Guide to Regenerative Agriculture

Kiss the Ground’s Guide to Regenerative Agriculture highlights the issues with our current agricultural model, covers the core principles and practices of regenerative agriculture, addresses common myths and concerns, and provides resources to get involved.

Most people are unaware of the impact agriculture has on our planet. The way we currently grow the majority of our food, fiber, and fuel is actually damaging our planet’s ecosystem at an alarming rate through loss of topsoil, loss of biodiversity, desertification, habitat destruction, and air and water pollution.

Agriculture is also a large contributor to climate change. This is not a new phenomena but has been going on for thousands of years, due to a poor understanding of how soil and ecosystems function. Our current large-scale “conventional” agriculture systems are degenerative, destroying the natural systems that we need to survive on this planet.

Regenerative agriculture looks to not only stop damaging our ecosystem but actually improve it, all while continuing to produce our food, fiber, and fuels. Regenerative Agriculture does not have a single, agreed-upon definition. However, most people would agree that it focuses on improving soil health by moving carbon from our atmosphere back into our soils using a variety of agricultural management practices that work in alignment with natural systems.

These are not “new” practices. Indigenous cultures have been interacting with nature in a restorative, reciprocal manner for thousands of years. We have the opportunity to blend indigenous wisdom with science and rapidly transform the way we practice agriculture around the globe, creating an abundant future instead of one of scarcity. We need to remember that we are nature and not separate from it, and how we treat nature has profound effects upon our society and the earth.

WHAT IS REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE?

In general terms, regenerative agriculture takes a more systems-based, holistic look at the land being stewarded and applies various principles with the goal of making the land more productive and biodiverse over time. In most situations, improving soil health and function is the key to improving productivity and biodiversity. One of the key components of healthy soil is organic matter, which is anything that is alive or was once living, such as a plant root, an earthworm, or a microbe.

Many of our agricultural lands have much lower soil organic matter levels than they used to have due to degenerative land management practices, which include poor grazing management practices.

Improving soil organic matter content in our soils can reduce or stop soil erosion, and improve: aggregate stability, water infiltration, water retention, nutrient cycling, plant health, crop yields, crop resilience, biodiversity, and more! More organic matter in the soil also means we are moving carbon from the atmosphere and depositing it into the soil, where it can be a net positive for the planet instead of a net negative as a greenhouse gas.

There are no hard and fast rules to learning, implementing, or transitioning to regenerative agriculture – the approaches and techniques employed will vary by grower and region. And soil health practices can go beyond agriculture and involve landscapes throughout our non-agricultural lands, whether it is a city park, a front yard, or a school playground. Individuals, communities, and even large cities around the globe have started to wake up to the importance of soil and its critical role in our ecosystem.

When we are looking at a farm or ranch, however, regenerative agriculture incorporates six key components. The first one is really important and unique to each person, the other five are the principles that are employed depending on your context.

1. Understand Context: Economic, personal, community, ecological, climate, bioregion, etc.

2. Minimize Disturbance: This refers to tillage, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and more.

3. Establish a “Living Root”: Have a plant photosynthesize and pump carbon-based exudates into the soil to feed the soil biology for as long as possible throughout the growing season. Perennials are able to do this well.

4. Provide Soil Armor: Also referred to as “cover cropping,” bare soil exposed to the elements harms soil health, so it’s recommended to always have some living or dead debris covering the soil.

5. Integrate Animals: Have one or more types of animals move across your fields if it can work in your context, otherwise known as planned grazing.

6. Enhance Biodiversity: Add diversity to whatever it is you are growing – this could be planting diverse hedgerows throughout the farm, installing owl boxes, integrating honeybees, or diverse multi-species cover crops.

Not all these principles must be used at the same time, although they tend to work more effectively in combination.

CLIMATE IMPACT OF REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

Though some cultures around the globe have practiced restorative land management for centuries, the more dominant cultures ignored holistic practices that took soil health and ecosystem function into account.

During the Industrial Revolution, the pace of soil degradation sped up as more landscapes were rapidly transformed using machinery and synthetic fertilizers. Large mono-crops of corn and wheat were produced to feed hungry people during the two world wars. Some of these innovations were incredibly positive for making lots of calories, but there were troubling long-term consequences.

Highly functional, complex ecosystems were stripped of biodiversity and the soil was stripped of organic matter. This set the stage for soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, less nutrient density in our food, flooding, droughts, and more carbon in our atmosphere.

Due to the majority of human land management practices and our growing population, we are experiencing soil degradation and desertification at an alarming rate. Rich living soil has been turned into dysfunctional dirt. Drylands now cover about 46% of the earth’s surface, and around 9% of those drylands face severe desertification. In the last 40 years, we have lost about 1/3 of our arable land.

“The major human drivers of desertification interacting with climate change are expansion of croplands, unsustainable land management practices and increased pressure on land from population and income growth.” 

  – Special Report on Climate Change and Land, Desertification, IPCC

How it Helps Farmers

Yisrael Family Farm
Yisrael Family Farm

Today, the average farm in America is still losing over 4 tons of topsoil per acre per year. Facing record crop losses from flooding, drought, and weather extremes farmers are also adding to their outstanding debt at about 4% per year.

Most conventional farming has focused on improving yield by using lots of expensive fertilizers, chemicals, and seeds, but over the long run, that system is failing.

Regenerative practices that can reduce erosion and even build topsoil by improving the amount of carbon stored in the soil can have a significant impact on a farmer’s bottom line.

Farmers know they can make more money by improving yield, improving quality, raising prices, and reducing production costs, but how can any or all of these be accomplished by regenerative practices? A deeper understanding of how soil functions within the ecosystem are critical to becoming more profitable.

Regenerative agriculture practices focus on improving soil health and biodiversity, by protecting the soil from erosion and increasing the number of carbohydrates (food) that get pumped into the soil via plant exudates.

Because healthy soil can infiltrate and store more water, farmers can still get yields even when there are droughts and they can save money on irrigation costs.

Healthy soil makes more nutrients available to plants, which means less money needs to be spent on fertilizers. Healthy soils lead to healthier plants, which means farmers are less likely to need expensive insecticides, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc. Healthier plants should have healthier yields of more nutrient-dense food. Healthier plants also have longer shelf lives, and typically look and taste better, which can all help a farmer earn higher prices for their product. Reducing tillage while improving soil health, can also reduce equipment, labor, and fuel costs. Farmers can actually improve their soil health each year while improving their bottom line.

How it Helps the Environment

Healthy soil creates a positive feedback loop across the ecosystem. By supporting nature’s natural processes with indigenous wisdom and sound science humans can create soil that improves resiliency and reduces greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor. There is even the potential to cool the climate if large enough areas are regenerated.

Improve Soil Health

green fields of crops and grass

Soil health begins and ends with a diverse microbiome. Agricultural systems somewhat mimic dominoes – when you strip away animals from an agricultural system, for instance, you strip away the cow’s ability to graze the grass, which when done right, would allow each grass stalk to grow to a level suitable for annual soil renewal.

The difference between restorative agriculture and dominoes is that instead of the same size and the same shape, the pieces of a regenerative system are all different sizes, and affect each other at varying degrees of impact. This complexity is what makes restorative agriculture both exciting and amazing to observe. 

While there may be no one-size-fits-all, there is a best practice rule: inspire diversity. Restorative agriculture holds the methodology and philosophy to re-install, encourage, and build a diverse microbiome in our soils once more.

Greenhouse Gas Reduction

Regenerative agriculture reduces greenhouse gases because it not only causes fewer emissions, but these practices simultaneously sequester and reverse emissions.

There are two major gas-emitting factors related to agriculture – livestock and crops. When you’re talking about cattle emitting gas, you’re actually talking about animal feeding operations (AFOs), or a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). For the purpose of this article, we’ll address CAFOs, which are stinky dirt pits, put plainly. Right now, cows in the United States live in terrible conditions all the time, not to mention the workers. Just pick up Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma, and you’ll get a clear image. CAFOs emit massive amounts of greenhouse gas from the soil – which isn’t actually soil. The ground at CAFOs is largely urine and fecal matter, and you wouldn’t want to smell it. Methane (CH4), is one of the primary gases coming off of CAFO ground. 

Cows grouped together every day are also farting and burping constantly. One of the byproducts of their digestive gas is also methane gas. But don’t blame the cow. There’s an important distinction between a cow on a CAFO and a grazing cow. When cows are eating a diet as they do in CAFOs – consisting of corn and soybeans, both of which cows are not designed to digest – their stomachs become upset. Cows have evolved to digest grasses, not modified corn. Instead of looking at their diet, the agriculture industry has masked the issue by giving them antibiotics, which damages their gut biome further and shows up in the meat we purchase. All of this activity is causing a lot of methane – whether it is the manure pits or the cows themselves. 

If we switch over to a regenerative state where cows are out on open pasture and eating grasses they digest well, they aren’t burping and farting constantly. This is step one.

“Try to picture the gases emitted by an animal out on a pasture. Do they still go to the bathroom? Yes. But, what happens in a healthy pasture is the presence of methanotrophs – tiny microbes in the soil that digest methane. There are more of them out in a natural system than there are in a feedlot. The environment was designed with this! In fact, there are all sorts of things that break down fecal matter naturally, such as dung beetles. And dung beetles can’t live in a CAFO.”

 – Don Smith, Stewardship Program Advisor & Teacher, Kiss the Ground

Conventional farmers may use medicine like dewormers, which kill dung beetles. Again, if you’re in a natural setting without medicine killing the beetles, then you’ll observe this beautiful process where the beetles break down the poop, and after a couple of days, the poop breaks down back into the soil, acting as a fertilizer. It’s incredible what nature can show us when we allow it.

In a regenerative system, cows move around the pasture more regularly, and if humans are supporting them correctly, they’re performing a process called “tall grazing.” In tall grazing, a cow only grazes the grass up until a certain end, so each piece has enough green matter left, allowing it to go through a continuous process of photosynthesis throughout the year. This in turn makes it grow faster and helps to keep methane in the soil. 

CO2 is another gas released from animal feedlots. Remember, there is no photosynthesis occurring in a feedlot.  You won’t see a single blade of grass and absolutely no soil biology. Picture that.

Now, visit a grassland where you have quite literally 50 or more species growing in a native pasture. In that pasture, there are all kinds of life both above and below the ground, and photosynthesis is driving that entire cycle, diverting CO2 from the atmosphere into the soil and through the plants, feeding soil biology. Further, there are carbon-based lifeforms in that soil which ultimately create more microbes in the soil, including more root mass and overall organic matter, all of which contain carbon. 

cows crazing on hilly meadow

“Incorporating forages and ruminants into regeneratively managed agroecosystems can elevate soil organic matter, improve soil ecological function by minimizing the damage of tillage and inorganic fertilizers and biocides, and enhance biodiversity and wildlife habitat. Regenerative farmers can put carbon back into the land.”

Study: The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America, Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, March 2016

farmer walking through crops

Nitrogen is also an issue. What do we do with nitrogen in conventional agriculture? We use it as fertilizer. But, we use too much of it, which off-gasses into nitrous oxide. We could, in turn, make nitrogen fertilizer out of the atmosphere, as 78% of the air we breathe is made of nitrogen.

Turns out, nature is really good at taking nitrogen out of the air and converting it into plant food. Soil microbes will convert atmospheric nitrogen into plant-available nitrogen – some of it will turn into ammonium, nitrite, and nitrate, and it makes amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. More good news is that we will never run out of nitrogen. There are many cases where farmers tap into this type of fertilizing resource successfully. Farmers can also save money by not using fertilizer or not over-using it, which will also help nitrogen to stay out of the atmosphere. 

The ways described above are mitigating the ‘bad gases’ going up into the atmosphere because we can sequester CO2 into the soil while minimizing methane and nitrogen out in the atmosphere. 

The last potent greenhouse gas that some people may not think about is water vapor. As the climate warms, we have more water in our atmosphere. If you know anything about water, it holds onto heat. If you have more water vapor in the atmosphere, that water vapor acts as another layer of greenhouse gas. Right now, it’s actually a large amount. Let’s go back to healthy soil. Healthy soil can store and infiltrate more water, because of its higher organic matter content. 

Humans have the potential to store more water in our soil than all the dams, rivers, and lakes that we have … that is if we practice regenerative agriculture and start increasing our organic soil matter.

“When it rains – instead of flooding over bare soil and taking topsoil with it – the water will go back into the soil as a carbon sponge. These days we get big rain events at 24 inches in a day all around the world. And it’s causing massive flooding, mostly due to poor soil infiltration because our soil is unhealthy due to agriculture. It’s the biggest no-brainer of our time: get our soils healthy.” 

  – Don Smith, Stewardship Program Advisor & Teacher, Kiss the Ground

REGENERATIVE FARMING VS CONVENTIONAL FARMING

Earlier we’d mentioned conventional farming as practiced during an industrial boom in western nations. New machine-driven processes defined for production were quickly transferred to the agricultural sector, so much so that nuances were overlooked at an extreme scale. 

Conventional agriculture is defined by the USDA as the use of seeds that have been genetically altered using a variety of traditional breeding methods, excluding biotechnology, and are not certified as organic.

There are plenty of agricultural tiers from conventional before we reach regenerative. The USDA Organic Certification has made its mark, and organic sales have widened in all food categories. 

Regenerative practices – and therefore produce and meat – take it a few steps further. Besides reducing pesticides, producing a healthier and more nutrient-dense yield, when you purchase something regeneratively grown, you’re contributing to climate change reversal and the restoration of ours oils. Right now, regenerative certification is in progress. Right now, you can find information about a Regenerative Organic Certification™  formed in 2017, and select products that proudly tout its label, such as Dr. Bronner’s coconut oil

Another component is bare soil. When soil is bare, it’s a problem, because no photosynthesis is occurring – you’re not feeding any soil microbes. When you don’t feed the soil, its the base of the food web. If you don’t have the food web in place, it’s harder for plants to grow and microbes that make the nutrients available. 

REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE PRACTICES

Regenerative agriculture practices vary by region, context, and history. The following methods are aspects farmers and ranchers can adopt best suited to their land’s story.

No-Till

Let’s return to carbon. If we’re practicing conventional farming, we are typically tilling a lot, which means turning the soil over. Tilling breaks up the soil aggregates and disturbs the organic matter while exposing it to oxygen. Once it oxidizes, the carbon and the oxygen form CO2, which then atmosphere. Tilling can be a problem. 

Context is key when it comes to tilling. You’ll hear plenty of enthusiasts touting “no till” agriculture, and while this may be the ideal for low disturbance agriculture, it’s often not the reality when you’re facing land that’s been mistreated for centuries. 

tractor tilling a field

For starting off, minimal tillage or “low-till” is best, and there are reasons other than the obvious to till. For example, a farmer could do a one-time tillage event that will create the yield she’s looking for for years to come. Or, a rancher may plow just once to break up a resistant hardpan so their cover crop will germinate. When it comes to tilling (or not tilling) your soil, context is the most important factor and there is no hard and fast rule. 

Compost

Compost is a more commonly known practice associated with regenerative living.  Rightfully so — in the U.S. alone, over 60 billion pounds of mineral-rich food materials go to landfills each year, when they could be composted.

💡 Watch: The Compost Story

If a farmer for example is thinking about using compost, the first thing they have to deal with is cost, because well made compost is not cheap. How can farmers use compost it in a cost effective manner and reap the same benefits? We need to look at the microbes. 

Most farmers or growers that want to use compost have damaged the microbes in their soil. A good start is with a small dose of compost through an extract, meaning you add compost to water, and dilute it plenty. Farmers can also inoculate their seeds – coat them or put in a little dilution drip around them, which is similar to putting a probiotic around tee seed. Once that seed sprouts, it does a few things. Compost speeds up the germination process. Seeds are amazing in their own way. Somehow they know when to germinate, which then produces exudates, feeding the soil microbes. It has its own internal microbiome inside the seed itself, and those start multiplying. With a little bit of compost extract, a farmer can make the microbiome more diverse, which will then help with nutrient acquisition and protect the plant from other diseases. The list goes on.

The Marine Carbon Project shows the long-term benefits of compost. In one study, a group of researchers showed that a single application of composted organic matter led to sustained increases in net primary productivity (NPP) for at least three years, with no sign of diminishing effects. Further, one application alone shifted the carbon balance of annual grassland ecosystems and resulted in greater carbon storage. There are plenty of studies showing the benefits of compost, and for a farmer, it’s just a matter of what’s the most cost-effective way to apply it.

Compost supports a healthier crop, and healthier plants are more resistant to pests and diseases, photosynthesize more easily, and ultimately are able to sequester more carbon into the soil. If we start adding compost to our rangelands, we’ll see healthier returns, and healthier soil. 

“Think about a sick plant thats only photosynthesizing at 20% capacity. It’s leaf is going to be not only smaller but thinner. It doesn’t have as much chloroplast. It can’t make as many carbohydrates. It’s not healthy. But a healthy plant – whose leaf is 3x the size, thicker, with way more chloroplast – it will convert way more sunshine into carbohydrates, which will pump those into the soil and responsible for the nutrient update to the plants.”

  – Don Smith, Stewardship Advisor & Teacher

Crop Rotation

Women in Garden

Many people refer to the term crop rotation in regenerative agriculture, which means that instead of growing the same crop year after year (which tends to become a familiar territory to pests and diseases), you rotate crops to keep the soil healthy.  

Crop rotation can be effective, but there may be other ways to keep soil healthy and still grow the same crop over and over. The method a grower may choose to start with entirely depends on the original state of their soil. Soil testing can help growers know with more certainty. For most regions, the soil isn’t healthy, so crop rotation is an easy way to step forward. 

Cover Cropping

Cover cropping is an effective way to nourish the soil. If a farmer’s goal is to try and have living roots in the soil for a live plant above ground photosynthesizing, then cover crops play an important role in keeping the soil covered, and well-fed by the plant exudates. 

If we think about nature – some wild spot you know – is the soil bare? Unlikely. Soil is rarely bare in nature. Perhaps, after a really intense fire or natural disaster, it remains bare for a period of time, but generally speaking, the soil is always covered. This is important because the soil is a living organism with many organisms living in the soil from the microscopic to the macroscopic. They all need a food source, and they need protection. If we have bare soil, there is no food going in to feed them. 

Cover cropping enhances the food chain, and without covered soil we create a large gap. When the soil is bare, larger organisms that eat tiny microbes don’t have anything to eat, and they starve. For example, farms that have bare soil can’t support earthworm populations, mainly because their food source– microorganisms –is missing. Employing cover crops when not growing your cash crop is a great way to keep your soil fed. 

What do you want to have in a cover crop? Again, it depends on the land and the farmer. Dr. Christine Jones would advise you to gather at least four different plant families, or eight different plant species, at different heights and leaf sizes. For example, avoid having all species from just the legume family.

strawberry rows

Biodiversity is key and creates diversity up the food chain to insects, birds, and so forth. Great diversity also makes the soil microorganisms behave better, and will also increase the number of plant species producing exudates, which in turn feed soil microbes. The goal is to have as many microbes as possible and to pump carbon in as much as possible. 

Cover cropping prevents erosion. If soil is bare, it’s going to blow and wash away. If you have a cover crop and it rains, it will absorb into the soil, what is known in the farmer community as “effective rainfall.” A cover crop will stop erosion (even if it’s windy – the dust cant blow around because the plants are buffering the soil). When it rains, instead of seeing pesticide runoff damaging our watersheds, the water stays in the soil. 

A cover crop quite literally keeps the air temperature low. When the soil is bare, you’ll see what is known as a “heat island effect.” Even on a true, 70 degrees Fahrenheit day – if your soil temperature is dried out – a tendency when not covered – it can get up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit or higher just from the sun shining on it! 

Heat isn’t only bad for microbes, but the heat rising from the land impedes cloud formation and creates a more humid environment. This means that if a cloud is coming through an area without covered soil, the cloud dissipates because the heat turns it into water vapor,  rather than remaining a cloud. 

If we keep our soil covered instead of bare, we would be doing a host of positive things for our atmosphere. That’s why cover cropping is one of the most important parts of regenerative agriculture. 

Reducing Pesticides

Another issue of conventional agriculture is the use of large amounts of fertilizers and toxins, both of which negatively impact soil biology.

Pesticides go by many names. Insecticides, fungicides, herbicides .. there’s a “cide” for every organism out there and with regenerative practices, we want to minimize them. Think of pesticides as a form of an antibiotic. They are “anti,” meaning against, some form of life. If you use an herbicide, the chemical is not just killing the plant, it’s killing other living particles in your soil. The same goes for fungicides – you end up killing a whole host of fungi, which are key to many complex functions belowground. Each of these pesticides causes damage at the small microscopic level. 

The goal of healthy soil is to have as many microbes and as much biodiversity as possible. It’s challenging to tell a current farmer to stop using pesticides. But if they both observe and test the soil, farmers can start to see some symptoms of use. New pests are an example of a symptom of “cides.” If a plant is being attacked by a bug, it’s telling you something. Because, if a plant is truly healthy, it’s more resistant to insects, pests, and fungi. 

worm wriggling in paper and soil mixture

For example, you may observe a community garden where two plots host the same crop, but while one is healthy, another is attacked by aphids. The only difference is the management. The bugs are there but they are choosing to eat the unhealthy produce. So farmers are now asking, “Why am I getting this pest?” They may learn a bit more by getting their plant the nutrients or the soil health it needs. Usually, healthy soil gives those nutrients – there’s a symbiotic relationship. Plants came after microbes and they need those exudates to keep the plant healthy. It’s still up for debate on whether the plant sends out needs for phosphorus, for example, or if the microbes do it. The bottom line is that healthy soil does make for healthier plants. 

💡 John Kempf, founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture, shows the tiers of plant health in his Plant Health Pyramid, as well as the typical pests involved. 

Livestock Grazing

Livestock is a huge portion of agricultural land and it needs proper attention and care. Around 70% of the world’s land is used to host livestock, a staggering number. 

Most livestock land is used for conventional grazing. In a conventional grazing system, a rancher will fence off a large block of land, perhaps thousands of acres – and then allow the cattle, sheep, or goats loose to graze as they please. 

Many farmers and ranchers don’t think there’s anything wrong with this picture, because their crop grows and the grass grows back at the end of the season. But with ungated grazing, the species in the grassland start to change. You’ll start to lose your perennial grasses, grasses that don’t grow from seed every year. Perennial plants in general live about two years long and have deep roots and they remain green far into the dry season because of those roots. In general, you want perennials around.

silky cows grazing in a green meadow

Imagine you’re a cow during the dry season. Would you rather eat a dead plant or a lush green one? Likely the latter. Every dry season, cows graze on a massive plot of land and eat only the greens, and thus those greens get shorter and shorter, unable to capture light and photosynthesize as much as the prior year because the grass can’t catch up. Eventually, cows will just pull the green stub out completely, roots and all, until it dies.

Most conventional grazing plots are now just left with annual plants because of this. We’re talking decades of time – the perennials disappear (perhaps it was a perennial-dominated prairie), and as a result, the soil biology loses diversity, and farmers see sparser and sparser plant growth. Eventually, this is called desertification, and you can’t raise cattle there at all. 

“This process is unnoticeable over 5-10 years, but over four generations of farmers, the difference is stark. Unfortunately, in many cases, the family of farmers doesn’t notice until the soil is bare and they can’t raise cattle. Not to mention, desertification at large scale over plots and plots of land leads to drought, what we’re seeing today.” 

  – Don Smith, Stewardship Advisor & Teacher

What does regenerative cattle grazing look like? The earth has evolved with huge amounts of grazing animals and ruminants. If we look at North America with its large herds of bison, those bison didn’t create the great desert, they created the great plains, some of the most fertile land in the world. Africa has a similar history. These are large examples that show having vast amounts of animals created richness, not the problems some worry about, like greenhouse gases. 

Back in time, grazing animals were herded by predators. As a form of safety, Bison or other large prey herds would group together and stay moving. In turn, large herds never revisited a plot of land – they fertilized it until t was covered, then moved on (Animals don’t revisit where they’ve used the bathroom). 

Today, since we don’t have a lot of predators, regenerative agriculture asks: How can humans replicate this process?

Within a regenerative grazing system, rather than releasing thousands of animals on a vast piece of land, a rancher will fence them into a smaller section to impact it heavily for a short duration of time. While there, the animals poop and pee, distribute seeds and break up the soil’s crust, each of which benefits soil biology over time. Finally, the rancher doesn’t allow them to return for some time, so the grasses can return to a select length.

Regeneratively grazed animals are also typically healthier – they’re not fed de-wormers nor antibiotics, and eat fresh foliage without chemicals. Healthy intake, healthy poop. The good news about good poop is that it invites a host of insects and dung beetles to break it down into fertilizer. You know poop is healthy if it breaks down completely, disappearing from sight. 

When you install a planned grazing system, you’ll see more perennials – meaning more green during the dry season – healthier cattle, fertilized soil, more biodiversity, and finally, a stronger ability to draw down carbon. 

bison in a wild meadow

Dr. Allen Williams with the Soil Health Academy has shown how quickly you can recover land. In just 3 years’ time, his farm increased its carrying capacity by at least 5 times. The land itself is completely covered – no bare soil – and the animals are grazing on grass at least 2 feet high. The animals themselves are healthier and fatten up faster –he’s shown it’s a profitable system. 

💡Watch: Regenerative Secret Film

If you can picture us applying these practices to 70% of the land that animals are grazing on, the results are astounding. How humans manage animals makes all the difference. Remember: It’s not the cow, it’s the how.  

💡Watch: Allen Savory’s Ted Talk: How to fight desertification and reverse climate change.

Silvopasture

Silvopasture takes livestock grazing one step further as the deliberate practice of integrating grazing livestock and trees into the same agricultural operation. Picture this: a tree crop, whether grown for timber, fruit, or nuts, integrated with livestock (perhaps sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys, or pigs) roaming underneath the trees. For someone running a silvopasture operation, the key is diversity. Both the animals and the trees benefit from each other–a symbiotic relationship. The trees gain nutrients from the animal’s fertilizer, and the animals benefit from shade, windbreak, and foliage.

💡Read: In the Shadow of the Green Man, by Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin

forest with light pouring in

Agroforestry

Agroforestry is similar to silvopasture in terms of mixing aspects of restorative practices. In agroforestry, you mix row crops with tree crops. The trees provide a certain amount of shade, windbreak, and habitat to other species (improving biodiversity), and the trees benefit because the crops sustain a level of biodiversity in the soil. Further, the trees support erosion and water loss due to wind and keep the temperature cool. If you’ve implemented agroforestry well, you’ll get higher infiltration rates and improved nutrient cycling.

For example, picture a farmer growing a grain crop without trees. She can only capture so much sunlight with the wheat crop because it doesn’t have a lot of height. But, if she adds in rows of trees about 75-100 feet apart, all of a sudden she’ll start capturing more sunlight with the newfound height. When it comes down to it, farmers, growers, and gardeners alike should try to intercept as much sunlight as possible to the land, even if that sunlight is filtered through tree branches.

HOW TO SUPPORT THE REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE MOVEMENT

Education

Feeling inspired and motivated to see the possibilities of regenerative agriculture come to fruition? You’ve already taken the time to understand regenerative agriculture at a “topsoil” level. Further educating and inspiring yourself is a great first step. Here are a few ways:

farmer standing in front of cropland

Become an Advocate for Soil Health

When you become an educated advocate for soil health, communities will benefit. Look to the farm for solutions, first. Head to your local farmer’s market and see what they have to say – it’s likely they are facing various challenges that may spark your interest.

An easy way to get your hands in the soil is by looking at the food we eat before, during, and after we eat it. Commit to starting small with a review of your shopping habits  – you may already be a conscious consumer, but perhaps there are ways you can return to regenerative best practices. For example, try to shop for perennials when you’re at the store, eat locally twice a week, or eat seasonally in your favorite season. These small steps are the first steps to a new habit that will only expand.

💡Explore: Kiss the Ground’s Purchasing Guide.

Start Composting at Home

Composting is another way to practice regenerative living, and you don’t have to be a farmer or a gardener to compost. Whether you’re living in an apartment, in a house, or on a ranch, anyone can compost. Many cities have compost pickups, dropoffs, or hubs in community garden centers. If you live on a property with a backyard, perhaps your compost bin will add great value to a new or ongoing garden project.

💡Learn More: Compost at Home!

Learn about Agricultural Policy

Agricultural policy is a major deciding factor in the trajectory of practices. In the United States, the Farm Bill holds many of the keys to change. Kiss the Ground has convened Regenerate America™, an unprecedented coalition of farmers, businesses, nonprofits, and individuals from every corner of our country and all political stripes. The campaign coalition is elevating the voices of farmers and ranchers demanding that the 2023 Farm Bill shift resources & support toward regenerative agriculture.

💡Get involved: Learn more about Regenerate America™

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Regenerative agriculture is both a technical solution and a source of hope for planetary health and the climate crisis. If you are called to support and see its benefits come to life in the immediate future, become a member at Kiss the Ground, or considering donating today.

About Kiss the Ground

Kiss the Ground, a 501(c)3 non-profit based in Los Angeles, California. Our mission is to awaken people to the possibilities of regeneration and inspire participation in the movement through media, communications, education, workshops, immersive programming, and advocacy.