Virtually all of the land currently managed sustainably can give farmers and food gardeners more support with growing food. Organisations promoting regenerative agriculture support growers to realise this potential by using practices to improve their growing conditions.[1] But is the support we provide enabling growers to tackle the root causes of the issues holding them back and choose effective solutions for their growing conditions, livestock, and crops?

What needs Regenerating?

The goals of regenerative farming and gardening usually include improving soil health, biodiversity, organic matter, water infiltration, and storage in the soil. While these are useful indicators to track improvements in growing conditions, they are the products of functioning ecosystems. We need ecosystems that work for these to improve. Consequently, would growers get better practical outcomes supported to improve the functioning of their soil and above-ground ecosystems rather than these individual components?

Ecosystems are complex, but improving them isn’t complicated. Nutrient cycles, water cycles and solar energy capture are the three key ecological functions that drive most of the action in farms and gardens.[2] Getting these ecological functions working again, growers can tackle virtually all of the natural resource issues holding them back.

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Let’s look at a practical example.

By making increasing organic matter and the carbon it contains our goals, growers tend to rely on applications of organic materials that contain carbon, like mulch and compost. But as only a small proportion of the carbon in organic materials from above-ground sources gets stored long-term in soil, [3,4] they get trapped on a treadmill, needing regular applications to maintain elevated levels.[5]

 

Image showing spreading compost

Whereas, if the goal is to improve the soil eco-system, regenerative practices are used to improve the food supply to soil organisms.[5] Imported biological and organic inputs are replaced with root exudates and organic waste materials manufactured on-site by plants, livestock and other living organisms.[5] Organic matter increases because it is retained longer in soil when sourced from root exudates and root tissues.[3,4] Growers also benefit from the soil ecosystem providing other products and services like nutrient recycling and improved water infiltration and storage.

Advice on Regenerative Practices

Growers need place-based practical solutions suitable for their climate, other growing conditions and the food they grow.

As practices typically get treated as one-size-fits-all solutions, having “what practices should I use?” as their leading question usually doesn’t allow them to achieve the best outcomes for the time, effort and money they invest. Their focus can also become “Am I using the methodology correctly?” rather than “Am I using the best methods to solve my problems effectively?”

Take, for example, Conservation Agriculture. In temperate and other high latitude climates, the standard practices, diverse cover crops and crop rotations, combined with zero-till and mob grazing, improve the soil. However, this recipe doesn’t work well in warmer and wetter climates.[6] In the Philippines, where the support for farmers has been practice-based, the response has been to add another practice and rename the program – “Conservation Agriculture with Trees.”[8]

Maybe one day, with sufficient research, we could get to the point where regenerative practices have been tried and tested in all the growing conditions we commonly encounter. We would be able to provide growers with access to off-the-shelf tools working well for their unique circumstances. But we are not at that point, and do we want to enforce a narrow range of templates on our food growing ecosystems anyway?

The alternative approach is helping growers to develop practical solutions suitable for their circumstances by understanding how to repair the ecological functions holding them back.

The how is remarkably straightforward because it is inherently eco-logical, and using well-designed and thought-through regenerative principles, growers benefit from the collective experiences of food growers and the science deciphered from the evolved wisdom embedded in Nature.[9] As principles concentrate on what’s quintessential, growers are supported to focus their practical efforts on what will make a real difference. Because they can be applied regardless of climate and other growing conditions, growers develop effective solutions for their unique circumstances and the food they grow.

Take, for example, building healthy soil. Previously, to work out what to do, it felt like we needed a degree in soil science or to employ someone who did to help us! But realising that the best long-term outcomes are achieved by improving the functioning of soil ecosystems, the ‘how’ simply becomes giving soil organisms a better diet.

Initially, we can add minerals that are not readily available, boost the natural supply of organic waste materials and populations of effective microbes by applying compost, mulch, and bio-fertilisers. But our primary focus is to improve the amount, diversity and consistency of organic waste materials and root exudates naturally supplied to our soil organisms by our plants, livestock, and the other living organisms in our ecosystems.[6]

Photo showing leaf litter

With a better diet, soil organisms recycle the nutrients in plant and animal waste materials, unlock nutrients from mineral particles, and make the nutrients available for plants.[6] We can also leave more of the decision-making to the soil ecosystems. After all, they have accumulated 3 billion years of expertise in regenerating every soil type on the planet, including the soils we are helping regenerate!

Beneficial Outcomes

Recognising that the goal of regenerative farming and food gardening is to improve the functioning of our ecosystems, we support growers to:

  1. Reduce their inputs costs relying instead on Nature’s free ecological services
  2. Get help adjusting to the changing climate and maintaining yields when battered by extreme weather by growing
  3. Supply vital ecosystem services – carbon sequestration, biodiversity, reduced flooding, fertiliser, pesticide and sediment runoff – as natural by-products.

Using a principles-based approach, growers make informed decisions and thereby develop practical solutions working well for their unique circumstances. Established regenerative practices become the source and inspiration for ideas, rather than recipes to follow. They obtain the know-how to trial techniques, share their experiences, and respond constructively to emerging issues and threats.

Further Help from Learning from Nature

Partner with Learning from Nature to support your growers in:

  • Tackling the root causes for the issues holding them back, and
  • Gaining the know-how to develop the best practical solutions for their unique circumstances.

Your growers benefit from research uncovering the ecological principles underpinning regenerative practices using our resources, publications, and participating in our webinars, workshops and other activities.

Shared in easily digestible grower-friendly formats, growers come on board appreciating the eco-logic and seeing the benefits. You cultivate grower-led innovation as they gain the skills to trial techniques, learn and share their experiences.

Quick Reads –

  1. What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening
  2. How to do Regenerative Farming and Gardening – Ecologically
  3. Principles of Regenerative Farming and Gardening
  4. What is Healthy Soil?

Contact us for further information – info[at]learningfromnature.com.auImage showing Learning from Nature Publications

References

[1] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening. Learning from Nature

[2] Eugine P. Odium, 1971, Fundamentals of Ecology. Publ W.B. Saunders Company

[3] Michael W. I. Schmidt, Margaret S., et al., 2011, Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property, Nature 478

[4] Daniel P. Rasse, Cornelia Rumpel & Marie-France Dignac, 2005, Is soil carbon mostly root carbon? Mechanisms for a specific stabilisation, Plant and Soil (2005) 269: pp 341–356

[5] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, How to Build Healthy Soil – Eco-logically, Learning from Nature

[6] Wendy Seabrook, 2019, Eco-logical Farming Handbook, Publ Learning from Nature

[7] Triad test quoted from BBC, How East and West think in profoundly different ways. The Human Planet | Psychology

[8] World Agroforestry, 2015, Conservation Agriculture with Trees in the Philippines: A Documentary

[9] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, Principles of Regenerative Farming and Gardening, Learning from Nature

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