The worms are coming back: Regenerative agriculture is becoming a growing movement in Canada — but how should it be certified?

The worms are coming back: Regenerative agriculture is becoming a growing movement in Canada — but how should it be certified?
Across Canada, farms, vineyards and ranches are adopting regenerative agriculture, a system of practices meant to regenerate soil from the damages of conventional farming, and draw carbon out of the air.

Canadian farmers and advocates for the small but growing movement say the next pieces of the puzzle are consumer awareness and policy.

What is regenerative agriculture?

The purpose of regenerative agriculture is to regenerate soil instead of degenerate it the way conventional farming does. Done correctly, the regenerated lands should also draw carbon from the air and hold it, or sequester it, in the soil. Farmers and advocates say this could help offset emissions created by the conventional agriculture sector.

Brooks White, of Borderland Agriculture in Manitoba, describes regenerative agriculture as five pillars that work in harmony: the use of no-till practices, meaning the soil is not turned over by equipment; the increased diversity of crops; the use of cover crops to protect soil and draw in carbon; the integration of livestock into the farm; and the fostering of living roots to improve soil structure and health.

“The word regenerative basically means concentrating on your soil life, so that your soil gets better,” explained André Houle of Houle Farm in Curran, Ont.

Regenerative agriculture often goes hand in hand with organic farming, but not always. Houle’s farm, for example, is organic, while White’s isn’t.

However, White says regenerative agriculture has enabled him to cut down on the practices that organic farming doesn’t allow, like the use of herbicides and pesticides or chemical fertilizer.

“We have reduced our fertilizer use by 75 per cent, and we have reduced our chemical applications by 50 per cent,” he said, noting that his farm also burns a fraction of the diesel that many other farms do.

For many farmers, the switch to regenerative agriculture stems from concern about climate.

A third-generation farmer near Ottawa, Houle made the decision to go organic and regenerative in 2018 after the farm had been operating conventionally for around 30 years, growing only corn and soybeans.

The switch “had been building in me for a few years,” said Houle. After doing some research, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was a presentation by the non-profit organization Regeneration Canada at their annual Living Soil Symposium.

Conventional farming had, over 30 years, made Houle’s soil compact, dry and void of life. He needed bigger, stronger equipment to work it than was needed decades before.

“The more you look into it, the more you can’t believe what you did before. It’s really an eye-opener,” said Houle. He began implementing crop rotation, cover crops and livestock, diversified his crops, and eliminated herbicides and pesticides.

Within three years, Houle has seen radical changes in the soil and the farm overall. Worms are coming back, he said, as are the butterflies he remembers from when he was younger.

This kind of shift is exactly what Regeneration Canada founder Gabrielle Bastien is trying to spark in farmers across Canada.

The organization was founded in 2017 to promote soil regeneration in order to mitigate climate change and foster healthy food systems, said Bastien.

The Living Soil Symposium, which runs Feb. 22-26 online this year, is one of the initiatives the organization is running to help spread the word — not only among farmers, but among consumers and policy-makers. Another initiative is their new interactive map , which plots regenerative farms across Canada.

“We’ve definitely seen more and more farmers implementing these practices throughout Canada,” said Bastien.

But that doesn’t mean these practices are new.

Houle and White are implementing practices that older generations used, even their own families on the very land they now farm.

White has also looked back even further and learned from the way wild bison used to roam. He started mimicking those natural patterns with his bison, over time creating a healthy root system, he said.

Over the years they have been able to increase the number of animals they feed on the same piece of land, he said — the practices have improved the land’s health, and his economic output.

The economic benefits of going regenerative

In fact, White didn’t begin using regenerative practices because of the environment.

A fifth-generation farmer who grew up on a typical Western prairie grain farm, White “stumbled” into regenerative practices, as he puts it, “out of economic necessity.”

White’s father was a “pioneer” of no-till farming in the 1980s, he said. When White returned from school to the farm, he decided to bring in bison, almost 20 years ago. Slowly, like putting a puzzle together, they began implementing more regenerative practices, he said.

For example, in 2011, the farm suffered a flood that rendered more than 2,000 hectares unusable for the usual seeding. But the bison still needed to eat, so later in the summer when things got a bit dryer, White seeded some cover crops on part of the land as an emergency food source.

The next year, the swaths of land planted with cover crops had recovered from the flooding and were good enough to be seeded with cash crops. The rest of the land was still damaged from the flood and unusable.

Now, every year they plant a certain number of hectares with cover crops and nothing else, a process known as crop rotation. That allows the soil to rest and recover. They also implemented more variety in what they grow, making the farm less vulnerable to large-scale losses.
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