Sow it goes: organic vs regenerative farming

 In Opinion

by Sarah Martin Mills

When it comes to farming, ‘organic’ and ‘regenerative’ are both terms that can be confusing to consumers and farmers alike.

I’ve been an organic farmer for about nine years now and I have personally chosen to farm organically and regeneratively because it makes the most sense to me.

In a Venn diagram of environmentally friendly farming practices there is much more overlap between conventional, regenerative and organic farming than one might think.

Understanding the differences and similarities between organic and regenerative farming can help people better understand the challenges farmers face and make informed decisions in their own lives. Most farmers, whether conventional or organic, are passionate about the environment, their soil health and about creating healthy ecosystems on their farms.

Organic farming means many things to many people. The short version is that organic farmers need a lot of tools in their toolbox to deal with issues such as pests, soil health and weeds. For example, instead of using synthetic inputs to boost the soil nutrients, an organic farm would rely on composted animal manures, green manure crops and natural inputs. One of the benefits of this type of farming is seen in the ability for the soil to hold more water, making it less prone to the effects of drought.

With organic farming there is usually an auditing process conducted by a certification body that requires strict adherence to a certain set of rules.

Regenerative farming is less prescriptive. It has principles of soil health for farmers to adapt within their own context. Soil health is the foundation of everything and has impacts on farm yield, human health and the environment.

Regenerative principals include:

Cover the soil – Make sure to always have something in the ground. Nature doesn’t have bare soil. Plant cover protects the soil from erosion and serves as a barrier between the sun to prevent soil temperatures from rising and decreasing soil microbial life. The more the ground is covered, the more photosynthesis is going on, the more carbon is being sequestered into the soil.

Minimize soil disturbance – Tillage alters the structure of the soil and limits biological life. If possible, try to use cover crops or tarps to minimize soil disturbance.

Increase diversity – Increasing plant diversity that is in the soil and animal diversity that is on the soil will greatly increase the microbial life under the ground. The interactions between different types of species impacts the soil health and nutrient availability.

Integrate livestock – Livestock is necessary for healthy soils and ecosystems. The Great Plains evolved under the presence of animals and grazing. It’s not the cow, it’s how it’s managed. Soil and plant health is improved by proper use of animals.

One of the benefits of using regenerative farming is that it helps the farm to be less dependant on outside inputs. Some conventional farmers integrate specific organic or regenerative practices like cover cropping or reduced tillage into their operations. There is a lot of overlap between the different types of farming. Most farmers see themselves as stewards of the land and have different ways of accomplishing that mission.

If you’re interested in learning more about organic or regenerative agriculture, I’d recommend watching the Kiss the Ground documentary on Netflix.

Sarah Martin-Mills is the founder of Growing Hope Farm. In 2023, her family made the move to Creemore, where she currently farms at The New Farm. She is a member of Clearview Sustainability Network’s Agriculture Working Group.

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