Last week we had the opportunity to participate in the Leading Harvest Regenerative Ag Workshop in Chicago.
The term “regenerative ag” has been appearing more and more often in farming and ag discussions, literature, and articles over the past couple of years. It is often used interchangeably with “sustainable ag” as well as “Climate Smart Ag”, perhaps leading one to assume that these all mean the same thing. Admittedly, there is some overlap, though they all have their own purpose and intent which we are going to break down here.
Climate Smart Agriculture
Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) puts emphasis particularly on the farming impacts of climate change. CSA encompasses practices that:
- Increase soil carbon
- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
- Improve water use efficiency
In April, the USDA announced $40M in investments in adoption and implementation of climate smart practices including nutrient management and soil health and another more than $3B in programs for small holders and specialty crop growers.
Read more about Climate Smart Ag in our blog.
Regenerative vs. Sustainable
The practice of sustainable agriculture isn’t new. It was introduced in the 1990 Farm Bill as an integrated system of plant and site-specific plant and animal production practices that sustains economic stability. Sustainable practices look at the existing farm and ranch conditions and seek to maintain those as they are. The goal is to maintain and prevent further degradation of the land.
On the other hand, regenerative practices seek to improve – to restore land and promote soil health through the application of continuous improvement practices. For example, regenerative practices don’t just prevent loss of top soil, they work to build up the soil, reducing disturbance, improving nutrients, increasing microbial activity, conserving water, and increasing water infiltration, to name a few.
Where the confusion comes in is that many of the practices are the same for sustainable and regenerative ag such as:
- Soil testing
- Crop rotation
- Precision Ag systems and technology
- Reduction of pesticides
- Reduction of chemical fertilizers
- Water conservation
- Cover crops
Read our blog on how layer by layer soil monitoring supports sustainable and regenerative practices.
Regenerative vs. organic
So, are regenerative practices also organic? Not necessarily, though again, there are a number of overlapping goals and principles. The main difference lies in that organic farming requires eliminating synthetic pesticides and fertilizers or substituting them for permitted inputs. According to the EPA, “’Organically grown’ food is food grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Pesticides derived from natural sources (such as biological pesticides) may be used in producing organically grown food.”
Interestingly, sustainable and regenerative ag practices focus on using less synthetic inputs but don’t require eliminating them. Though there are some specialty crop growers who are doing that as well, experimenting with advanced technology like laser weed robots or even bringing nature’s own weeders into the field – cattle, sheep or goats.
Read our blog about how AquaSpy technology provides key soil quality indicators for regenerative farming.
Leading Harvest Farm Management Standard
Regenerative ag is a journey. No matter what you compare it to, it is a multi-step, multi-year process that doesn’t happen overnight. Numerous food and beverage brands and ag leaders realize that to encourage better farm practices takes a carrot rather than a stick. In addition, every crop, every region, every soil is different so it’s not practical or feasible to apply a one-size-fits-all approach.
To that end, Leading Harvest, a coalition of public and private leaders from conservation, investment, agriculture, and research, has developed a flexible, outcomes-based farm management standard.
“The Leading Harvest Standard 2020 is a third-party audited certification program that provides assurance for the sustainability of farmland management. Farmers can use the Leading Harvest Standard 2020 to certify farmland and make market claims about their management.
The Leading Harvest Standard 2020 is outcome-based, using non-numeric indicators that describe required management outcomes. This provides farmers with the flexibility to apply the unique set of activities suited to their operation and achieve sustainable outcomes identified by the indicators.”
Leading Harvest provides assurance programs comprised of standards, audit procedures, training and education, and reporting and claim offerings that are optimized for flexibility, scalability, and impact.
Read more about the Leading Harvest Farm Management Standard.
Now is the time to get started on your regenerative ag journey
Armed with knowledge and some guiding principles, it’s time to get started. This isn’t an overnight effort, and it will require patience, experimentation, and documentation. Data is your friend in this effort. Benchmark where you are today, your soil health, water infiltration and capacity, your average yields, how much inputs you use today, and farm profitability numbers. Compare to other growers in your area. What are they doing? Is it working? What’s worked for them? Look for educational and farm research programs such as TAPS, Master Irrigators, or university extension programs or demo fields. AquaSpy supports a number of these programs. Look for grants and programs. Join groups like Leading Harvest and others who bring likeminded growers and groups together to share and explore.
When’s the best time to start? Today.