Conservation or Regeneration?

Aug 18, 2015
Joshua Dukart

Can you describe what agriculture is in one word?

The word sustainability has become a rather common term in our society today. It has also become our best attempt at trying to describe what we do in the agricultural world. This term is used in a variety of contexts and has taken on many definitions. It is promoted by many individuals and organizations alike. Additionally, it has been used to describe contrasting ends of several spectrums, including trying to control nature with high input agriculture to working with nature in a very low input fashion. In my opinion, the word sustainability has lost much of its credibility as it is used so loosely and frequently to describe vastly different ideals. So what does sustainability really mean to the farming and ranching community? I’m not so sure it even accurately describes what we are trying to do.

The dictionary definition of sustainability is a reordering of the word itself, described as “the ability to sustain current thresholds, or the ability to be sustained.” My question then becomes: Are we satisfied with our current situation? Have we accepted the current degraded state of our soil, our finances, our relationships with family and team members, and our health? If we are in successional regression, than it behooves us to try and “sustain” this current “unsustainable” state of affairs.

So does the word “conservation” better define the sustainability qualification we are after? Isn’t conservation supposedly the common ground in which all land uses and land managers share? We can probably all agree that nature is a very complex set of ever evolving variables. These mutually beneficial relationships continue to be reformed, rebalanced, and reproduced. So if nature is our reference, then all indications are that conservation does not seem to be enough. Conservation equates to stopping the bleeding of a wound, but that is just a reactive first step. Are we not interested in actually healing the wound and proactively creating an environment of health as to prevent future injuries and wounds?

Now let’s think of this concept in terms of land management and function. Soil erosion is a classic example. Unfortunately, on many farms and ranches there is a certain amount of soil that is lost each year. Not only is the soil a valuable part of our resource base, but it is the foundation of our feed and forage supply. Most of the time the amount lost can be directly attributed to the management implemented on that particular operation, excluding major flood, drought, and storm events. Why would we want to purposely lose a portion of our inventory each year? What other industries and/or businesses would consider this acceptable?

Now considering our desire to be profitable, losing soil goes directly against achieving that goal. So instead of accepting a degraded soil, the first step would be to implement conservation based practices to “stop the bleeding”. However, we shouldn’t play “prevent defense” or play the game “not to lose.” Conversely, we should “play aggressively” and play the game “to win.” Simply put we should not only stop the erosion from occurring, but we should take it a step further and actually take a page out of nature’s playbook and start building more soil.

Conservation on a farm might include deciding to convert to a no-tillage method of seeding. Regeneration on that same farm might include a biologically diverse cropping system, integrating cover crops combinations and livestock, to improve the function of the ecosystem processes. Conservation on a ranch might include installing cross fences to control grazing patterns. Regeneration on that same ranch might include purposeful grazing of certain areas for a short period of time, with tremendous stock density, followed by a long recovery period to build biological activity in the soil. Additionally, successful regeneration on these farms and ranches would rely on having an open and holistic mindset, bent on achieving identified goals.

In conclusion, since Soil Health equals Plant Health, Plant Health equals Animal Health, and Plant & Animal Health equals Human Health, why would we not want to regenerate the basis for the whole system?

Want to learn more about Regenerative Agriculture? Make plans to attend the 7th Annual Grassfed Exchange Conference and Tour in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, September 16-18, 2015. Visit for more details.

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