What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Stephanie Steele Thursday, 2 July 2020

“Regenerative Agriculture” - only a term introduced in recent times - describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. [Regeneration International]

Holistic land and animal management is a practice of regeneration, yet it is only now with the term that the regenerative agriculture framework be shared and improved upon through experience - and importantly, data. When we discussed this with Jen Hunter, farmer at Fernhill Farm in the Mendip Hills, she mentioned that it is about the rule of thirds: take a third, leave a third, then a third is available for wildlife.

But how does regenerative agriculture fit on a fashion business blog?

As is defined above, regenerative agriculture is a framework of systems that help to reverse climate change via our soil. This very matter is at the heart of our existence, and devastatingly, due to effects from intensive agriculture, impacts of weather (from human-created climate change) and chemical input amongst other man-made industries, it's likely that if we don't quickly act in restoring our soils, in 60 years time, we won't have enough good stuff left. If you're a gardener, then you'll understand the importance of compost, however, on a global scale when food arrives for us in plastic in a supermarket, or with ready-made clothes, we don't have to think about where it came from. The soil is in fact integral to our water system, our ozone layer and the very essence of life on earth. Without it, we can't breathe because we can't have plants and trees.

As we receive our textiles from these plants, or via animals who have eaten those plants, as a fashion business owner you are accountable for your decisions. So, dive in to learn more about the land and water use practices that will help us collectively regenerate and maintain healthy natural ecosystems for our planet. There really is no Planet B.



Aquaculture

Aquaculture is the controlled process of cultivating aquatic organisms, especially for human consumption. It is also referred to as fish farming. [Global Aquaculture Alliance]

Agroecology

Ecology is the study of relationships between plants, animals, people, and their environment - and the balance between these relationships. Agroecology is the application of ecological concepts and principals in farming. [Soil Association]

Agroforestry

An example of agroecology, it’s the practice of combining trees and farming; it demonstrates how food production and nature can co-exist.

Biochar

‘Biochar’ is a catch-all term describing any organic material that has been carbonised under high temperatures (300-1000°C), in the presence of little, or no oxygen. This process (called ‘pyrolysis’) releases bio-oils plus gases and leaves a solid residue of at least 80% elemental carbon which is termed biochar. The idea of using biochar in soils was born from observing the man-made ‘Terra Preta’ soils of the Amazon. The fertility of the poor, acid soils in this region is thought to have been improved through addition of charred organic material by the area’s indigenous inhabitants. Biochar incorporation into soil is an important route for CO2 removal from the atmosphere by terrestrial carbon sequestration. Scientific research is still underway as to the benefits, and if there are any drawbacks. [RHS]

Holistic planned grazing

Originally developed by Allan Savory in order to reverse desertification in Sub-Saharan Africa, Holistic Management mimics the natural herd patterns of animals in terms of how many together, and how long in a particular place. Leaving the grass to rest for longer periods builds resilience in the soil. More energy is harnessed from photosynthesis, creating a stronger and deeper root system. This improves water infiltration and storage capacity, reducing flooding as well as making the grass more drought-tolerant. [Farmer’s Weekly]

Nomadic pastoralism is a form of pastoralism (country life) when livestock are herded in order to find fresh pastures on which to graze. True nomads follow an irregular pattern of movement, in contrast with transhumance where seasonal pastures are fixed. As Jen Hunter describes it, it is about mimicking large herds of herbivores. They are a prey animal so they flock together for safety in numbers. By understanding what wild animals do helps farmers mimic that with their own flocks: they will move a flock of sheep into a fresh piece of ground every few days. Fernhill Farm live by the old saying, "No animal should hear the church bell ring in the same field twice".

"Everyone likes to go somewhere that's clean, and that's no different for a grazing animal." ~ Jen Hunter

No-Till

One of the biggest contributors to land degradation is the simple process of plowing fields. According to geologist David Montgomery, author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, the world loses roughly 23 billion tons of good soil each year, and at last estimate we have around 60 years of remaining soil left on the Earth. No Till simply means not ploughing the fields, and instead harvesting by hand or with minimal machinery preventing soil erosion. Also known as zero tillage or direct drilling. [Modern Farmer]

Pasture cropping

Pasture cropping is a farmer-initiated land management system that seamlessly integrates cropping with pasture production, and allows grain growing to function as part of a truly perennial agriculture. [Permaculture News].

We use a high amount of our land growing grains for cattle to eat. The cattle and sheep can easily and happily graze the grass, as that's what they evolved to do. It means we have less biodiversity with our grain cropping, meaning monoculture fields. For efficiency, this is great, but as soon as you plough that field of its one crop, expose the soil to the sun and rain where it will dry or wash away, you've degraded the nutrition it has. You're also limited in what wildlife is around i.e. pollinators. One less well-known benefit of textile fibres like organic cotton and hemp, is that in fact vegetables are a magnificent companion crop for these, or transversely, grow textile fibre plants that will introduce another type of biodiversity or food production such as seed (ss with flax).

Silvopasture

Silvopasture systems comprise trees deliberately introduced into a forage production system (or, rarely, forage introduced into a tree production system), the whole designed to produce a high-value tree component, while continuing to produce the forage and livestock component indefinitely or for a significant time. is the practice of integrating trees, forage, and the grazing of domesticated animals in a mutually beneficial way. It utilizes the principles of managed grazing, and it is one of several distinct forms of agroforestry. [Agroforestry UK]


Here we have some terms that you may come across when researching or ingesting the world of agriculture, or were mentioned in our panel discussion with Jen Hunter and Babs Behan on localised wool production.

Animal husbandry

Animal husbandry is the branch of agriculture concerned with animals that are raised for meat, fibre, milk, eggs, or other products. It includes day-to-day care, selective breeding and the raising of livestock.

Land stewardship

Land stewardship is the conservation of your property's natural resources and features over a long period of time.

Conservation grazing (under grazing and over grazing)

Grazing is often the most effective and natural way to maintain certain habitats such as grassland and heathland. National Trust use grazing animals such as sheep and cattle on some of their nature reserves to continue a more traditional system carried out by rural people grazing their animals and living off the land. In the past, where people cleared land for cultivation and pasture their grazing animals helped replicate the effect of large herbivores which roamed the land in earlier times. Conservation grazing aims to continue this traditional system to help maintain habitats which have evolved over many centuries. [National Trust] https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/woolbeding-countryside/features/conservation-grazing

Cradle to Cradle

Cradle-to-cradle design (also referred to as 2CC2, C2C, cradle 2 cradle, or regenerative design) is a biomimetic approach to the design of products and systems that models human industry on nature's processes, where materials are viewed as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms.

Climate beneficial

The practice of Carbon Farming means that the land draws just as much (or more) CO2 into the soil as it emits into our ozone layer. Wool from a farm that has implemented carbon drawdown can be described as Climate Beneficial.

Carbon Farming

Carbon Farming involves implementing practices that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and/or soil organic matter [Carbon Cycle]. Fibershed has a wonderful resource on just exactly what it looks like in practice.

We've selected a few soil carbon-building practices from their approved list to help visualise where this sits for textiles, though, trawling their website and buying (or borrowing) Rebecca's book would really give you a better insight.

Alley Cropping

Alley Cropping is planting rows of trees at wide spacings with a companion crop grown in the alleyways between the rows. Alley cropping can diversify farm income, improve crop production and provide protection and conservation benefits to crops. [Center for Agroforestry

Cover crops

This is something usually inbuilt in to your rotation plan, so that your soil is able to regenerate by building up nutrients before you plant a new crop e.g. for instance after courgettes you don't want a heavy feeder, but you may not be ready for brassicas. This is the same for textiles in that for example with flax, once you pull it out (or ideally cut it right down at the ground level), the soil is no longer covered, but you may be waiting until spring to re-plant. Cover cropping can be a temporary solution to keep nutrition in the soil, that benefits wildlife and could even be harvested for eating. This is Fibershed's guide on cover cropping, however, some examples would be clover, ryegrass, oats, buckwheat and hairy vetch - so you can see how it can be still utilised for food, perfect for smallholder farmers.

Wetland restoration

Wetland restoration is the manipulation of a former or degraded wetland's physical, chemical, or biological characteristics to return its natural functions. [US EPA]. While we wouldn't necessarily grow textile fibres in wetlands (though they could be helpful for the retting of bast fibres), their main function ecologically is to act as a flood barrier. In countries that are now more than ever ravaged by sudden influxes in our changing weather system, restoration of wetlands is vital to protecting those communities and their livelihoods.


In all of this is the need to look to the future. Regenerative agriculture is actually great for business, along with the social and environmental benefits. But as it stands, we produce too much and consume too much without regard for origin or what the life cycle of that product is or what will happen to it when we're finished. And remember, "finished" may actually be in a 100 years if we're talking plastic.

"What is the best practice? What are we going to leave behind? This is just as important as what we take away from every piece of land." ~ Babs Behan

For Professional Members, you can listen to the full hour long panel discussion with Babs and Jen, along with key takeaways to help you best absorb this whopping topic.


Additional reading

We would highly recommend the Soil Health, Water & Climate ChangeA Pocket Guide to What You Need to Know [Land Stewardship Project]

Capital Growth is an initiative to get London growing food, but they run courses in all sorts of garden-related subjects including my own linen processing workshop. Currently they're all run online so you can join in from wherever.

Cradle to Cradle: Redesigning The Way We Make Things isn't about agriculture, but it is about a systems-based approach to design that you really should be aware of

Again, it's about design rather than farming, but it puts into perspective for those really immersed in the fashion world just what the impact of fibres is on the land. So go on and read Sustainable Fashion and Textiles: Design Journeys by Professor Kate Fletcher. Along with her newest collaborative publication Design and Nature: A Partnership.

Lucy Siegle's To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World is an emotive book that will give you insight into the dirtiest and devastating sides of fashion, including fur farming, something still heavily intensive on the land even if animals are not literally raised on a farm.

If you can find a stream somewhere or can rent it, watch 2040. The key element here is seeing conversations between farmers who would never have previously considered regenerative agriculture until they saw it in practice and had the data for themselves.

Blog image: Paige Green from Fibershed