Dec 2, 2022
Thoughts on regenerative agriculture

Over the years regenerative agriculture has been defined in many ways, and its definition continues to evolve with time, practices and research. The concept of regenerative farming is not new and is indeed centuries old.

In talking with growers and leaders in the field of regenerative agriculture, I find that there are many types of regenerative farms, but they all seem to follow some basic principles. They first seek to minimize the disturbance of the soil. They seek to focus on keeping the soil covered with vegetation and natural materials through mulching, cover crops and pastures. Regenerative agriculture farmers seek to increase plant diversity. This is an essential component in building healthy soils that retain excess water and nutrients and is beneficial to wildlife and pollinators. The farmers try to keep living roots in the soil as much as possible to ensure that fields are never bare.

This can be accomplished by farming practices such as planting winter/summer cover crops or having land in permanent pasture. Keeping living roots in the soil helps stabilize the soil, thus retaining excess water and nutrient runoff. A final goal is to integrate animals into the farm as much as possible which may or may not be feasible in many operations. Manure produced by livestock can add valuable nutrients to the soil, reducing the need for fertilizers, and increasing soil organic matter. Healthy soils capture large amounts of carbon and water and reduce the amount of pollution.

So why is regenerative agriculture important today?

Multiple studies have analyzed nutrient data over the past 70 years and have found a startling decline in the vitamin and mineral content in fruits and vegetables. By looking at data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one study concluded that since the 1950s there has been a decline in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C in 43 varieties of vegetables and fruits! The study’s author, Dr. Donald Davis, estimates that this is a direct result of two factors:

  • Breeding crops for parameters such as size, growth rates and pest resistance, and not being concerned with nutrition and flavor; and
  • The depletion of minerals in the soils that most of our fruits and vegetables are grown in.

Steve Groff, author of the popular book “The Future-Proof Farm,” is considered one of regenerative agriculture’s original innovators and a spokesman for the system around the country and beyond. He has certainly embraced the value of regenerative agriculture and husbandry of the soil using the principles outlined above. He has taken it a step beyond just saying that his soil is healthier, and is seeking to prove it is more nutrient-dense and thus healthier for the consumer. “Nutrient density” is a general term encompassing many components, from minerals to vitamins to organic compounds.

The problem as Groff sees it is that current measurement methods are lab-based, expensive and time-consuming, and measure a single or a small number of nutrients. In a recent conversation, Groff told me that he is continuing to work with the Bionutrient Food Association to produce a device capable of measuring nutrient levels in produce just by scanning fruits and vegetables with an instrument or maybe via a smartphone. He also prefers “nutrient richness” instead of “nutrient density.” Groff envisions a fast, inexpensive, field-based device – the Bionutrient Meter – to measure a broad range of nutrients of interest in crops.

Another big proponent of regenerative agriculture is Bob Jones Jr., who with his brother and family run Farmer Jones Farm at The Chef’s Garden, in Northern Ohio. The family has been involved in agriculture for six generations, focusing on vegetable production for more than 40 years with four generations of the Jones family currently working on the farm. Jones said “that we had a hunch, even back then, that if we were to increase flavor by rebuilding the soil, we’d also be increasing the density of nutrients.”

Now both the research in their own agricultural lab and independent research has shown this to be true, he said.

Jones related how he is applying the principles of regenerative agriculture coupled with measuring nutrient density of his vegetables as the future of his farming operation. Jones, like Groff, believes that documenting the nutrient density of his vegetables is an excellent indicator of the efforts of his regenerative farming through cover cropping and minimal tillage and he believes in the future to be able to command a premium for his vegetables.

As we said there is no instrument available to quickly measure nutrient density of vegetables, so Jones has set up a sophisticated lab on his farm to measure the nutrient density of his vegetables and is comparing it to USDA’s figures, which tend to be low. Jones said that he has 400 acres but only 125 acres are in veggies. He allows two years of cover cropping and then plants vegetables. This way he is also tying up carbon in the soil. Jones has gone even further down the road in viewing “food as medicine” and has hired a nutritionist/pharmacist to work with him.

In speaking with my own doctor, I know that more medical schools are finally embracing the concept of food as medicine and teaching more in-depth courses to their medical students. Jones and Dr. Amy Sapola, director of Farmacy, at the farm, are taking the information generated in their lab and extensively reviewing the medical and related nutritional literature knowing that certain minerals or elements are beneficial for helping cure certain diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.  Taking this knowledge, Jones and Sapola are preparing baskets of vegetables supplying these nutrients to consumers to help fight these diseases. He can ship them out directly to the consumer via UPS or FedEx.  

Using the principles of regenerative agriculture, Jones looks forward to documenting the increased nutrient density/richness of his veggies due to regenerative husbandry soil and use of intensive cover cropping, etc. He firmly believes “that you are what your plants eat.”

Jeff Moyer, CEO of the Rodale Institute, is another longtime proponent of regenerative organic agriculture practices. Moyer takes a broader view of regenerative agriculture systems that offer societal, economic and environmental benefits such as increased farming productivity, improved soil health and fertility, increased production of nutrient-dense foods and increasing the land’s ability to filter and retain water. Other factors include decreased soil, water and air pollution caused by current agricultural practices, improving habitat and biodiversity in wildlife and plants, diminishing the effects of climate change, and decreasing the amount of carbon in the air.

Moyer said that it is an exciting time that we live in with a major transition of farm ownership in the next decades as older farmers retire and a younger generation takes over – one that is more open to embracing new technology coupled with regenerative agriculture principles to improve soil health and ultimately increase the nutrient value of the products they sell.

My final thought is that regenerative agriculture is primarily about bringing back the health of our soils on which we grow our crops and soil health is linked to the total health of our food system and our well-being. To me, a grower’s soil can be thought of as a bank account where the grower constantly makes deposits through good management practices (regenerative) so the crop can then make withdrawals, even growing the account over time.

— William J. Lamont Jr., professor emeritus, Pennsylvania State University

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