Regenerative Agriculture: What is it and how does it differ from sustainable agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a concept that is not new to agriculture, and aspects have been practiced by farmers and ranchers for generations. However, the word has been mentioned by those in the legislature and the media lately as a solution to the climate crisis. Sustainable is a word frequently used in agriculture, and yet, has no clear definition. What is the difference between the two and are we using the wrong term? Is there more that the agriculture community could do to be sustainable or regenerative?

The concept of regenerative agriculture was first mentioned by Bob Rodale, chief and executive officer of Rodale Press prior to his death in 1990. In an interview in 1989, Rodale stated that he preferred the word “regenerative” agriculture as he was not satisfied with sustainability saying, “I don’t think people would prefer to live in a sustained environment,” but rather, “something that is expanding and growing better.” Rodale noted that it is, “more fruitful in an inventive, scientific concept to point to ways of opportunities.”

Those opportunities are several practices designed to what Terra Genesis International state, “farming principles and practices that increase biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services.” They advocate implementation through four basic principles consisting of designing and making holistic decisions, ensure reciprocal relationships with all stakeholders, growing and evolving to actualize their potential and improve whole agroecosystems through several farming practices. These principles can be achieved through methods such as planting cover crops, no-till farming, managed grazing with animal integration, composting, pasture cropping, silvopasture and agroforestry.

These are not new practices and have been practiced in some capacity over the decades. Regardless if you are an organic or conventional farmer, they share the basics of minimize tillage, keep the ground covered in some plant material, rotate crops and incorporate animals into the fields and forests. However, there are differing views of what the exact definition of regenerative agriculture is as illustrated by the chart below:

BLOG Regenerative chart


Whether you adopt all or some of these practices, each will contribute to carbon sequestration. The amount depends on which article and there is no clear consensus of how much exactly it will sequester. Terra Genesis International states that the amount of carbon sequestered can be anywhere from 1 to 34 metric tons per year or the equivalent of a minimum of 413 gallons of gasoline consumed, or 0.639 homes’ electrical use in one year or 467,545 cellphones charged. Tim LaSalle of the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at California State University at Chico realizes that many will be skeptical without the strong evidence to back up the evidence of regenerative agriculture acknowledging, “we just need the research and replication.”

However, LaSalle is confident that this system will work stating, “I know it’s going to solve the climate crisis, I know it’s going to solve the hunger crisis, and I know it’s going to solve the water and topsoil crisis,” LaSalle said speaking to Grist. “That’s something organic agriculture can’t do, and conventional can’t do. But regenerative agriculture can.”

Given the concepts of regenerative agriculture, how does it differ from sustainable agriculture? The definition and practices of sustainable agriculture are broad, but an encompassing definition can be found from the University of California at Davis’ Agricultural Sustainability Institute. The institute states that “practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Every person involved in the food system—growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers—can play a role in ensuring a sustainable agricultural system.” This definition is envisioned in the broadest sense in that it meets the needs of the present while trying to assist future generations to meet their needs by incorporating the individual farm and communities affected by the individual farm both locally and globally. Local farms can be sustainable by incorporating the use of cover crops, reducing tillage, management of the soil and maximum diversification through the incorporation of crops and livestock. For farmers to be sustainable, it needs to diversify through the use of multiple crops to prevent mono-cropping and the possibility of losing the crop due to situations beyond their control or a slump in commodity prices. Sustainable practices are those that can be used by organic or conventional farmers as it stresses the use of products that are the least toxic and energy intensive, yet maintain productivity and profitability for the farmer. The goal is to develop biological systems that do not need high levels of material inputs.

The problem, as I see it, is that it requires not only the farmer but all aspects in the supply chain including consumers, food processors, distributors, waste recovers and others. This is where the cycle is broken as food waste is a problem in food production and with a diversion from consumer waste. According to the EPA, food waste in landfills accounts for approximately 16 percent of methane emissions. We, as consumers, like our fruits and vegetables to be blemish free and be available year-round regardless of the growing season. Food is transported over great distances to meet our demands.

Perhaps Bob Rodale was correct, expressing that to be sustainable is maintaining homeostasis by maintaining at a certain rate or level without ever improving. Until then, everybody in the chain needs to practice the principles of sustainability to make it viable. Whether it is regenerative or sustainable, there needs to be a fundamental change to incorporate new technology with some of the practices generations have used in the past. It starts with the field and works its way to the dinner table.



Terroir, Landrace and Identity Preserved Could they be a value-added marketing tool for farmers?

Several weeks ago, I was conducting an interview with Peter Schott of Genesis Feed Technologies regarding their app for selling soybeans to animal feed producers in Asia. During our conversation, Schott mentioned that soybeans grown in North Dakota have a higher crude protein that buyers wanted. Schott’s desire was to have farmers recognized for this quality and receive a premium for their product. During our conversation, the concept of terroir occurred to me.

Terroir, aside for being the buzz-word for wines, is the concept of a sense of place. It is the unique environmental qualities of the soil, weather, variety selection and farming practices that make a product distinct from others. Not only is this concept applied to wine, but it has been applied to cheese, coffee, chocolate, tea, hops and wheat. Commodity Grains, a company in Oakland, California is applying the concept of terroir to the pasta it produces but under the label of “Identity Preserved” (which I will describe below). The company lists the pasta variety, where it is grown and the specific farm. It may sound like a gimmick, but according to Dr. Stephen Jones at the Washington State University Bread Lab, wheat varieties and growing conditions do contribute unique flavors. When conducting tastings with bakers, chefs and random people, they notice differences in milled 100 percent whole wheat describing such flavors as “nutty”, “earthy” and “chewy.” The concept of terroir in pasta is also being applied to wheat grown in the Abruzzo region in Italy with a pasta line called “Primo Grano” or first grain.

Perhaps terroir is just a clever marketing tool as some believe. There are instances when a seed or plant originated in one area but was perfected in another area of the world. Take the case of the Zinfandel grape. We never knew its origins until recent DNA testing revealed that it is most closely related to a grape variety from Croatia called, Crljenak Kastelanski, before that we thought it was the Primitivo variety from Italy. The only knowledge we had was that a Boston nursery advertised a grape variety named Zinfandel in 1830 and it made its way west to California during the Gold Rush. Today some of the best Zinfandels are produced from Sonoma County and the Lodi area of the Central Valley. In the case of wheat, a variety called Red Fife originated in the Anatolian region of what is now Turkey and was planted by Dave Fife in 1842 on his farm in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. It is renowned for being a fine milling and baking wheat. Most bread wheat grown in Canada owe part of their genetic lineage to Red Fife.

Although they originated in another region and perfected in another, there is some genetic variability that allows it to grow and adapt under a variety of growing conditions. More specifically, it is called a landrace or what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) describes as “a plant with historical origin, distinct identity and lacks formal crop improvement, as well as being genetically diverse, locally adapted and associated with traditional farming systems” (more in the case of Red Fife, but I would argue that Zinfandel could apply). The term landrace when broken down, is “land” or the ground the crop is grown on, and “race” which in biology means “distinct population within the same species.” The FAO further defines landraces into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary landraces are crops that developed through what is termed as in situ grower selection and not subjected to formal plant breeding. They can be either autochthonous or grown in an original location developing its unique characteristics through grower selection; or allochthonous, an introduced crop locally adapted and has developed its unique characteristics through grower selection in another region (such as the case with Red Fife). A Secondary landrace is a crop that has been developed in formal plant breeding but is maintained through repeated in situ grower selection and seed saving. Due to their adaptation, farmers will use these selections with other improved varieties due to factors such as lower cost, hardiness to local conditions, disease resistance, and culinary preferences. Although this defines landraces in a broad context, what if this concept could be applied to other crops? While there are landrace crops still grown around the world, farmers are planting cultivars for such factors as high yield, drought and disease resistance, and other factors for commercial production.

There is another program that perhaps could be a step-up from landrace and could be used as a marketing tool to not only preserve crops with their own unique characteristics but give farmers the recognition for their product. It is a USDA designation called Identity Preserved. It is described as, “a voluntary service that provides participating companies with independent, third-party verification of the identification, segregation, and traceability of their product’s unique, value-added characteristic.” The Northern Food Grade Soybean Association is trying this program for its soybeans grown in North Dakota.  According to Ken Bertsch, N.D. State Seed Department Commissioner, it is a program that “preserves the genetic and/or physical identity of a product by providing traceable identification of a field crop from planting, production, storage, handling and delivery of the product.” The program has requirements such as having seed source verified, planting after other crops (specifically after GM crops), inspections for genetic and varietal purity and keeping those soybeans in a separate area of a handling facility. While it may be labor intensive for farmers with added extra paperwork or confuse consumers with another label on the package, it is one more thing for farmers to be recognized for their products and meet consumer demand. This could work in conjunction with landrace seeds as consumers are growing aware of where their foods come from.

The difficult parts are these types of tools is consumer awareness, scalability and whether people are willing to pay a premium for these types of products. As far as price, consumers are willing to pay extra for organic foods or products with the “Non-GMO” label. As far as scalability and awareness, it is up to the agriculture industry if they want to implement programs such as these for the potential of being recognized for producing a unique or superior product.

Andrew Abrameit: A Triangle of His Law Practice, Family Cattle Business and Home

Note: This was an article I wrote for Ranch House Designs and featured on their blog. Thank you to all the staff.

Andrew Abrameit, owner and lawyer at Abrameit Law, talks about “my triangle” of Goliad, Cuero and Victoria, Texas. His triangle represents his family with his wife working in Victoria, law practice with a large caseload in Cuero and the family livestock business in Goliad. The Abrameit family has a history of giving back to the community participating in FFA and 4H by providing show cattle, being mentors in the community working at the local schools, and his law practice. Abrameit’s firm is a specialized business practicing matters with oil and gas leases, property purchases and eminent domain. It is a family with deep roots in Texas and an intriguing story that is continuing to grow within the triangle.

A Deep-rooted Texas Background

Abrameit is a sixth-generation native of Goliad County, Texas whose family goes back to the 1870s. For undergraduate studies, he attended Texas A & M from 1997 to 2001 and participated in meat and livestock judging. While studying law at the University of Texas at Austin, Abrameit was Editor-in-Chief of the Texas Environmental Law Journal, a publication co-produced by law students from the University of Texas School of Law and members of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Section of the State Bar of Texas since 1990. In addition to working for the Journal, he also worked for Senator Armbrister who was chair of the Texas Senate Committee on Natural Resources for two years.

“It’s kind of covering your basis of undergraduate education with all the Aggies and then law school with all the Longhorns,” joked Abrameit. “It was a busy time going to law school and being at the Capitol full-time. I didn’t sleep for a couple of years.”

While working for Senator Armbrister, Abrameit saw the introduction of Senate Bill 3 in 2005 which Joseph Fitzsimons, Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman called, “the need for market-based solutions to the environmental challenge of providing water for fish and wildlife during a drought.” The Committee had jurisdiction over the groundwater, air quality, surface water, rivers, lakes, and the oil and gas industry.

“This was at the time where exporting groundwater, buying and selling groundwater from Amarillo to Lubbock was going on,” said Abrameit. “It was a very cutting edge when long-range water planning was getting off the ground, and that is a lot of what we worked on.”

Prior to starting his own practice, Abrameit worked for the law firm Gordon, Arata, Montgomery, Barnett where “I really learned a lot.” While working at the firm, he learned about the oil and gas industry. In 2010 and 2011, when the Eagle Ford shale was going to occur, that’s when the firm started “setting up shop” in DeWitt County, and Abrameit worked from there.

Setting up his own shop

Abrameit started his private practice in September of last year and has been busy ever since. The practice does transactional and litigation in oil and gas leases and pipelines.

“I like to think it makes us better at doing it because if you do [just] transactions, but you never go to the courthouse, you’re not always in tune with what arguments that the other side is going to make,” said Abrameit. “We are always constantly improving our transactional work because we get to see what happens when things break-down.”

In addition, Abrameit does property purchases and some probate work. Through comprehensive documents that were developed over the years for pipeline agreements and service use agreements, his firm can govern activities that would go on your property, and not all of it is rural. As Abrameit points out some is in Sugarland, Texas.

“What we are doing is like the cradle to grave, we help people buy it and then we are negotiating with the companies should there be oil and gas development or pipelines,” said Abrameit. “We get involved sometimes after the grave with probate litigation long after somebody died. It’s like a zombie; it never dies.”

Eminent domain is also one of their specialties. They represent the landlords to make sure they receive the maximum value that he can and be entitled to get full compensation. When it comes to paying for representation, Abrameit disliked early in his career hearing that people could not afford it or that they will be outspent. He tries to take away that barrier and takes on a lot of cases on a contingency fee.

“it is very gratifying when people come to you, and either had another lawyer or had a situation where they are getting stomped on. We mount a counter-offensive, and the tables have turned,” said Abrameit.” It’s like leveling the playing field.”

Right now, a lot of his business is built-in referrals, friends and family in Goliad County, but also a lot of it goes back to being involved in FFA and 4H.

Family and the Livestock Operation

Abrameit and his family have been in Goliad County since the 1870s and historically have been a commercial operation with Herefords and cross-breeds. Now what the family does are almost all Charolais and Charolais bulls. Andrew’s father is a retired ag teacher and still maintains a connection to FFA, while the family provides some show calves, but mostly seed stock cattle. They currently manage about 80 cows, but the amount varies based on if it is a drought or not.

“We have other members of the family; my dad is the youngest of eight, all of what surrounds us is our kinfolks’ operations. Everybody has stockers, cow-calf, or feed yards,” said Abrameit

Andrew has been married for 12 years and his wife, Natalie, is an assistant principal at East Victoria High School. The two, along with their two-year-old daughter, genuinely enjoy working in the cattle industry and working to help the community they live in through Abrameit Law.