What is regenerative harvesting?

Updated: Mar 5

Harvesting is often the most enjoyable part of growing food. You’ve just spent months preparing the soil, planting seeds, removing weeds, watering, and beating the heat. Now, finally, the fruits of your labor are ready to enjoy. And let’s be real, there’s nothing better than a fresh tomato straight off the vine or a peach picked from the tree.

However tempting it might be to harvest absolutely everything you can, there are also a lot of benefits to leaving part of your harvest behind. After-all, we are part of a community of animals and bugs who also need healthy food to survive. In an industrial, isolated food system, there are also a significant number of people who don’t have access to any food at all, let alone fresh fruits or vegetables. The best harvest is one that is shared with community. We refer to this as regenerative harvesting, but there are several historical examples of people who practiced these techniques.

The Honorable Harvest

Before colonists arrived on what we now refer to as American soil, Native people used a technique known as the Honorable Harvest. The Honorable Harvest is a beautiful concept that keeps on giving. Native people would only harvest half of what was grown, which had numerous benefits. For starters, bugs, birds, animals, and other critters were able to consume the fruit, which also meant they would poop out the seeds. What better start for a seed than to be enclosed in manure and mulch?!

Furthermore, not all of the fruit or seeds would be consumed. Therefore, the chances were high that the seeds would germinate again, year after year. Think about it. How many seeds are in the typical tomato? Hundreds? To get a new tomato plant every year, you’d only need one seed to survive. By leaving half the tomatoes behind, there’s a very good chance a handful of seeds would survive. The ones that did created stronger plants that were better adapted to the climate.

Of course, when the colonists arrived, we harvested everything and we broke the cycle of abundance. That meant people were forced into intensive agriculture, a significantly taller task. Many colonists didn’t survive, and eventually slaves were stolen from Africa to prop up a broken system. Since then, we’ve lost several feet of topsoil, almost all connection to the power of nature, and perpetuated diseases that not only wiped out most Native people, but continue to decimate Americans who have the highest healthcare costs in the world.

How’s that for a butterfly effect?

What is shmita?

Native people were not the only people to practice some kind of regenerative harvest. Jewish farmers practiced something called “shmita” which meant that they would let the soil rest after six years of farming. Anything that happened to grow of its own merit would be allowed to flourish, and any animals or hungry people who needed food were allowed to harvest whatever they needed.

Specifically, shmita is described in Exodus (23:10): “And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat.”

While this is not typically practiced as written in the Torah any more, lots of farms employ a resting technique within their crop rotations. Soil was simply not meant to be productive and cultivated all the time. Like anything else, soil needs time to rest in order to be its best self.

Additionally, this made farmers plant more perennial crops before a shmita year, knowing they would still need to eat even if they didn’t plant, as well as stocking up on preserved goods. Lastly, it gave farmers a chance to reassess. Were the last six years successful? What could be done better?

The moral of these stories is that industrial agriculture is labor intensive, machine intensive, input intensive, and only lasts for about 100 days. There is little to no rest for people or the soil, and there is nothing left for the organisms we share a plant with. Meanwhile, regenerative harvesting ensures there is an abundance of food for years to come without having to break backs or use inputs like fertilizer or herbicide to boost our weak and tired soil.

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