What Is Regenerative Farming?
Regenerative farming involves giving more to the land than you take. This relatively recent addition to the general public’s lexicon isn’t as clearly defined as words like organic, a system that meets specific criteria and requires certification from accredited organizations. Businesses like Rodale Institute certify regenerative farms, but since the term is still a bit fluid, we asked Baby Root Farm founder Mike Roberts to explain how he sees it.
Roberts started working for esteemed McGrath Family Farm founder Phil McGrath in Camarillo, California, in 2010. After McGrath, a fourth generation farmer, “moved towards retirement,” Roberts began working a 25x25-foot plot in the Camarillo hills in 2015 before returning to McGrath’s property to join a collective with other McGrath alums. Together, McGrath Family Farmers became their mentor McGrath’s succession plan. Roberts started with a half-acre in 2017 and now runs 20 of the collective’s 35 acres. Roberts takes a holistic view when tending to his certified organic farm and community while growing roots, shoots, fruits, and California native plants.
“Words are important because we attach meaning,” Roberts says. “Sustainable never resonated with me because it implies you’re trying to sustain. I liked regenerative early on because it implies positive progress, positive improvements to the environment and to the lives of the human beings, soil microbiology, and all the animal life.” He elaborates, saying, “Sustainable sounds like we’re kind of doggy paddling. Regenerative is hopefully we’re taking action to lessen the impact we’re having on this planet in a negative way.”
“Regenerative is keeping the ground covered, ideally with living things, and minimal to no disturbance of the soil. So minimal tillage,” Roberts says. “If we employ these types of techniques on scale, then the scientists will come behind and I believe our numbers will bare out. The microbiology in the soil will be thriving because we’re not disrupting it. It has a food source. There’s moisture there. Our water usage would go way down. We’re in severe drought in Southern California, especially in ag.”
Roberts defines Baby Root Farm as “a system of production-based agriculture that aims to get measurably better in four areas: environmentally, socially, economically and educationally. We want to have measurements along the way. Some things are easy to measure. Economics are easy to measure. Are we surviving? Are we moving towards living wages? Environmentally, that’s where we need scientists’ help. Educationally, that’s not only sharing what we’re doing with others, but also our own education. We have farmers going to Korean Natural Farming courses. Farmers are learning all sorts of other techniques. We’re implementing a larger scale composting system.”
To ensure Baby Root Farm is measurably improving their environment, Roberts works with Rodale Institute, the UC Cooperative Extension and other scientists to take baseline samples and quantify progress in areas like biodiversity and carbon sequestration. [Carbon sequestration captures carbon from the atmosphere and can either help to mitigate or even reverse climate change.] “If I don’t disturb the soil, if we put in as many permanent crops as we can, then that effect is going to happen,” Roberts says.
“In the collective, we grow over 100 different things and if you count California native plants and trees, we might be pushing into 150-200,” Roberts says. “So plenty of diversity. That diversity attracts a diversity of insect life and soil microbiology… Other farmers around here grow one crop. Strawberries. They probably think we’re crazy to see this amount of different things, but farmers want to have fun. They get excited when the seed catalog comes. Then again, the pain of 10-page certified producer certificates with the Ag Department is yelling at us, ‘Why are you guys doing so many things?’”
When Roberts started farming on McGrath’s property in 2019, California native plants or decomposing wood chips covered 90% of that half-acre, with only 10% devoted to “the economic driver of quick-growing intensive beds.” Since scaling up to 20 acres in 2020, Baby Root Farms made that land 10% regenerative and 90% certified organic. “We’ll just keep encroaching on the organic land,” Roberts says. “We have aspirations to have a transformative effect on production-based agriculture in Ventura County. Because if our farmer neighbors, who are 92% conventional, can see this working and growing, they’re going to start asking questions and may start adopting these types of programs.”
Economically, Baby Root Farm and McGrath Family Farmers have experienced steady growth so far. “Baby Root started with just me and then one of the other senior farmers,” Roberts says. Now they fluctuate between 12-18 team members, and the collective has 30-40 total team members. “Our #1 mission is to grow farmers,” Roberts says. “You need more members of the community involved in their food growing process.”
The McGrath Family Farmers collective certainly wouldn’t be possible without a concerted group effort. “We have very clear directives: grow farmers, regenerative systems of agriculture, and local and regional food systems,” Roberts says. “Those are our three north stars. If we’re stagnant or going backwards, it’s not happening, so we definitely need to have measurable improvement, and the cool things is, it does not have to happen by our hand. If other farms and farmers grow into this space, we will retract…but until then, we’re just going to keep going until everybody’s practicing regenerative ag, we’re feeding ourselves and helping other communities do the same.”