Lineages of Regenerative Agriculture (Short Version)

Lineages of Regenerative Agriculture

(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.

2. Permaculture/Regrarians

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.

In 2018 Savory released their Land to Market Ecological Outcome Verification system, with backing of some significant food and fashion brands. This is the best standard on the market, in large part because it is outcomes-based (instead of practice-based) and requires a positive trend-line for ecosystem improvements.

4. Regenerative Paradigm

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.

Top Regenerative Agriculture Videos

I asked 20,000 people for the first 3 videos they would show someone to introduce them to regenerative agriculture. Here’s what they said…

I’m hoping all sorts of people are out there watching Regenerative Agriculture videos! Photo by

Out of a total of 35 videos recommend, 6 rose to the top. I grouped them into two categories: “Start Here” (~20 minutes or less) and “Go Deeper” (Usually 1 hour or more).

If you want to add your vote (or recommend another video!), check out the “Methodology” section below for a link to the public spreadsheet and original posts.

Start Here

Videos 20 minutes or less in length

1. How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change

2. Life in Syntropy

3. Greening the Desert

These top videos on regenerative agriculture have been viewed (according to YouTube, and TED) about 7.5 million times. That’s about 0.1% of earth’s population (and if you’re like me, many of those views are repeats;). How could we invite more people to engage with regenerative agriculture?!?

Go Deeper

Here are the top videos that are more than an hour long

1. Inhabit: A Permaculture Perspective

2. Tomorrow (Demain)

3. Treating the Farm as an Ecosystem


1. Lineage

The full set of videos clearly highlight the three primary lineages of regenerative agriculture that are active in the world today: Permaculture, Holistic Management, and (Rodale)-Organic. I’ll write another post soon that covers these in detail.

2. Language

Of the 36 videos, all (except for 1) are in English. Where’s the regenerative agriculture documentation in Mandarin? Arabic? Spanish? Hindi? Russian?

3. Gender

These videos overwhelming feature men. Where are the feature-length inspirational portrayals of regenerative agriculture leaders like Precious Phiri, Doniga Markegaard, and Daniela Ibarra-Howell? What can the regenerative agriculture community do to support and make visible the incredible work women are doing in this space?


I posted the following question to the Facebook groups Regenerative Agriculture, Soil4Climate, Regenerative Agrarians, and my own feed:

“What would you say are the top 3 videos to introduce someone to #Regenerative #Agriculture?”

Then I tallied up the responses in this spreadsheet, which is publicly available for viewing and commenting. I gave 2 points for a direct mention, and 1 point for a “like”.

Probably the easiest way to add your voice is to like or add a comment to the original post:

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Regenerative Agriculture Continuum

I am often asked, “What IS Regenerative Agriculture?” “Can you just define it quickly and simply for me?”

Perennial Agriculture Landscape

The best answer I can give is, “No.” Regenerative Agriculture is neither quick nor simple.

Regenerative Agriculture can not, and should not, be defined. As we wrote in Levels of Regenerative Agriculture,

‘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.

Prism - A Lens of Regeneration
Prism – Wikimedia

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.

Degenerative to RegenerativeOn 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.

Regenerative Agriculture Continuum
Regenerative Agriculture Continuum – Copyright 2011 Ethan Roland Soloviev

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.

Nature Agriculture Continuum
Nature Agriculture Continuum – Copyright 2005 Dave Jacke, 1992 Soule & Piper

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:

Trajectory of Ecological Design
Trajectory of Ecological Design – Copyright 2000-2018 Bill Reed & Regenesis

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.

Almaty Kazakhstan
Early morning in Almaty, Kazakhstan – CCFlickr

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.

Books that Changed My Life (2016): The Carbon Farming Solution

Carbon Farming Solution
The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security by Eric Toensmeier


Get it on Amazon or AbeBooks

(If you’re just arriving at Re-Source, welcome! This post is part of a series called ‘Life Changing Books’ – the most important books in my overall development and evolution. Click here to see a list of all the books, organized chronologically and thematically.)

Regenerative Agriculture Redefined

The term Regenerative Agriculture is cropping up all over the place. 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.

After months of consultation with hundreds of farmers, ranchers, designers, and companies around the world, Terra Genesis International has developed a new and holistic definition of Regenerative Agriculture:

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:

4 Principles of Regenerative Agriculture

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.)

A comprehensive list and description of climate-specific Regenerative Agriculture Practices is available in The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Regenerative Agriculture (Toensmeier, 2016).

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?


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Carbon Farming and Regenerative Agriculture at Tufts University

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.

Carbon Farming StatisticsHowever, 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!