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Regenerative Agriculture and Rewilding Farms

There’s been quite the buzz lately about Regenerative Agriculture, a new wave of farming practices that goes beyond the organic standards set by the National Organic Program, toward a truly more sustainable, ecological type of agriculture. As the climate continues to change beyond recognition, the world’s topsoil continues to erode and wild ecosystems continue to get bulldozed into industrial monocultures, it’s becoming clear to an increasing number of farmers, consumers and political leaders (Beto O-Rourke even mentioned Regenerative Ag at the last debates!) that something drastic needs to change. Business as usual may continue to feed increasing numbers of people in the short term, but will precipitate ecological collapse in the not-so-long term.

While the list of necessary changes to our global agriculture are endless, one area of focus must be the transformation of marginal, low-productive farmland back into diverse, carbon-sequestering habitat. Areas with minuscule rainfall, rocky soils, short growing seasons, etc., would, in many cases, be better left to regenerate into their former forests, prairie and scrublands. Back in the mid-century, as Agriculture’s get-big-or-get-out mentality compelled farmers to plant “fence line to fence line”, we lost nearly all of our remaining woodlands, hedgerows, bogs and prairies east of the Rockies.  It’s imperative that we restore these features of our native landscape. Any small losses in yields as a result of this restoration could be offset by a combination of smarter, regenerative farming practices that focus on soil building and polycultures coupled with smarter national policies and subsidies that incentivize healthy food over ethanol, corn syrup and beef. These changes would help stabilize the climate and provide critical habitat and ecosystem services without significantly diminishing global food yields.

On Whidbey Island, our land management could use improvement. There are few productive farms outside of the Coupeville prairie and vanishing little healthy, old growth forests or wetlands. Instead we have a steady increase in 5-acre parcels with a single house, fenced lawns, and perhaps a single horse or cow. If we are serious about both fighting climate change AND feeding a growing population, we’re gonna have to be smarter with our scarce land resource. I’d like to see most of our rural “homesteads” transition either into actual food production or back into native forestland. Future development should be concentrated in existing urban areas or other marginal lands.

On our farm, we inherited quite a bit of rocky, unproductive pasture. We could put this toward grazing sheep or pastured poultry, but this would likely be difficult to incorporate into our already over-complicated business model. (Also, we like taking weekends now and again, which animals don’t easily allow) Instead, we hope to return this area into a mix of carbon-sinking perennials: orchards, hedgerows, and native trees. This week we experimented by seeding a native wildflower mix on a 1000-sq ft patch of dirt we had been prepping for the past 6 months. (Check out if you’re interested in establishing some rare and hard-to-find wildflower and grass species on your property.) This winter we intend to expand our hedgerows area and plant more fruit trees.