the paradigm to Business, Design, Planning, Education, and Agriculture.
The most complete explanation (so far!) of farming from the perspective of this lineage is freely available in the paper ‘Levels of Regenerative Agriculture’.
5. Soil Profits / No-Till / NRCS
Typified and led by Ray Archuleta, Gabe Brown, and others, this lineage draws practices and inspiration from other Lineages but appeals strongly to conventional farmers by eschewing the dogmas of organic agriculture and focusing on bottom line profits through increased soil health.
This lineage is the one that I see quietly experiencing exponential growth — dominating the Regenerative Agriculture mentions in middle-America newspapers (which I track, somewhat obsessively, in the monthly Regeneration Newsroom) and actually being adopted by mainstream conventional farmers.
By bypassing prejudices against ‘organic’, and allowing farmers to still use synthetic inputs, this lineage is received openly enough to then show the economic arguments for decreasing inputs and improving soil through good crop rotation, no-till, and grazing practices.
The narrative that something as effective and sexy as “Regenerative Agriculture” is available to conventional farmers is a big deal.
While I think this lineage misses opportunities through its incompleteness and dis-integrative approach, I believe it is incredibly important for the world to watch and support its growth and evolution.
As Ethan concludes, “More and more organizations, individuals, and businesses will start to claim that what they are doing is ‘regenerative’ without changing how they are thinking or even what they are doing. I think that understanding what lineage an individual or organization is speaking from will help everyone to discuss and further develop the actual effects of work in this realm — there is great potential in Regenerative Agriculture, and we are not anywhere close to achieving it.”
As Ethan mentioned, Regen Network has been mentored in and does our best to uphold the principles of the Regenerative Paradigm lineage, a belief that fundamentally intertwines Business, Design, Planning, Education, and Agriculture as components of regeneration. Our mission to realign the agricultural norm by rewarding land stewards for regenerative practices is our vision towards an “eco-systemically vibrant, socially equitable, culturally diverse, and spiritually meaningful global system of regenerative potential,” as Ethan writes with Regen Network CRO Gregory Landua in their joint publication Levels of Regenerative Agriculture.
That being said, part of what the team at Regen Network believes is that every farmer in the world — whether they are practicing conventional agriculture or multi-story agroforestry practices — has room to grow. Regen Network is here to support and highlight the great work of any farmer shifting toward deeper ecological health in their farming practices. In that way, we have engagements with farmers and organizations operating from all five of the paradigms listed above. We honor their interest in shifting their practices and look forward to helping them get rewarded for their positive impact!