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“Regenerative Agriculture” is more than just cover crops and no-till

Published: February 24, 2020 by Editorial Team

Regenerative agriculture is creating quite a buzz in the news and in the sustainability and carbon sectors as of late. However, while regenerative agriculture can include a wide variety of practices, cover cropping, no- or reduced- till, and better nitrogen management seem to be hogging all of the press. While society should definitely be incentivizing these practices, we need to be thinking more broadly and creatively.

In thinking more broadly, the first questions we should be asking are related to land use. How can we prevent converting previously untilled acres into row crop agriculture to avoid emitting vast amounts of already-stored soil carbon? My colleague, Kyler Sherry, described the importance of protecting existing rangelands in her Scorcher two weeks ago. Much of America’s cropland was once forest. Should we start transitioning less-productive farmland back to forest cover?

As for creativity, we should be promoting the planting of working trees on farms. Not only can trees store carbon in their biomass and soil, but they can protect the nation’s waterways, produce crops and contribute to biodiversity. Trees can be intercropped with row crops, planted in riparian buffers, key wetlands, sensitive soils, and on less productive soils and areas difficult to farm. This increases water quality by reducing erosion, filtering farm runoff and decreasing water temperatures. Selecting the right native trees can produce climate-resilient crops, like hazel or walnuts, which could provide a financial hedge against the vagaries of a rapidly changing climate while fast-growing poplars and willows can be a locally-grown replacement for fossil-fuel energy in rural communities. Trees provide wind breaks and decrease soil temperatures, reducing drought risk on adjacent cropped areas, particularly if they are intercropped. There are also obvious habitat benefits to wildlife and biodiversity in areas that might otherwise be a sea of monoculture. Less obvious are the ways in which these diverse habitats support predators of common agriculture pests.

There is significant room for growth in the incorporation of working trees on farms and reforestation of marginal or sensitive agricultural lands in America. One project that sets a shining example is in the Lower Mississippi Valley where the Federal Wetland Reserve Program reforested more than 680,000 acres of marginal farmlands and wetlands between 1990 and 2005.  Well over 100,000 acres are involved in one form of carbon offset project or another. The reforested region is expected to sequester an average of 4.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide atmospheric equivalents per acre per year.

There is a host of strategies that can be employed to improve the carbon sequestration and regenerative potential of agriculture, particularly if we expand our thinking to the landscape level. Let’s not get stuck narrowly focusing on only a few regenerative agricultural strategies – we’ll need them all.