Ask an Expert: What's Regenerative Agriculture?

Part of CBF's Ask an Expert video series

We've heard about growing sustainable food, but what if farmers could go beyond preserving the environment and actually improve it? CBF's Director of Science and Agricultural Policy Beth McGee explores the pollution-reducing, carbon-capturing promise of regenerative agriculture—from her own backyard—and shares how you can help.

Sustainable Agriculture: 0:28
Regenerative Agriculture: 1:06
Principles of Regenerative Ag: 1:26
What Can You Do? 3:40


Hi I'm Beth McGee, Director of Science and Agricultural Policy at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I'm going to talk to you today about regenerative agriculture. Maybe it's a term you've heard before and wondered what the difference was between it and sustainable agriculture. Maybe it's a term you've never heard before. So what is regenerative agriculture?

Well let's start with sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture, that term generally refers to agricultural systems that are economically sustainable to the farmer, that do no environmental harm, and that are socially acceptable and sustainable as well. You kind of see one of the challenges of videotaping yourself in your backyard when you have barking dogs–including your own— interjecting, but this like the fifth time I've done this, so it is what it is! Anyway let's get back to your regenerative ag... so the term sustainability, when you think about sustain, it really implies that there's no improvement to the environment, it's really we're just maintaining the status quo.

So the term regenerative ag kind of came on the scene because it's the idea that we want our farming system to actually improve the environment, we want them to improve water quality, improve soil health, benefit our ecosystem, provide wildlife habitat, and so it's a, it's a it's several principles that farmers can adopt that will result in actually making improvements to the environment. So it's things like keeping the soil covered year-round as possible, minimizing disturbance–they're practicing no-till for example. A crop diversity, so whether that's a really diverse crop rotation or whether it's having a pasture full of different species, bringing animals into the system, those are some of the principles that that result in a regenerative ag that can actually improve the environment.

So how does how does that improve the environment? Well one thing that these practices do is improve soil health which is also linked to water quality. So I'm in my backyard, you can hear my barking dog, again sorry about that, but we have you know some vegetable gardens and you can see here that we have it covered with compost during the the winter to keep the moisture in and then the soil looks pretty healthy. We've got some earthworms in here, diversity, I mean soil health is another term that maybe you've heard a lot about lately and the reason why you want to improve soil health is for a couple reasons. What are quality reasons, let's talk about those first.

One is that healthy soils will capture more rain water, so if soils are capturing more rainwater, less is running off and so that is a benefit to water pollution. If it's capturing more rain water it means during a drought period there's more water holding capacity in soils and that's great for the farmer. It's also great for the farmer which we get a lot of rain because more will go into the ground as opposed to running off.

Another benefit of healthy soils, and it's being talked about more and more, is that healthy soils make organic matter–organic matter's largely composed of carbon–so basically it's sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and there's huge potential for soils globally to sequester a lot of carbon. So this is great when you think about greenhouse gases and getting farmers to do this regenerative ag practice, and some even call it carbon farming, that we can actually get farmers to sequester carbon and maybe there's a role for them to play in mitigating greenhouse gases– certainly that is true.

So what can you do with regenerative ag? You can do stuff in your your own yard, get healthy soils in your own yard if you want by covering, by adding organic matter, etc, hopefully it'll be be good for you. You can be a conscientious consumer and so look for farmers that are practicing these practices. A couple ways that you can do that is we have some online resources, something called the Amazing Grazing Directory which is a directory, a multi-state directory, of farmers that are raising grass-fed products. So cheap beef, milk, that are raised all on pasture which is a really great regenerative technique.

I should mention that we, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, actually owns a farm in Upper Marlboro, 300-acre farm that does grass-fed beef, all regenerative ag. Once we're out and about, if you live close to there, I'd encourage you to go visit the farm.

And then just you know, buying locally. We have a Buy Fresh, Buy Local guide available on, also on our web page. And just get to maybe learn about your farmer, asked them what practices they use. Do they consider themselves a regenerative farmer?

So hopefully you've learned a little bit today. Sorry for the background noise but that's what happens when you live in a neighborhood. Thanks for listening!

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