By Eliot Coleman
Over the years we at Four Season Farm have managed to turn the two inches of poor sandy topsoil with which we began in 1968 into ten or more inches of fertile loam. We did that by tilling organic matter sourced locally in to the soil, which has gone from one and a half percent organic matter to nine percent. We were practicing what has traditionally been called organic farming. I also call it agroecological farming because I like the word. However, to emphasize my point here, let me refer to what we have been doing since 1968 as “generative” agriculture.
Re-generative agriculture is touted by farmers who, having spent many decades de-generating, through chemical farming, the originally fertile soils with which they were blessed, rather than acknowledging their mistakes are now pretending to have invented a whole new system of agriculture they call “re-generative”. (It is worth noting that reliance on concepts such as cover crops, green manures, crop rotation, ley farming, shallow cultivation and other aspects of the system realignment away from chemical farming that organic farming has pioneered for the past 100 years has been integral to the organic farming canon since its inception.) My understanding of organic farming, that I have been following for 50 years, can be found in Understanding Organic Farming.
Predictably, since a new word is easy to co-opt, “regenerative” has quickly become the darling of the large industrial agriculture companies who are now able to mouth ecological platitudes, formerly associated with organic farming principles, but without any intention of following them. We are seeing well-honed, corporate co-opting skills used very effectively by professionals.
The suspicious old organic hippie in me finds the new “re-generative” movement to be a devious attempt to displace organic in the public mind with a more manipulatable word, easily controlled and redefined by the agricultural industry. I can understand the large mid-western chemical farmers not liking the word “organic” and thus a new word being useful to communicate with them. All well and good. Use the word “regenerative” to lure them in to being better farmers. But what explains the effort to simultaneously denigrate organic farming? The intentionally mis-informed statements on “regenerative” websites such as – “But Regenerative Agriculture goes far beyond Organic. Organic farms usually have simply replaced the chemical inputs with so-called “natural” inputs. The basic farming paradigm remains the same” – serve to increase my suspicion of this whole program. An informed background on organic farming can be found in Traditional Organic.
The first person to alert the public to the detrimental action of the plow – Edward Faulkner in Plowman’s Folly (1943) – pointed out more clearly in his sequel, A Second Look (1947), that it was specifically the action of the plow – inverting the soil – not tillage itself, that he criticized. In fact, he objected to heap composting because he thought it was important for organic wastes to decompose in the soil itself (after being mixed into the soil by a disc or a tiller) so that the CO2 they gave off in decomposition could form carbonic acid in the soil to aid in etching minerals out of the inexhaustible supplies in the soil particles. That is what we have been doing for 50 years and it has “generated” an incredibly productive soil out of the almost nothing we had at the start.
Regenerative agriculture’s major claim is that its no-till focus excels at sequestering carbon in the soil. However, the following studies question that assumption and indicate that traditional organic farming already does that better:
So, tell me, am I off base here? Or have a lot of well-meaning people joined this regenerative bandwagon without fully comprehending that this change in terminology to “regenerative” rather than “organic” seems to give license for a pretense of purity to the very industries whose products and practices created the need to “re-generate” in the first place?