What is the Difference Between Regenerative Agriculture and Organic Agriculture?

Our first question from our Ask Regenerative Farmers Nick & Sarah form comes from Lynne from Belfast. She says, “Thank you for your farm news! I would like to know if you use only use organic feed? And how do regenerative practices and organic practices differ, and/or align. Thanks, Lynne”

Hi Lynne!

Yesalong with the food waste we divert from landfills we only feed our poultry certified organic grain when we feed grain. If we raise pigs that get grain, that is always organic as well. Our lambs and any goats or beef we ever raise will never receive grain at all and will be 100% grass, shrub and tree fodder fed while at our farm and in our care.  

To begin to answer your second question about regenerative vs organic practice we want to say that regenerative agriculture and organic farming are not at odds with each other – they are complimentary to each other. 

For us regenerative is organic on a mission.

  1. What sets regenerative apart from organic is the growth mindset and strategic planning to not only farm naturally but to increase the capacity of the:

Soil carbon and water holding capacity of the soil

Soil life 

Plant and animal wildlife diversity 

Quantity of livestock and the quality of their lives

Benefits to consumers by providing more flavorful and nutrient dense food and ecological function.  

Quality of life for farmers and their family

Community resilience

  • While Regenerative agriculture is based around observable improvement to ecological and social function of the farm and community, organic agriculture is more about a set of rules to follow which are mostly things not to do.  i.e. don’t use synthetic pesticides.  Large scale organic agriculture is often what some consider a replacement agriculture where as it replaces the synthetic chemicals of conventional agriculture with naturally derived chemicals that are approved for organic certification and replaced herbicides with more tillage and soil disruption to prevent volunteer plants from popping up in unwanted places.    There are certified organic farms that follow organic protocols and loose massive amounts of soil annually.
  • While organic agriculture emulates conventional tillage based agriculture in practices of both field work and animal husbandry, regenerative agriculture takes inspiration from nature.  When we are designing a system, we consider the uniqueness of the land, plants, animals, consumer, farmer, and historical and social contexts.  We observe what plants and animals already exist and what their ecological function are. When choosing crops, we look to what is growing well there already and when we choose livestock we choose appropriately to match forage and manage them in ways that mimic wild flocks and herds following each other around in a dance of growth, rest and regrowth never coming back until fully recovered and ready to be grazed again. When planting crops regenerative farmers use no till practices and minimize soil disruption.  
  • Regenerative Farmers use holistic management and decision making to manage complexity on the farm. Organic agriculture attempts to reduce complexity by managing living things as if they were only complicated and machine like. While organic agriculture uses natural inputs its techniques are anything but and this creates a lot of problems and headaches for the organic grower. Organic agriculture is focused on problems and because of complexity are always needing a new solution.   Pests, parasites, weeds, drought, floods, frosts, these are all big problems for organic growers and always evolving in a changing climate so yesterday’s solution may not work today and can have unintended consequences tomorrow.  Regenerative producers use nature as inspiration and are focused on increasing natural function while farming and meeting goals rather than solutions to problems that arose from poor choices.

  • Regenerative farmers keep animals moving around the farm because there are no wild animals that stay in one place for long and there are no animal-less ecosystems.  Most wild animals are migratory or move about a landscape in such a way that they rarely come back to an area before it ready to be grazed again.  Regenerative producers believe this is the way we must raise livestock as well.  Organic producers have the pasture rule which states animals need to be on pasture for a set amount of days but does not stipulate how they are managed on pasture.  Organic poultry only need access to the outside and that yard can be devoid of life and still be considered pasture (i.e. a cement pad or dirt yard.)  Regenerative producers strive to keep animals on green growing pasture as many months of the year as possible depending on climate.  Organic livestock producers are often heavily focused and equipped to bring forage to the animals many months of the year if not year-round which is not only expensive to the farm, it has huge ecological costs as well.  One of those costs, is the huge pile of manure that accumulates and needs to be mechanically spread on fields before becoming a potential source of pollution.  Organic crop farmers often don’t produce their own fertility (as in manure). Neither do many organic livestock producers produce all their manure needs on farm to fertilize all the fields they need to cut forage from.  Manure from conventional farms may be used on organic farms as long as organic protocol is followed regarding composting and days before planting.  This create a strange symbiotic relationship between organic agriculture and conventional ag which it seeks to replace.   In my experience, organic farms degenerate soil and need more fertility than they can create themselves so they buy it in at predictable annual loads that give the conventional confinement operation potential regular income from a waste product they under value because of their addiction to petroleum based nitrogen fertilizer.   Regenerative farmers do what they can to make sure manure is directly deposited insitu from the animal itself to the grass being grazed. Cycle completed.  

I hope this helps to understand the differences and similarities between regenerative and organic practices.  Our food choices have never been so confusing.  Sourcing regenerative food is becoming easier.  We are grateful to be surrounded by so much organic food and know that as the word gets out about the possibilities and potentials of regenerative agriculture will become more prevalent.    Please let me know if you have further questions! 

In soil we trust,

REGENERATIVE farmers Nick and Sarah