Can greenhouses fit into the regenerative organic movement?
What it means to be regenerative organic and why it’s an idea worth considering.
August 26, 2022 By Samantha Mills
What is regenerative agriculture?
While there are no set definitions in the legal or regulatory sense, the goal of regenerative agriculture is to farm in such a way that has a net positive effect on the environment and/or social aspects of society. Whether it’s restoring soil health or contributing to improvements in our climate, this holistic practice aims to leave the Earth in a better state than before, so the next generations can continue to farm sustainably.
Regenerative agriculture differs from organic agriculture. The latter is a term that does have legal and regulatory implications in Canada. To qualify under Canada’s Organic Certification Standards, a greenhouse operation would need to grow crops without synthetic pesticides and in living soil, among other factors. Crops grown under hydroponic systems and/or with the use of supplemental lighting, heating or CO2 enrichment would not be eligible.
Combining two ideas rooted in like-minded goals, the term regenerative organic agriculture was coined by Robert Rodale in the 1980s. Both Robert Rodale and his father J.J. Rodale were pioneers in sustainable agriculture and their early experimental work would grow into the Rodale Institute, a centre dedicated to the study of organic and regenerative farming practices.
Robert Rodale first combined the two farming practices into regenerative organic agriculture in 1989. In the field, regenerative organic farming typically involves the use of cover cropping, managed grazing, as well as reduced tillage or no-tillage to improve soil health and to promote environmental sustainability.
In 2017, the Rodale Institute launched the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) program in the United States which outlines standards and best practices. While it is possible to apply for Rodale’s ROC program in Canada, few Canadian farms are ROC-certified. Still, there are Canadian farmers who practise regenerative organic agriculture as a way to respond to the challenges of the climate crisis. The question is, what role do greenhouse growers have in the regenerative organic movement?
Greenhouses Can Be Sustainable
Both conventional and organic greenhouse growers employ sustainable practices that can reduce a greenhouse’s environmental impact, such as using renewable energy and recycling rainwater. However, there is a growing focus on more radical solutions such as reducing carbon emissions, removing carbon from the atmosphere through soil carbon sequestration, and rebuilding soil health that has been lost through years of degradation.
These goals, especially rebuilding soil health, are shared by both organic and regenerative organic agriculture. The importance of soil health to organic agriculture is illustrated by the Canadian General Standards Board’s Organic Production Systems which prohibits the use of soilless practices like hydroponics and aeroponics. The standards also specify soil composition standards that include the ratio of minerals, compost and biological fractions which must be used by organic farms. Organic greenhouse growers use, reuse, and amend this distinct blend of soil, just like outdoor organic farmers. Regenerative organic greenhouse growers could use similar methods to improve their soils; however, unlike organic, there is no specific set of standards guiding them, just the goal of continuously building soil health. Though greenhouse soils are not necessarily integrated into the land, applying regenerative organic principles in production still has environmental benefits.
But Can Greenhouses Be Regenerative?
Much like organic farming, regenerative organic farming aims to improve the health of the surrounding ecosystem, with a primary focus on improving soil health. As such, there is an ongoing debate about whether the goals of regenerative organic agriculture are compatible with greenhouse growing. To find out, we asked Emily Gantz, Program Manager of Organic Consulting at Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA, about the relationship between regenerative organic and greenhouse growing.
Q: Can the goals of regenerative organic farming (improving soil health and subsequently soil’s ability to draw down carbon from the atmosphere) be realized in a greenhouse system?
A: Soil is really what it comes down to. Under the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) program, Soil Health standard 2.5: Soilless Practices states that “aquaponics, hydroponics and other soilless practices are not eligible for ROC” and “container growing where crops are never integrated into a field for the majority of a crop’s life is not eligible for ROC.”…However, greenhouses still play a crucial role in the regenerative organic movement in two ways:
- Utilization of greenhouses to produce annual seedlings that will spend the majority of their life in the soil.
- Utilization of greenhouses to manage temperature, water and overall growing conditions, as well as increase yields per unit area for crops that are being grown in soil under greenhouse cover.
Q: What are the key issues that stand in the way of greenhouse growers transitioning to regenerative organic farming?
A: Farmers wishing to adopt regenerative organic practices would face barriers if they are currently using soilless practices or container growing. These operations would be ineligible for certification.
The ROC program looks at the overall production of the operation. The operation would be required to implement regenerative organic practices and an effective crop rotation plan, manage vegetative cover and reduce waste. These practices would need to continually improve year-over-year.
Q: Since some greenhouse growers never intend to move their crop outside, what are some regenerative organic techniques a greenhouse could employ on exclusively indoor crops?
A: There are many – cover cropping, reduced tillage, use of on-farm inputs and recycling of nutrients, use of plant and animal-based inputs vs. synthetic chemicals, recycling of water captured on greenhouse roof, and increasing diversity in their crop rotation.
Though regenerative organic greenhouse growing presents unique challenges, it also has the potential to offer promising solutions to the problems faced by farmers as a result of climate change. Organic greenhouse growing can offer a useful framework or starting point for farmers interested in adding regenerative organic practices into their agricultural system.
“Organic is a way of growing that provides environmental, health, and social services to all Canadians. Employing some regenerative practices, even without certification, along with certified organic practices is better than doing nothing at all,” says Norm Hansen, Director of Research and Development for certified-organic greenhouse vegetable producer, Erieview Acres in Kingsville, Ont. “I am an organic grower. I am on a lifelong journey of learning and the idea is to set as many growers on that journey as possible.”
Erieview currently operates 12.5 acres over two greenhouse sites. Although Erieview Acres isn’t ROC-certified, the operation uses some regenerative organic practices in the greenhouse. Rather than directly applying specific nutrients to the rootzone, the grower ensures that there are high enough nutrient levels in the soil in non-soluble form, such that the microbes in the soil can make them available to the plant as needed. The soil blend is important not only for nutrients, but also to provide habitat for soil life, says Hansen. The living mixture of soil and compost is consistently re-evaluated and tailored to support this balanced ecosystem
By adopting regenerative organic principles, greenhouse growers can cultivate healthy soils and improve the soil’s capability of absorbing excess greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With these in mind, increasing the capacity for greenhouses to join the regenerative organic movement is an idea worth exploring.
Samantha Mills is the communications coordinator at the Organic Council of Ontario, which represents the province’s organic sector. To learn more about the supports available to Ontario farmers interested in transitioning to organic and regenerative systems, visit organiccouncil.ca.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Emily Gantz and Norm Hansen for contributing to this article. Farmers interested in receiving consulting services for the organic and regenerative organic regulations can contact the Rodale Institute directly at 610-683-1416 or e-mail at Consulting@rodaleinstitute.org. Learn more at RodaleInstitute.org/Consulting.
Note: Quotes in the article have been paraphrased for length. With files from Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers
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