Regenerative organic soil gets the best of both worlds

A deep dive into how regenerative organic agricultural practices can benefit soil health with Brent Preston and Gillian Flies from The New Farm.

Gillian Flies and Brent Preston own and operate The New Farm, a vegetable farm that provides high-quality, organic produce to fine restaurants and specialty retail stores in the Toronto and Collingwood areas. Cool-weather greens and root vegetables grow on the 20 farmed acres located in the Niagara Escarpment. Gillian and Brent’s approach to farming is “regenerative organic,” a relatively new sustainable farming method that is based on the Regenerative Organic Certificate developed by the Rodale Institute.

While some consider regenerative and organic practices to be one and the same – as it was in the 1930s when “regenerative” was first coined by one of the founders of organic agriculture – the Canadian Organic Standards are not always prescriptive when it comes to practices that are gaining momentum among regenerative enthusiasts, such as conservation tillage and integrating animals. Nevertheless, both regenerative and organic principles are rooted in the same common practice: building soil health.

Why soil health matters

Soil is a living matter, hosting millions of organisms and sustaining wildlife while playing a crucial role in myriad processes in the global ecosystem, including nutrient cycling, climate regulation, water retention, and food provision (Regeneration Canada, 2023). Despite its importance, soil health is declining; according to Regeneration Canada, 33% of soils worldwide are degraded, losing their ability to absorb water and grow plants, while also emitting their carbon content as CO2 into the atmosphere. Conventional farming practices can lead to significant reductions in soil quality from erosion, compaction, and pollution (Reganold, Elliott, & Unger, 1987). Brent tells us that “When we were doing a lot of tillage for the first 10 years of our farm, we saw that our soil started breaking down in structure, and it would dry out really quickly when we had dry spells.”

Declines in soil quality have serious implications for both human and environmental health. Fortunately, regenerative organic agriculture implements practices aimed at mitigating these detrimental effects and restoring soil health.

Regenerative organic agriculture benefits soil

Regenerative organic agriculture encompasses a set of practices that encourages its core principle: building a healthy and biodiverse environment by working with nature, rather than against it. “We generally try to create as much biodiversity as we possibly can on the farm, in our cropping mix, in our cover crops. Outside of our productive areas, we’ve planted 10 thousand trees on the farm. We do what we can to promote wildlife,” Brent explains. These practices, such as reduced tilling, cover cropping, and mulching, have a heavy focus on soil health. The overall goal of regenerative organic agriculture is to prioritize practices aimed at sequestering soil carbon, reducing erosion, and increasing natural soil fertility.

Now more than ever, farmers need to invest in climate-resilient operations that won’t be devastated by extreme weather events (Regeneration Canada, 2023). “In the past 5 years, we’ve reduced our tillage by about 70-75%,” Brent explains, “The water holding capacity of our soil has really increased since we’ve been tilling less, and we generally have faster growth of our salad greens.” According to the Soil Conservation Council of Canada, soil degradation is estimated to cost Canadians around $3.1 billion annually (Antler & Munroe, 2021).

Regenerative organic agriculture implements practices such as biological pest control, crop rotation, and organic fertilizers to reduce or exclude the use of chemicals (Zalidis et al., 2002). According to the National Soil Project data analysis, organic farming fosters significantly higher levels of soil organic matter and sequestered carbon than conventional farming (Nick, 2018). “Organic farming practices leave the soil better than we found it,” explains Gillian.

Regenerative organic farmers also benefit from resistance to extreme weather conditions. According to the Rodale Institute, organic fields hold more water during droughts, with 15-20% more water seeping through the soil to replenish groundwater aquifers under organic fields than under conventional fields. By implementing these practices on their farms, farmers can create healthier soils that are more resilient to climate change while improving soil quality for future generations. Gillian says, “It will make [the soil] viable for farmers to use and thrive on in the future.”

There is no question that regenerative agriculture improves soil health, even without the organic label. However, as an unregulated movement with no set of standards governing it, there are opportunities for greenwashing. Practicing regenerative organic agriculture as defined by the ROC program simultaneously allows farmers to bridge these gaps while benefitting from a comprehensive standard and marketable brand.

In 2017, the Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s launched an initiative called the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), which also provides Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). It created a new set of standards that has as a baseline the USDA National Organic Program (ROC Bronze level is simply anyone certified organic), but rewards farmers for going above and beyond (ROC Gold and Silver recognition). These new certifications and standards are raising awareness of the benefits of regenerative organic farming, which can encourage not only its adoption but also help stress the potential of improving environmental and human health through enhanced soil quality.

When it comes to improving soil health, Brent tells us, “It’s for sure a constant challenge – we’re always learning things from other farmers and from experimenting on our farm. I think we get better every year and our soil health and the productivity of our farm increase a little bit each year, but we’re always learning new things.”

This article was written by OCO and originally published in the Fruit and Vegetable Magazine.

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