What is Regenerative Agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that focuses on efficient ways to maximize and sustain the natural systems, and in particular soil health, that farming operations depend upon for success.
❝Regenerative agriculture promotes ways to replenish and boost on-farm services nature provides, such as pollination, hydrological services, biological pest control, nutrient cycling, and soil structure and fertility.❞
Farmers are busy people who wear many hats. This is especially true for many of our small diversified agriculture operations in Hawaii, who do it all– from working the land, to maintaining equipment, sourcing and budgeting crop inputs, managing work crews and crop plans, marketing crops and maintaining relationships with buyers, to all the record-keeping and paperwork required to maintain the back-end of our businesses. At O’ahu RC&D, we believe ‘regenerative agriculture’ can help our agriculture community prioritize and integrate practices to leverage natural systems, particularly healthy soil, and contribute to the success of farming operations.
❝Growers that seek to regenerate the ecological services they use, often work through trial and error, to develop a site-specific suite of practices to improve soil health and nutrient cycling, with the goal of increasing yield, profitability, and overall, long-term resilience for their operation (McGuire, 2018).❞
Why do farmers focus on increasing soil biology and improving the function of their soil?
Maintaining the health of your farm ecosystem requires building healthy symbiotic relationships between photosynthesizing plants and soil microorganisms. The biology in your soil, both micro and macro-organisms (such as bacteria, fungi, insects, and worms), feed and ‘cycle’ nutrients for your crops.
Using the biology in your soil to cycle nutrients increases the onsite production of nutrients and the efficiency of nutrient uptake in your crops (Barrios, 2007). This translates into cost savings, as your need to purchase synthetic fertilizers and inputs is reduced. It also shifts your farm into a regenerative state, in which more nutrients are generated. The overall result is a potential for increased yield and profit for your business.
❝Increasing organic matter, improving nutrient use efficiency, increasing aggregate stability, enhancing and diversifying soil biology and habitat, and increasing water infiltration and water holding capacity are objectives farmers must continuously consider in their management decisions and field operations if they want to make soil health a priority.❞
Regenerative Agriculture Principles for Increasing Soil Health and Function
The following regenerative principles can be used to guide management decisions and assist farmers as they integrate practices and systems to restore the function of the soil and other ecosystem services in their operation (NRCS, 2020). Using these principles allows the farm to be managed as a living ecosystem.
Keeping a ‘living root’
- Keeping a living plant in the ground will benefit your farm by feeding the life in your soil and fostering the main mechanisms for nutrient cycling between plants and microbes. Plant roots provide soil structure, improving the soil’s ability to hold air and water that are necessary to sustain microbial life. Plant roots also exude a variety of compounds and gases which feed microbes and support mycorrhizal fungi. In turn, the biodiverse soil organism community processes soil inputs such as organic matter, providing nutrients to the plants (Allen, 2007). Increasing the nutrient uptake capacity of your crop is a benefit that should not be overlooked and should be compared with the results from synthetic inputs.
Minimizing disturbance (both mechanical and chemical)
- Decreasing mechanical disturbance protects life in the soil by preserving soil structure, which creates habitat for soil organisms. The result of maintaining the biology in the soil results in increased water infiltration, and increased organic matter.. Tilling can break up valuable soil aggregates and fungal hyphae, as well as disturb the balance of microbe metabolic activity, reducing the nutrient cycling capacity (Smith, 2015).
- When possible, reducing the amount of chemical herbicide/pesticide/fungicide applications is beneficial to supporting a biodiverse soil ecosystem. Used in excess, such chemicals can damage beneficial organism populations and create a feedback loop where more products are required to manage the pests that natural ecosystem organisms help balance when present (Al-Kaisi, 2017).
- Increasing biodiversity is a principle that can be used both above and below ground. Increasing plant diversity, increases the biodiversity in the soil. Diversifying your crop system can be done by rotating cover and cash crops, planting multi-species combinations of cover crops, feeding biology a diverse diet, improving soil structure, building organic matter, and collecting maximum sunlight to cycle carbon. Microbes receive various root exudates from each type of cover crop (SARE, 2017). Rotating and increasing the diversity of your cash and cover crops will provide a variety of nutrients and biological niches to improve your soil health (NRCS, 2017).
- A diversity of cover crops can be seeded at the same time and before, during or after you plant your cash crops. Multi-species combinations can have additional benefits based on your management and crop nutrient needs, such as the need for improved infiltration, cycling of more nutrients such as nitrogen, feed for livestock, increase of organic matter, increased habitat for beneficial insects, etc.
Maintaining a ‘living cover’
- Keeping soil covered is essential to many of the ecosystem services that can benefit your farm. Covering the soil with ‘living cover’ is preferable, but in some cases using mulch or weed mat may be more practical and still offers benefit. Maintaining a living cover not only provides ‘amor’ for your soil, protecting it from erosion during heavy rainfall and irrigation and reducing the temperature of the soil, it is also conducive to supporting a healthy microbial ecosystem
- Living plants are able to cycle carbon. Maintaining living plants on your soil keeps the carbon pathway open, as green plants use photosynthesis to retrieve carbon from the atmosphere and cycle it as a nutrient into your soil. The amount of carbon in the soil determines the amount of food available for the biology in the soil (Smith, 2015).
- Soil temperature is an important property that is essential for many soil processes and reactions that may include, but are not limited to, water and nutrient uptake, microbial activity, nutrient cycling, root growth, and many other processes. At 70 degrees Fahrenheit, plants are able to absorb 100% moisture. At 100 degrees, the plant is only able to use 15% of the moisture from the soil with 85% of the moisture lost through evaporation and transpiration. At 140 degrees, the soil bacteria die (Brown, 2018). Crops grown in soils that are exposed to too much direct sunlight will perform worse with cycling carbon out of the atmosphere, will require more irrigation, and may negatively impact profit for the farm.
- Integrating animals into your operation can not only help with weed management through grazing, but also can increase the availability of ‘food’ for soil microbes through manure, providing more biodiversity and organic matter for your ecological nutrient cycling system (Al-Kaisi, 2017).
- When managed correctly, rotations of livestock can benefit the soil ecosystem and surrounding landscape by creating a closed loop nutrient cycle that contributes to building soil carbon (from continuous plant cover), protects the soil from erosion by maintaining living roots, and by providing a source of biologically rich organic matter inputs (manure). This system is often referred to as prescribed grazing or rotational grazing, and focuses on optimizing the amount of time animals have access to various fields (Gosnell, 2019).
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