Sometimes people ask if we’re a regenerative farm. Depending on the clues I have about the intent of question I’m receiving, I might answer with a straightforward “Yes, we are!” But if I get the impression that the person is asking for a discussion, I usually answer with the more tentative, “Well, we’d like to be.”
Seriously, What is Regenerative Farming?
Everybody seems to be talking about regenerative farming. But what is it all about? Here’s the most candid answer: regenerative farming is whatever you want it to be.
We all have a vague idea that regenerative farming is the “good kind” of farming. It must be better for the soil. And it seems to care about damage to the environment. Maybe it is concerned about the health of the products that come out of it. Some folks think it also is about the people who grow the food or the people who eat it. And maybe it overlaps with “organic,” whether that’s official versions of Certified Organic or old-fashioned lowercase “o” organic. But nobody really can claim authoritative ownership of the word, and like all words, the meaning shifts within the context of the discussion.
General Mills was one of the early adopters of the phrase “regenerative agriculture.” More recently, there have been press releases from Pepsi, Walmart, Unilever, Grupo Bimbo, Danone, Hormel, Target, etc. It seems hard to find a food processor or retailer that isn’t regenerative, or at least publishing some set of regenerative goals to be achieved by some date in the future.
Maybe some of these claimants are genuine. But when all the good old boys are using the newest slogan to describe their same old businesses, I’m a skeptic. It seems like anyone who wants one can pin on their own “I’m with Regenerative” campaign button.
Remember When Sustainable Was Good Enough?
There was a time decades ago when people were discussing the deleterious nature of mainstream agricultural practices. And the phrase “sustainable” came to represent a desire to shift toward systems that didn’t tend toward self-destruction. But quickly “sustainability” was adopted and co-opted. Everyone became sustainable, appointing a Chief Sustainability Officer, and neatly filling in all the right answers using a number two pencil. Even the US Army and Air Force created promotional websites touting their commitments to sustainability.
“Regenerative” began popping up about 15 years ago and came into prominence about five years ago. The phrase is rooted in a biological concept. Oxford defines it “verb (of a living organism) regrow (new tissue) to replace lost or injured tissue.” It was envisioned as a way of going beyond sustainability and toward a system that could correct past problems rather than simply sustaining the status quo. As nomenclature, it was a fine choice. But it never had a canon or an interpretive tradition to sharpen up the boundaries of what is or is not regenerative. And so it could be claimed by anyone who’d like to use it.
My goal here isn’t to demand that we strictly define “regenerative.” I feel like our world already has enough dividing lines, and segregating into narrower and narrower sectarian groups won’t help us regenerate anything. And I’m not all that eager to create another buzzword, because I can’t envision a scenario where the next word won’t also be pushed ad absurdum.
Can We Be Regenerative?
I can trot out all the good language to talk about our farm. We’ve got a lot of good words, and they’re all legit. Pasture raised. Grass fed. Grass Finished. Certified Organic. GMO Free. Pesticide Free. Antibiotic Free. Rotationally Grazed. Silvopasture. Permaculture. Small Farm. Locally Grown.
But are we regenerative? Can we ever be? Let’s frame it this way: our goal is to take what we’re doing today and then to use our farm to make tomorrow better. In practice, sometimes we slide backwards and sometimes we leap forward. The actual practice of regeneration is messy and hard to measure. It’s easy to brag about being regenerative, but if we’re honest and humble, we all probably have to admit that we can’t fully account for the complexity of the actions we take. Trailing clouds of entropy do we come.
Regenerative is best when it is an aspiration, just a little out of reach. We’d like to regrow, repair, restore. We’d feel like better things are achievable. We’re eager to do more. We weren’t regenerative today. But maybe tomorrow we will be.