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Understanding Regenerative Farming

An alternative way of thinking to better understand the practices that are revolutionising farming

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the Harvest club in Stanford, July 2023

As a collective, we have gathered to explore a new way of being, one that is more in tune with our environment and to gain a better understanding of how to use what is around us to improve the health of our families and our community. What i find so magical about this gathering is that everyone has brought their own expertise, their own interest and creations to share with one another. We don’t all need to discover all the aspects of holistic living on our own.

Most of our talks so far have been aimed at the home scale, gardening and homesteading and as I know there are a number of farmers in this room, i would like to share some ideas on how to begin a shift to regenerative practices without overhauling your entire operation and, I know this to be the most important, without blowing your budget.

On how we think about agro ecology, I would like to draw some parallels between the natural environment and the human body. Dr. Fenwick will be/ has already discussed human health. I would like you to think of the soil environment as the gut of plants. Organic matter is left on the soil surface and very quickly it is colonised by bacteria and fungi that work to break it down through physical fragmentation, chemical alteration (digestion) and finally mineral nutrient release in a form that plants can use. What I am drawing attention to is the chain of processes and number of organisms that a fallen leaf must go through before its nutrients can be used again by the plant.

The same occurs in our guts. we eat food or organic matter and it first goes through a process of physical breakdown by mouth and stomach and then it passes into our gut where chemical breakdown is performed by bacteria. The bacteria further breaks down the food and changes its chemical nature into a form that can be absorbed by the villi into our blood stream. So roots in the soil act as villi in our gut that pick up nutrients that have been made available by this complex biological breakdown process.

The chemical agricultural revolution thought; why do we need to wait for this to happen naturally when we can supply plant available nutrients directly? And, it did work fantastically in the beginning. Unfortunately, as time went by, the soil biology was no longer needed and so it died out, leaving the soil as nothing more than dirt, a medium to hold the roots in place.

In this way, once bustling agricultural ecosystems became a true monoculture with chemical inputs feeding a single crop.

What we didn’t understand at the time was that the interaction between plants and the soil biology is way more complex than what I have described. There is a constant conversation happening between the plant and the different bacteria and fungi through root exudates (compounds and enzymes secreted by the roots) These exudates are messages telling the soil what the plant is experiencing. So, if the plant is feeling fungal pressure, it sends a signal and the soil environment will source silica and other nutrients to help the plant strengthen its cell walls to make it harder for fungal hyphae to penetrate. the same goes for insect attacks, the plant will send signals for the bacteria to return compounds to make it less palatable. Essentially, an immune system.

So conventional agriculture went to the main vain, feeding plant available nutrients straight to the roots and preventing this complex exchange. We started feeding the plants intravenously, without using the gut environment at all. The downside is that the plant loses its immune system and so farmers need to spend a fortune on fungicides and insecticides, essentially, antibiotics just to prevent disease setting in.

Now the pendulum is swinging back and farmers are wanting to move back to more natural methods. Suddenly a farmer switches to organic practices and applies compost and fish emulsion instead of their nitrate based fertiliser and in the second year, their crop begins to fail. To go back to the human analogy, imagine if you had been fed intravenously for the past ten years and then suddenly you decide, “nope, I’m done with this, Im going natural.” And you cook up a beautiful stir fry with organic broccoli, carrots spinach and the like, your stomach is not going to know what to do with it! it just doesn’t have the bacterial colonies to effectively break down the food and use it.

If you wanted to start eating regular food again, you would have to leave the needle in your arm and slowly work up to a regular meal with prebiotics, probiotics and small amounts of food until your gut has re colonised. I have heard and seen too many examples of farmers nearly losing their farms after making a sudden decision to convert or biodynamics or natural process farming rather than transition slowly. This is where Regenerative farming comes in.

Firstly, I would like to define this word we keep throwing around:

Regenerative farming is a paradigm shift, firstly in how we think about agro-ecology, and then how we cultivate the land, produce food, and manage our natural resources. It is beyond sustainable. It seeks to restore and regenerate the health of our soils, create resilient and thriving farms that improve from generation to generation and revitalise the macro ecosystem.

Today, we face numerous challenges that demand urgent action. Climate change threatens our agricultural practices, depletes our soils, and increases the frequency of extreme weather events. Soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, and water scarcity pose significant risks to our ability to feed a growing global population but amidst these challenges lies an opportunity—an opportunity to transform our farms into vibrant, regenerative ecosystems that contribute to environmental restoration, produce healthier food, and secure our livelihoods.

One of the core principles of regenerative farming is nurturing and rebuilding soil health. Our soils are not merely a medium for plant growth; they are living ecosystems teeming with billions of microorganisms, insects, and fungi. By implementing practices like cover cropping, crop rotation, and composting, we can revitalize the soil's fertility, enhance water retention, and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

the principles that get us to the above stated goals are as follows:

Reduced Tillage- Turning the soil oxidises the microbiology and thus releases a large amount of CO2 that we have worked so hard to capture into the atmosphere. We don’t need to suddenly adopt a No Till approach but rather pause and think about why you are tilling and why it is necessary.

Armour- plants are solar panels using sunlight to turn carbon dioxide into plant matter. the more of the soil surface that is covered throughout the year, the more carbon can be captured and the more soil biology can be fed.

improving soil health- maximising soil boilogy which in turn leads to increased organic mater and microbial activity. practices which build soil health: cover cropping, crop rotation, grazing, and most importantly reduced tillage.

Biodiversity- Promotion of diverse plant and animal species, including beneficial insects, birds, pollinators, and soil microorganisms. Biodiversity supports natural pest control, enhances pollination, and contributes to overall ecosystem health.

Livestock Integration: This is the tough one! Integrating livestock into farming systems is a key principle of regenerative agriculture. Well-managed rotational grazing, where animals are moved between different pasture areas, helps restore grasslands, improves soil health through nutrient cycling, and enhances carbon sequestration. Livestock can play a vital role in regenerating landscapes when managed in a way that mimics natural herd movements.

Additionally, regenerative farming encourages the use of diverse crop rotations and intercropping systems. By embracing crop diversity, we reduce the reliance on chemical inputs, suppress pests naturally, and promote natural pollination and pest control.

Now, you might wonder, why should farmers make the switch to regenerative farming? The answer lies in the multitude of benefits it offers.

Firstly, regenerative farming practices lead to improved soil health. Healthy soils support robust crop growth, improve nutrient availability, and enhance water infiltration and retention. As a result, farmers can achieve higher yields, reduce input costs, and mitigate the impact of droughts and floods.

Secondly, regenerative farming promotes biodiversity. By creating habitats for beneficial insects, birds, and pollinators, we restore ecological balance and reduce the need for synthetic pesticides. Biodiversity is not only essential for crop pollination but also for maintaining a resilient and balanced ecosystem.

Thirdly, regenerative farming plays a vital role in mitigating climate change. Healthy soils act as carbon sinks, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. By transitioning to regenerative practices, farmers can become powerful agents in combating climate change and contributing to carbon neutrality.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, regenerative farming fosters a sense of connection and stewardship towards the land. It allows us to pass on healthy soils, thriving ecosystems, and sustainable livelihoods to future generations. It revitalizes the essence of farming, reminding us of our responsibility to be custodians of the Earth.

As farmers, we hold the power to shape the future of our food systems and protect our planet. By embracing regenerative farming, we can not only secure our own prosperity but also contribute to the well-being of communities, ecosystems, and the health of our planet.

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