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Business Unusual

Regenerative agriculture - an idea 12 000 years in the making

21 October 2020 7:15 PM

The future of agriculture may draw more from its past than the present

If you had to think about what is needed on a modern farm, you would think ploughs, fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation and the best developed seeds.

The advent of industrial farming has seen the items above become central to a successful farm looking to maximise yield.

If you can pay for all the input costs you can get the rewards come harvest time. That is assuming the prices are good and the weather gods were favourable.

Despite decades refining the process of extraction, we have reached the point where farmers are constantly at risk of not earning enough to pay the bills for all the input costs.

Climate change

It appears an accounting and economics understanding might be more useful to a farmer to ensure the farm could turn a profit and not flood the market with the same produce at the same time as other producers.

Even with futures trading there is still a big outstanding variable - the changing climate.

While the impact is greater in some areas more than others, the potential for flooding or drought makes it difficult to manage.

There is a line that says farmers are always a week away from a drought and an hour away from a flood.

Not only does this make farming not profitable, it is turning arable land into desert.


Thanks to the observations and experiments by a small but growing group of ecologists that are also farmers a new option has become available.

It holds the promise of less fuel, fertilizer and pesticides while offering the same yields and a reversal of soil erosion and water loss.

A founding principle is that farmers focus on what they are actually doing in agriculture which is managing the use of sunlight, carbon and water to raise crops and livestock, the key factor for the three parts is the soil, the better the soil the more healthy, resilient the plants and the greater the yield and nutritional value.

Soil is not dirt

To get the best yields you need optimum microbial life in the soil, to do that you need to create the perfect microclimate in the soil. A microclimate at scale is the climate and to change it we need to start with the soil.

Using the right plants and not ploughing the grounds or leaving them fallow and you can begin to encourage the right temperature and oxygen content in the soil. A variety of plants with different root systems and ability to contribute to the absorption of minerals and the soil is able to increase the size and health of the microbes that in term feed the plants, hold the water and capture carbon.

Cash crops grown in the untilled fields need less water and little to no fertiliser and pesticides. Using animals to graze the fields after the harvest increases the rate at which the plant material can be returned to the soil.

From bust to boom

It has taken years to deplete farmland and it will take years to restore it, but if the growing evidence can be used to replicate the process elsewhere, there is hope that farmers can move away from having to manage big input costs to focussing on managing the land again.

A remarkable story of what could be achieved was put into practice in Saudi Arabia in 2011, goat herding had reduced the available vegetation requiring food to be bought to sustain the herds. Local trees were cut down to sell for firewood to pay for the food, but soon the trees and the plants were gone and there was no money to feed the animals. When it did rain it would flood, eroding the soil and drying out soon after.

To restore the soil the first step was to slow the water flow, using small weirs and dams from the many rocks in the hills and valley the water could be slowed and held for longer, native grasses and trees were restocked and for three years with support for the government watered as needed. Things were looking good when funding was cut but soon after a drought threatened to ruin everything. Thankfully the system had recovered enough to make it through the drought and continued to improve.

The example is an extreme one but with the right tools and will can improve the situation almost everywhere if not for farming at least to avoid desertification.

South African implementation

South Africa is already quite dry and the climate in the major growing regions are drying further. Planting single crops of maize or wheat might offer good efficiency but risk collapse in drying times.

Farms that are switching to no tilling and mixing their crops and integrating grazing into their fields have the most to gain. One operation that has embraced this for the last two decades is ZZ2 the massive operation producing a wide variety of fruits, nuts and even meat. By using the mixed cropping and grazing they have shown that it can be applied at commercial scales and can sustain yields while reducing costs.

The practices are a major departure from traditional industrial practices but still benefit from high tech surveys, the best in plant breeding and using sophisticated tools to prepare and harvest crops.

The plough is replaced with a mower and rollers and rather than adding chemicals to control weeds or bugs, the natural biodiversity stops weeds taking over or certain bugs becoming a pest.

All this while the soil captures significant amounts of carbon. Ideally more than enough to offset the carbon released during the farming and transport process allowing agriculture to reduce its current carbon emission from double digits back down to single ones.

For it to work more studies are needed to fine tune the application, but even more important is for many more farmers to become aware and be helped to implement it.

If we are able to succeed we would have closed the loop on an experiment started 12 000 years ago to work with nature to provide for us, rather than use nature to provide for us.

21 October 2020 7:15 PM

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