You’ve undoubtedly heard the terms “sustainable” and “organic” in conversations about farming and agriculture practices, but have you heard of regenerative agriculture? The traditional agriculture industry depletes nutrients in the soil, often without replenishing. It also adds to carbon emissions in the atmosphere—9% of all greenhouse gases come from agriculture, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
To decrease that number, regenerative agriculture aims to improve the environment while simultaneously growing within it. It focuses on rebuilding topsoil and boosting biodiversity, which pulls carbon from the air and traps it in the ground rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.
What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture focuses on restoring soil health, improving water management, decreasing synthetic fertilizer use, and reducing soil problems such as erosion.
Effects over time
• Short term: Regenerative agriculture creates better soil, which grows better plants, which can better feed humans and animals. It also improves water retention and produces cleaner runoff.
• Midterm: These farming practices help return agricultural biodiversity above and below the surface to pre-industrial levels, allowing soil and plants to flourish with reduced or eliminated reliance on synthetic materials.
• Long term: Regenerative agriculture mitigates climate change via carbon sequestration, maximizing the amount of carbon dioxide pulled from the atmosphere through plant growth (photosynthesis) and minimizing the release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere.
Regeneration International, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and facilitating regenerative farming and land management, notes that the most effective approaches to regenerative agriculture achieve the following:
• Contribute to generating/building soils for fertility and health
• Improve water filtration, water retention, and clean and safe water runoff
• Increase biodiversity and ecosystem health and resiliency
• Stem agricultural carbon emissions by keeping more of it in the ground, potentially cleansing the atmosphere of legacy levels of CO2
Restoring Nevada’s rangelands and grazing practices
The agriculture industry often relies on feedlots or feed yards—where a large number of animals are fed and kept in a pen to quickly increase their weight. This practice propels monoculture production (raising only corn or alfalfa for the sole purpose of fattening cattle), contributes to water pollution via runoff, forces a reliance on antibiotic usage and increases CO2 methane emissions via bovine gas.
Utilizing grazing practices, on the other hand, helps relieve pressure on land because animals eat at their own pace in pastures rather than relying on harvested food. This decreases the amount of carbon released in the atmosphere, improves plant and insect biodiversity and restores nutrients.
Nevada rancher Agee Smith goes one step further by encouraging biodiversity in the plants and animals that live alongside his cattle. He strategically grazes his herd year-round, with only a small amount of supplemental feed for winter.
“We don’t want a grass animal waiting around all day for the hay wagon to arrive,” Smith told Beef Magazine in an article in February. “Instead, we want an animal that takes advantage of what is available across the range and still performs at a profitable level.”
Managing grazing lands with regenerative and sustainable ethics in mind is catching on with ranchers across the West. Organizations that help achieve this goal in Nevada include:
• The Nevada Section of the Society for Range Management, a member-dependent conservation organization that strives to “provide leadership for the stewardship of rangelands based on sound ecological and socioeconomic principles.”
• Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, a Savory Global Network hub operating out of California, works “to empower communities through ecological regeneration.” The center hosts programs to increase land performance, improve nutrition density in feed and produce, manage for drought conditions, etc.
There are certain key techniques farmers can use to strike a better, more holistic balance in the agro-ecosystem. Some regenerative agriculture methods include:
• Conservation tillage/non-tillage: Plowing and tilling turn and erode sensitive layers of soil, releasing carbon dioxide, scattering nutrients and stripping or compacting the soil, which can create more water runoff. Low- or no-till approaches minimize soil disturbance, which allows organic matter to layer and maintain itself naturally. This can make the land more resilient, as it is allowed to operate the same way it has done since the dawn of dirt.
• Diversity planting: The lack of diversity in a monoculture system (cultivating one crop over and over) has several negative ecological effects. Planting a single species destroys the soil's ability to restore key nutrients; decreases insect diversity, leaving plants open to pest invasion; decimates microorganism and bacteria colonies in the soil; and can undermine the stability of soil layers by not having different root depths. Diverse planting prevents those negative effects. Different crops release different nutrients into the soil, alleviate soil disruption and invite a varied array of microbes, pollinators and other insects.
• Natural controls: Monoculture planting often uses synthetic materials in herbicides, insecticides, bactericides and fertilizers to control plant and soil health. These materials can leach into water systems and indiscriminately kill organisms that may be beneficial to ecosystem stability. Using compost or compost extract helps restore soil microbes that combat “bad” bacteria; multi-crop and intercrop plantings help diversify nutrients that can strengthen plants without synthetic support; and multispecies cover crops help prevent soil erosion between planting cycles.
This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.