Getting to Know Regenerative Organic Agriculture:
The Philosophy and Practices Behind the Movement

by | Dec 3, 2020

If you’re looking for information on sustainable agriculture, soil fertility, and the well-being of the planet, welcome!

In this post we are going to introduce you to the topic of regenerative organic agriculture. 

There’s a lot to explore in the cutting edge of regenerative agriculture practices, from keeping the soil healthy, reversing climate change, and in the case of our expert partner on this piece, making delicious wine (Cheers!🍷). 

Regenerative organic agriculture is bringing life back into the soil that decades of industrial farming systems left dusty and barren. 

The truth is, once you learn about what regenerative agriculture looks like in practice on a farm, or a vineyard as we’ll explore here, you won’t be able to imagine things any other way! 

Good for the farmers, the people, and the planet. 

Dig it? Boy oh boy, we do too. 

Now let’s get our hands dirty and break down regenerative organic agriculture step-by-step. 

Tablas-creek-logo

Meet Our Partner: Tablas Creek Vineyard

The first step to change is letting people know about the cause, and our partners at Tablas Creek Vineyard are all about making change in the world of planet-saving agriculture!

Tablas Creek Vineyard is the first Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC) vineyard in the world. That means that in addition to producing top-of-the-line wines we love, their agricultural practices help reverse climate change.

Instead of extracting from nature to increase agricultural productivity and causing great harm to our ecosystems, soil, and communities, Tablas Creek Vineyard is working with nature and giving rise to big picture farming.

Check out our friends at Tablas Creek Vineyard, or learn about other Grow Ensemble partners here.

What is Regenerative Organic Agriculture?

A (very) Brief History

Regenerative Organic ShareFor those who don’t already know the father of organic agriculture, we’d like to introduce you to J.I. Rodale—the man, the myth, the legend. A man ahead of his time, J.I. pioneered practices aimed at organic farming and soil health restoration back in the 30s and 40s. He founded the Rodale Institute

Fast forward to the 1980s, and J.I.’s son, Robert Rodal, coined the term “regenerative organic” to describe farming practices that go beyond sustaining the status quo and forge ahead into renewing and…well, regenerating! 

In 2017, the Rodale Institute joined forces with leaders of Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s—two of our favorite socially responsible companies—to re-emphasize the necessity of regenerative organic farming for the future of agriculture to reinvigorate farms across the globe and mitigate climate change. 

In our podcast episode with the Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Regenerative Organic Alliance, Elizabeth Whitlow, Elizabeth explained that the group that came together was specifically convening to discuss the use of hydroponic growing in the organic community. They believed that “organic” centers around soil health, and therefore the food has to be grown in soil. 

This convening evolved into the Regenerative Organic Alliance and laid the foundation for a certification that would embody practices geared toward optimal planet and human health as it relates to agriculture: Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC)™. In addition to its founders, ROC™ is the work of regenerative farmers, soil experts, social fairness experts, and ranchers.

One of the key developers of the certification was our partner Tablas Creek Vineyard. They’re the first vineyard in the world to be Regenerative Organic Certified, and they contributed to the certification framework through their participation in the ROC™ pilot program. 

A Definition

Tablas Creek Fog lifting and owl boxRegenerative organic agriculture engages comprehensive practices around farming methods, animal welfare, and fair labor that make for healthier crops, a healthier planet, and ultimately, healthier people. 

Regenerative organic agriculture is about more than “sustaining” existing conventional farming. It’s about nourishing the natural processes of the planet to yield the highest quality crops the earth can produce. These practices ensure that farmland stays healthy and productive long-term. Importantly, extraction is only part of the philosophy. Regenerative organic agriculture gives the planet as much if not more than it takes. 

Other agricultural practices like organic and biodynamic farming follow some of the principles that underlie regenerative organic. As Tablas Creek shares, however, regenerative organic is unique in that it views agriculture as part of the big picture: its responsibilities to the ground it operates on, the animals it raises, the humans involved in production, and its role in mitigating climate change.

The 3 Pillars of Regenerative Organic Agriculture

The three pillars of regenerative organic agriculture are soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. What do these tenants mean? What does each look like in practice? How are these practices different from conventional farming methods? What does Regenerative Organic Certification require for each? All good questions with exciting answers.

First, let’s quickly review the pillars of regenerative organic, then, I promise, we’ll get into examples of real-life implementation of the regenerative organic philosophy.

1. Soil Health

soil healthAny farmer worth her fertilizer will tell you it’s all about the soil. The success of a farm comes from the ground up. And the same for the health of humans. After all, the microbiome of the soil reflects the microbiome we can find in our own digestive systems.  

We discussed the carbon-sequestering superpowers of healthy topsoil in our post examining the relationship between climate change and agriculture, but since the heart of regenerative organic agriculture is made of loamy soil, it’s only natural we continue to sing the soil’s praises.

Carbon emissions find themselves in the spotlight when discussing the climate crisis, and that is because carbon is one of the most potent greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. That’s why people often link regenerative agricultural practices to “carbon farming.” Regenerative farming practices can improve soil structure and restore the soil to its carbon-retaining potential, build organic matter, promote resiliency, and produce healthier crops. 

Of course, this also means nixing pesticides, herbicides, and industrial chemicals to control the agricultural environment to make sure we protect all the living microorganisms in the soil working to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This has residual bonuses of eliminating damage caused by runoff of these chemicals.

For ROC, soil must be certified organic by USDA standards. Because climate change mitigation is at the core of regenerative organic practices and because carbon sequestration is a key characteristic of healthy soil, soil quality must be audited to ensure soil health and carbon retention is being maintained or improving over time. Practices revolve around keeping those soil microbes happy!

2. Animal Welfare

animal welfareThe effects of animal welfare are pretty far-reaching.

ROC™ collaborated with animal welfare experts and define welfare through the “Five Freedoms”:

Freedom from discomfort, freedom from fear and distress, freedom from hunger, freedom from pain, injury, or disease, and freedom to express normal behavior.

This seems like a given, but animals need to be outside! They should be foraging, grazing, and moving around. That’s critical to their quality of life as well as the quality of the food and fertilizer they produce. Animals that are out being active in the fresh air, chowing down on fresh foods are healthier, just as is true for us. 

ROC™ only deals with pasture-based operations. And they’ve developed a lot of support systems for those interested in transitioning animal care conditions to be ROC-compatible.

Also important, this tenant of regenerative organic farms definitely makes for the most precious pics. 📸

tablas creek zoom background paco and flock

3. Social Fairness

social fairnessSustainable farming doesn’t stop with the land. This is an aspect that is particularly unique to the ROC™ framework: fairness to farmers and workers. Agricultural workers are no stranger to human rights abuses. Farmers often find their interests thrown the wayside in the fight for productivity and conventional farming priorities.

These are the human beings that take care of the land, tend to the crops, provide the food on our plates, and support our entire food system. We could not go on without them.

ROC™ ensures that the rights and dignity of all workers are respected. That addresses compliance with labor laws, no forced labor, no child labor, fair contract negotiation, safe and healthy work conditions and hours, and fair wages. It also requires protections through supply chains.

What are Regenerative Organic Agriculture Practices?

No Till / Conservation Tilling

Tilling is the process of digging up the soil with intensive machinery to prepare the field for a new crop. Originally, tilling was meant to make seeding new crops easier and more efficient with the idea that if we just rip up anything in the ground, give the soil a quick rough and tumble, we can just toss the seeds right in! But, if the goal is to keep carbon in the ground for the sake of the new crops and the sake of reducing carbon released into the atmosphere, it makes sense that this conventional practice is working against the cause.

tablas creek cropRegenerative organic farms, like Tablas Creek, commit to minimizing soil disturbance so the carbon already stored beneath remains there, and soil carbon sequestration can increase with time. This either means organic no tillage at all or minimal soil disruption where some tillage is necessary.

How is this done? Through the use of hand tools if done on a small scale or for large-scale farms, through less intensive machines like the roller crimper invented by the Rodale Institute. These tools respect the integrity of the soil and, instead of ripping out all life to start anew, they typically mow down an existing cover crop, leaving remnants to act as mulch that will decompose and fuel the life beneath, and protect the nutritious soil that will nourish the newly dispersed seeds.

Integration of Cover Crops & Biodiversity

Unlike crops that are meant to grow for harvest, cover crops exist to preserve soil health—cover crops are the ultimate soil bodyguard. When left bare, soil is susceptible to erosion and nutrient depletion (desertification), which creates desert-quality dirt in areas that were once vibrant with life. 

cover cropsRegenerative agriculture practices integrate cover crops rather extensively. As they should! Cover crops serve as a barrier from the above-ground elements, keeping all their soil diligence safe. Not to mention the work cover crops do below ground, refueling the soil from its most recent harvest, and replenishing important nutrients.

For example, through photosynthesis, expansive cover crops sequester carbon from the air and deliver it to the soil, grasses increase soil’s organic matter, while cover crops like legumes are particularly skilled at pulling nitrogen from the air to enrich the soil they rest within. All renewable and completely nature. These plants were made for the job.

Another cover crop service? Contributing to much-needed biodiversity. Biodiversity means having diversity of life on the farm. Yes, this means animals, but more on that in a bit. 

Biodiversity also includes diverse plant life. Planting the same crops year after year draws the same nutrients out of the soil, and it leaves crops vulnerable to total takedown. Diverse plant life and crop rotation means diversity in nutrients (being taken and contributed) and resiliency in the face of unexpected threats like pests, disease, or severe weather. Different plants have different strengths and vulnerabilities, so a single threat is less likely to wipe out an entire harvest!

For a vineyard, biodiversity adds to the richness of the vines’ environment. It won’t change a wine in the first harvest, but it does quickly contribute to the health and longevity of grapevines through the healthy soil biodiversity creates. And for a vineyard like Tablas that has been integrating biodiversity for many, many years, they grow healthier, older vines that are more balanced and adapted to their natural environment, increasing the quality of their grapes and the deliciousness in our cups.

Habitat Creation for Pollinators

habitat creation beesWith all this life on a farm or vineyard, a little (or a lotta) help is always welcome, and even necessary. 

Yep, the regenerative trailblazers at Tablas are even running a beekeeping operation. If you haven’t realized yet, it takes an entire ecosystem to create the best wine there could ever bee….🐝

Animals for Crop Management, Fertilizer, and Cuteness

animal crop managementIf cover crops are the bodyguards for the soil, then animals are the ultimate wingman for the farmer, and Tablas Creek has welcomed many, understanding the value of animals in a vineyard. They have sheep, alpacas, donkeys, a llama, hens, and it seems like they’re always growing. It’s pretty exciting to keep up with the new Tablas Creek lambs that join the vineyard each year!

All of these companions assist with crop management through rotational and mob grazing.  Tablas leads their fluffy friends into a restricted area where they get to chomping for a set amount of time. Once their work is done, they head wherever they’re needed next.

All of this work extends equipment lifespan for the vineyard because as the animals graze, there is a less frequent need for mowing and tractor usage. Not to mention they are a phenomenal in-house fertilizer source that blows synthetic fertilizers out of the water. As they poop, they’re giving back all they took in the first place! Real team players.

Fair Labor

fair laborWhat does fair labor look like on a ROC™ farm? Well, again, Tablas Creek dove into this principle enthusiastically.

Like any team, making the most of your efforts means working together, and regenerative agriculture takes a big team.

The Tablas team is committed to everyone in their crew knowing their individual and collective rights as farmworkers. Everyone is ensured living wages and safe working conditions.

You may see this information and think, “Well, that should be a given!” And you are right! The certification is just one way to dive into those common issues, bring all of it into the open, and create accountability in making sure the right thing is done always.

On top of that, Tablas Creek runs the vineyard as a democratic organization. The farmworkers that see each row of grapevines over many harvests know the land as well as anyone possibly could. And that’s why Tablas invites everyone to weigh in during their weekly roundtables where they discuss the work that needs to be done. 

Giving a voice and, literally, a place at the table to the whole crew makes for a well understood and well cared for vineyard.

What’s in a Certification?

ROC™ provides a guarantee no other certification in the agricultural industry currently guarantees. This is a rigorous and well-monitored certification that supports the quality of the crops, the health of the animals, and the quality of life of the farmers themselves. The certification comes with intensive audits and high standards. 

But the Regenerative Organic Alliance is working collaboratively with labor and animal welfare experts, soil scientists, as well as the farmers, getting their hands dirty….or should I say, soil-y. They are always looking with a critical eye toward their requirements and providing support for those interested in certification.

It’s important to keep in mind, that while this comprehensive certification sets the bar for soil, animal, and human agricultural standards, farms can engage in regenerative practices, but not be certified. 

And it’s the practices those in the movement want everyone to adopt. Where you can verify a farm’s practices yourself by developing a relationship with the farmers or going on the farm in person you now know what to look for! Where you cannot verify a farm’s practices on your own, ROC™ has your back. 

regenerative organic certified logo farm

How You Can Support Regenerative Organic Agriculture

While regenerative organic farming makes for healthy, delicious, and sustainable agricultural products, we all stand to benefit even more from the good it does for planet health. Now that we have seen in some detail what these farmers are doing for us, we can be excited to return the favor!

Here are a few ways you can support the movement and get involved yourself.

Continue to learn about the work: One of the most impactful steps to supporting the movement for true agricultural sustainability is understanding the hard work that goes into getting each piece of food into your grocery basket. Learn more about the amazing potential of regenerative ag practices in the documentary Kiss the Ground, a fave of the Grow Ensemble team.

Engage with ROC™ farms and their products: When you consider that Tablas Creek built and maintains an entire ecosystem to allow the land to grow the best grapes it can muster, each sip of their wine is an experience that brings images of lush soil, vibrant plant life, and precious alpacas. Maybe that’s a vision you want at every meal in which case we’d recommend the Tablas Creek Wine Club.

For the Ambitious — Turn Your Backyard Regenerative: One of the greatest things about this topic is that we can all get involved in our homes! By turning any land you can into a regenerative landscape you can start offsetting ghg emissions right at home. Start composting or make your own biochar pit—it’s a lot of fun, and it’s sure to lead you down a rabbit hole of outdoor adventures . You can get started through resources like the Tablas Creek Blog or pick up a book like Lawns into Meadows by Owen Wormser.

Support Nonprofit Orgs Advancing this Mission: Keep up with important organizations like the Rodale Institute, Regeneration International, or the Regenerative Organic Alliance. All of them rely on donations to move their mission forwards. Rodale has excellent grounds to visit in Pennsylvania, if you’re in the area and interested to lend a hand in person!

Spread the word!

The earth does an amazing job caring for herself and for us when we let her. That’s why the regenerative organic movement is less about land use and more about land empowerment. If widely adopted, this could lead to an agricultural system that will thrive for years to come. 

Fortunately, there are many people working to make sure we get there, and now that you’ve made it through this post, you can be one of those people! And that’s something the Grow Ensemble team is pleased to raise our glasses to.

Annie Bright

Annie Bright

Grow Ensemble Co-Founder & Dir. of Partnerships

Annie Bright is from Corpus Christi, TX, and now lives in San Antonio. A life-long student, after getting her law degree, she has decided to pursue a master’s degree at the Fletcher School at Tufts. With a diverse professional history ranging from advertising and writing to education, and impact experience spanning from refugees to homelessness, she has an insatiable appetite for curating purposeful content for our posts and podcasts as well as using her brains and heart for leaving the world a better place than she found it.

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