by Graham Unagnst-Rufenach and Aaron Guman
Regenerative agriculture allows us to produce food, shelter, medicines and other products needed to sustain human life while simultaneously regenerating ecological health and the communities, economies and cultures associated with the land.
How does regenerative agriculture work?
Soils and aboveground biomass, such as trees and shrubs, represent one of the greatest opportunities for pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into long term, stable storage known as a carbon “sink.” Agroforestry, or agricultural systems which incorporate trees and shrubs, have the highest potential for sequestering carbon while providing other ecosystem benefits.
Storing carbon in the soil and maintaining perennial living soil cover (trees, pasture, grazing animals, etc.) brings a host of benefits, including: increased soil fertility and biological activity, improved wildlife and pollinator habitat, less vulnerability to disease, increased crop yield, increased drought and flood resilience, and increased water-holding and filtration capacity. A 1% increase in soil organic matter over an acre of land allows it to hold 20,000 additional gallons of water, which means less water, and any pollutants carried with it, running off downstream.
Regenerative agriculture is inherently political — it recognizes historical and contemporary injustices in relationship to land and wealth access and distribution, climate change, and human rights; and asserts the need for social, economic, and political — as well as agroecological — equity and transformation.
Regenerative Agriculture in Vermont
Regenerative agriculture is site, region, and community specific, it meets people and landscapes where they are. This often means collaboratively assessing how we can: 1. mitigate existing problems, 2. adapt to climate change and, 3. implement regenerative practices to produce desired outcomes. Currently there is substantial policy and financial support for mitigation efforts on large farms. However, there is little focus on supporting and funding adaptation and transformation of these farms or our most actively growing agricultural sector in Vermont: small diversified farms.
A transition to regenerative practices
A family we work with wanted to transition the pasture-land they were moving onto into regenerative grazing management. It had long been overgrazed: cattle had been allowed access to the same parts of the land for weeks at a time, wet areas were deeply pock marked and spread out by hoof impact, the forage was stunted and eaten down nearly to the ground, and unfavorable species had begun to dominate parts of the pasture.
Digging a soil pit revealed a very thin dark layer of organic matter at the surface, with all of the plant roots growing right below that in a thick mat, unable to penetrate the firm hardpan below it, leaving a 6 to 12” grayish zone of leached soil lacking the ability to hold nutrients and water. Water would pool in areas or run off the sloped surface of the land, and quickly move down the watershed.
In the spring, we set up fencing and water systems, and began to train our friends in regenerative grazing. Grassland ecosystems co-evolved with dense herds of grazing, migrating ruminants. These animals provided significant periodic disturbance — with hooves, mouths, urine and feces — helping grasses keep woody plants at bay, providing habitat for birds and other animals, sequestering carbon, and creating significant amounts of fertile, biologically active soils. With regenerative pasture management, we are as much grass farmers as cattle farmers.
The grass grew slowly that first year, as the land began to recover from overgrazing. Every day the cattle moved from a section of pasture they’d trampled, eaten and fertilized into a new paddock. The area they moved from did not see cattle again for 25 to 90 days, allowing the grass to regrow. A simple system allowed their water to follow them around the landscape, preventing the development of overly impacted watering areas. Wet parts of the pasture were temporarily fenced out, and were grazed during drier times. Soil samples were taken, and soil amendments applied to sections of the pasture over time.
This family has now been practicing regenerative grazing management for more than three seasons. The grass grows strongly in the spring; more pasture is accessible to grazing, less is sodden and pock-marked. Thick, healthy forage outcompetes the unwanted species that had predominated. The pasture is storing water now; run-off is reduced.
We have worked on extending pasture, and incorporating shade for cattle, by thinning a stand of tall aspens at the field’s edge to let sunlight in, so forage can grow beneath them. Fruit- and nut-bearing trees and shrubs have been planted in the field. This year, assisted by a grant from the Vermont Grass Farmers Association, we will plant a section of living fence (a hedgerow) on this site.
Research tells us that benefits from these changes in management reach far beyond this local site: a 2016 study published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation estimates that “improved cropping and grazing practices on North America alone could offset about 1/8 of the world’s total [annual] GHG emissions.”
How can I get involved?
The goals and means of regenerative agriculture are multifaceted and there are multiple ways to get involved.
“The Carbon Farming Solution,” by Eric Toensmeier offers tools and information on utilizing these practices as part of a solution to the climate crisis.
This winter and spring, Rural Vermont will be travelling around the state to hear the real needs and barriers that communities face, and to discuss the role of regenerative agriculture in creating a more economically, socially, and ecologically just future. More information can be found at ruralvermont.org.
Unique work is being done, and is yet to be done, in each and every community of Vermont. This requires different people and skills: education for youth and adults, policy and advocacy work, on-the-ground systems implementation and research, grassroots organizing, and more.
Graham Unangst-Rufenacht and Aaron Guman offer 100 percent grass fed, and regeneratively grazed beef through Robinson Hill Beef; as well as agroecology design / install through Walking Onion. Graham is a lead organizer at, Rural Vermont. Find us online: RobinsonHillBeef.com & WalkingOnion.com.