Using regenerative practices to improve the conditions in which our food is grown makes sense, but how do we make the best practical decisions?

Currently, the emphasis in the regenerative movement is on using a practice-based approach to solve the issues holding us back. In deciding what to do, we look at what other growers are doing, see practices demonstrated at field days, and copy the techniques used, expecting similar results.

By having “what practices should I use?” as our leading question we don’t generally achieve the best outcomes for the time, effort and money we invest.

  • Practices usually get treated as one-size-fits-all solutions, needing to be adapted for our climate, other growing conditions and the food we grow.
  • Practices can get misapplied if we don’t understand why we are using them.
  • Our focus can become “Are we using the methodology correctly?” rather than “Are we using the best methods to solve our problems effectively?”

For example, in temperate and other high latitude climates, standard practices in Conservation Agriculture, diverse cover crops and crop rotations, combined with zero-till and mob grazing, improve soil, enabling growers to reduce fertiliser inputs. However, in warmer and wetter climates, this recipe doesn’t work as well.[1] 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.” [2]

A more targeted approach is to understand what we need to regenerate, and then to apply the principles of regenerative farming and gardening.

Using this principles-based approach we make informed decisions and develop practical solutions that work well for our unique circumstances. We have the know-how to trial techniques, learn and share our experiences, and respond constructively to emerging issues and threats.

What do we need to Regenerate?

There is a shared appreciation that we use regenerative practices to improve our environmental performance and realise our land’s potential to give us more support with growing food.[3] Listed goals usually include increasing biodiversity, improving organic matter and soil carbon levels, water infiltration and storage in soil, and imprecise statements like keeping water in our landscapes, and improving soil health.

While these measurable goals are helpful to track our progress, they are all products of functioning ecosystems. Our focus needs to be on getting our ecosystems functioning for these to improve.[3]

For instance, if our goal is increasing soil carbon, we tend to rely on spreading organic materials which 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 our soil, we get trapped in a vicious cycle, needing regular applications to maintain elevated levels. [4] [5]

 

Image showing spreading compost

Whereas, if our goal is to improve the functioning of our soil ecosystem, we manage our farms and gardens to improve the food supply to our soil organisms.[1] We replace imported inputs with organic materials manufactured on-site by our plants and livestock. We increase levels of organic matter and the carbon it contains in our soil because the organic inputs supplied from plant roots are retained longer in soil. [4] [5]

Similarly, if we want to improve water infiltration and storage in soil, reduce waterlogging, and improve soil structure, we focus on repairing the ecological functions that produce these products – nutrient cycles, water cycles, and solar energy capture. [1] [6]

We need to switch our focus from improving individual components to improving functions. Here’s what I mean. If you are asked to name the two related items in a list of words such as “car, bus, track.” What would you say? “Bus” and “car” because they are both types of vehicles? Or “bus” and “track”, because of the functional relationship between the two. [7]

Applying Regenerative Principles

Maybe one day, with sufficient research and on-farm trials, we could get to the point where practices have been tried and tested in all the growing conditions we commonly encounter. We would have access to off-the-shelf tools to solve our natural resource issues that better fit our purpose. But we are not at that point, and do we want to continue enforcing our templates on ecosystems?

Applying principles, we improve our understanding of how our ecosystems work and develop skills to create resource-efficient and resilient systems. We benefit from working with complex natural systems’ inherent wisdom, adaptive capacity, and emergent properties.

At Learning from Nature, we’ve developed a set of design principles supporting growers to use this eco-logical approach to regenerative farming and gardening.[8]

References for How to choose Regenerative Practices

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

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

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

[4] Michael W. I. Schmidt, Margaret S., et al., 2011, Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property, Nature 478 (https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10386)

[5] 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 (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11104-004-0907-y)

[6] Wendy Seabrook, 2021, How to do Regenerative Farming and Gardening. Learning from Nature

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

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

Additional Support on Regenerative Farming and Gardening

  1. What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening
  2. Principles of Regenerative Farming and Gardening
  3. How to choose Regenerative Practices
  4. Oher articles from Learning from Nature
  5. Videos – Learning from Nature YouTube Channel
  6. Publications – Get help with growing from your strengths using our GrowMap, fixing your nutrient cycling with Feed your Plants with Fertilisers, and your water cycle with Drought-Proof your farm or garden. Or better still the Eco-logical Farming and Gardening Handbooks to get the ecosystems in your garden or farm functioning again.

Image showing Learning from Nature Publications

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