It’s a request I get all the time: Define “regenerative” agriculture?
Many have attempted to take on this topic (e.g. here, here), but it’s easy to get lost in details. Some welcome the ambiguity and are even concerned that defining it too explicitly may ruin it. Although part of me is sympathetic with that sentiment, I do have a pretty clear definition in mind.
To me, “regenerative agriculture” simply means the process of growing food and fiber in any way that increases the capacity of the land to grow even more food and fiber.
Behind this definition, I have a more scientific definition of land whose capacity has increased because healthier soil, that is richer in carbon, higher in water holding capacity, and abundant in available micronutrients, increases the photosynthetic capacity of plants growing in it to capture more sunshine tomorrow than yesterday.
However, here’s my caution – organic agriculture actually set out with a similar goal. But upon implementation, it was reduced to a set of rules that allowed one to meet the letter without always achieving the spirit. For example, what was not allowed by way of chemistry, was often accomplished by way of increased tillage that ironically led to more soil erosion, not less.
For now, the growing community of regenerative producers operate more on principles than rules. The Audubon Conservation Ranching program has effectively reduced these principles to a simple, but robust, protocol that sets a high bar, while avoiding overly complex, and, in my opinion, gameable rules.
Audubon has one additional hidden advantage in this program – the birds themselves. Humans are great at gaming rules we create, but frankly, birds don’t care about our rules. You might be able to entice a few to stop at a feeder, but they mostly vote with their wings – flying wherever they find better food and habitat.
I’ve thus come to appreciate birds as nature’s most perfect ecosystem health tracker. They are autonomous, solar-powered, self replicating sensors that respond directly to whether the land is actually growing more life or less. OK, they’re beautiful to both see and hear, too. But because birds are so diverse, with various requirements and preferences, they even tell us precisely where we’re getting it right and wrong. Lately, they’re giving us failing marks – 53% of grassland birds just gone in the last 50 years.
We are now building evidence that by changing how cattle graze, the birds will indeed come back. Our Audubon friends have developed a measurement system modeling a 47% increase in grassland bird populations on ranches practicing conservation protocols. I have some colleagues doing a study in a different region that will document an even larger increase than that (stay tuned).
But I see it with my own eyes every time I set foot in a pasture where cattle are used as a tool to regenerate . I was recently on a regeneratively grazed farm in Iowa that has now legally become a bird sanctuary. Farmer Phil Specht told me that it’s his mission to make it so that each spring when a bobolink takes off to fly north from Argentina, it can fly with the confidence that it has at least one place to land when it gets home. I didn’t need an auditor to tell me Phil’s farm was regenerative, life itself was the judge – bobolinks were everywhere (one photo my wife took below).
Although it may take years to document and understand all the elements of a genuinely regenerative agriculture system, I am confident that if you want to simply and honestly understand where we are increasing the capacity of the land to grow more food and fiber, just watch the birds.
That’s what we’re doing. We are grateful to have you with us on this journey.
Co-Founder & CEO of Blue Nest Beef
#BringBirdsBack #CattleForGood #BirdsTellUs