The Soil Health Principles of Regenerative Agriculture

The Owner of Frantoio Grove - Patrick - Inspecting A Recently Turned Compost Pile For Signs of Decomposition and Life

A set of principles for soil health were developed over the past century by pioneers of agriculture who saw a better future for our field. Their ideas have been refined and synthesized into what we now know as The Soil Health Principles, which form the backbone of Regenerative Agriculture. As we adopt the Soil Health Principles into our agricultural systems we should do so with reverence, as we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The Soil Health Principles 

of Regenerative Agriculture

0. Context: Tailor soil management strategies to the specific conditions and needs of the land.

1. Minimize soil disturbance: Focus on no-till or reduced-till practices to maintain soil structure and minimize erosion.

2. Maximize soil cover: Keep the soil covered at all times to protect it from erosion and maintain moisture levels.

3. Maximize biodiversity 

    a. Above ground: Cultivate a variety of crops and integrate livestock to improve ecosystem health and reduce pest pressures.

    b. Below ground: Foster a diverse and thriving community of microorganisms in the soil to enhance nutrient cycling and overall soil health.

4. Maintain living roots in the soil for as long as possible: Promote continuous biological activity by ensuring that living roots are always present in the soil.

5. Integrate livestock (when possible): Use controlled grazing to mimic natural processes, cycling nutrients back into the soil and stimulating plant growth.

6. Minimize synthetic chemical inputs: Reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to promote natural biological processes and soil fertility.

These principles have appeared in various forms over the years, this is our interpretation.

"As we adopt the Soil Health Principles into our agricultural systems we should do so with reverence, as we are standing on the shoulders of giants."

A Brief History of Principles

The principles of regenerative agriculture are deeply rooted in various agricultural practices and scientific insights that have evolved over decades, aiming to promote sustainability and counter the negative impacts of conventional farming. Follow along for a brief history of how these principles emerged and their importance to regenerative agriculture:

Origins and Development

  1. Holistic Management : One of the early foundations of what would later become recognized as regenerative agriculture practices came from Allan Savory’s work in the 1960s. Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist, developed a series of holistic management techniques that focused on managed grazing systems that mimic natural processes to combat desertification, where previously fertile land degrades to the point it becomes a desert.

  2. Organic Farming Movements : In parallel, organic farming movements in Europe and the United States were gaining momentum in the mid-20th century. The organic farming movement emphasized soil health, biodiversity, and reducing reliance on chemical inputs. Pioneers like Sir Albert Howard, J.I. Rodale, and Rudolf Steiner played significant roles in the movement by emphasizing the importance of maintaining soil health through natural means.

  3. No-Till Farming : Even earlier, the development of no-till farming in the 1940s by Edward Faulkner laid the groundwork for soil conservation practices. Faulkner questioned traditional plowing methods, which used ploughs pulled by farm animals or tractors to cut and turn over the top-most inches of soil, but which also led to high levels of soil erosion. This approach was later advanced by researchers and farmers who recognized its benefits for soil structure and microbial health.

  4. Agroecology and Permaculture : In the 1970s and 1980s, concepts like agroecology and permaculture, developed by thinkers like Miguel Altieri and Bill Mollison, respectively, contributed to the principles of maximizing biodiversity and integrating ecological processes into agricultural production.

Integration into Regenerative Agriculture Systems

These diverse influences converged into what we now call regenerative agriculture, which coalesced into a more cohesive notion in the late 20th century. The term itself began gaining prominence through the efforts of Robert Rodale, son of J.I. Rodale, in the 1980s, who sought to go beyond sustainability to actively improve and regenerate ecosystems.

Overall, these principles reflect a shift from merely sustaining resources to actively enhancing them, thereby ensuring long-term productivity and environmental health. This approach is increasingly recognized as vital for addressing global challenges such as soil degradation, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss.

0. Context Matters

This principle is crucial because it recognizes that agricultural practices that work well in one setting might not be suitable in another due to differences in climate, soil types, water availability, cultural practices, economic pressures, and local biodiversity. By tailoring practices to the local context, farmers can more effectively regenerate and sustain their lands.

The Context Principle is a synthesis of insights from holistic management, permaculture, and agroecology, emphasizing that successful agricultural practices must be adapted to the specific conditions of the places where they are applied. Its increasing recognition within the framework of regenerative agriculture reflects a broader shift towards more sustainable and locally adapted agricultural methods.

1. Minimize Soil Disturbance

Minimizing soil disturbance is fundamental to regenerative agriculture as it directly impacts soil structure, health, and the overall ecosystem. Traditional plowing and intensive tilling practices have been shown to disrupt soil microbiomes, reduce organic matter, and increase erosion and compaction. Conversely, practices such as no-till, reduced till, and strip till aim to preserve soil integrity, enhance water retention, and support diverse biological activity beneath the surface.

"Reducing soil disturbance helps maintain soil structure, including the aggregation of soil particles. Soil aggregates are crucial for creating pore spaces in the soil, which facilitate air and water movement."

Adoption of Context-Specific Practices

The adoption of no-till, strip-till, or minimum tillage methods should be context-specific, taking into account soil type, climate, crop type, and local biodiversity. What works in one region or for one type of crop may not be suitable elsewhere. For instance, in heavy clay soils, complete no-till without any soil amendment might lead to poor water infiltration and root penetration. In such cases, adopting strip-till could provide a middle ground, disturbing the soil minimally while allowing better aeration and root growth.

Soil Compaction and Aggregation

Reducing soil disturbance helps maintain soil structure, including the aggregation of soil particles. Soil aggregates are crucial for creating pore spaces in the soil, which facilitate air and water movement. When the soil is not disturbed, these aggregates remain intact, promoting better water infiltration and reducing runoff. Compaction, often a result of heavy machinery passing over the field, is significantly reduced, which benefits root growth and microbial activity, essential for nutrient uptake and soil fertility.

Benefits of Gas Exchange and Water Infiltration

Minimized soil disturbance enhances gas exchange between the soil and the atmosphere. This exchange is vital for maintaining an aerobic environment, which supports a host of beneficial soil organisms. Improved gas exchange also means more efficient carbon sequestration as organic carbon is not exposed and oxidized into carbon dioxide. Similarly, better water infiltration due to intact soil structure prevents waterlogging and surface runoff, thereby reducing erosion and improving drought resistance.

2. Maximize soil cover

Maximizing soil cover is a fundamental principle in regenerative agriculture, focusing on maintaining living roots in the soil for as long as possible and using mulch to protect and enhance soil health. This practice is crucial for a variety of reasons, including erosion control, moisture retention, temperature regulation, and support for a vibrant soil microbiome.

Erosion Control

Soil erosion is a major global issue, with rates of soil loss reaching up to 100 times faster than soil formation in some areas. Living plants protect the soil from erosion by cushioning the impact of raindrops on the soil surface and reducing runoff through their extensive root systems. This not only prevents soil loss but also maintains land productivity and environmental health.

Building Soil Organic Matter

Both living roots and added mulch contribute significantly to the increase in soil organic matter. This buildup improves soil structure, which enhances the soil’s ability to retain nutrients and water. Decomposing plant residues feed the soil food web, contributing to the formation of humus—a stable and beneficial form of organic matter that supports additional microbial activity.

An image showing an emerging soybean crop, growing in a "no till" field with corn stalk residue left, protecting the soil surface.

Water Infiltration and Retention

Soil cover significantly improves water infiltration and reduces surface runoff, thereby enhancing the soil's natural water-holding capacity. This is particularly beneficial in drought-prone areas, as well-watered soils can support crops longer and reduce the need for irrigation. Additionally, by keeping the soil covered and moist, we can prevent the hardening and cracking that often lead to further erosion and degradation.

Regulating Soil Temperature

Covered soil, especially under living plants, remains cooler compared to exposed soil. This cooling effect is crucial during hot weather, as it helps maintain a more stable microenvironment conducive to plant and microbial growth. Cooler soil temperatures reduce the stress on plants and allow microbes to function efficiently, further enhancing nutrient cycling and soil health.

Transpiration versus Evaporation Trade-offs

While living roots transpire water, which might seem like a loss, the benefits of transpiration—such as aiding nutrient uptake and cooling plants—are significant. Moreover, soil cover reduces evaporation from the soil surface, which overall conserves more water. The presence of living roots and mulch effectively retains moisture in the soil, which, despite some water being used by plants, results in a net positive impact on available water and soil health.

Keeping the soil covered with living plants and mulch is not just about protecting the soil; it’s about creating and maintaining a healthy soil ecosystem that can buffer against environmental stressors and supports sustainable agricultural practices. The benefits of this approach extend beyond the immediate soil environment to influence overall farm productivity, resilience, and environmental sustainability.

3a. Maximize Above Ground Biodiversity

Maximizing above-ground biodiversity is a cornerstone of regenerative agriculture, promoting ecological resilience and sustainable food production. This principle emphasizes the importance of diversifying crop species, implementing crop rotation, and incorporating high diversity cover crops into agricultural systems. By doing so, farmers can provide a wide array of resources for soil microbes, disrupt pest and disease cycles, and enhance overall ecosystem health.

Crop Rotation for Soil Health and Pest Management

Crop rotation involves systematically alternating the types of crops grown in a particular field over time. This practice not only helps maintain soil fertility by varying nutrient demands but also interrupts pest and disease cycles. Different crops attract different pests and diseases, and by rotating crops, farmers can break these cycles, reducing the need for chemical pesticides and promoting a more balanced ecosystem.

High Diversity Cover Crops: Nature's Pharmacy

High diversity cover crops, often referred to as "green manure," are planted primarily to improve soil health, suppress weeds, and provide habitat and food for beneficial insects and soil microbes. These cover crops are typically a mix of legumes, grasses, and brassicas, each contributing unique benefits to the soil ecosystem. Legumes, for example, fix nitrogen, while grasses build soil structure, and brassicas release compounds that suppress soil-borne pathogens.

Companion planting - rows of onion and carrot plants in garden bed

Inter and Relay Cropping: Enhancing Agroecosystem Resilience

Inter and relay cropping involve growing multiple crops together in the same field, either simultaneously or sequentially. This practice mimics natural ecosystems and increases above-ground biodiversity, providing diverse food sources for soil microbes and disrupting pest and disease cycles. The presence of multiple crop species can confuse pests, making it harder for them to find and attack their preferred host plants. Additionally, inter and relay cropping can improve nutrient cycling and water use efficiency, further enhancing the resilience of agroecosystems.

Disrupting Pest and Disease Cycles

Crop diversity disrupts pest and disease cycles by creating a less favorable environment for pathogens and pests to thrive. Monoculture systems, with large expanses of the same crop, provide ideal conditions for pests and diseases to spread rapidly. In contrast, diverse cropping systems make it more difficult for pests and diseases to establish themselves and spread, reducing the need for chemical interventions and promoting natural pest control mechanisms, such as predation and competition among pests.

Maximizing above-ground biodiversity is essential for building resilient and sustainable agroecosystems. By incorporating crop rotation, high diversity cover crops, and practices like inter and relay cropping, farmers can promote soil health, reduce reliance on chemical inputs, and enhance the overall biodiversity and productivity of their farms. These practices not only benefit farmers but also contribute to the conservation of natural resources and the preservation of ecosystem services for future generations.

3b. Maximize Below Ground Biodiversity

organic liquid fertilizer, worm tea fertilizer, worm soil and liquid fertilizer, brewed in a 5 gallon brewing vessel.

Enhancing the soil microbial community is a critical component of regenerative agriculture, particularly in its capacity to create more resilient ecosystems. The benefits of a diverse soil microbiome are multifaceted, including reduced disease pressure, decreased dependence on external inputs for fertility, and improved nutrient cycling, drawing from the work of key proponents like Elaine Ingham, David Johnson, and practices from Korean Natural Farming.

Reduced Disease Pressure from Higher Diversity Soil Microbiomes

A diverse soil microbiome is less hospitable to pathogens due to increased competition and antagonism. Healthy, balanced microbial populations can outcompete or inhibit disease-causing organisms, reducing the incidence of plant diseases. This natural form of disease suppression decreases the need for chemical fungicides and enhances crop resilience.

Although microbiologists have documented only a few percent of the soil microbiome, we are aware of many specialist microbes capable of not only solubilizing nutrients and out competing pathogenic microbes, we know of many- including B. Subtilis, B. Amyloliquefaciens, and Trichoderma- which will also go out of their way to antagonize pathogens and can be used successfully as bio-control agents for a number of serious plant diseases.

Reduced Need for Imported Fertility

The soil food web theory, as popularized by Dr. Elaine Ingham, posits that a healthy soil microbiome can cycle and provide necessary nutrients for plants, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for external fertilizers. Microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, decompose organic matter, converting it into forms accessible to plant roots. This self-sustaining system supports plant health and promotes a closed-loop form of agriculture.

Hui-Chun Su and David Johnson developed the Johnson-Su composting bioreactor, which produces compost rich in fungal biomass, which is crucial for enhancing soil structure and nutrient availability. 

In corn trials, Su and Johnson included 2 pounds per acre of their compost at seeding and found that with a 70% reduction in applied nitrogen there was no loss in yield, and with 100% reduction in applied nitrogen there was only a 5% loss in yield.

Korean Natural Farming: Integrating Traditional Practices

Korean Natural Farming (KNF) emphasizes the use of indigenous microorganisms (IMO) to enhance soil health and plant growth. By cultivating and applying these local microbial communities, KNF supports a soil environment that is well-adapted to the local climate and crop needs, fostering strong plant growth and reducing dependency on synthetic inputs.

Mycorrhizal Fungi: Enhancing Plant Immunity and Nutrient Access

Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plant roots, extending the root system's reach into the soil, which greatly increases the plant's access to water and nutrients, especially phosphorus. These fungi also play a crucial role in solubilizing and transporting nutrients to the plant, enhancing overall plant health and immunity against pathogens.

Role of Predatory Microorganisms in Nutrient Cycling

Predatory soil microorganisms, such as nematodes, protozoa, and amoebae, play a pivotal role in nutrient cycling by consuming bacteria and other microorganisms. Their activities release nutrients in forms that are readily available to plants, facilitating efficient nutrient use. These predators help maintain microbial balance and contribute to the decomposition process, which further enriches soil fertility.

In summary, enhancing the soil microbial community through methods that increase biodiversity and introduce beneficial organisms leads to healthier plants and more resilient agricultural systems. These practices not only reduce disease pressure and the need for chemical inputs, but also support sustainable, productive farming that respects and harnesses the complexity of natural ecosystems.

4. Maintain living roots in the soil as long as possible

Maintaining living roots in the soil year-round is a foundational principle of regenerative agriculture, pivotal for enhancing soil structure, increasing microbial activity, and improving overall ecosystem health. This practice focuses on the continuous presence of plant roots in the soil, which act as a conduit for energy, nutrients, and communication between the soil and the atmosphere.

Continuous Biological Activity

Living roots provide a constant supply of organic substances such as sugars, amino acids, and organic acids to the soil through root exudates. These exudates are vital energy sources for soil microorganisms and play a key role in sustaining vibrant and diverse microbial communities. The presence of living roots thus ensures ongoing biological activity in the soil, even during periods when above-ground plant parts are not actively growing. This activity is crucial for maintaining soil fertility and structure, as microbes help to decompose organic matter and stabilize soil aggregates.

Enhancing Soil Structure and Water Management

Root systems contribute significantly to soil structure. They create and maintain pores as they grow through the soil matrix, which improves aeration and water infiltration. The better the soil structure, the more effectively it can handle water, allowing for improved absorption and retention of moisture, which is particularly beneficial during dry conditions. Moreover, roots help bind soil particles together, reducing erosion and increasing the soil's resilience to physical disturbances.

Supporting Nutrient Cycling

Living roots play a direct role in the nutrient cycling process. They interact closely with soil microbes, particularly mycorrhizal fungi, to enhance nutrient uptake from the soil. Roots can also access deeper soil layers, bringing up nutrients that are out of reach for shallower-rooting plants, which can then be made available to other plants through leaf litter and root turnover.

Carbon Sequestration

By maintaining living roots year-round, carbon sequestration is enhanced. Roots sequester carbon by converting CO2 from the atmosphere into carbohydrates via photosynthesis, some of which is transferred to the soil as exudates. This not only helps mitigate climate change by storing carbon in the soil but also feeds the soil life, contributing to the soil organic matter that is key to fertile and productive soils.

Practical Applications

To ensure that living roots remain in the soil throughout the year, farmers can use strategies such as cover cropping and crop rotations that include perennial plants. Cover crops, especially those that are winter hardy, can keep the soil covered and biologically active beyond the main growing season. Crop rotations that incorporate perennials or biennials can also ensure that some sections of a farm always have living roots, even when annual crops are not in season.

In summary, maintaining living roots in the soil as long as possible is essential for regenerative agriculture. This practice supports the soil ecosystem's health, enhances nutrient and water efficiency, and contributes to the resilience and sustainability of agricultural landscapes. By investing in the life beneath the surface, farmers can reap above-ground rewards in the form of healthier crops, improved water management, and resilience against climate variability.

5. Integrate livestock when possible

Integrating livestock, particularly ruminant and grazing animals like sheep, goats, and cattle, into agricultural systems is a core principle of regenerative agriculture. This practice harnesses the natural behaviors and biological processes of animals to enhance the sustainability and productivity of the land.

Role of Grazing Animals in Managing Vegetative Growth

Grazing animals play a critical role in maintaining grasses and other forage crops in their vegetative growth phase. In this phase, plants focus on leaf development and are actively photosynthesizing, which involves capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it into sugars. These sugars not only fuel the plant's growth but also are exuded by roots into the soil, feeding soil microbes.

When forage crops enter the reproductive growth stage, their focus shifts from leaf development to seed production. During this stage, the allocation of the plant's resources moves towards developing seeds, which means less carbon is directed below ground as root exudates. The presence of grazing animals can help delay or interrupt this reproductive phase by consuming the maturing plant material, thus keeping the plants in a state of vegetative growth where they continue to produce and exude valuable sugars into the soil environment.

Benefits of Keeping Forage in the Vegetative Stage

Keeping grasses and other forage in the vegetative growth phase has several benefits:

  • Enhanced Root Exudation : As long as plants remain in the vegetative stage, they will continue to produce root exudates that nourish soil microbes. These microbes, in turn, play a crucial role in nutrient cycling, enhancing soil fertility and structure.
  • Increased Carbon Sequestration : Vegetative growth is associated with higher rates of photosynthesis, which translates to more carbon fixation from the atmosphere. Grazing helps maintain high levels of carbon input into the soil, contributing to soil carbon storage.
  • Improved Soil Structure : The actions of grazing animals – from hoof impact to the mechanical action of grazing – can help improve soil aeration and incorporate organic matter into the topsoil, which is beneficial for soil health.

Practical Implementations of Livestock Integration

Integrating livestock requires careful management to ensure that grazing is beneficial rather than harmful to the soil and plant health. The single most important aspect keeping animal impact beneficial is how much time animals spend in a given area.

A Small flock of sheep resting under our olive trees, protected by our livestock guardian llama, aptly named "Kronk"

 Most regenerative farming operations that incorporate animals do so with the use of movable enclosures, which can range from Salatin Tractors and other movable chicken coops, to electric polywire and polynet netting.

The hallmark of well managed animal integration is a very high density of animals, coupled with frequent moves and long periods of rest to allow vegetation regrowth and the integration of dung/urine/trampled vegetation by the soil microbes and soil macro-fauna (earth worms, dung beetles, etc.)

For grazing animals, successful operations have seen benefits of taking these concepts to what would be considered "extremes" by conventional agriculture. Some reports have shown success at stocking rates of as high as 800,000 animal pounds per acre and moving 12 times a day.

While it would be easy to write this off as likely to result in "overgrazing", it is important to consider that overgrazing is almost always the result of animals spending too long in a paddock or returning too soon, and being allowed to regraze forage that has not fully recovered.

The integration of livestock, especially ruminants, into farming systems is a sustainable practice that maximizes the ecological benefits of agricultural land. By maintaining forage crops in the vegetative growth phase through controlled grazing, farmers can optimize root exudation and carbon sequestration, ultimately enhancing soil health and ecosystem function. This approach aligns with the principles of regenerative agriculture by creating a harmonious relationship between livestock, crops, and soil, leading to a more resilient agricultural system.

6. Minimize synthetic chemical inputs

While synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not inherently contradictory to regenerative agriculture principles, their use is generally considered counterproductive in systems striving to maximize soil health and ecosystem balance. I acknowledge that while regenerative practices are not strictly organic, the indiscriminate or default reliance on synthetic inputs often undermines the long-term sustainability and biological resilience that regenerative agriculture seeks to foster.

The Impact of Synthetic Inputs on Soil Health

Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides can disrupt soil microbial communities that are essential for nutrient cycling and natural disease suppression. These inputs often provide a quick-fix solution to fertility and pest problems but do not support the underlying biological processes that make soils resilient and productive. For instance, synthetic nitrogen sources can lead to an immediate growth spurt in plants but may reduce the diversity and activity of soil microbes, which are crucial for organic matter decomposition and nutrient mineralization.

Context Matters in Input Use

In line with the principle that context matters, the judicious use of synthetic inputs can be considered within regenerative systems when other methods are not viable or when transitioning from conventional practices. However, it is essential to weigh such decisions carefully, considering the long-term impacts on soil health and ecosystem services. The goal should always be to support the system's inherent capacity for self-regulation and productivity, minimizing external inputs wherever possible.

Building Fertility from Within

Regenerative practices focus on building soil fertility intrinsically through the use of cover crops, compost, animal manures, and other organic amendments made on the farm. These practices not only improve soil structure and fertility but also enhance the soil's water retention capacity, reduce erosion, and increase biodiversity both above and below ground. By fostering a healthy soil environment, farms can reduce their dependency on synthetic inputs over time.

The Role of Synthetic Inputs in Transitional Strategies

For many farms, particularly those transitioning from conventional to regenerative practices, synthetic inputs may play a role in the short term. However, the aim should always be to reduce reliance on these inputs progressively as the health of the farm ecosystem improves. Strategies such as integrated pest management (IPM), soil health assessments, and biodiversity enhancements can help in reducing the need for synthetic interventions.

In essence, minimizing synthetic inputs is not about adhering strictly to organic certification standards but about recognizing and enhancing the natural biological processes that support productive and sustainable agricultural systems. Regenerative agriculture promotes a paradigm shift from input-intensive farming to one that sees the farm as a complex ecosystem where ecological balance and resilience are the foundations of productivity and health. This principle supports the view that synthetic inputs should be used as a last resort, not as a standard practice, to nurture a truly regenerative landscape.