Digging into Regenerative Principles

I just came across some notes I made from Nesta’s first Minister for the Future event back in June, which was on Food for the Future and the potential of regenerative agriculture.

The original essay on the topic was written by Thomasina Miers, and she was joined by Tara Garnett (Director of TABLE) and Tom Martin, a farmer and Prospect columnist, and the session was chaired by Alan Rusbridger.

I have various notes, but I just wanted to firstly capture Tom’s five principles of Regenerative Farming which he shared on the evening:

1. Reduce Tillage – don’t lose structure by continually tilling the soil

2. Diversity – through rotation over time, or side-by-side planting – soils feast on different crops

3. Living roots all year round – keeps the soil alive constantly

4. Develop Soil Armour – covering crops to protect from the weather, like excess sun

5. Incorporate Livestock – mimic nature through the massage and movement of megafauna

(Update: thanks to Nathan for pointing out that these are from Gabe Brown’s Dirt to Soil – which Tom likely referred to on the night and I missed in my notes)

Why?

Because I remember thinking at the time there was perhaps an extension of these five you could make out into more general regenerative principles.

Here’s a first attempt.

—————

1. Don’t Lose Cultural Structure

Tom’s principle refers to soil structure; essentially ramming a plough through the fields every year, breaking up the soil in preparation for crops means you lose all the unseen things nature has been doing to make the soil fit for purpose. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Translating this to any organisation, the current structures you have in place will have obvious things at the surface level. And those things you might want to do less of or change. But how do you doing without losing the hidden social structures that people have created underneath? It is possible to change your crop without breaking up the soil.

2. Diversity in Time and Space

For regenerative agriculture, making the most of the ways different plants work together is key. Rather than monocropping, with only one type of crop going in year after year, the regenerative farmer thinks about how plants can work together in the same field, or rotate around different spaces on the farm bringing different things to the soil.

It is not a stretch to see how for an organisation we can shift to thinking about the value in multiple diverse stakeholders being involved in the business in different ways. How do different people work better together, and how might you phase and rotate responsibilities around, rather than constantly asking the same kinds of people to do the same things year after year.

3. A Living Culture

Letting the ground go barren for a year or two doesn’t help the farmer; keeping living roots in the ground all year round helps the soil remain fertile, alive, growing in strength for when you need it to crop well.

Many corporate processes are content to let areas of their business lie dormant and untouched for years at a time. In the belief that they ‘need to get on with things’, they’ll engineer processes which means short bursts on consumer research or strategy setting happens over the course of one or two months, after which it’s locked down and held in stasis. These false annual cycles feel antiquated, a mechanistic process we don’t have time for… and not one for businesses who want to be alive to possibilities.

4. Cultural Protection

The ‘soil armour’ Tom refers to is there to make sure that the elements, like baking hot sun or unseasonably heavy rain, have little chance in damaging that valuable living soil.

In an organisation, if you have delicate cultural connections you want to protect to do this work, it’s your role to protect them however you can.

5. Working with the Cultural Megafauna

Finally, Tom talked about mimicking the megafauna on a regenerative farm, the large beasts who would graze and fertilise amongst crops in times gone by, helping them play their part in how crops grow and soil becomes stronger.

So what are the cultural megafauna? I think they’re the ideas that are growing outside your business, lumbering slowly and productively through society and changing it for the better. The Regenerative Economy might be one. There may be others affecting your sector. Don’t fence them out; allow them in, to strengthen and improve your cultural soil.