Regenerative Agriculture for Local Food and Farms
What is Regenerative, Closed-loop Agriculture?
One of the greatest challenges to sustainable agriculture is the depletion of the natural resource base on which food production depends. To sustain the natural resource base requires broad adoption of circular economy, closed loop agriculture. While the concepts and practices of closed loop farming are relatively well-known, they are not being taught and applied systematically on real, working farms. Regenerative agriculture is generally defined as a set of practices that “improves soil health, primarily through the practices that increase soil organic matter. This not only aids in increasing soil biota diversity and health but [also] increases biodiversity both above and below the soil surface, while increasing both water holding capacity and sequestering carbon at greater depths, thus drawing down climate-damaging levels of atmospheric CO2 and improving soil structure to reverse civilization-threatening human-caused soil loss.”. Regenerative Agricultural Practices: (i) contribute to generating/building soils and soil fertility and health; (ii) increase water percolation, water retention, and clean and safe water runoff; (iii) increase biodiversity and ecosystem health and resiliency; and (iv) invert the carbon emissions of our current agriculture to one of remarkably significant carbon sequestration thereby cleansing the atmosphere of legacy levels of CO2. The primary practices of regenerative agriculture are:
- Minimize soil disruption with no-till or minimum tillage to preserve soil structure and conserve soil nutrients and the soil microbiome;
- Use cover crops, crop rotations and composting to increase soil fertility and sustain soil microbiomes and soil organic matter;
- Increase biological diversity through intercrop and border plantings for pollinators and beneficial insects and multispecies cover crops;
- Conserve resources and recycle wastes and residues as much as is feasible;
- Know the ecology of your land.
What is Closed Loop Circular Economy Agriculture?
Today’s production cycles are, mostly linear, rely on new or virgin inputs, and treat wastes and residues as material to be discarded. By contrast, a circular economy—also called “closed loop”—is a system of materials recycling that treats the “waste outputs” of a production system as “resource inputs” into the very same system.
According to one definition, a closed loop circular economy is:
“an economic system focused on maximizing the reuse of resources and products and minimizing their depreciation. The circular system consists of two material cycles: (i) a technical cycle, and (ii) a biological cycle. The technical cycle relies on the use of mineral resources as production inputs, where products and their parts are designed and marketed in a way that they can be maintained and reused, maximizing their quality and their economic value. Within the biological cycle, resources used as production inputs have a biological origin, allowing for products to be safely discarded into the natural system once they reach their end of life. The system is meant to be both ecologically and economically restorative.” 
When applied to agriculture, circular economy principles and practices seek to maximize reuse of “waste” materials, such as crop residues and organic wastes, and to minimize the loss of soil nutrients, in particular. Furthermore, like regenerative agriculture, circular economy agriculture minimizes inputs of synthetic materials, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and maximizes inputs of biologically-based, organic materials, such as compost and natural pest controls that, if lost, will cause no harm to local ecosystems and biodiversity.
Of course, there is no such thing as a fully closed loop circular economy farm, if only because the food that is grown is moved off the farm to customers who use or waste it. Moreover, farms are embedded in much larger systems of production, transportation and consumption, all of which rely on materials that may contaminate the environment within which farming takes place. To give just one example, moving food from farm to market relies on fossil fuel powered vehicles from which come greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change which can alter the conditions under which farming takes place. Consequently, “closing the loop” in agriculture focuses primarily on the individual farm and local economy.
A key question in closing agriculture the loop is how farms can recapture the material losses that take place as a result of crops going to markets and consumers? Here is where various sources of “organic wastes” can be utilized to restore soil fertility and quality. If property treated, such wastes can be composted and turned into nutrient-rich material that can be worked back into the soil. For the moment, at least, our waste management systems are not configured to capture and return organic food wastes to agricultural production. This is likely to change in the future, as laws are passed requiring municipal and industrial organic wastes to be diverted from landfills, where they produce methane, to mostly large-scale, centralized composting facilities.
For local and regional food chains, a circular economy design rests on recognition that foods are farmed, distributed, sold, consumed and disposed of within that “wasteshed.” The loop could be closed by infusions to individual farms of material from municipal organic wastes and food processors, although the logistics of such an arrangement have yet to be worked out. Meanwhile, composting of agricultural residues, spoiled crops and wood chips may be the best approach to closing the loop.
Whiskey Hill Farms (WHF) specializes in regenerative agriculture and has become so efficient at close-loop agriculture and resource recycling that it is a net consumer of organic wastes. The farm operates in conjunction with an ethanol biorefinery that turns 1,000 tons of organic food, farm and processing wastes and residues into 50,000 gallons of climate smart bioethanol per year, high-value industrial green chemicals, dry ice, sanitizer, and natural fertilizers for food production and soil regeneration. You can learn more about the Farm on this page.
Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture
Closed-loop regenerative practices can lead to:
- Improved land stewardship and resource conservation by reducing synthetic inputs to maintain soil fertility, regenerating soil, sequestering carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through composting of organic wastes, and husbanding water resources through direct delivery to plant roots.
- Better quality of life by avoiding costs of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, producing high-value crops, and increasing farm income.
- Greater health & safety protections by reducing exposure to toxic substances, avoiding contamination of water sources by chemicals and limiting crop contamination by external sources.
- Diversification of products through cultivation of high-value, exotic, and culturally preferred foods, hoop houses that allow multiple crops per year at higher prices during off-seasons, and extended growing seasons, employment and more stable incomes throughout the year.
- Major regional implications and impacts by increasing the supply of nutritious organic food and competing better in markets to increase farm sales and incomes.
 “What is Regenerative Agriculture?” February 16, 2017, Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, California State University, Chico. https://www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/_assets/documents/ra101-reg-ag-definition.pdf
 Courtney Leeper Girgis, “6-5-4-3: The Fundamental Principles of Regenerative Agriculture and Soil Health,” Noble Research Institute, https://www.noble.org/regenerative-agriculture/6-5-4-3-the-fundamental-principles-of-regenerative-agriculture-and-soil-health/
 Breure, A.M. J.P.A. Lijzen, L. Maring, 2018. “Soil and land management in a circular economy,” Science of The Total Environment 624: 1125-1130, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.12.137; Nogueira A, Ashton W, Teixeira C, Lyon E, Pereira J. Infrastructuring the Circular Economy. Energies. 2020; 13(7):1805. https://doi.org/10.3390/en13071805