The field of regenerative agriculture is emerging fast and with it a wide range of approaches, systems and technologies are being offered to help people who want to adopt it. These are fast changing times but it feels good to be part of the solution to some of our world’s most pressing issues.
But what is regenerative agriculture? Whose approach is the best?
As a consultant in regenerative food systems and regenerative agriculture in the UK my role has been evolving too. There is no clear definition to what regenerative agriculture is, and there is a vast array of people and products all claiming they have the answers.
I think the best we can all do is to each clearly explain what we represent, and the approach we use. It’s good to have a range of options. Ultimately, like the ecosystems we represent, we can all find our niche and the regenerative agriculture ‘web’ will be more complex and resilient as a result.
So first things first. What do I mean by regenerative agriculture? I like these points from Wiki’s definition;
Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting biosequestration, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.
Regenerative agriculture on small farms and gardens is often based on philosophies like permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, restoration ecology, keyline design, and holistic management. Large farms tend to be less philosophy driven and often use “no-till” and/or “reduced till” practices.
On a regenerative farm, yield should increase over time. As the topsoil deepens, production may increase, and fewer external compost inputs are required.
I would also agree with the following principles;
· Increase soil fertility.
· Work with whole systems (holistically), not isolated parts, to make changes to specific parts.
· Improve whole agro-ecosystems (soil, water, and biodiversity).
· Connect the farm to its larger agro-ecosystem and region.
· Make holistic decisions that express the value of farm contributors.
· Each person and farm is significant.
· Make sure all stakeholders have equitable and reciprocal relationships.
· Payment can be financial, spiritual, social, or environmental capital (“multi-capital”). Relationships can be “non-linear” (not reciprocal): if you do not get paid, in the future you can be given other “capital” by unrelated parties.
· Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms, and communities.
· Continuously evolve agro-ecology.
· Agriculture influences the world.
What I think is important to note is that you don’t ever ‘get there’. Regenerative agriculture is a journey and this needs to be reflected in any baseline measures and assurance labels that are created to represent those on that journey.
There is a wide spectrum of different regenerative agriculture approaches.
At one end of the scale there are some great people using technology (plate meters etc) and smart calculations to increase forage productivity through rotational grazing practices. I take my hat off to anyone who has the orderly linear brain and mathematical talent required to make this work. I don’t!
At the other end of the spectrum lies a truly agroecological philosophy that requires the practitioner to understand how an ecosystem works so they can become part of it and manage it from within. I’m certainly tending towards this end of the spectrum and I focus my work on livestock farming strategies especially those in marginal or upland areas.
My brain works like a complex ever evolving ecosystem – working with me is not for everyone and that’s perfectly okay.
Some may dismiss this end of the spectrum as a bit flaky and lacking in hard science. I would argue the opposite. I believe agroecological strategies are so far ahead of the science that we simply have to resort to lagging science to provide ‘sign posts’ for a general direction. We tend to draw more from good old fashioned field science based on observation and feedback within our real life ever changing complex systems.
I have been fortunate to come to this role as a consultant though a unique path.
There is no academic pathway into regenerative agriculture.
I believe it’s the very fact that I haven’t come through conventional academia or agricultural college that allows me to think differently and innovate new ways of applying my research and learning. I started on the ground, studying and working in environmental conservation then moved into hill farming co-running a 700 acre hill farm in the Lake District where we transitioned to a low input out-wintered livestock system that actively restored important habitats.
Alongside the farm we ran a range of associated farm enterprises including accommodation, catering and a farm butchery. Throughout my time on this farm I researched and communicated (through weekly guided walks) the principles of sustainable food production and its associated health benefits (studying in ancestral health).
Later my husband Stephen and I have built a successful online meat business called Primal Meats selling 100% grass fed and organic meats from regenerative farms. Our umbrella company Primal Web LTD was set up to work on the business structures and communication web required to mainstream regenerative agriculture and empower the citizens who benefit most from their produce.
As a ferocious researcher with an insatiable appetite to try and save the world, I translated my research and field observations into what I consider to be the equivalent of a PhD. This is the work that underpins my consultancy offering.
My offering is unique, influenced by my research into and experience of; natural ecosystems in the UK, agroecology, permaculture, restoration agriculture, regenerative agriculture, livestock farming, running multiple farm business including meat businesses, personal development, human behaviour change, holistic human and animal health, wild and domestic animal behaviour, and various approaches to systems thinking.
I am a professional educator in holistic management with the Savory institute and generally use the framework to underpin my work.
To ensure I’m the right ‘fit’ for a client I ask them to complete a foundation training session which helps us see if we are on the ‘same page.’ The session also serves to kick start the essential paradigm shift that needs to occur for the land manager to make a success of adopting my approach.
In holistic management we ensure all decisions consider the; environment, the social impact and the economic implications. We use a decision-making framework to help new managers get used to this ‘holistic thinking.’
Of all my skills I value my ‘holistic perspective’ above all else.
My aim is to help farms to transition towards a strategy that runs primarily on sunshine and water on increasingly fertile soils in a species rich environment. These are truly resilient systems.
What is important to know is that it takes more than a few minor adjustments to your current management to be able to do this. More often than not, it requires a redesign of your whole farming strategy. We’ll be questioning what livestock you’re rearing and why; and if it’s really the best system for your landscape and the life you would like to lead – something farmers rarely even have the time to consider!
Out of these conversations we create your ‘context’ , a kind of vision of what you want to create for your farm – this then helps us make decisions as we go forward ensuring we are always moving towards this vision whilst operating in integrity with your values.
For me there is no right or wrong, it’s about creating the most environmentally regenerative model, that pays the bills, in a way that makes your life more fulfilling.
I have found most land management projects and transitions fail because of the ‘people’ or ‘social’ elements of the project. You can have the best grazing plan in the world but if it’s too complex or the manager succumbs to pressure from a conventional thinking family member it simply won’t work.
In order to address this potential ‘social’ issue, I often try to develop the simplest grazing plan possible for the transition period by trying to reduce the livestock mobs down to as few as can be sustained in the short term. I also only work with people who will commit to a year long (or more) supported transition where I can be on hand to chat through decisions and help monitor progress, this helps minimize the client simply defaulting to their ‘factory setting’ of familiar practices when the going get’s tough. This is what I consider to be our ‘Phase 1 transition period.’
As the farmer or land manager becomes used to the new way of thinking and doing, we start refining the planning and responding to the valuable feedback we get now we’re in motion.
Some say we are a reflection of the five people we spend most of our time with. It’s hardest for those people who are surrounded by naysayers who are ready to watch your every mistake – and there will be plenty of those! I try to foster a community around regenerative practitioners so that we can offer a supportive network who will celebrate the successes and help you ride over the inevitable bumps.
Increasing productivity is one aspect of why farmers want to switch to regenerative agriculture, but in my work this is very much a phase 2 activity once we have established the baselines.
The reason most of the farms I work with are not as profitable as they could be, is that they are spending so much money on inputs.
‘Turnover is vanity and profit is sanity’.
One of the key activities I undertake with a client early on is to look at their accounts and, in particular, the cost of sales. By moving the overheads to one side then clearly analysing the income generated by each enterprise and the associated cost of production we often find that the livestock production is a relatively small part of the overall profit (and often makes a loss) it is the subsidy that tends to be the significant breadwinner. (but long term that needs to change)
What I aim to do in phase one is make an easy and successful transition whilst the client is still supported by subsidy and then in phase 2 start to build up to find what the farms actual carrying capacity is. The carrying capacity should increase over time as the soil health improves and livestock health skyrockets, allowing the client to hopefully drop many of those costly inputs.
Many of those inputs are not only economically costly but there are other externalised costs we should be considering too. The overuse of antibiotics which endanger humanity, wormers that kill important invertebrates and soil life, fossil fuels and embedded carbon in machinery, the 3 million degrading ‘ghost’ hectares required to grow the volume of cereals we feed to our livestock in the UK, and the huge climatic and environmental impact of producing and using fertilisers and pesticides are just a few of the silent externalities we may be responsible for.
We are part of a global ecosystem and we must take responsibility for our part in the collapse of the natural world. But I also believe regenerative farmers are the most promising part of the potential solution too.
The science is coming thick and fast on why complexity and diversity are more productive and resilient than simplified swards – even those that contain legumes. For instance, in soils with a higher fungi to bacteria ratio (something that only occurs when there is a significant range of both grasses and forbs) the plant roots can access considerably more nutrients and water.
The Jena experiment in Germany demonstrated that complex plots of 20 or more species produced the same amount of above ground biomass as those plots dressed with 200kg per hectare of nitrogen!
Plants growing in species rich swards have higher ‘brix’ scores. this is in turn is associated with everything from an increase in resilience to frost and drought, to a decrease in disease and pest attack. Livestock grazing upon these high brix plants need less dry matter intake overall and perform better over a range of health and growth metrics.
Rather than solely focusing on grass productivity, I tend to look at how we can increase plant species diversity in order to achieve long term productivity, a longer growing season and more nutrient density and diversity of secondary metabolites (plant medicines) from the sward, which leads to a reduction in feed and vet med costs.
This improved biodiversity also brings with it a wide range of other indirect benefits including improved mineral cycling and pest control from invertebrates such as dung beetles and insect predators among many others. I feel this approach is particularly applicable in the UK marginal areas where we are dealing with a range of habitat types.
The regenerative grazing plan.
The management and grazing plan I help farmers adopt is based on this ‘triple bottom line’ – it will look different on every farm. Creating a good grazing/management plan is about coordinating the tools of animal impact, grazing, and rest to achieve ecosystem regeneration within your desired context. I then help to carefully test every management decision and use of tools (especially technology) to ensure you are moving towards what you are trying to achieve, not simply reacting to the next symptom of an underlying unresolved root cause.
If you would like to know more about my work please get in touch. Best Caroline Grindrod