Reframing Our Understanding of Regenerative

If you are familiar with John Kempf’s work, you might know that he is one of the leading experts in biological and regenerative farming today.  

Or you might know that he got his start in agriculture when he was very young and a quest to better understand plant immunity took him on the educational journey of a lifetime.

Or you may be aware that in 2006 he founded plant nutrition and biostimulants consulting company Advancing Eco Agriculture to serve farmers in their transition to healthier production systems.

But, what you may not know is that he does not believe in the 6 Principles of Regenerative Agriculture.

That is, as he explained in his recent keynote at the Acres USA Eco-Ag Conference in Kentucky, he does not believe that the 6 principles of soil health:

  1. Context
  2. Cover the Soil
  3. Minimize Soil Disturbance
  4. Increase Diversity
  5. Keep Living Roots in Soil
  6. Integrate Livestock

…should be rebranded as the 6 principles of regenerative agriculture – something many people have done in recent years. This, John says, does regenerative agriculture a dis-service, because regenerative is so much more than soil health principles.


Regenerative as More

Regenerative, as a term, comes from the root word regenerate, which refers to being “formed or created again” or “restored to a better, higher, or more worthy state.” When we discuss regenerative agriculture and food systems, we then mean that we are seeking to restore farming and food to a higher state than they are right now and seeking to continually improve them. To do this, involves much more than managing soil alone. It involves building systems around the soil so that it can be continually nurtured as the foundation to a regenerative system.

“It is seductive to consider soil health the same as regenerative,” John explains. “We need to consider the entire ecosystem and the ecosystem’s health.”

One significant way we can all do this is by putting more attention and focus on regenerating our capacity for stewardship.

This capacity embodies a lot of different things but if we focus on the farmer and his or her capacity for stewardship, two things come to mind. First, we don’t put enough attention on how we take care of those who steward our land. Do they have the resources they need to steward in a regenerative way and sell the products that come off their farms? Are they taken care of in the same way we strive for them to care for land? Second, today we do not have enough people stewarding the land, or as John describes, enough people who have a “heart connection to the landscape.”

“We need people who care to be involved – many people and many more than we have today. We don’t have enough stewards today; we don’t have enough for the future.”


The Role of Capital

A piece of this comes back to capital. There is not enough money flowing to rural communities to support the significant role these communities play in the regenerative transformation.

If we want to engage in regenerative agriculture, then John explains:

  1. We need regenerative capacity
  2. We need more young stewards
  3. They need to be paid well
  4. They need regenerative supply chains that support regenerative farmers and allow capital to flow back to rural communities

The opportunity for capital allocators to play a role in this equation is significant. Investments in capacity-building, technical assistance, and mental health support services come to mind. As does support to help young and under-represented farmers gain access to land, as well as investments in processing and distribution infrastructure. But none of this is possible if we don’t reframe the way we do these things, and specifically, the way in which we approach funding and investing in regenerative. Let’s take a step back for a minute…


Symbiotic Relationships

At the heart of all of this, of increasing our capacity for stewardship and therefore our capacity for regeneration, is relationships, according to John. And not just any relationship but symbiotic ones. In agriculture, he points out the important relationship between soil biology and organic matter, between livestock and landscape, and between people and the land they steward… and as we step off the farm, we can also look to relationships between farmer and processor or distributor and retailer.

All of these relationships have the opportunity to be symbiotic and regenerative or to be degenerative.

Symbiotic relationships, for example, are cooperative and collaborative and are characterized by parties working together and seeking to serve the greater good, rather than themselves.

In contrast, degenerative relationships are transactional and/or extractive, where the parties involved are not seeking to achieve win-win outcomes but rather win-loss. These relationships are competitive and self-serving, John explains, and these relationships are ultimately unsustainable because one side will lose the capacity to function within the relationship, or function at all.

How we build relationships, then – whether in the soil, on the farm, or in the larger food ecosystem – will determine our ability to regenerate.

In his keynote speech, John pointed to a case in the Netherlands of a regenerative supply chain founded on this idea of symbiotic relationships. He described the relationship between a retailer that sells 80% of the fresh produce in that country and a fresh produce packing cooperative, owned by vegetable farmers. What sets this relationship apart is the transparency between the two parties, the voice that farmers have in what will be sold and at what price points, and the shared goal to get produce from field to consumer in less than 48 hours. Further, this relationship serves both farmers and retailer with positive outcomes – financial and otherwise.


A Shift Within

Transforming relationships like this – that can lead to regenerative outcomes in our work and investments – requires a shift within ourselves, a point that John really drove home in his keynote. We must think bigger than regenerative being just a set of practices or outcomes and reframe regenerative as a mindset which can guide our decisions and the way we build relationships.

Because “Ultimately these relationships will be a reflection of you,” John says. And “The outcome of our interactions will be dependent on where we are coming from within ourselves.”

So, as John did for a captive audience of farmers as he wrapped up his keynote at the Eco-Ag Conference, we invite you now to reflect on your relationships within the regenerative agriculture and food landscape: 

  • Do you allow yourself to be surrounded by relationships that are not healthy, that are extractive?
  • How do you show up in your relationships?
  • Do you strive for symbiosis within these relationships?

If you want regenerative outcomes to your investments, to your projects, to whatever it is you are working on, your approach must also be regenerative – and striving toward symbiotic relationships, can be a key first step. Funders and investors can ask themselves these questions and more:

  • How would you characterize the relationships you build with those you fund?
  • Are there ways you can create better symbiosis between you and your fundee(s)?
  • How can investment relationships and terms be designed to minimize and eliminate extraction?

As John framed it: If you want to change the world, change yourselves.

Thus, one last question might be: How can you change the way you think about investments, to create the regenerative outcomes you desire?

Sarah Day Levesque is Managing Director at RFSI & Editor of RFSI News. She can be reached here.