What is regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture?

Regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture has become a hot topic for discus­sion, but a consis­tent defi­n­i­tion of this produc­tion model has yet to emerge. The Furrow met growers committed to this path to get an idea of its key prin­ci­ples.

The figures speak for them­selves: By 2030, Nestlé plans to source 50% of its main ingre­di­ents, by volume, from “regen­er­a­tive” farms. McCain wants to switch all of its potato-growing fields to the system; Pepsi, more-or-less all of its suppliers’ land; and Mondelez, 100% of its Euro­pean wheat fields. Danone France, mean­while, plans to have made the switch by 2025.

Marketing, along­side the industry’s concerns for the resilience of its supply base; share­holder pres­sure – irre­spec­tive of the reasons why – and the increasing interest of the food processing industry will change farming prac­tices. But in contrast to other labels, there is currently no regu­la­tory defi­n­i­tion for regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture. A Euro­pean tour around several farms committed to this model of produc­tion high­lights a common purpose, but also a very varied approach.

Five major axis

The UK is a good place to start. After all, the concept orig­i­nated here and some of the guiding prin­ci­ples were first formu­lated some 20 years ago. These are: Not turning over the soil, perma­nent ground cover, main­taining a living root system, crop diver­sity, and combining live­stock and crops. In the UK, Simon Cowell was drawn to the move­ment right from the begin­ning. At St Lawrence in Essex, he farms 162ha of coastal land, including marsh­land soils which he previ­ously found diffi­cult to make into a good seedbed. This encour­aged him to give up on ploughing in favour of direct drilling.

Simon Cowell gave up ploughing in favour of no-till farming.

United Kingdom

Another of Simon’s goals was to reduce his input costs. “I got inter­ested in soil and how it works, which then led to reduc­tions in fertiliser and fungi­cide use,” he reports.

Switching to foliar fertiliser enabled him to reduce his nitrogen require­ment by around 30%, and he has stopped using phos­phate and potash alto­gether, relying on biolog­ical processes to make these nutri­ents avail­able. He applies bios­tim­u­lants to ensure his crops remain healthy and vigorous and has trialled methods like spraying molasses to enhance soil biology.

Simon Cowell was able to reduce nitrogen use by 30% (up to 57-66kg N/ha saved in winter wheat).

The soil organic matter content is one indi­cator that the farmer moni­tors closely: Average levels have increased from 4% to 6.5% since switching to regen prac­tices. “I may not see any further increases in organic matter percentage, but I hope the organic matter will increase deeper in the soil, which will lead to a higher total mass of humus.” However, organic matter is not made entirely from carbon. It also ties up other nutri­ents, which means that there is a cost to it. But this is balanced by a more active soil biology and an increase in fertility, in the farmer’s eyes.

For Simon, the prin­ci­ples set out at the start must be adapted to the actual situ­a­tion on-farm. In his case, perma­nent ground cover and inte­grating live­stock are not suited to his system. “The soil doesn’t dry enough to allow spring drilling into a crop. We would need to kill it off in November, at a time when it is gener­ally too wet to enter the field,” he says.

“And for similar reasons I haven’t intro­duced live­stock. The soil is too heavy for winter grazing. And in this part of the world there aren’t many animals around.” Instead, he relies on crop rota­tion to improve soil health and struc­ture. “I no longer have a set rota­tion plan, but make choices for each field indi­vid­u­ally,” reveals Simon, who grows wheat, barley, oats, beans, linseed and lucerne. “Lucerne is an impor­tant crop for us as it stays in place for three years and allows the field to recover. It is harvested three times a year and stays dormant over the winter.”

Lucerne is an impor­tant crop for us as it stays in place for three years and allows the field to recover.

Simon Cowell

Caring about cover

Farming 240ha in Oise, a depart­ment north of Paris, Émeric Duch­esnes has been trialling regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture for three years as part of the ARA-Blé programme. This is run jointly by the Val France co-oper­a­tive and McDon­alds, with support from the Earth­worm foun­da­tion. Émeric sees regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture as a marketing name given to ecolog­ical or conser­va­tion agri­cul­ture. “It’s a form of produc­tion that, above all, takes account of the soil.” At ARA-Blé, the focus is on regional supply chains, reducing input use and storing carbon to increase prof­itability. While Émeric currently grows only 20ha of wheat under the programme, it has an impact on his entire crop rota­tion plan­ning (winter wheat, rape­seed, peas, sugar beet and flax).

Emeric Duch­esnes intro­duced multi-species cover crops.


“After harvest we system­at­i­cally sow cover crops, without ploughing. We sow directly after combining, to keep the mois­ture in the soil for rapid crop emer­gence and devel­op­ment.” But his approach is not dogmatic. What counts are the results: Before sugar beet, which is grown on a five-year rota­tion, the farmer allows himself to plough. “I see it like having a toolbox, which enables us to plough when needed, partic­u­larly after a wet winter. We mainly plough for sugar beet and try to forget about it for the other crops.”

For cover crop cultivation, Émeric has put together a mixture of six to seven vari­eties – phacelia to produce biomass to suppress weeds, China radish or sunflower to loosen the soil and vetch and broad beans to fertilise the soil. “The mixture is diverse and its compo­si­tion remains the same. Never­the­less, the plant popu­la­tion develops differ­ently from year to year.”

Although there has not been enough time to fully eval­uate the bene­fits, some have already emerged. “On August 30 in 40°C heat, there is no life-protecting shadow in the tilled wheat fields, while in the field next to them, under the vege­ta­tion cover, it’s only 15°C and earth­worms, insects and birds are present.” This is one of the key lessons learned from the programme, and Émeric plans to continue refining his blend of cover vari­eties. “Today, we think of cover crops as a sepa­rate crop on the farm. We put just as much effort into achieving good results as we do with wheat  or rape­seed.”

Beside his own 240ha, Emeric Duch­esnes (left) also farms 900ha as a contractor. “I want to use this oppor­tu­nity to demon­strate to my customers the agro­nomic interest of regen­er­a­tive prac­tices.”
The seeds for the cover mix (sunflower, sorghum, niger, radish, vetch, faba bean and phacelia) were financed by the ARA-blé project.

Looking after the soil requires modern machinery. “This allows us to do things that were unthink­able 20 years ago. In partic­ular, the devel­op­ment of direct drills and ever better tyres help us to protect the soil.” The farm has recently purchased a strip-till drill. Émeric admits that the level of invest­ment can be daunting, but contrasts this with the decline in input costs. He is not neces­sarily hoping for an increase in wheat yields, but rather for more consis­tent harvests. In an area with highly produc­tive soils, it is the uncer­tain­ties of the climate that pose the greatest chal­lenges. “With healthy soils we will be more resilient in both wet and dry years.”

Cattle and reducing pesti­cides

At Drels­dorf, in northern Germany, dairy farmer Thies Paulsen, who switched to regen­er­a­tive farming back in 2018, is focusing on combining live­stock and crop produc­tion. He is convinced that it is impos­sible to save the climate without cows. His cattle are cher­ished; 15 litres a day are fed to the calves, and the rest of the milk is sold. On average, his cows stop producing milk at the age of six. Grazing plays an impor­tant role in the health of his soil: “The cows’ saliva passes on infor­ma­tion to the soil life that is impor­tant for the rotting process. It is also impor­tant that plants are tram­pled onto the ground to provide enough organic matter. And finally, there is the manure with its quickly avail­able nitrogen, which stim­u­lates soil life as well.” Another advan­tage lies in the farm’s slurry, to which Thies adds micro­bi­o­log­ical addi­tives to increase nutrient avail­ability.

Thies Paulsen has reduced his pesti­cide use and relies on live­stock inte­gra­tion.


The 140ha are divided, more or less equally, between arable and pasture land. In 2023, Thies’ crop rota­tion included beans, winter barley, red clover silage, grain maize, spring wheat, winter trit­i­cale and maize silage. Like the other farmers, he limits soil move­ment, having direct drilled for three years, and ensures he looks after his cover crops. However, at present, the system only works with the use of pesti­cides – albeit at a minimal dose.

Thies Paulsen keeps a 120-head dairy herd at Drels­dorf in nothern Germany.

Thies is exper­i­menting for the future: He harvested 6.5t/ha of spring wheat on one field last summer. The straw was removed, then the catch crop mixture was sown, with winter trit­i­cale drilled into the emerging catch crops on September 25. Five days later he used glyphosate, primarily to control grass brome, but left one strip untreated. The obser­va­tion: The trit­i­cale survived under nitrogen-collecting cover crops as well as spring wheat regrowth and brome. “Perhaps we can work without glyphosate in the future,” he says happily.

Thies Paulsen gave up using plant growth regu­la­tors and hopes to do without herbi­cides in future.

But forgoing fungi­cide treat­ments when there is infec­tion at the ear stage – and conse­quently losing a good crop of grain – contra­dicts his view of agri­cul­ture. Thies sees himself at the inter­face between conven­tional and organic agri­cul­ture. “Perhaps we as regen­er­a­tive farmers can build a bridge between these two camps.” But first it’s about devel­oping a sustain­able system that sequesters carbon and retains mois­ture in the soil. “We not only have a CO₂ problem, but also a water problem,” he warns.

Storing Water

In Spain, Manuel Urquiza, farmer and agri­cul­tural engi­neer, advises farms on regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture on behalf of the asso­ci­a­tion Alvelal. Even he finds it hard to define regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture. He considers it a holistic approach: “Farming that helps improve the quality of food, while preserving and enhancing the soil and coun­try­side. And it must also be prof­itable.”

Manuel Urquiza plants hedges and imple­ments water-saving measures.


In his case, tillage is minimal, using different harrows. To encourage fungi and bene­fi­cial bacteria and increase organic matter, a compost made from olive waste and manure is applied as fresh as possible. Here, in the plateaus of Grenada, mainly nuts (almonds and pista­chios) and wine are grown. Among perma­nent crops, plant cover, whether sown or wild, is just as impor­tant. The aim is to achieve as long-lasting cover as possible, even if it will inevitably disap­pear in the hot summer months with the greatest drought. There­fore, to get the maximum benefit from the residue, it is mowed in a timely manner.

According to Manuel Urquiza, reversing the process of deser­ti­fi­ca­tion and agri­cul­tural aban­don­ment is a key goal of regen ag.

Storage of almonds. The almond tree toler­ates occa­sional episodes of water shortage well, but water stress can penalize yield.

Pista­chio trees and their fruits. The soil cover plays an essen­tial role in these peren­nial crops, for mois­ture reten­tion, increased organic matter, protec­tion against temper­a­ture changes and erosion preven­tion.

Like his colleagues, Manuel sees many connecting points between conven­tional and organic approaches in regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture. Proof of this is the atten­tion that is given to biodi­ver­sity, which plays an impor­tant role in control­ling both pollu­tion and pests, with the help of bene­fi­cial insects, mites, and useful nema­todes. Alvelal supports the planting of “living” hedges consisting of fennel, rose­mary, and lavender. A study by the Univer­sity of Almeria shows more than a 30% increase in biodi­ver­sity in regen­er­a­tive rural areas, helping to reduce the impact of para­sites and diseases.

Harvesting regen ag almonds

The improved nutrient profile suggests inter­esting prospects for the agri-food sector.

However, the main problem in this part of southern Europe is without doubt the chronic lack of water: 250mm falls across the region each year, often concen­trated into just a few weeks. There­fore, special atten­tion is given to rain­water storage, either in ponds or in the soil. Infil­tra­tion trenches, water-retaining borders, and ponds have been built. “The methods used have to be appro­priate to the finan­cial resources avail­able to farmers,” notes Manuel. “On large farms, we create reser­voirs and terraces.”

The Alvelal asso­ci­a­tion imple­ments large-scale measures, like creating terraces.

One of the frequently cited advan­tages of regen agri­cul­ture is the nutrient compo­si­tion of the end prod­ucts. Manuel has no doubt about that. “Analysis has shown that micro­bial enrich­ment increases both the polyphenol content in the grapes and the bioac­tive compo­nents in the almonds.” This gives hope that such added value will attract broader interest. In addi­tion to reducing inputs and improving resilience, adding value is also neces­sary to finance the change promised by the food industry.