A term keeps cropping up in our news lately: regenerative or restorative agriculture. Let me share a little more detail about what it is and how it differs from conventional farming.
To put it simply, it is a process of farming that moves away from the monocultural large farming practices and instead focuses on biodiversity and soil improvement. Some would describe this approach as a return to the traditional history of small farming, where many different elements combine to create a mini ecosystem of connected animals and plants that support the overall health of the farm.
Oftentimes, there is a non-chemical or machine solution to issues that arise, such as goats to manage cover crops instead of machines to mow or attracting birds of prey to handle the pest that burrow and steal the crop yields instead of traps and poison. This type of farming is increasingly studied to try to determine the benefits.
The University of Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) has a wealth of information and continues to work to measure the benefits of these techniques, including an urban gardening pamphlet to educate people in how to protect their soil.
A recent documentary film, “The Biggest Little Farm,” offers up a front row seat to a family that makes the transition from city dwellers to taking on a farm and transitioning it to a regenerative farm. Taking place at Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark, outside of Los Angeles, California, this farm is a classic example of the diversity of plants and animals. With over 75 fruit varieties, as well as 100 vegetables and several animals, this small farm produces a punch of biodiversity.
The main tenants of this type of farming include very little to no tilling, cover crops, crop rotations, composts, biodiverse ecosystem and grazing to increase plant stimulation.
Criticisms of this style of farming can be around the overall costs of switching and building up the ecosystem to a sustainable level. Many farms have poor or smaller yields than conventional farms.
There is a significant learning curve due to needing to learn both animal husbandry as well as agriculture across a broad range of specimens. A recent study released by Forbes found that although yields of crops was about 29% less than conventional farms, the overall costs of the farm was 78% more profitable due to less watering, machine processing, as well as increased demand.
For several of us who do not live or work on farms, there is an opportunity to incorporate several practices in our yards that take advantage of the same principles at play at regenerative farms. Increasing your biodiversity of plants that attracts birds and other animals that can help manage insects. In addition, improving overall soil health to enable better water retention using composting and cover crops. Each of us in our own way can incorporate small changes that improve the gardens around and the plants will thrive.
Have a gardening question? We can help! The Master Gardener Hotline will answer your gardening questions year round. Call 612-301-7590 or send us your question online.
Kari Martin, Anoka County Extension Master Gardener.