by Michael Curcio

Regenerative Agriculture (RA) is a form of agriculture that improves the soil year after year. This is in contrast with conventional industrial agriculture, which depletes the soil over time. The soil is improved through two main mechanisms: fostering the activity of beneficial microbes and increasing the amount of Soil Organic Matter (SOM) that is present. As the organic mantra goes: if the soil is healthy, the plants will be too!

Since RA relies more on natural processes to improve the soil and the subsequent harvest, it is healthier for the environment and those eating the produce. There is significantly less reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are used heavily in conventional agriculture. Many local farms at the farmers market will employ facets of the RA toolbox to improve yields and grow high-quality produce.

Several techniques are used to accomplish the twin goals of creating a favorable microbial climate and increasing SOM. The primary method being composting because it accomplishes both at the same time. Compost is made by carefully maintaining the ratio of brown to green plant matter as well as the humidity of the compost pile. In properly managed piles, temperatures can exceed 130 degrees Fahrenheit due to the energy released by microbes during the decomposition process. This heat not only helps to accelerate compost production but also kills harmful pathogens and weed seeds.

According to the “On-Farm Composting Handbook”, once the compost has finished decomposing, it is added to the growing area to increase the amount of organic carbon in the soil. This helps break up the small particles of soil, such as sand and clay, and makes the soil easier to plow, plant, and weed. It also increases water retention and helps the plant’s roots to grow deeper. In one handful of mature compost, there can be over sixty billion bacteria and hundreds of thousands of fungal cells. These organisms help with the decomposition process as well as the cycling of nutrients.

Other RA techniques rely on the beneficial synergies between different plant species. Crop rotation and intercropping are two such techniques that can improve the soil over time. In crop rotation, the crop planted in a section of field changes each year. Instead of just planting corn in the same place forever, legumes, such as peas or beans, may be planted, followed by corn the next year. The legumes help improve the soil by converting atmospheric nitrogen to biological nitrogen, which all plants need to grow.

A well-known example of intercropping is the “three sisters” planting technique used by indigenous North Americans. Corn, beans and squash are planted closely together so that they can interact and benefit from each other. The beans increase the nitrogen concentration in the soil for the other plants and use the corn stalks as a growing trellis. The squash help cover the soil to promote water and nutrient retention. Farmers using RA strive to find such symbioses and employ them in their fields for everyone’s benefit.

One version of RA that has become increasingly popular is permaculture, or permanent agriculture, which seeks to mimic natural systems in order to improve the environment and produce bountiful yields. Permaculture relies heavily on beneficial plant interactions and often employs perennial shrubs and fruit-bearing trees to maximize food production on smaller areas of land. Permaculture can be especially adaptive in small gardens and urban areas where space is at a premium and must be used efficiently. Others, such as The Bec Hellouin farm in Normandy France, are practicing permaculture on a larger scale with great success. They are able to grow many times the average amount of produce per area of land on their two acres of French farmland.

Another project applying permaculture practices in a different environment is PISCES (The Permaculture Institute for the Study of Communal Economic Systems). PISCES implements and refines RA and permaculture techniques on a teaching farm located in Northern Togo, a small French-speaking country in Western Africa. By demonstrating the positive effects that RA can have on the fields and the surrounding environment, PISCES promotes the application of sustainable practices. This leads to improvements in food security, reforestation and economic independence for those in the region.