If you’ve been dreaming about moving out to the open range and starting a farm in harmony with nature, someone already beat you to it.
Enter Molly and John Chester, the couple behind the , a Hulu documentary that chronicles how they brought new life to a dead farm using regenerative agriculture techniques. When snails swarmed their orchards, they brought in ducks, whose poop was creating toxic algae blooms in a pond on the property, to eat the snails. When crops attracted gophers, who were then killing trees, they brought in owls, who then ate gophers. (Their poop reinvigorated the trees, too.) Everything was meant to be cyclical.
When the documentary, which was directed by John Chester, debuted in 2018 and came to Hulu in 2019, the film and its subsequent accolades familiarized the public with regenerative agriculture, the practice of rebuilding natural agricultural resources like soil and biodiversity rather than degrading them, as often happens on traditional farms. The ultimate effect? A farm that works with nature, rather than against it.
Talk of farms, gophers, and toxic algae blooms might feel distant from your own life, but you are probably someone who buys food from time to time. The way in which we get our food exists within a system and for the most part, it’s one that causes problems for consumers and the environment. A system fix is needed, according to those who practice regenerative agriculture.
Still, while there are plenty of things to be excited about when it comes to regenerative agriculture, there are drawbacks: It can be a massive endeavor and there’s little incentive for industrial farms to make the change.
To understand its upsides and downsides, Mashable spoke to the Biggest Little Farm director John Chester, as well as Diana Martin, the director of communications and marketing for the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that supports regenerative organic agriculture research, and Dr. Jonathan Sanderman, an associate scientist at Wood Hole Research Center who studies how land-use and climate change alter soil carbon. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Learn what it is
In theory, the basics behind regenerative agriculture are simple: It’s a farming practice in which natural processes do the heavy lifting.
As Alan York, John and Molly’s late farm consultant said in the film: “The objective is to emulate how natural ecosystems work. They regulate themselves through diversity so you don’t get epidemics of pests and disease.”
In Chester’s telling, this all starts with soil. When initially rebuilding the soil on the farm, under York’s guidance, they first built a compost facility to collect…worm poop. (The “holy grail” of soil food, per York.) They then brewed the poop into a tea and fed it to the soil. Then, on this soil, they established cover crops, a crop grown to benefit the soil itself rather than one focused only on crop yield.
From there, when John and Molly introduced new plants and animals to the farm they emulated the natural ecosystem, with the highest possible amount of biodiversity as the goal.
The Chesters worked with York on these methods with the specific intention of making their farm regenerative, but other farms might use a more flexible definition, according to Sanderman.
“It means different things to different people,” Sanderman says of the application of the term “regenerative agriculture,” noting there’s not necessarily an agreed upon definition from an agronomy science standpoint. “The devil’s in the details in terms of what’s actually a regenerative practice.”
He notes it’s really all about the outcome: There might be different practices on a given farm but restoring soil organic matter is the focus.
In 2019, the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization declared that soil erosion, which is exacerbated by unsustainable agricultural practices, may reduce up to 10 percent of crop yields by 2050, the equivalent of eliminating millions of acres from crop production.
“The average person thinks farms are [intrinsically] good for the environment,” Martin says, noting that people have idealized images of prosperous crops. “They see them as wide open spaces but they don’t realize the ways in which we’ve pushed farmers in our country to degrade their land.”
Regenerative practices, on the other hand, can minimize erosion, according to Sanderman.
On the Chesters’ farm, for example, where their water source is an aquifer below ground, natural events that caused soil erosion on other farms actually benefitted them, because of the practices they had in place. When heavy rain hit, following a historic drought in California, the topsoil on farms around Chesters eroded with the rain and washed out to sea. The Chesters, however, were able to collect over 100 million gallons of rainwater because of their aquifer, which was at the crux of their regenerative methods. The aquifer acted like a sponge: What plants and trees didn’t use went back into the aquifer below ground.
2. Learn what it isn’t
Understanding regenerative agriculture also requires getting acquainted with what it’s not. Walking down the aisles of your local grocery store or even farmer’s market, you’ve likely encountered (whether knowingly or not) a host of products: an “all natural” granola bar; a “sustainable” laundry detergent.
Hats off to the branding teams behind those labels, but these labels mean very little to you, if you’re trying to access food made through regenerative practices. Chester notes that it’s easy to slap the word “sustainable” or “all natural” on products or practices without meeting any kind of standard to back up that claim.
Plenty of products touting “sustainable” practices provide scant evidence, in large part because the definition is so malleable. Sustainability for one company might mean implementing a number of genuinely useful (if incomplete) practices; for another, it might mean “recycling” waste that shouldn’t have been produced in the first place. The same goes for “all natural”: The USDA definition provides a lot of flexibility.
Chester and Martin, of the Rodale Institute, think the metrics for claiming something is made through a regenerative process are more clear-cut, since, for an individual farmer, it should be clear whether or not their practices are regenerative. “A farm is either regenerative or it’s not,” Chester says.
A clear label for food sourced from regenerative farms might become more widespread as well: A coalition of farmers, business leaders, and other regenerative farming experts have formed the Regenerative Organic Alliance to provide a Regenerative Organic Certification to food producers, similar to the USDA approved organic label that you see on food, in order to certify that it meets the highest standards for soil health, animal welfare, and farmworker fairness.
Sanderman “applauds the effort,” noting that the label incorporates many facets of regenerative agriculture by providing a broad set of guiding principles and measurable indicators of success. Even so, he feels as if there are too many labels out there in general and they’re not sufficient on their own for ensuring climate benefits. For him, what works about this one as it is, though, is that it provides tangible outcomes for things like soil sampling and dairy animal welfare. Still, to his knowledge, not all of the criteria are fully developed yet to his knowledge. If a label like this ultimately just helps farmers get a premium for their product, Sanderman still sees that as a good outcome on its own.
3. Understand the drawbacks
Adopting regenerative practices isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all fix to the problems associated with conventional agricultural practices.
Even as regenerative practices work wonders on individual farms, around the world, there’s no “ideal fix,” according to Sanderman. Solutions, including regenerative ones, will look different from region to region.
Because of the technology and existing soil make-up in the U.S., he says it’s likely easier to embrace regenerative practices here. (In other regions of the world, Sanderman notes, naturally infertile soil, or limited access to supplies and technology, would likely make different solutions necessary.) Acknowledging regional variations, the Rodale Institute opened three new regional resource centers in California, Iowa, and Georgia to conduct further research into how to make regenerative practices accessible to more farmers with different soil types, climates, and communities.
The practice is also time consuming and expensive, and it requires a technical capacity to implement, Sanderman points out. To this end, early trials on the Chesters’ farm can be seen in the movie: The Chesters used their entire first-year budget within six months before even planting a single crop.
Additionally, Sanderman notes industrial farms don’t have a strong incentive at the moment to change their ways.
“There’s a strong neighbor effect in farming where you don’t want to do something that others aren’t,” Sanderman says.
And then there’s cost, which representatives from Rodale Institute concede could be higher for food that comes from farms that practice regenerative agriculture. Still, in their mind, it’s worth it. And to that end, they’ve implemented efforts to bring affordable, regenerative food options to low-income communities through portable farm stands that accept SNAP and other food payment benefits.
“While regenerative organic food is priced higher, you’re paying for the type of food system you want to see — where soil health, animal welfare, and social equity are all protected,” the representative says.
4. Vote with your purse
So, what’s the most direct way to support regenerative agriculture efforts, in Chester and Martin’s telling? Get your food from local farmers with regenerative farms.
You might order directly from farmers offering that service, or determine which farms sell at your local farmer’s market to support them there. (Apricot Lane Farms, the farm founded by the Chesters, sells at farmer’s markets in the Los Angeles area, for instance.)
Outside of the food you’re purchasing, Chester and Martin also recommend looking into legislation that gives more control to local farmers engaging in regenerative practices. In this arena, you’ll want to do your research before supporting a given policy.
5. Get kids involved
If you’re just learning about regenerative agriculture yourself, there’s one cohort you’re going to want to take along for the ride: kids.
Chester notes that when kids and young people come to visit the farm, they’re typically chock-full of thoughtful, insightful questions about the specifics of the process. While adults might (misguidedly) ask, “So does this mean you’re a sustainable farm?” kids are often asking about the mechanics of things: “Oh, are you guys building a cover crop?”
Because of regenerative agriculture’s connection to efforts to curb climate change, he says that kids seem to have a particularly acute interest in learning how the practice’s widespread adoption can improve the environmental impact of farming.
You may spark your kids interest by having them watch the Biggest Little Farm, so start there. For kids who then want to learn more, Martin suggests getting them involved in efforts that expose them directly to farming, like the Edible Schoolyard Project, GrowNYC, or the Rodale Institute’s own My First Garden.