“It’s a bug that slowly bites,” says Nic Renison, one half of the farming husband and wife team at Cannerheugh Farm in Renwick, Cumbria, as she tries to define the term ‘regenerative agriculture’.
On the wall behind our Microsoft Teams video call is a canvas portrait of a hardy Lakeland sheep, while in the foreground Nic and Paul share slides to explain the root strength of grass in a regenerative farm system.
“When you continually nibble the grass, it doesn’t put down any deep roots, and there aren’t root structures to hold that soil and water in place. In addition, fertiliser makes roots become lazy,” she says. One of the biggest benefits to such a system can be less soil runoff and flooding, crucial for upland farms located close to steep mountains, and it's no surprise that farms bordering so-called 'disadvantaged' land have been some of the earlier adopters of regenerative farming.
“I don’t think there’s anything you have to do to be regenerative – I think it’s more of a mindset,” continues Nic, who says it all began after they visited regenerative farmers in Northumberland, and gained a new understanding of “how grass grows”.
The Renisons farm sheep, cows and have in the last few years started woodland pigs and pastured poultry. They rotate their animals frequently, while composting muck and green hay to fertilise fields, and planting trees and hedges with guidance from the Woodland Trust. These hedges now provide vital shelter from the bitter ‘Helm Wind’, which quite literally “kills lambs”, says Nic, and provides habitat for a multitude of new birdlife.
“We used to have a very ‘take all’ mentality, which was very production orientated,” adds Paul, who taught himself how to replace fertiliser with compost with an old copy of a book by organic pioneer, Lady Evelyn Balfour.
It might sound like the latest green buzzword in ethical credentials, but regenerative farming is a growing movement of farmers across the UK, who organise themselves via social media and are deliberately moving away from buying feed, products and advice from agri businesses, with significant benefits to financial security and mental health.
It’s also part of a growing shift among some British farmers to farm closer to nature, protect biodiversity, keep carbon in the soil and reduce their impact as much as possible. Other iterations include the Nature Friendly Farming Network (NFFN), a similarly farmer-led movement that helps farmers farm in harmony with nature.
Organic farmers, of course, have been following this approach for years, the difference being that regenerative farming, or ‘Regen Ag’ as it’s colloquially known on Twitter, is being followed and trialled by both organic and non-organic farmers.
As Dorset-based organic dairy farmer Sam Vincent puts it: “Degenerative means leaving things worse off, sustainable is maintaining but not necessarily improving – regenerative means leaving the land better than you found it.”
In practice, this involves rotating livestock more frequently in order to rest grass, reducing or avoiding chemicals and fertiliser, and a holistic approach to biodiversity and food production.
Ed Dickson, a first-generation farmer in Herefordshire’s Black Mountains, says: “Regenerative farming has to fit around what your farm will do. We are in a Severely Disadvantaged Area (SDA), which is quite acidic, wet and marginal,” he says, adding that his farm is now “as much about biodiversity as red meat production”. “Our ethos from the beginning has been let’s try and manage the land as sympathetically as possible. Rather than production-led,” he says.
In many ways, regenerative agriculture is not a new approach. Certifications like organic and Pasture for Life – the label of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) – are underpinned by many of the same soil care and biodiversity principles.
In fact, it may go back even further, as David Camp, organic livestock farmer in South Devon, and supplier to veg box company Riverford, puts it: “It’s coming full circle. My grandad always used to say: ‘Sheep should never hear the church bells twice in the same field’. He never really gave a reason, other than they ‘do better’ if they’re moved on. The real reason is the grass does better: when it’s resting, it builds up roots.”
An ethical dilemma
One of the key differences between organic and regenerative farming seems to be an ethical dilemma over whether to spray or plough. With their focus on soil health, regenerative farmers say they feel uncomfortable about ploughing the ground, which destroys intricate soil structures. It’s a trade-off that organic farmers must make, however, in order to keep on top of weeds without resorting to chemicals.
“Ploughing releases carbon and disturbs soil structure; it essentially turns the worm houses upside down. Maybe an odd spray of glyphosate is the lesser of the two evils,” says Paul Renison, while clarifying “of course, over-use is disastrous”.
Dickson echoes the same concerns, summing up the catch-22 facing sustainably-minded farmers as: “you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. “For arable farms, they might want to spray their weeds – if they plough instead, that releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere,” he explains. “It’s about the holistic approach for the least detrimental outcome.”
Of course, there are other benefits to certification that should not be underestimated. As Fidelity Weston, chairman of the PFLA, puts it: “To me the word [regenerative] sounds brilliant and it’s the buzzword at the moment, but what do you actually have to do? If you’re trying to use your tractor less and do more walking – that’s regenerative. Or if it’s about soil, should you stop using all chemicals?
“From the consumer point of view, you do need to have a certification scheme so you can go online and look it up, and there is no scope for greenwash.” Although the PFLA’s own label, Pasture for Life, does offer an audited version of regenerative agriculture and a guarantee of grass-fed livestock, Weston accepts that its size means it’s limited: with 600 members in the UK, only 100 are certified as 100 per cent pasture-fed.
In the US, a new certification, Regenerative Organic Certified, is regulating regenerative farming, using organic as a baseline and adding in soil health principles. But in the UK, the term is still primarily a grassroots movement among farmers, many of whom mention informal Zoom meetings, Twitter threads and WhatsApp groups as the primary means of sharing information. Some choose to certify under organic or PFLA, or some, like the Renisons, prefer to tell their story locally. “'We can sell a pasture-reared chicken for £12, whereas if we were organic, we'd have to sell it for £18 and that really wouldn't work in Cumbria," explains Nic. "We’re planning for local people to know us and know our story, and then they won’t be looking for a label. But I suppose that’s difficult to scale up,” she muses.
Dickson, who describes his farm as “nearly organic but not certified”, says: “We don’t use any chemical inputs, no glyphosate or anything, but we don’t always buy organic grass seed, It would be easy to get certified as organic, but I’m happy in my own skin and that I’m following those principles.”
Key to this is a local supply chain, where consumers can visit the farm and see for themselves, or speak to well-informed local grocers or butchers, plus a huge amount of trust in those you buy from. “It’s not until you get into the longer supply chains that you do need to underpin those credentials. Even with butchers you have to have a huge trust – their job is to get the meat out the door,” says Weston.
Self sufficiency and mental health
Regenerative farming also seems to be allowing farmers a new level of self sufficiency: primarily because grass is healthier and there is more of it, so less feed needs to be bought in.
“The big driver in regen ag is to get rid of the ‘cake bag’, that is to say, all feed, and doing as much as possible by just feeding grass,” explains Camp, who farms on the Sharpham Estate in south Devon. Doing this reduces farmers’ reliance on imported soy for animal feed and cuts their indirect contribution to deforestation and offshore carbon emissions. But it also means a small family farm business, where margins are already very slim, is more viable. As Camp says: “Every time you get a cheque out, that’s something off your margin.”
And it has other, less tangible, impacts, around the mental health benefits of being more self-sufficient - a hugely important point in agriculture, which has the second worst suicide rates of all UK industries.
“It’s a lot lower risk; you make less but also spend less. You can try stuff out and it’s not a complete make or break situation,” says Dickson, who even sees some of the more labour-intensive sides to regenerative farming as positives.
“From a mental health point of view, ‘slow farming’, those moments when you’re moving the fence or you’re seeing the cattle or looking at the birds. That 10-15 minutes a day, it’s pleasant,” he says. “Farming is a very high pressure, cash intensive and low margin business, and if you can find a way to make it more enjoyable, that should be celebrated.”
The problem for ethical consumers
There are clear benefits for nature, as well as the viability of sustainable family farming, for those who are practising regenerative farming, even if they aren’t certified. But how does all this help the ethical shopper?
For some, it goes back to the value of transparency that only a certification can offer, while for others it is about informing yourself and buying locally. The PFLA website has a map of all the certified butchers and farmers in the UK plus information of where to buy from them, says Weston, while the organic label is readily available across supermarkets, box schemes and independents. Dickson adds: “Know your farmer. Or if you can pick your box up from the farm then go for it – it’s a great way to see it all in action. As much as you can, be a conscious consumer.”
Shorter supply chains also offer a viable route to local informed consumers and an alternative for non-certified regenerative farmers, he says. “Village butchers and greengrocers punch above their weight in terms of the influence they have on the local area. It’s these hidden bits of the supply chain that are really important,” says Dickson, who says he is lucky to have a couple of small abattoirs that take one or two cows a time.
On a wider scale, the new Agriculture Bill should, in theory, be incentivising a more holistic environmental approach to farming. Until then, the ‘regenerative ag’ community, under whatever umbrella they identify, is proving to be a progressive and informed group of farmers building viable, small-scale farm businesses with the environment firmly at the centre.
As Dickson puts it: “It would be nice if in 10 years’ time, all agriculture was regenerative agriculture.”