As I’ve described elsewhere, there are multiple divergent meanings of “Regenerative Agriculture” in use today. Instead of subjectively applying any particular definition, I’ve chosen to start with a simple objective approach: Who is using the term?
While this may seem overly simplistic, it turns out that even using the term is a non-trivial step for most organizations. It implies, at least, that the decision-makers have explored the definitional landscape and decided that something about “regeneration” is important enough to publicly align with and proclaim.
I recognize that this is a lowest-common-denominator approach, and invites onto this map entities whose usage of the term I disagree with — even entities whose approach I believe will degrade and banalize the deeper meaning of the term. Over time I will add more layers of analysis to discern between the different lineages and levels of regenerative agriculture that are sourcing each entity’s usage.
When I co-organized the Carbon Farming Course: Workshops in Regenerative Agriculture in 2009 and 2012, only a few small groups of organizations were using the term “Regenerative Agriculture”. Through a combination of pathways, these groups have exponentially grown the number of entities and financial scale of the industry. Through the uptake by large CPG companies starting in 2016, it’s likely that the annual revenue to companies that are explicitly promoting regenerative agriculture is greater than $50 billion.
This is a Draft
Version 1.0 is a draft. There are very likely mistakes. Please help me correct them. If the “usage year” listed for your organization is incorrect, I will happily change it — please just send me a link to the date of a public record where you use the term “Regenerative Agriculture”. If your estimated financial scale is incorrect, please tell me (with as much precision as you’d like to be public) what it should be. Thank you!
Organizations are grouped in five categories:
Investment: Primarily investment managers and funds, though a few family offices are included.
Farm: Includes farms that develop and market their own products. See additional note about Farms below.
Service Organization: Educators, consultants, research organizations, agricultural equipment and product manufacturers, land managers not tied to a single farm, media producers, for-profit membership organizations, ecosystem platforms, and other types of organizations.
CPG: Consumer Packaged Goods manufacturers, primarily food and beverage, but including some health and beauty products. Retailers of Consumer Packaged Goods are included here, along with fashion and clothing manufacturers.
Non-Profit: A diversity of not-for-profit organizations, from education to research to events convening to advocacy.
There is significant overlap in the functional work of entities in the “Service Organization” and “Non-Profit” categories, with the primary division being the choice of legal organizational structure.
Strongly under-represented in Version 1.0 of the Map are farms. The number of farms that are beginning to use the term ‘regenerative’ is multiplying exponentially. Many farms that have been using the principles of Holistic Management, Biodynamics, Permaculture, or Organic Agriculture are now saying, “we have been regenerative for a long time.” Combine that with a flood of larger US and Australian farms that are growing conventionally while adopting some form of regenerative agriculture principles, and this is a challenging category to keep up with. This is compounded by the fact that a much smaller proportion of farms maintain up-to-date websites — which makes pinpointing the year they started using the term difficult.
In summary, the distinction that I’ve chosen for version 1.0 of the Map, “Explicitly using the term “regenerative agriculture” in public-facing communications” is hard to track for farms. And, I would like to do a better job in the next version of this map recording this quickly-changing farm. I’ll keep adding farms to the list, and welcome any contributions from the wider community.
Estimated Financial Scale
Organizations are loosely clumped into one of 4 financial scale categories, based primarily on publicly available information. For most entities on the map the estimated financial scale refers to annual revenue, with the exception of Investment organizations where it refers to Assets Under Management (AUM).
One current issue with the map is that the estimated financial scale grouping is based on relatively current information (from the last 1–5 years), and does necessarily accurately depict the financial scale of the organizations at the time when they started using the term “Regenerative Agriculture.” I welcome any suggestions on a graphically elegant way to depict this complexity.
Note about Earliest Usages
This first written record of the term “Regenerative Agriculture” was in 1979 by Medard Gabel (thanks to Luke Smith of Terra Genesis for research on this). Soon afterwards (in 1983), Robert Rodale of the Rodale Institute began using the term, and led the creation of the “Regenerative Agriculture Association” sometime in the 1980s. They published at least one book that I have seen (“Booker T. Whatley’s Handbook on How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres”), and began promoting early ideas about regeneration alongside their work on organic farming.
Sometime After Robert Rodale’s unexpected death in 1990, the Rodale Institute dropped the term, focusing on promoting Organic Agriculture for more than 20 years. After the permaculture community and several other organizations (especially Darren Doherty of Regrarians, Terra Genesis International, Armonia LLC, and Biological Capital) started using “Regenerative Agriculture” between 2009–2013, the Rodale Institute reclaimed the term (2014) in a modified usage that they continue today: “Regenerative Organic”.
There are two primary pathways along which I plan to develop I plan develop this map.
Expansion. As noted, there are a lot of farms out there using the term that are not yet on this map. Additionally, this map is heavily United States-centric, and should definitely be expanded to better represent the work happening in South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.
Depth. I will add layers of detail and complexity over time. I’ll start with characterizing the “Lineages” from which each entity is sourcing their use of “Regenerative Agriculture”. Next I will characterize the Level of Regenerative Agriculture that each entity is working from, through a combination of supported self-reporting and my subjective assessments. Then I will start to develop more detailed attributes for the different entities, including the agricultural practices, business models, and metrics utilized by each. Eventually these attributes will include locations, climate zones, and crops produced.
If you would like to contribute to the development of either pathway, please email me to discuss: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Will the exponential growth trend of the last decade continue? How many entities using the term “Regenerative Agriculture” will it take to reverse climate change? What would success look like for the growth of this industry?
(Note: I’m writing a more complete and expanded version of this article, including graphics and structured analyses of these lineages. Sign up for my mailing list if you want to read the finished version.)
There are 5 primary intellectual and practical Lineages of people who are using the term”Regenerative Agriculture”.
Each Lineage has a different definition, farming philosophy, and approach to growing their community. In the last year, one of them is quickly (but quietly) out-growing the others.
Here are the Five Lineages of Regenerative Agriculture:
1. Rodale Organic
Basic organic agriculture practices promoted by Rodale since the 1970s, re-dubbed “Regenerative Organic” in recent years and requiring the tenets of organic agriculture as a baseline. The focus is soil. CPG brands have been strongly promoting this lineage, most notably through the Regenerative Organic Certification.
This lineage seems to think that “regeneration” is a combination of 40-year-tested conversation farming practices – cover cropping, crop rotation, compost, low- or no-till. These are great practices for reducing erosion, inputs and (if practiced with great skill) beginning to increase soil carbon. However, I do not think there is any such thing as a “Regenerative Agriculture Practice” – only systemic outcomes can confirm that a regeneration is taking place.
Permaculture as a global movement loves the IDEA of regenerative agriculture, but for the most part fails to achieve significant levels of agricultural production. Along with a strong focus on small-scale design and unproven beliefs about reversing climate change, this lineage of Regenerative Agriculture tends towards ideals from the human potential movement, focusing on how to create “thriving” and “abundance” for all.
Regrarians, emerging from but transcending the scale and idealism of permaculture, has for decades integrated Holistic Management, Keyline, and ecological design processes at farm-scale around the world. In my opinion some of the best regenerative agriculture farm design comes from this lineage – they effectively integrate agroforestry, comprehensive water-planning, soil-building, and holistic livestock management while building farmer capacity and economic viability.
3. Holistic Management
Promoted by both the Savory Institute and Holistic Management International, focusing on a comprehensive decision-making framework designed for animal-centric ecosystem regeneration.
Over 50 years ago, the term ‘Regenerative’ was developed by Charles Krone to describe a radically different paradigm of approaching human and systems development. Guided by the Carol Sanford Institute, a small but effective community of practice including Regenesis, Terra Genesis International, Regen.Network and others has applied the paradigm to Business, Design, Planning, Education, and Agriculture.
Many people who begin their journey in the ‘Permaculture’ lineage mentioned above, find their way to here. The most complete explanation (so far!) of farming from the perspective of this lineage is freely available in the paper ‘Levels of Regenerative Agriculture‘.
5. Soil Profits / No-Till / NRCS
Typified and led by Ray Archuleta, Gabe Brown, and others, this lineage draws practices and inspiration from other Lineages but appeals strongly to conventional farmers by eschewing the dogmas of organic agriculture and focusing on bottom line profits through increased soil health.
This final Lineage is the one that I see quietly experiencing exponential growth – dominating the Regenerative Agriculture mentions in middle-America newspapers (which I track, somewhat obsessively, in the monthly Regeneration Newsroom) and actually being adopted by mainstream conventional farmers.
By bypassing prejudices against ‘organic’, and allowing farmers to still use synthetic inputs, this lineage is received openly enough to then show the economic arguments for decreasing inputs and improving soil through good crop rotation, no-till, and grazing practices.
The narrative that something as effective and sexy as “Regenerative Agriculture” is available to conventional farmers is a big deal. While I think this lineage misses opportunities through its incompleteness and dis-integrative approach, I believe it is incredibly important for the world to watch and support its growth and evolution.
My goal in writing up these lineages is to help discern and distinguish the different meanings and philosophies at play when someone says “Regenerative Agriculture”.
There is a significant “Regenerative Hype” sweeping into public consciousness, primarily through the natural products industry, but also pushed by recent climate change reports and global political dialogue.
More and more organizations, individuals, and businesses will start to claim that what they are doing is “regenerative”, without changing how they are thinking or even what they are doing. I think that understanding what lineage they are speaking from will help everyone to discuss, debate, and further develop the actual effects of work in this realm – there is great potential in Regenerative Agriculture, and we are not anywhere close to achieving it.
Ever thought about starting a business or building a career in regenerative agriculture? Prepare to get creative—and to get some dirt under your fingernails.
Ethan Soloviev is a founding team member of Terra Genesis, an international regenerative design consultancy. He helps create resilient and profitable businesses by redesigning supply chains to make them regenerative.
How did Soloviev find his way to his current career? Let’s just say that the guy who in his early 20s traveled the world to study apples, didn’t exactly follow a linear career track.
In this interview with Regeneration International, Soloviev covers several topics related to regenerative agriculture, including what types of experiences you might want to get under your belt if you’re contemplating a career in the fast-growing field of regenerative food, farming, and natural products.
This interview has been edited for brevity and readability.
Regeneration International (RI): Tell us about yourself.
Ethan Soloviev (ES): I’m a designer at Terra Genesis International. We grow the field of regenerative supply by working with companies around the world to transform supply chains into networks of resource production. I am also the EVP of Research at HowGood, which rates the sustainability of food, personal care products and cleaning products. We’re working to change the overall direction of the marketplace, and also to empower consumers to purchase and choose the best products that they can.
RI: How did you build your career in regenerative supply networks, agriculture and design?
ES: It’s been 15 years now. I did a degree in biology and afterwards I traveled around the world studying apples. I visited some amazing places—Sweden, Kazakhstan, Japan, New Zealand, Chile, Central America—and I got to see a global picture of how apples are grown. That really woke me up to agriculture and the damage that monoculture chemical industrial agriculture systems around the world are doing. That led me to permaculture. I took a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) and started a permaculture business back in 2005. I grew that business (AppleSeed Permaculture LLC) for a decade. It’s still one of the largest Permaculture Design businesses in the northeast of North America.
We started doing small-scale edible landscapes and eventually built up to larger design work, doing 300-1200-acre farms. I learned a lot about farm design and startup. People would often say, “It’s great to create food forests and ponds and biointensive vegetable gardens but it’ll take time, investment and energy to get this going—can it really make a return?” So we started running the numbers. We schooled ourselves very quickly in agronomics, and built a series of enterprise budgets to check if an enterprise was going to be economically viable. We found that a lot of the brilliant ideas of permaculture need to be checked against the economic reality of whatever place you’re working in to see if there’s something that can be sustained beyond the initial excitement.
RI: Right, the big question in the regeneration movement right now is “how do we scale regenerative agriculture?”
ES: It’s interesting, I go back and forth about whether “scaling” regenerative agriculture is the right thing to do. Part of me really wants to do it and wants to do it as fast as possible. It’s early and we’re heading towards the birth of a new industry. The supply of regenerative goods and massive landscape restoration that regenerative agriculture enables can produce multiple forms of profit. So it is exciting to think, “How fast can we scale this?”
However, another part of me has a different perspective. Regenerative agriculture is not a machine. We’re actually seeking to regenerate whole living systems. All of the language in the startup and venture capital communities is derived from a mechanical paradigm, where “scaling” means adding more machines to do more of the same work. Humans, and landscapes, are not machines. So I don’t think “scaling” is the appropriate metaphor for regenerative agriculture.
At the same time, I think now is a moment when we can and should work to quickly grow the community. How can we reconcile the two perspectives?
RI: What are the biggest gaps in knowledge in the movement right now that young people looking to get into the industry could fill?
ES: The biggest gap is investable enterprise —enterprises that have proven business models that actually capture carbon in the soil, increase biodiversity and generate financial capital returns. Proven business models and experienced teams will be required to metabolize the slow money and venture capital that is out there looking for a place to land.
Most of what I see in the regenerative movement is big ideas and excitement but not a lot of reality about how to pull off those ideas. That’s another big gap. There are many things that we can do to create enterprises worth investing in. Whether we’ll see exponential or linear or logarithmic growth, I’m not sure, but I do believe that working with the current system ofaccepting investment capital is going to be the fastest route to move forward and set the foundation for the real birth of a new industry.
The movement needs people who have depth of knowledge in what they’re doing. We need people who have experience running and growing businesses, or who want to go and get that experience. Even more, we need people who can do the farming. People who can actually get out there and run a holistic management livestock operation with multiple species on multiple pieces of land, who can successfully repair the land and grow food. We also need people with experience growing nut trees and fruit trees—perennial crops have already proven to be profitable, and they are our best bet for rapid global carbon sequestration. Then we need to integrate the two, bring together livestock operations and perennial tree crops—that’s where the fun really starts.
RI: For people who don’t have that in-depth knowledge or experience, where should they start?
ES: People would do well to hone in on what they’re really excited about. If it’s nut crops, great! Go for that. If it’s animals, great! Go for that. If a number of people can get depth in these functional farming enterprises and collaborate with other people who have gone and acquired the business skills along the way, that will lead to the creation of new enterprises. We could call this integrative depth. We’re really going to need teams of people working together to move regenerative agriculture forward.
I think we need about 1000 companies to really take this on. The restraint and challenge with that right now is that there are only about 10 businesses that have even said that they want regenerative supply systems. Those companies are great. Some of them are large and moving in this direction quickly. But they aren’t enough.
The 1000 companies need to be a combination of 1) existing companies who agree to pick up and take on regenerative agriculture, transform their supply systems into regenerative supply, and 2) new ventures with totally fresh perspectives, drawing from fresh investment sources.
RI: What is TGI doing to get those other 990 companies on board? And how does that relate to developing your client base?
ES: Terra Genesis focuses primarily on the natural products industry—food, consumer packaged goods and cosmetics. The exciting thing for our clients is there’s actually a real business case for regenerative agriculture. We carry out risk assessments where we look at a company’s supply chain, which includes all of the ingredients in their portfolio whether it’s 5 or 500. Then we ask, “What are the risks right now?” “What are the opportunities?”
A lot of times the opportunities come from where a company is purchasing from of the commodities marketplace, whether it’s cocoa butter or citric acid or almonds. We hone in on those and look for ways to go directly to producers who are really pushing the edge on regenerative practices. By cutting out the multiple middle-people that are implicit in the commodity supply chain you can get prices that are similar or even better, while simultaneously offering real living and cultural capital profits on the ground for farmers. There are actual cost saving potentials in doing this inside a supply chain! And then we help our clients leverage the story of doing this.
Businesses that take a step in this direction, especially now, they get to be leaders. They’re early adopters and they will fully shine at the top. Patagonia, Nutiva, Lush Cosmetics and Epic are all talking about regenerative agriculture. They have real leadership in the marketplace.
Fortunately there’s a lot of room in a lot of different categories for businesses to step up and head towards regenerative agriculture.
RI: Which categories have the most potential right now?
ES: Cosmetics. Cleaning products. Sunscreen. Clothing. In food, there are so many opportunities! I don’t think there’s a potato chip company that is doing regenerative agriculture yet. How about an ice cream company? Tea. Soda. Almonds. Any kind of fruit. Olive oil. Salt. Bread. Beer. In any category brands are always looking for ways to position themselves as #1 (that’s one of the immutable laws of marketing). I think regenerative agriculture is a powerful tactic for this—it almost creates a new category for brands to step into and lead.
RI: What are your top favourite design courses that you recommend, to help people build the right skills to work in this industry?
ES: If you’re new to this realm, take a Permaculture Design Certification (PDC). You can do that while working your job that you don’t really like, at a bank or at a software company or wherever. The reason I say that is that while it is useful to grow and build skills in certain practices, what’s more useful if you want a career in regeneration is to evolve your paradigm. To do this, you have to disrupt your current paradigm. The PDC will do that. PDCs are an emersion in ecosystem thinking and whole systems design. Go get the certification. It’s a great start.
The next level of depth I recommend is taking a REX course from Regrarians, which is really the best training in regenerative agriculture that’s out there. In the past our team has run Carbon Farming Courses, and we’ll be re-starting some carbon farming education later this year. Also excellent would be any trainings in holistic management, from Savory Institute, or Holistic Management International. They’re different, but both are good.
RI: After taking some of these training courses, what next?
ES: Go work on a farm. You need to actually work, and then ideally manage a perennial agriculture or an agroforestry or a livestock-based system. If you’ve got a great idea and are trying to go out there and pitch people on it and get venture capital to fund an idea, unless you have proven experience and a proven business model, it’s not really going to work.
Go get some experience! Dig in. Spend a year or two on the farming side of things actually farming and producing food or fiber. You could also explore growing crops for the personal care industry. There’s something very interesting about growing for personal care: the margins are much better than they are in food. And for single ingredients (e.g. essential oils or nut butters), if you’ve got a really good story, then you can gain leadership and sales.
L’Oreal has a plan to be carbon negative by 2020. It’s one of the five largest personal care companies in the world. They’re going to need to be purchasing fair trade regenerative agriculture products in order to achieve that goal. But there’s not enough supply for that anywhere on the planet. Maybe 1/1000th of it currently exists. So get to work!
RI: What about supply chain management courses or MBAs to complement on-the-ground experience?
ES: I’m a big fan of on-the-job learning and training. There’s one masters degree I highly recommend, from Gaia University. It’s a global action learning system that encourages people to be working at their jobs while learning and getting accredited while they do it. You could for example do an online supply chain optimization course while working for a personal care or food products company, and get credit for it.
As for an MBA, while I’m not 100 percent sure, I’m going to go ahead and say, “yes.” We need some people who are excited about regenerative agriculture to go get an MBA and report back on how useful it’s been. As we discussed earlier, I think there’s a danger in getting addicted to the “scale or die” mechanical model so popular in current business. It looks nothing like how natural systems actually work. Make sure to take your PDC as you do your MBA. Or volunteer on a local organic farm every weekend to keep it real. If there’s anybody who’s got an MBA who wants to play in this realm, let’s go for it, I’d love to talk to them and hear their experiences. I haven’t seen MBA graduates turn into leaders of regenerative enterprises or regenerative agriculture systems (yet). But I would love to!
There’s an upswell of venture capital seeking to invest in regenerative enterprises but I don’t think there’s enough farm businesses that are ready. I think this asymmetry of demand and supply has emerged partially because it’s easier to invest money than it is to farm. Overall, I think the abundance of capital is a good thing. I see it as an activating force in this whole situation. For example, Renewal Funds, Cienega Capital, Cycleffect are doing excellent work to grow the field. There’s also a handful of family offices that are investing in some of the few regenerative agriculture enterprises that are ready for investment. So there are examples to learn from and work from… but still a ways to go.
RI: What kind of resources people should prioritize studying?
ES: Dirt and trees. Chickens and cows. Spend time in forests. Follow the closest stream to the top of the watershed. Those are really the best “resources.”
Online resources are great for quickly getting content and gaining intellectual capital, but what’s more important is taking the intellectual capital and grounding it into experiential capital. I stopped going to organic farming conferences four years ago because I realized I had gathered more intellectual capital than I had put into use. When I can really and truly say that I’ve put everything I’ve learned into practice, then I’ll go back for more.
That said, there is a difference between gathering informational content and growing your ability to vision, design and execute. There is always room for growth in these realms—especially if we are aiming to regenerate whole living systems. To work here, you need to engage in a community of practice. Ideally, it’s one that can disrupt your current paradigm and help you evolve a new one. And then disrupt your paradigm again.
RI: What “communities of practice” do you recommend?
ES: There are two communities of practice that are effective in this realm. The one I’m closely linked to is the Carol Sanford Institute and the Regenerative Business Summit. Carol Sanford is an incredible mentor and guide and she’s been working in this realm for four decades. Her lineage coined the term “regenerative” more than 40 years ago and put it to work inside companies like Procter & Gamble, Colgate Palmolive and Clorox. She’s now working with companies like Google on whole-systems paradigm shifts. Her school is amazing. Joining is by invitation only. You’ve got to make a real human connection with someone who is in the school. Being part of the school is not easy. It’s disruptive, intellectually confronting and definitely not a “comfortable” experience. That said, I would be happy to talk with anyone who wants to learn more.
There is also a simpler path. If you are the leader of a business and you want your company to be one of the 1000 that will move the world, then you can apply to come to the Regenerative Business Summit. It happens every year, in the fall, in Seattle. It’s an amazing event to get a sense of what a new paradigm of work looks like, and feels like. If you want an effective path towards regenerative business, this is a good place to start.
The other group that I recommend is Regenesis. They offer a series called “The Regenerative Practitioner,” which leads to connection with an international community of practice that’s putting the regenerative paradigm to work. It’s more focused on design, architecture and development but there’s great learning you can get there that can be applied to regenerative agriculture.
If you want to head into business, check out the Carol Sanford Institute and Carol Sanford’s books, especially for case studies. The Responsible Entrepreneur and the Responsible Business actually should be called the Regenerative Entrepreneur and the Regenerative Business but the publishing company (many years ago) basically thought that nobody would know what the word means… so they’re called “Responsible” but they’re really about regeneration. They’re the best books out there on the subject.
RI: I remember being introduced to Regenesis in Mexico City last year. They ask you to commit to attend several workshops, at least four.
ES: It’s an amazing group, definitely worth attending—but as I said, not necessarily “easy.” It’s important to commit over time, because regeneration takes a while to get going. It takes some time to disrupt your paradigm so that you can step into a new one. It takes some disturbance in a landscape for a the soil to start holding water and growing trees and really regenerating. Just going to a one-off workshop, you may get some inspiration. Reading a bunch of things on the internet, you may get some cool ideas. But committing to a school of practice that’s actively working on regeneration is a whole different world.
RI: One of the feasible ways to scale up or help the movement grow is to help others replicate frameworks that are working. Is TGI thinking of doing that, of helping other people do what you’re doing?
ES: TGI is definitely growing and adding new clients and team members rapidly. If you want to come engage, let us know. Formal education to train other consultants to do what we do doesn’t really make sense yet. I could see that potentially happening in the future. If anyone is interested in learning how TGI is working with clients, contact us and we’ll look for an opportunity where there’s space to play. Anybody can always come work with us if they bring a client.
I want to push back against the idea of “replicating” as a goal. This stems from that same perspective of a mechanical paradigm. TGI doesn’t do the same work with any client, ever. Every business is a unique business that has its own essence that we reveal. Nobody else has it. And if a company can use that, grasp it and work with it, then they become non-displaceable in the marketplace. There is a process that we use that has internal coherency from one client to the next, but it isn’t “replication”. Part of regenerating whole living systems is that, like real natural systems, you never do the same thing twice.
RI: It’s really skills for facilitating businesses through a process.
ES: Yes, but no. Do you know what the root word of facilitate is?
RI: Facil. To make easy.
ES: We don’t always make it easy for our clients. Making it easy isn’t always the right thing to do. Of course we have to “facilitate” from time to time, but our main work is more in what we call “resourcing.” Resourcing is supporting businesses and executives to re-source themselves: To become the source of their own fresh thinking. This is not based on trends in the marketplace or customer surveys. Using whole living systems frameworks, they develop their own image of what’s emerging in the world and how to head in that direction. That is not an easy process. People don’t like doing it.
Most businesses aren’t willing to do the hard work it takes to be regenerative.
When TGI works with a company we ask them to commit for three to five years. It takes that long to break out of old ruts and really disrupt and innovative. Like the personal growth and development we discussed before, it requires commitment over time.
RI: Any closing words you’d like to add?
ES: You originally asked “how do you find a career in regenerative agriculture?” You can’t. They don’t exist. You have to go make them. And that means you’re either, 1) growing an integrative depth of experience in particular area that you have connection to and real commitment for and then start your own company, or 2) figuring out how to contribute value to an existing business that is heading in that direction.
RI: Anything else?
ES: Let me just make a quick note about NGOs and nonprofits. They’re great, there are lots of them and there are more NGOs talking and thinking about regeneration than there are businesses currently—for example Kiss the Ground, The Carbon Underground, Carbon Drawdown, Savory Institute, Soil Carbon Coalition, Green America, Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, International Living Future Institute, Holistic Management International, Regenerative Agriculture Foundation, Rodale and of course Regeneration International. All these organizations are doing excellent work and we partner with them wherever appropriate. That said, TGI has the belief that business is the most effective route through which large systemic world changes can occur. Therefore, we focus on business.
So… go get that integrative depth! Join a company that’s headed in this direction or start your own.
The key is not to focus on the “practices” of regenerative agriculture, but instead to disrupt, shift and evolve your paradigm and continue to do that in an ongoing way. If we have enough people doing it and taking their own unique paths to do it, then we can head towards the 1000 companies we need focused on regenerative agriculture.
When we do that we’ll be well on our way to birthing a new industry, and that’s really what I think is the bigger direction here for anyone interested in having a career in regenerative agriculture. We have to think big and beyond what’s currently there and work together, intensively, quickly to make it real.
This weekend I gifted a fellow farmer a chestnut tree. As I was driving I was thinking,
“What is this tree worth, really?”
So I did the math. A chestnut tree starts yielding nuts at around 10 years old. (They may produce sooner, but I’ll be conservative here.) Some chestnut trees can live to more than a 100 years old. Again I’ll be conservative and say that this tree will produce 50 years of crops.
Once in production, a chestnut orchard will yield 1,000 – 2,000 pounds per acre per year. Let’s assume the low end at 1,000 pounds. Now, how many chestnut trees are in an acre? With the spacing I use in my plantings on various landowners’ properties, I start with ~50 trees per acre.
That means that over it’s lifetime, each tree will average about 20 pounds of chestnuts per year. Over 50 years of crops, that means each tree will yield 1,000 pounds of chestnuts.
Now, the price of chestnuts varies greatly. Small conventionally produced nuts can go for $5 per pound at retail, while fresh local organic chestnuts can sell for upwards of $16.50 per pound. Nuts.com has a 1 pound bag of dried chestnuts at $13.99 and 1 pound fresh at $9.99; on Amazon you can buy 5.25 pounds of organic chestnuts for $44.99, which works out to ~$8.5 per pound.
I am small farmer with abundant local markets, so I’ll assume a mid-range price of $10.00 per pound. That means, over the 50 years of nuts produced…
This one chestnut tree will generate $10,000 of revenue.
If there’s a glut of local organic chestnuts, I can imagine the price dropping a bit. If I decide to sell wholesale, getting $5.00 per pound is not unreasonable. And it’s not at all hard to imagine selling local organic chestnuts around the holidays for $15.00 per pound. $15,000 of revenue per tree sounds pretty good to me!
In a few years I’ll be able to line out the cost side of this equation, though the maintenance of chestnut trees is pretty darn minimal compared to most tree crops. Basically I just mow (or graze) the orchard, prune in the winter, and harvest. That’s a LOT less work than our permaculture apple orchard, or almost any of the other crops we grow.
Needless to say, I am excited about chestnut trees. I’m planting a them on 5 farms throughout the Hudson Valley, and landowners keep emailing asking if I can plant on their land too. Let’s get a few thousand acres into chestnuts in the next few years, and generate some fresh income for farmers and rural communities. How long until NY has a million dollar chestnut economy? If you ask me, not long.
Gary Paul Nabhan invited me to keynote the annual Food & Finance Forum in Arizona. I took the opportunity to juxtapose different Levels of Regenerative Agriculture with the most-used financing strategies currently available. The result? See for yourself below:
As I say around half an hour in, send me an email if you want to read the full Levels of Regenerative Agriculture white paper.
Here’s a little preview of the 5 paths to financing agriculture that I discuss in the talk. More details starting around 33:30 in the talk.
The Q&A starts at 57:26 – some great questions from the audience. I discuss the problems of ranking & rating systems, how to face the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, and why we can’t just “go back” to ancient sustainable agriculture.
Got more questions on this talk? Let me know in the comments below.
‘Define’ literally means, “bring to an end.’ It comes from the Latin verb, definire, composed of de- ‘completely’ + finire ‘to bound, limit,’ from finis, ‘boundary, end.’ This is the opposite of regeneration.
Confining the subject to a single “ending or limit’ would be antithetical to the processes that our discipline seeks to bring into agriculture.
Insisting on a single definition would put a wall around our agricultural landscapes, separating them from the natural world.
Instead of defining Regenerative Agriculture, I would like to offer you a lens through which to explore and evolve your understanding. You can see this lens as a prism: each time light passes through it you can see new colors, new patterns, and new ways to approach the subject.
This prism takes the shape of a continuum.
On one end is “degenerative” – those processes, practices and protocols that decrease the health and wellbeing of a place, person or entity. Ecological and social degradation results from fragmentation, over-simplification, homogeneity, and destructive reactivity. There is a loss of possibility, opportunity, and individual agency.
On the other end of the continuum is “regenerative.” Here the vitality of a farm, a community, or a watershed is on-goingly developed and enhanced. The capacity and capability of the place or entity evolves, growing its complexity, interconnectedness, and ability to express its uniqueness into the world. New potential emerges that has never been seen before.
This continuum can be used to explore any system, from an individual farm to an international industry. Here we will explore it’s application to agriculture. Just as a prism spreads wavelengths of light, the regenerative continuum can be expanded to focus on different aspects of agriculture. Note that this is not “separating” different “parts” of agriculture, but rather seeing into the living whole process in order to discern aspects of how it works and its effects on the world.
I created this initial diagram in 2011 while doing some local volunteer work with the Rondout Valley Growers Association. It emerged from discussions with local farmers, sparked by the question, “What will it look like on the farm of the future?”
The diagram shows a continuum of practices and characteristics of farming, from industrial chemical conventional systems to holistically managed carbon farming polycultures. This is the first rendering I had seen that could be called a “Regenerative Agriculture Continuum.”
But this diagram didn’t just pop out of a single conversation. Part of the purpose of this article is to daylight, acknowledge, and credit the sources that have inspired the Regenerative Agriculture Continuum’s development. Just like the “Books that changed my life” series, I want to show how my thinking has changed over time and invite you to evolve yours.
The first time I saw a ‘continuum’ of any sort was in a 2005 Northeast Organic Farming Association presentation by Dave Jacke, co-author of the the excellent two-volume Edible Forest Gardens. He showed what he called the “Nature-Agriculture Continuum”, which highlights the differences between conventional agriculture systems and untended “natural” systems.
Jacke sites “Farming in Nature’s Image” by Judy Soule and Jon Piper as the source of this concept and the specific characteristics described. Seeing this continuum was eye-opening for me, especially because it explained and distilled the experiences I had in the wild apple forests of Kazakhstan.
One interesting corollary that Dave Jacke explained in his talk is that ‘organic agriculture’ seeks to start on the left side of the continuum and over its practices back towards the right. Permaculture (and some agroforestry) on the other hand, begins on the “nature” side of the continuum and works to move the food production aspect back towards “agriculture”. This insight was undoubtedly a seed of my later work expanding the continuum… but at that point, I hadn’t even heard the word “regenerative”.
In 2009, I saw a talk by Bill Reed of Regenesis. Coming from the realm of green building and architecture, infused with permaculture thinking and the work of Pamela Mang and the rest of the Regenesis Group, Bill presented this Trajectory of Ecological Design:
This was transformative for me. I saw that the “sustainable” ideal that I had adopted for years was simply not sufficient. Sustainability was only the edge of degeneration – barely stopping from doing bad!
Bill shared a metaphor from Zen and the Art of Archery: “If you aim directly at the bullseye on the target, you will inevitably fall short. Instead, you must aim at a spot 200 feet past and through the bullseye. Then you’ll have a better chance of hitting your target.”
Working towards “sustainability” was no longer enough – we would inevitably fall short and be in a slightly less bad version of the current degenerative situation. It became essential for me to aim for regeneration, hoping and working to pass through sustainability along the way.
Around this time we changed the tagline of our consulting business AppleSeed Permaculture to “Regenerative Design and Development.” I asked Bill how I could get involved with the work of Regenesis and he said “We’d be happy to work with you. All you need to do is bring in a client that we can engage together.” It wasn’t until many years later that the offer came to fruition.
In the meantime, working with family farms and new agriculture enterprises in New York’s Hudson Valley, I took the idea of a “Degenerative to Regenerative Continuum” and specified it to agriculture. The concept evolved over many years doing permaculture design around the world, from the mango groves of northern Thailand to the mountain orchards of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
At Terra Genesis International Gregory Landua and I applied the continuum to specific agricultural commodities, laying out the farming practices from degenerative to regenerative for crops like apples, cacao, almonds, honey, jojoba, and cattle. More crops are being explored each year.
The continuum continues to develop. Looking back at the earliest version pictured above, the mistakes and lack of understanding are obvious –especially on the regenerative end of the continuum. I had experienced so few farms that were actually working towards regeneration, and was not farming myself at the time.
Most people have not seen, felt, and tasted the potential of regenerative agriculture. While this is a challenge, it is also an exciting opportunity: As the global Regenerative Agriculture community continues to develop, the ‘regenerative’ end of the continuum will get more specific, beautifully complex, and evolutionary. In fact, we may even leave the continuum altogether.
Where did you first see a regenerative continuum? How has it shaped your journey? Let us know in the comments below.
The term Regenerative Agriculture is cropping up allovertheplace. The annals of the internet are growing almost daily with articles, blog posts, tags, and tweets about farmers, corporations, and foundations shifting their attention toward the new hot thing: Regenerative Agriculture.
It is wonderful to see such a broad-scale conversation happening about agriculture, ecosystem health, and soil carbon. Unfortunately, in all the buzz, many of the definitions of Regenerative Agriculture that have emerged do not live up to its full potential.
Most focus solely on soil carbon, ignoring biodiversity, water cycles, and human wellbeing. And while soil fertility and carbon sequestration are hugely important to our planet’s capacity to grow food, they are the tip of the iceberg as far as what Regenerative Agriculture can mean and do for us.
Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves water cycles, and enhances ecosystem services.
Regenerative Agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. At the same time, it offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and higher health and vitality for farming communities.
The system draws from decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic farming, agroecology, Holistic Management, agroforestry, and permaculture.
All Regenerative Agriculture Practices are guided by Principles, which are uniquely applied to each specific climate and bioregion:
From these four emerge a diversity of Practices, which have been most extensively defined and studied for the first Principle. This definition presents these most-explored Regenerative Agriculture Practices, leaving space to articulate Practices for the other Principles in the future.
Some of the Regenerative Agriculture Practices that can progressively improve whole agroecosystems are No-Till Farming, Organic Annual Cropping, Compost & Compost Tea, Biochar & Terra Preta, Pasture Cropping, Managed Grazing (HM, Savory HM, AMP, MIG), Animal Integration, Aquaculture, Perennial Crops, Silvopasture, Agroforestry. (Here’s Sheldon Frith’s list for some diversity.)
Regenerative Agriculture develops out of the living system of connection between humans and their ecosystem through agriculture. Like living systems, Regenerative Agriculture will evolve and grow.
This definition is a starting point: We welcome a global conversation to continue developing and improving it so we can effectively reverse climate change and regenerate the planet.
What are your thoughts on Regenerative Agriculture? What will happen if the “definition” only includes soil carbon? What’s the most important action you can take to grow adoption of Regenerative Agriculture in the world?
I gave this talk as part of the “Biodiversity for a Livable Climate” kick-off conference at Tufts University in Boston, MA. We were preparing for the upcoming Carbon Farming Course, and the talk starts with some good basic Carbon Farming and Carbon Sequestration theory.
All of the “Tools for Regenerative Agriculture” described are extremely relevant – if even 5% of farmers globally would adopt these practices there would be a massive change in agricultural livelihoods and carbon sequestered.
However, I’ve since come to realize that just teaching a set of “practices” is not sufficient.
Practices are chosen through principles, and principles emerge from paradigms. Evolving our personal paradigms, and supporting others to evolve theirs, will produce a much greater effect than simply describing, or even demonstrating, “practices”.
I’ve been working more recently with fellow farmers on understanding, “What are the paradigms of agriculture?” and “What paradigm am I currently thinking through?”
The ‘Levels of Agriculture’ workshop I gave recently at the Young Farmers Conference aimed in this direction. The ‘Levels of Regenerative Agriculture‘ white paper is a deeper dive into the regenerative realm.
Enjoy the video and let me know what’s relevant for you!