What Does “Regenerative Agriculture” Actually Mean?
A Handsome, organic pasture in Crystal Springs, PA.
When planting, square dancing, and gutters work together.
There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this story, you’ve come across the word “regenerative” at least once before. There’s also a fairly good chance that you’re not fully certain what the word itself means in the context of the environment, the food you consume, or the brands you support. Or, if the big picture makes sense to you, the practices used to achieve it might still be a bit murky. The good news? You’re in great company. Turns out, while the term is buzzy enough to have made its way into our mainstream lexicon, it’s also rarely fully understood (and what’s more — it’s constantly evolving!)
Before we dig into what regenerative means, we have to acknowledge where regenerative farming started. While this might seem like a new-age practice, the concept of regenerative agriculture has been around for centuries. In fact, caring for the land in holistic, restorative ways originated from the practices of Black and Indigenous people that long pre-dated this modern, “white-led” movement. It’s important to acknowledge that not only is regenerative agriculture not a new concept, but worse, the true thought leadership from BIPOC communities has been largely erased by conversations that neglect this robust history). You can read more about this important subject in this great Civil Eats article.
Now, as far as the meaning of regenerative itself, we’ll start with taking a big step back. Farming — in most of its forms — contrasts with what nature itself intended. Some forms align more closely with natural systems than others, but most disrupt our OG ecosystem in certain ways. If our goal is for earth to remain healthy for centuries to come (which...let’s hope it is!), we need to acknowledge these disruptions and take proactive steps to reach a sustainable balance. This means, not taking or adding too much of any one ingredient to the earth’s natural ecosystem.
Now, to the word “regenerative”. Essentially, any reaction (addition or subtraction) to a process that is designed to restore balance to the earth can be classified as regenerative. Like those that came before us, we think of “regenerative” as being synonymous with “restorative”. How can we restore land, air and water to their healthiest, most balanced states? We'll walk you through it.
So, what throws us off to begin with?
Good question! And like most good answers, this one is nuanced. While our handsome hens are far (read leaps and bounds) gentler on the earth than say factory farming and harmful chemicals, they can also be mildly destructive if not watched closely (thankfully, on our farms, they are)! How so? Well, a few reasons. 1. While not exclusively grass-eaters, hens love to pick away at pasture grasses day by day. Though that’s optimal for their health, this can make keeping a balanced level of pasture vegetation difficult if there is no method used to counteract their grazing. 2. Their sharp little beaks tend to peck at plants, grass, and soil in their quest to explore, which can quickly deplete a once vibrant plot of vegetation into bare dirt. 3. You may recall this from A Day in the Life of a Pasture Raised Hen, but our ladies love to create little dust baths in which to bathe. While, yes, very cute (and entirely natural!) — dusty soil isn’t exactly ideal.
So, what do we do about it?
If you’ve ever tried Googling “what is regenerative agriculture?”, you’ve inevitably seen a slew of the same phrases like, “rotational grazing”, “biodiversity”, “cover crops”, “soil fertility” & “crop rotation”. While these responses might seem overwhelming, all of these terms (and activities) hold one essential goal: restoring balance. So, how do we balance out the impact of hens on Mother Earth at HBF? Well, our efforts fall under three main categories:
Restoring Pasture - planting & square dancing, but for hens
Just as our homes become more “lived in” overtime, you might say the same for hens and their pasture. We restore grass and plants on a regular basis while also taking preventative measures to avoid overgrazing—this means not only planting fresh shade trees and shrubs, but rotating the space in which the hens graze (“rotational grazing”). Fencing off parts of the full pasture into individual paddocks, allows us not to over-deplete one area. This helps keep grasses and plants in the pasture healthy, which in turn helps maintain biodiversity and the soil’s ability to retain water, so we avoid runoff that can cause water-quality problems. It also helps maintain soil fertility….
Restoring Soil - gutters (yes, gutters) and...more plants!
Perhaps the most important element of regenerative agriculture is the health of the soil. This is because it affects so many other factors in the ecosystem — like the potential for plant growth, the health of animals, and even (and most crucially) the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. The more organic matter there is in our soil (more fertility), the more that soil can actually help capture and sequester carbon from the atmosphere! But first things first. In order to build organic matter in the soil, the soil must have coverage. We plant “cover crops” to avoid having bare soil exposed (which can lead to soil erosion). In order for these cover crops to establish and not get (literally) drowned out from stormwater, barns need gutters. Installing proper gutters and downspouts helps water flow gradually away from the barn, avoiding water landing repeatedly in one (very muddy, hen-trampled) spot, which can destroy soil quality over time.
Reaching Goals - people and accountability
Our farmers and farms are all unique, which means that the steps they take towards regenerative practices will, inevitably, be unique as well. Different terrains and structures mean different strategies need to be instituted to reach that aforementioned balance. That said, perfectly restored land doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen with a one-size fits all solution. Any company that makes sweeping claims this way… well 🧐 At HBF, we take a tailored approach to help set our farmers up for success.
We’re working on finalizing setting solid and attainable goals, we hope to not only raise our collective standards but to create a community of farmers who learn from one another as we pursue a more sustainable future. Together.