Grazing animals, wildflowers waving in the breeze, birdsong. This may sound like an idealised version of farming but regenerative agriculture has the potential to transform the face of farming and with it, fashion, for the better. As the brilliant Katie Allen, farmer and maker articulately says; "it is only by using materials that nature both provides and happily reclaims, can fashion contribute to the regeneration of ecosystems."
Because how we look after our land and soil better is key to all of our futures. Through our work with the Responsible Wool Standard we have started to work with some regenerative farms that manage our Lamb's Wool, but what does that really mean?
Simply put, regenerative farming works with, rather than against, nature. Farmers embrace practices that are more sympathetic to the environment and which allow the land to regenerate and heal. These practices depend on the farm, but can include agroforestry, permaculture, biodynamics and organic farming. We look at six key outcomes that are markers of true regenerative practices.
1. Keeping soil healthy
Healthy soil is nutrient-rich and helps to produce strong plants. With non-regenerative farming, fields can be over-farmed, so they lose some of their nutrients. Chemical fertilisers can help in the short term but may end up making the situation worse. And pesticides and weedkillers can have a negative impact on soil, water and local wildlife.
As Innovation for Agriculture explains, “We are starting to see serious problems in soil quality, soil erosion and water & food quality as a result of adopting a wholly chemical-based system of farming. We are also beginning to lose the battle with nature: problem pests, weeds and diseases are evolving more quickly than we can develop new synthetic controls.”
Soil health is a key focus of regenerative farming. Rather than using chemical fertilisers, the farmers work to naturally enrich the soil with compost, manure and other waste matter. They also rely less on pesticides and weedkillers. Instead, they use natural methods of reducing pests and weeds, like encouraging predatory insects and birds, allowing animals to graze and sowing ‘green manure’ plants when the main harvest is finished, to suppress weeds and add nutrients back into the soil.
2. Tackling climate change
Healthy soil captures and stores carbon. However, this carbon is then released when the soil is disturbed. Regenerative farming helps to keep the carbon in the ground, by reducing disruption to the soil. So, for example, farmers may reduce the amount they till or plough the ground. They might also rotate which fields are used for grazing to prevent soil degradation and grow crops that reduce the risk of erosion.3. Promoting biodiversity
By rotating crops, planting wildflower borders and trees, reducing pesticides and so on, regenerative farms can encourage a more diverse array of wildlife into their fields. Healthier soil also means more micro-fauna, worms and insects, which sustain birds, mammals and other wildlife.
4. Saving water
Water is becoming an increasingly precious resource. Regenerative agriculture aims to make the most of rainfall and reduce water loss. By moving grazing cattle between fields, the grass isn’t over-stressed. It can then grow stronger root systems, which can better seek out water so the plants can survive on less rainfall.
Healthy soil is also better at absorbing and holding onto water. That’s crucial in times of drought, but it also helps when there’s a lot of rainfall in a short period as the water is less likely to run off the fields and cause issues with flooding. If organic matter is increased by just 1%, an acre of soil can hold onto an extra 20,000 gallons of water.
5. Improving animal welfare
Regenerative farmers tend to raise animals outdoors and give them more space to roam. The animals are often seen as part of the wider eco-system rather than just a product. Farmers benefit from free, organic fertiliser and fewer weeds, and the animals enjoy a much better quality of life.
The majority of our wool is now coming from progressive farms that are embracing more holistic, natural ways of farming.
6. Increasing resilience
Healthier eco-systems are better able to withstand climate change–related challenges, such as extreme rainfall and drought. By farming regeneratively, farmers can ensure that food, wool and other essentials can carry on being produced on the land for generations to come.