Katie Worobeck (Maison Maenad) on regenerative farming

Katie Worobeck (Maison Maenad) on regenerative farming

As we set up a sense of Place a little under 4 years ago, we said that we want ASOP to be an agent for change on the topics of organic viticulture, climate change and regenerative farming. Since then we have been struggling to publicly do so, other than actively supporting the winemakers that are making a difference. 

With the latest edition of the uncommon landscapes newsletter by Jura-based winemaker Katie Worobeck of Maison Maenad we saw a topic written down perfectly, while we were struggling to write down our thoughts. Katie kindly allowed us to share her words with you here, on 'yard talk.

Follow uncommon landscapes here to read more of her words.

Where do we go from semantics?

Mal nommer les choses, c'est ajouter au malheur du monde -Camus

This season has given me a lot to think about: starting off with a bang: spring frost, and continuing with a challenge: a few months of almost non-stop rain. In organic viticulture we use topical sprays against disease, which wash off with after a certain amount of rain. I can summarise the past few months as rather tiring and a lot of running to try to stay ahead of disease, while watching the preventative sprays rinse away, one day to the next (spoiler alert: disease has arrived, despite best efforts). Now, don’t think that I am necessarily complaining, surely the ups and down of the weather are part of the package of being a farmer, but the murmurings (which are not new) are that lately the wet seasons are wetter, the hot seasons are hotter and the feeling is that the climate is more and more unpredictable.

This reality of climate change is the reason I was drawn to regenerative agriculture, my understanding of it being the creation of a resilient, diverse and closer to an actually sustainable system of farming. But lately I’ve called into question what it means to use the word regenerative, both its strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, recently there’s been a lot of chatter in the world of wine about regenerative agriculture and what it means to different groups of actors. I think we need to take a little time and dissect what are the issues at hand. I want to examine how the words regenerative agriculture have been defined, how they have been adopted by industrial agriculture and finally, what I think the missing pieces are in our current discourse on viticulture.

Let’s not get bogged down in defining regenerative agriculture for too long. I would urge you to check out the Rodale Institute if you are interested in learning more, they have been working on regenerative organic agriculture for decades and are a great source of easily accessible references. But for the sake of our investigation, I will tell you what regenerative means to me: Regenerative agriculture is a practice that puts soil health and biodiversity at the forefront of agriculture system design. It aims to tackle climate change by both maximising carbon sequestering, resiliency of the ecosystem, including the water and air systems and, in particular, respecting the complex functioning and structure of soil. Practically, this could mean different things for different farmers, but I understand many people prioritise not tilling the soil, year long cover crops, thoughtful soil analysis, the reduction of inputs, and above all the increase in biodiversity. For me, the idea of a truly sustainable agriculture system is necessarily organic, not for the sprays the farmer is using against disease (truly, a more sustainable practice would not include sulphur or copper), but that the farmer is not using chemical herbicide (read:round up).

Now here is where I first became confused about what it means to be practicing regenerative agriculture. A friend told me recently that there are large commercial farms using the term regenerative agriculture as a pursuit of ecology, but also using chemical herbicides. These farms explain that a pass of herbicide is still relevant as a no-till practice under the umbrella of regenerative agriculture. We’re stepping into some muddy waters of of semantics, but I would like to call a spade a spade and say that this is absolutely absurd. In my view, a sustainable system fundamentally cannot be using chemical herbicides. But the term regenerative agriculture has already been coopted by industrial agriculture to the point that now the giant pharmaceutical producer of round up has a division dedicated to regenerative agriculture. It’s completely antithetical to the idea of ecology to be using chemical herbicides.

I feel robbed of my words. I fully enjoy using the term regenerative agriculture, not because I think it is perfect, but because it provides a useful tool to start the conversation about what true sustainability might look like. I think that one of the strongest points of being a proponent of regenerative agriculture is that there is already a strong community of farmers using this term that are dedicated to finding ecological solutions to agriculture. The term provides a very useful meeting place for all types of farmers to share and support each other. Regenerative agriculture also gives us a useful lexicon to discuss a reimagining of agriculture in the context of climate change: reimagining the aesthetics of agriculture, reimagining the values associated with farming.

But where I find regenerative agriculture falls short is in its basic conception: regenerative agriculture is organised around a rather vague concept of sustainability, and a handful of technical processes. It is in this weak definition and technical organisation that leaves it vulnerable to be adopted by some commercial, large scale farms that are perhaps more concerned with profit than with ecology. In such cases, regenerative agriculture becomes less about ecological system change and more about corporate owned agrochemical inputs. Moreover, normalising the term regenerative agriculture instead of regenerative organic agriculture further hollows out its underpinnings: allowing the use of the term to imply an ecological driven approach, but without adhering to the regulations of organic farming.

I think in order to move forward, we need to go back. I look to why I was first drawn to regenerative agriculture: as a response to ecological degradation stemming from modern farming practices. At the onset I was looking for something transformational: a change, a shift in how agriculture is practiced. But now, after reflection, it seems that another highly technical conception of agriculture is falling a bit short of the desired system transformation. I would argue what is missing, not only in regenerative agriculture, but in viticulture in general, is a robust and holistic political discourse around farming.

Maybe the answer lies in another word: agroecology.

Agroecology is a conception of agriculture that links practical processes of farming with the wider social, economic and political dimensions of agricultural production. (I would in fact argue that regenerative agriculture stems from agroecology, sharing many of the practical theories). What is important in agroecology, that is missing in regenerative agriculture and even organic agriculture, is the understanding that a response to ecological degradation requires not only looking at specific practices but the relationships between farming, farmers, global economic systems and sources of power at all of these levels. Agroecology is an incredibly dynamic concept because it seeks to place social capital within the framework of sustainability, meaning that change should be led by farmer participation. Sustainability arrives by expanding the power of small farmers to make locally and socially relevant ecological decisions instead of empowering the expertise of large biotechnology companies.

If we are seeking real change in the realms of viticulture and wine, agroecology can provide a useful framework in which to work: changing a system means understanding the system as a whole. Change will require taking off our technical caps for a moment and seeking to understand how our specific vineyard sites and how we farm them are more broadly connected to social and economic systems, not only locally, but globally. Understanding how farmers can make better use of internal resources, thus broadening their agency and moving away from the technocratic power of biotechnology companies. Agroecology provides a deeper understanding of agricultural that promotes a practice more in line with what true sustainability might look like.

And somehow after all of these definitions I would also argue that we shouldn’t get stuck in terms and phrases, but rather persist in the idea that ecological sustainability requires a continued exploration of the connections between actors at all levels and the economic and political power they impose. That sustainability is fundamentally a political process and that we should not shy away from including the questions about social, economic and political systems in our thinking about ecological farming.

- Katie Worobeck