What does it all mean: Organic, Heirloom and Regenerative Agriculture defined

I would like to explore the meaning behind some terms that are used often but not always understood. In particular, I find it interesting to explore the term Regenerative Agriculture as it relates to my practice in the garden. As a farmer I truly feel schooled by my garden each season and my methods continuously evolve. The last few years we have been transitioning much of our growing space to a no-till/ low-till system in an effort to improve soil health, water retention and create an underground micobiome of life. The result of this effort has been striking: richer soils, full of worm activity that hold more water and stay cooler during the summer heat.

As not only gardeners, but also consumers, I think a sound understanding of the labels given to the various growing methods and seeds in particular is very important. If you are thinking about saving seeds then it is imperative to understand the difference between Open Pollinated and Hybrid.

Here is the breakdown:

Organic- Applied to the garden, most simply defined, organic means growing food without the use of synthetic chemical inputs like fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. Practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation and natural resource management are also encouraged. Organic standards prohibit the use of GMO seeds. To sell produce as 'Organic' a grower must be inspected and either certified or registered organic. Only certified farms can label their products with the green and white USDA Organic label.

Certified Organic- Our seeds and farm are certified organic. At this level growers are inspected and certified by a third party like CCOF, California Certified Organic Farmers, anually who ensure the grower is following the USDA National Organic Program. If you are selling over $5000 a year of organic produce you must be certified to call it 'Organic'.

Registered Organic- If you are just starting out and sell under $5000 worth of organic produce a year you can apply through the state and become Registered Organic. The grower will be inspected by a county ag inspector and can label their produce 'Organic'.

Regenerative Agriculture- I became aware of this term a few years ago. Essentially it is the next step, beyond organic. Science shows that, world wide, top soils are degrading at an alarming rate and modern monoculture exacerbate this problem. Regenerative Agriculture focuses on rebuilding soil health as a long term strategy to sequester carbon, water and feed the world. This term has been around for many years, first coined by the Rodale Institute in the 80s but only recently defined more thoroughly by a collaborative effort of CSU Chico and The Carbon Underground.

“Regenerative Agriculture describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle."

"Specifically, Regenerative Agriculture is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resiliewillnce and nutrient density"

Heirloom- Out of all the terms I believe this one is often the most misunderstood and for good reason. It is unclear how old a variety must be to be considered an heirloom. Some believe that the variety must pre-date 1951 when the first hybrids became available. Many heirlooms are actually much, much older than that. It is important to realize that not all plants or seeds sold as heirloom are also organic. Heirlooms are good choices for seed saving because they are always open-pollinated and will produce true to type seeds using traditional seed saving methods.

Open Pollinated, OP- These varieties will produce true to type seeds. They are often, but not always heirlooms. There are many, many fantastic OP varieties that have been bred in the last 70 years using traditional breeding techniques. For seed saving, OP is the gold standard. If you want true to type seeds, start with OP varieties. These varieties will 'do their thing' naturally with the aid of the bees and wind to produce seeds. All the varieties we offer are OP. Some great examples of recent breeding work by west coast breeders are below.

Hybrid- A hybrid seed or vegetable is created by intentionally cross pollinating two different parent varieties of the same species. This may be done to create a new carrot or corn with increased vigor and yield. The first generation of seed after the cross is made is known as the F1 generation. This F1 seed will be a stable cross. When you buy or plant a F1 hybrid you will always get the same results. But if you try to save seed from that F1 hybrid plant or fruit you will find the next generation F2 will be incredibly diverse with genetics from both parent crosses. Breeders love this, but if you were hoping to save pure seeds then you must start with an Open Pollinated variety.

Hybrids can be produced organically and there is a lot of orgnic hybrid seed on the market. Farmer's market growers like hybrid seed because the results are very uniform. I would venture to say that most organic produce available in stores and farmer's markets is actually grown with hybrid seed!

Wait a minute! Doesn't that make the food system very dependent upon large coorporations who produce hybrid seed for profit? Yes! And often, the specific variety a farmer has grown to love, gets yanked from the market. Farmer's are unable to save their own seed from favorite hybrid varieties because of what I described above. I won't go too far down this rabbit hole today though! The topic of seed commercialization is worth it's own blog space in the future.

I hope this brief definition guide has cleared up any confusion you may have had surrounding these terms and led to a clearer understanding.


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