Regenerative agriculture is the best way to grow – the challenge for farmers is how to do it.
There are so many different schemes coming under the regenerative agriculture umbrella that it is confusing, for instance: Climate-Smart Agriculture, Conservation Agriculture, Agroecology, and Zero Budget Farming. Look for practical help, and you’ll generally find resources on using different practices like cover crops, bio-fertilisers, holistic planned grazing, and agroforestry, rather than on the principles which underpin these practices.
Farmers have enough challenges, without having to navigate a minefield of uncertainty to find ways to move forward. Understanding what they need to regenerate and the fundamental principles of how to do it, they gain the know-how to develop practices that work well for their unique growing conditions and production systems. They trial techniques, learn and share their experiences, and respond constructively to newly emerging issues and threats.
By identifying the fundamental principles underpinning regenerative practices used around the world, the message for growers is actually quite simple – bring back Nature’s free ecological services to your farm. These are the ecological functions – nutrient cycles, water cycles, solar energy capture, and beneficial connections provided by functioning agro-ecosystems.[i]
Carbon and organic matter levels in the soil are useful measures to track progress, but we need to get our ecosystems ‘tuned up and running’ for these metrics to improve!
While a small number of farmers around the world benefit from using traditional practices maintaining functioning agro-ecosystems, the majority of us are not so lucky. Substituting for these free ecological services by cultivating soil, applying synthetic and bio-fertilisers, and pest controls has become the norm – virtually everybody does it!
This interventionist approach defines current ‘conventional agriculture’, whether farmers use ‘chemical’ or ‘organic’ inputs.
When farmers realise what they can achieve by getting their agro-ecosystems functioning again and understand the principles of how to do it, they break this ‘intervention habit’. They set higher goals than making ‘marginal improvements’, and get off the treadmill of substituting for Nature’s ecological services with farm-made and ‘trademarked’ inputs.
The trouble with Regenerative Practices
By way of example, standard Conservation Agriculture practices – diverse cover crops, no-till or minimum tillage, and crop rotations, are usually sufficient for farmers growing in temperate and other high latitude climates, like the well-known American regenerative farmer, Gabe Brown. Farmers get their nutrient cycling systems operating again, so their soils naturally supply enough nutrients to their crops. Gabe Brown has stopped using fertilisers without sacrificing his yields.[ii]
Not so in warmer and wetter climates. In these regions, the prescribed practices are not enough. Farmers remain trapped in poverty, lacking the funds to increase their yields by substituting with commercial fertilisers and generally only enough manure and compost for their home gardens.
Applying Regenerative Principles
Applying ecological principles, established regenerative practices become the source and inspiration for ideas, rather than recipes to follow. Farmers realise, for example, that growing cover crops is not what’s important. What’s fundamental is providing a generous, diverse and preferably constant supply of organic materials from roots, shoots and root exudates to feed the teams of nutrient recyclers and structural engineers in their soil. (I explain the rationale in the ‘Eco-logical Farming Handbook’).
Cover crops become just one of the tools farmers can use. Intercropping, companion cropping, green manure crops, living mulch, alley cropping, silvoarable, silvopasture, etc., used on their own, or in combination, may work better. In tropical regions, cover crops don’t supply enough organic materials. For this reason, silvopasture is ranked across Africa, Asia and South America as the most important climate-smart intervention graziers can make, and other farmers incorporate agroforestry designs into their cropping systems. [iii]
Farmers become the innovators
With the skills to develop their own solutions, farmers become the innovators and the agents of change, and less reliant on extension services. A striking example of what we can achieve in these circumstances is what farmers have accomplished in Africa, south of the Sahel desert. These pastoralists and farmers realise that planting and allowing the natural regeneration of trees to improve their water cycle is the best way to drought-proof their farms.[iv]
Understanding the ‘eco-logical’ principles of why this works, farmers skilfully create silvopasture and other agroforestry designs that work well for their conditions. Approximately 250,000 hectares of farmland is regenerated every year.[v] The change led mostly by farmers themselves. They double or triple their incomes with improved crop yields, and using trees to supply additional fruit, nuts, seeds, firewood, construction timber, and honey.[vi],[vii]
Discover how to use this principles-based approach to regenerative agriculture on your farm – Eco-logical Farming Handbook
[ii] Gabe Brown,2018, Dirt to Soil. Chelsea Green Publ.
[iii] Bringing the Concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture to Life. Insights from CSA Country Profiles across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Sova, C. A., G et. al. 2018. “Bringing the Concept of Climate-Smart Agriculture to Life: Insights from CSA Country Profiles Across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” World Bank, and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, Washington, DC. (https://elibrary.worldbank.org/doi/abs/10.1596/31064)
[vi] In Niger, Trees and Crops Turn Back the Desert (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/world/africa/11niger.html)
[vii]Reij C, Tappan G, Smale M. 2009. Agroenvironmental transformation in the Sahel – another kind of ‘Green Revolution’. International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) Discussion Paper 00914.