The term Regenerative Agriculture could be defined as a system of food production which uses organic inputs and replenishes the land of the resources it takes.
It includes various different farming systems that aim to work in connection with ecosystem functions and the natural world. In many ways, it also goes further than the practicalities of farming. In its very essence, it is about reconnecting people to the land. It is a recognition that human beings are part of nature and not separated from it. This does not mean turning back to a nostalgic time, but taking what our ancestors knew and building that into the more mechanical way of thinking we live by today.
There are some key principles which help us to identify these types of systems. These can be broken down into two loose areas – the agro-ecological and the socio-ecological. These should not be seen separate from each other and it is important to understand Regenerative Agriculture holistically. These key principles can include: protecting Natural Capital (water, air, soil and biodiversity); restoring ecosystem services (pollination, pest predation, carbon sequestration, natural flood management); producing nutritious and diverse food; and, reconnecting community and exchanging knowledge. By working towards all of those key principles, farmers can benefit their overall goal – to produce food and have a healthy, profitable business.
There is mounting evidence which is starting to highlight how these systems work and interact with producing food and protecting the environment. Farmers, academics and organisations alike are starting to reveal the possibilities of this way of managing land. Here in the United Kingdom, over seventy percent of our land mass is under agriculture. Therefore, it is arguably the single most important sector to work with in terms of better management of land for the benefit of everyone. The majority of British farmers still follow conventional systems of producing food. This presents a number of opportunities to work with most of the sector to move into such systems as Conservation Agriculture, Agroforestry and Mob-Grazing.
We are also in a privileged position when it comes to our climate. Despite the national and global fun-poking about British weather, it is very advantageous when it comes to producing plentiful food. We get high amounts of precipitation which means most cropping systems do not require irrigation. We have fertile soil, good amounts of sunlight and seasonal weather that benefits the growth of grains, vegetables, fruits, oilseeds, grass, hops and legumes. Our climate, soils and geology suit integrated and diverse cropping systems. What’s important is to show that Regenerative Agriculture works and to support all farmers into one form of system that works for them. The UK, alongside countries across the world, can be an exemplar of what a re-defined and better connected farming sector can be.
If there is one thing the global coronavirus pandemic has shown, it is that an international crisis can happen quickly. That same devastation is already happening for certain parts of the world when it comes to climate change. It will happen here too. A recent study suggests that ocean ecosystems could start to collapse as early as 2030s, followed by tropical and temperate ecosystems starting to collapse in the 2050s (Trisos, C and Pigot, A 2020). We cannot underestimate how devastating that will be for the planet as a whole and it should not be ignored.
We are heading down the right path, but far too slowly. We recently saw the UK break the record for the number of coal-free electricity days (Evans, S 2020). More importantly, we are seeing countries propose a green economic recovery from coronavirus (Farand, C 2020). These economic stimulus packages have to be used in a green way. How they are spent will influence the world we live in for decades to come. Climate scientists and economists have been clear; the next six-months will decide whether we can make the Paris Agreement (2015) target of stopping global mean temperate warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. If we achieve this, we save lives and stop global warming from impacting millions of people – it is as stark as that.
I believe there has never been such an important moment in human history as now when it comes to farmers building resilience within their businesses. Climate change will affect everyone, especially in a world that has an internationally connected food supply chain. The UK current imports roughly 40% of its food and farmers often rely on imported products like fertiliser and pesticide. If we do not take quick and drastic steps to halt global warming, these supply chains could start to collapse as countries look to consolidate their resources – which includes food production. Therefore, it is vital that farmers transition into farming systems which aim to build as much resilience within them as possible. By resilience, I mean not relying on high inputs of synthetic fertiliser and pesticides. Reducing machinery use and not using as much diesel. Looking at transforming the farm into a renewable energy one. Being able to weather drought and flooding better. All while trying to find ways of being productive.
What sort of steps can farmers take to build resilience? First of all, a complete change of mind set is needed across the whole of the industry. We need to recognise the importance of good functioning ecosystem services and what they provide to food production. There needs to be better support for those who want to transition into resilient systems – from government, the supply chain and the public. There must be better and more targeted regulation alongside good policies that help the sector transition. There needs to be more inclusivity and a wider appreciation for diversity in ideas and people. We have to look at adding value to food products at the farm gate – we need to value food more. This begs the question, how can we encourage the public to buy more seasonally and locally? We also need to rethink the relationship between farmers and the rest of the industry. The science and advice provided on-farm has to be independent and not linked to sales targets of chemicals. This all requires bold steps and will not come without risks and bumps along the road – but it is crucial. Ultimately a more resilient farming sector is a more productive and stable one in the longer-term.
Embracing change is never easy, especially when that change is most likely vital for the survival of your business and livelihood. All change comes with difficulties and risks which are hard to push past mentally. But it is important to know that you are not alone and that there are thousands of people who will support you. Community and helping one another will be a part of that change – both learning from each other and supporting through difficult times. But that change can also be a positive on your life too. A more sustainable and resilient business can be more productive and stable. One in which you are more profitable and with a better bottom-line. And one where you can sit back and realise that you are producing food to feed people, while helping to build environmental resilience for the better.
There is a significant knowledge gap around soils, which includes understanding how they work and how to manage them from a regenerative agricultural perspective. A recent BBC article (Harrabin, R. 2020) explains that only 0.41% of environmental monitoring funding is spent on soils (£284,000). The rest goes towards water (£60.5 million) and air (£7.56 million). That is a substantial short fall which needs to be addressed and it shows the lack of due care we have given to one of the planets most important elements.
We know that soils are crucial; and we know that they provide a number of vital ecosystem services. For example, these services include climate regulation and plant growth. That in turn provides the basis for all life, from insects through to humans. Soil manages surface water flow and also acts as a filtration system through to underground water aquifers. All of these funcations are vital for a healthy and thriving farming system. There are plenty of examples, from all over the world, where civilisations have collapsed due to degrading soils which has led to failing ecosystem functions. However, we continue to place little importance on soil – even in todays “enlightened” world.
There are certain agricultural practices which can negatively impact soil health. For example, ploughing (especially on a yearly basis) destroys soil structure. This in-turn dessimates earthworms and other soil biology, while also reducing the water infiltration capacity leading to erosion and downstream flooding. Furthermore, ploughing leads to the minieralisation of Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) which contributes to climate change and impacts the soils ability to cycle nutrients for plant uptake. These same principles apply when soil is left bare over winter or other times of the year. A high-use of synthetic fertiliser, especially nitrogen, can also contribute to reducing the capability of soil biology. A high-use of pesticides impacts vital insects which benefit soil and benefit cropping. Collectively, practices like ploughing and high agro-chemical use can lead to dead soil (i.e. dirt). When coupled with monoculture cropping and short-rotations, you end up with a scenario like the US Mid-West Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Soil needs diversity in order to be healthy, just like humans need a diverse diet. From a farming perspective, that includes diversity in rotation (both number and type of crops). Even better would be diversity of what is being grown within an individual field at a given time (i.e. intercropping or companion cropping). This could even go a step further to include ley farming within a wider rotation of crops. Similarly, if you beat a person to within an inch of their life, they are not going to be able to function – so why do the same to soil by endlessly ploughing it.
More positively, there are farmers who are starting to find innovative solutions which includes turning to Regenerative Agriculture systems. Amongst others, this includes Conservation Agriculture, Agroforestry and Ley Farming (incl. Mob-Grazing). These systems mainly work on three key principles:
Minimise soil disturbance
Provide a continuous green cover to soil
Add diversity to the system
These principles can be achieved by using a range of practices that fit together under a holistic system. Farmers need to be thinking no-tillage, cover crops, companion and intercropping, ley farming, species-rich grassland, integration of trees and hedges, use of flower rich margins, and generally making space for nature.
When brought together, those principles can have a deep and meaningful effect on restoring soil and protecting it for the long-term. That long-term positive impact leads to a more economically sustainable and profitable business. This can be achieved by reducing costs spent on inputs such as synthetic fertiliser, pesticides, diesel, feed and livestock medicine. Farmers will also be losses of hidden costs, such as minimising erosion of fertile top soil and ultimately improving crop nutrient uptake. Farmers need to start placing soil at the heart of their decision making and business strategies.
To provide some insight into one of those practices, lets look at cover crops. As an individual practices, the cultivation of cover crops should be an important part of any rotation. Effectively, they act as a living green mulch that covers what would have been bare soil exposed to autumn and winter rain and frosts. Cover crops are planted after harvest (usually in September) and are removed in spring (usually early February) in time for planting a spring cash crop (Poeplau, C. & Don, A. 2015, p.34). However, the majority of farmers are still not using them, despite the benefits far outweighing the cost of seed, planting and destruction.
Cover crops have shown to increase the amount of biodiversity across the farm (Lal, 2004), which in turn provides other beneficial ecosystem functions such as pollination and natural pest predators. Furthermore, cover cropping helps to improve the structure of soil and covers it during the wet season which reduces soil erosion and improves the drought resilience of soil (Fyre et al., 1998).
Kätterer et al. (2011) found that a larger part of carbon sequestration into the soil from cover crops came from the addition of roots in the soil during an otherwise bare soil period. Poeplau and Don found this carbon input was more stable in comparison to above ground carbon input (Poeplau, C. & Don, A. 2015, p.34). We know how important soil is in removing atmopsheric carbon and storing it.
So why is such little importance placed on soil? Why is it now that we are starting to realise that our lack of attention to soil is damaging? Maybe it is down to climate change finally being at the forefront of the public and political agenda. Maybe we are starting to realise that as an industry, farming cannot continue to damage soil and add unnecessary and harmful amounts of fertiliser and pesticides to soil and crops. That then poses the question of what improvements can be made to restore and protect healthy agricultural soils?
References: Roger Harrabin (2020) ‘Huge knowledge gap over health of soil’. BBC News.
Poeplau, C & Don, A. (2015) ‘Carbon sequestration in agricultural soils via cultivation of cover crops – A meta-analysis’. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 200, p.33-41.
Kätterer, T. et al. (2001) ‘Roots contribute more to refractory soil organic matter than above-ground crop residues as revealed by a long-term field experiment. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 141, p.184–192.
Lal, R. (2004) ‘Soil carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change’. Geoderma 123, p.1–22.
To the majority of people who work in the sector, farming is more than just a 9 to 5 job. It is a livelihood where you often find family businesses, financially supporting two or three generation or multiple siblings. When you speak to people who work in farming, they often refer to it as a community of people. I feel that says a lot about farming and what it means to those who work in this industry.
There is a deep socio-ecological aspect to Regenerative Agriculture. There is something spiritual about it. Something which is deeply rooted in community and being close to the land. Something more than just producing food, but having a connection with the physical environment and with people who share similar values to you. There seems to be a genuine physical and mental health aspect to farming in a way that integrates your system into ecosystems, rather than trying to tame or break them. These aspects of Regenerative Agriculture are obvious when you meet or read about people who have adopted this way of producing food.
I think this draws a number of parallels. There is a greater appreciation and understanding of how the natural environment works. One of the key aspects of being successful at Regenerative Agriculture is to work towards restoring and enhancing ecosystem functions. The improvement of soil health, for example, plays a central role. You will hear regen-ag farmers get excited about earthworms, fungi, soil biology, the interaction of water, air and soil, and the importance of biodiversity in their system. This aspiration to improve the natural environment for the benefit of producing food leads to a drive to find ways to reduce the use of synthetic inputs like fertilisers and pesticides. I have worked with commercial arable farmers who set themselves reduction targets, seeking to cut out 50% of their fertiliser use over the course of five-years. This is the kind of challenge which is exciting. How to be productive, while not damaging ecosystems and giving back what was taken away.
Further to this, there is a deep feeling of reward and satisfaction in Regenerative Agriculture. I have worked with farmers who have worked hard to bring back diversity into their pastures while also adopting mob-grazing type systems. They get to interact more with their livestock, which allows them to observe and monitor them more closely. They can pick up on the early signs of herd health issues which allows them to take early intervention measures before having to result to things like antibiotics. The use of diverse pastures means they are providing a healthy and diverse diet to their animals and this greatly cuts down on disease and other animal health and welfare issues. This reflects in the way in which they see animal husbandry and the interaction and connection of farming with the natural environment.
We know the benefits of nature on mental and physical health. Regenerative Agriculture can have the same effects on farmers. We need to ensure that we have strong rural cultures, built on the view that we are part of nature and not some higher being that is trying to tame or disrupt her. Culture does not just mean having traditions, or a pub, but also a way of life that is connected to our surroundings.
I genuinely feel this can reflect on rural communities more generally. Having satisfaction in how we farm means we can have satisfaction in talking to local people about. What better then giving children the opportunity to learn about agro-ecological farming through running on-farm days for families. People need to understand where their food comes from and how it was produced. We need to encourage people to have passion in the food they buy and to feel empowered to make the right consumer choices – which includes spending that little bit more, where possible, on food shopping.
As Dr Charles Massy explains in his book The Call of the Reed Warbler ‘the socio-ecological element is a key aspect. In addition to improved physical and mental health, what this aspect also entails is the promotion of vital, coherent rural cultures and the encouragement of values of stewardship, self-reliance, humility and holism, particularly within the context of family farming’.
I truly believe that Regenerative Agriculture is not just about producing food, sequestering carbon, or improving biodiversity – as important as they are – but also a foundation of rejuvenating rural communities and connecting people with what our ancestors knew and how we see ourselves and our relationship with the planet.
In January, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published its latest report on Land Use and getting to a Net Zero UK. The main purpose of the report is to discuss how land use can support this whole sale change in how we de-carbonise the economy and sequester carbon out of the atmosphere.
The agriculture sector in the UK accounted for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2017; this equates to 58 MtCO2e. To put this into some context, the two main agricultural greenhouse gases are methane and nitrous oxide; both far more harmful than carbon dioxide, but which dissipate from the atmosphere quicker. When compared to other sectors, farming is a much lower emitter. However, it arguably plays a bigger role in climate change mitigation (i.e. carbon sequestration).
Why? When you look at the UK, over 70% of our land mass is under agricultural control. That is a substantial amount of rural land which presents far more opportunities for carbon sequestration in comparison to urban land. Furthermore, there are a number of opportunities for the agricultural sector to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases it is emitting. So there is a two fold approach farmers need to take, with carbon sequestration arguably being a priority.
So what is so important about the recent CCC report? Firstly, it links into the more global Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the same issue of land use. This is important, as it shows a general approach to global land use for de-carbonising the atmosphere. Secondly, it is based on independent and well grounded science, backed by expert opinion. It paints a rounded picture and is clear that environmental goals can be achieved at the same time as producing plentiful food. The report is clear in its message to work collectively and to be positive and proactive.
What are the key messages to take from the report? We need to rapidly move towards low emission farming systems. This includes things like low-emission slurry spreading, use of no-tillage and cover crops, adoption of Agroforestry systems, and better livestock management.
Furthermore, there has to be an acceleration in the numbers of trees planted each year. This must ramp up to roughly 90-120 million trees a year (equivalent to 30,000 hectares a year) by 2050. This is a vital aspect to mitigating climate change. Trees provide a long-term carbon sequestration plan. Alongside this, they present other beneficial opportunities to farmers (see post on Agroforestry systems). We also need to look at turning 10% of agricultural land to Agroforestry systems. These systems greatly increase above and below ground carbon storage solutions. Some farmers who practice Agroforestry have claimed that they have increased yield per hectare and improved profit margins by reducing overall inputs. Therefore, this way of farming could be a win-win for farm businesses.
A more ambitious goal is to restore 55% of peatlands by 2050. Our peatlands are a huge carbon sink. However, the drainage of land for a number of purposes (including agricultural) means there effectiveness to sequester and store carbon has been impeded.
The last key message is that we need to consider the use of bioenergy crops within our energy system. The CCC report suggests that we need to increase bioenergy crop production to 23,000 hectares a year.
More controversially, but an important point to discuss, is that the whole UK population needs to consider reducing its meat and dairy consumption. The message isn’t that we should cut it out, but look to reduce consumption by roughly 50% per person. This would be a considerable change in our diet. It means less, but of better quality. More importantly, buy meat and dairy products that are produced in the UK. The transport of food from outside the UK is not part of the agricultural sectors equation. Transport is a whole other topic for discussion. This more widely links into the need for whole sale behaviour change.
For example, food waste is a big issue in the UK. If we reduce the amount of food we waste, we will greatly reduce our carbon footprint. We must look at ways to reduce food waste by 20% over the next 10 years.
Taking all of this into consideration, the agricultural and food sector could cut carbon emissions by 64% (or 43 MtCO2e per year) by 2050.
I believe that soil will play a key part in tackling and adapting to climate change. Our soil is one of our most vital assets. For a farmer, it should be seen as one of the most important parts of their business. Not only are there a number of opportunities to sequester and store more carbon in agricultural soils, but improving the natural functions of this wonderful substance will build climate change resilience in farm businesses. For example, it will allow your soil to hold onto more water and be more resilient during periods of dry weather. Further to that, it will allow your soil to infiltrate more water during wet periods, reducing the risk of flooding and giving a better chance of getting onto the land to sow crops in the winter and early spring.
The autumn and winter of 2019 has been a prime example. The prolonged wet weather has disrupted winter plantings and it is expected that farmers may struggle to plant spring crops in February. The land is saturated and there has been little let up until we final had some drier spells in January. From speaking to some farmers who use a Regenerative Agriculture system, they have found it much easier to get on the land and drill seed. Their neighbours have not had the same experience. This is in the same area, with the same rainfall, on the same soil type and growing similar crops. To me, it shows that the Regenerative Agriculture land has been able to soak up more water and drain better due to a much more effective soil structure.
What should you take from this? It is more urgent than ever to look at how you can decarbonise your business and more to a system which sequesters and stores more carbon in your soil. This will not only help to mitigate climate change, but it is a vital process in adapting to the changes in weather. Consider integrating Conservation Agriculture, Agroforestry, mob-grazing, and herbal ley grazing into your farming model.
I want to finish this blog by recommending that you add the CCC report on Land Use to your bed time reading list. As a farmer, it is important to know some of the thinking and key messages the Committee is putting forward. One thing to take away from it is that food production needs to be part of the climate conversation.
Diversity is really important when you consider adopting and integrating cover crops into your rotation. The first question you should ask yourself is what do I want to achieve from using cover crops? Do you want to help alleviate compaction, increase soil organic matter levels, suppress weeds, improve soil structure, improve your soils ability to infiltrate water… the list can go on.
I would answer that question by having a multi-benefit approach. Do not settle on one reason to want to have cover crops. Please do not get into the habit of having a single species mix. Be as adventurous as you can; why not have 5, 8 or 12 species?
What are some of the basic aspects to cover cropping? They are sown after harvest, usually in late September or early October, and stay in the ground until late-January and early-February. The earlier you can sow your cover crop, the better it will perform for you. Like any plant, including your cash crop, they require good soil temperature and enough sunlight to grow. The later you can leave your cover crop in the ground, the greater the benefits will be.
Species and mixes
Choose a mixed cover crop, which could include species like phacelia, oats, chicory, or clover (see table below). What are some of the benefits cover crops can provide to your farm?
Fixing atmospheric nitrogen
Soil structure and compaction
Attracting more pollinators and insects
Soil organic matter and improving biology
This is a late flowering plant and will provide habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects over winter.
Clover species are atmospheric nitrogen fixing plants. They will support goals to reduce fertiliser needs. They are also hardy.
This is a good plant to help bust through compaction or pans. These plants are also suitable, like most species in this table, for livestock.
This plant is a good scavenger of nutrients which help reduce leaching through the soil profile. This will help maintain soil fertility.
This is another nitrogen fixing plant. It is also a good flowering plant for pollinators.
Grows quickly, providing good soil cover to reduce erosion. It is also a vigorous rooting plant and will provide good organic material.
This plant is also good at breaking up compaction and soil pans.
Another cereal crop which grows proficiently and provides good rooting to help build soil structure.
This is another nitrogen fixing crop. It also has good medicinal properties for livestock.
Rye grass provides good early growth, helping to protect the soil from erosion.
This is a good crop at growing quickly and mopping up left over nutrients from harvest.
A key thing to think about is the carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio of your cover crop mix. There is always more carbon than nitrogen in organic matter. A ratio of 20:1 means that there is 20g of carbon to every 1g of nitrogen. The lower the C:N ratio, the quick the substrate (e.g. straw, leaf, plant roots etc.) will be broken down into organic matter, and the quicker nitrogen will be released into the soil for plant (i.e. cash crop) uptake. A ratio of more than >35 means that microbial activity is immobilised and the substrate takes much longer to break down. Research has shown that soil microbes are functioning at there best with a ratio of 24:1.
For example, grasses (at vegetative stage) have a C:N ratio of 15:1 and legumes (clover, vetch and peas) have a C:N ratio of 10:1. Well rotted manure or compost has a C:N ratio of 20:1, providing a good balance between mineralisation and immobilisation. If you have a very low C:N ratio, your soil biology will release nitrogen too quickly and it will be lost to the atmosphere. Once you start to move beyond the 34:1 ratio, you will start to lock up nutrients in your soil.
What are some of the draw backs to cover crops? First of all, there is an associated cost that comes with buying seed and sowing it. However, I firmly believe that you get more out than you have to pay in. To save money, you can buy straight seeds and mix them yourself. Cover crops do not have to be perfect; far from it. I do not believe there is a magic ratio of species. Secondly, you might not see the benefits overnight. You need to manage your expectations in season one. I believe you will start to see benefits straight away, but they might not match the very high expectations people place on cover crops. Keep persisting and do not give up. You can make cover crops work for you, no matter what your situation is. Thirdly, there can be issues with certain crops setting seed before destruction and causing weed problems – this is only really an issue with mustard. This plant in particular grows quickly and can easily go to seed if you are not careful. In my opinion, mustard is one of the species I would consider leaving out of your mix; unless you are looking for a cheap filler.
Many in the farming sector believe that glyphosate is the only answer to destroying cover crops effectively. In reality, there are several steps you can take before turning to this herbicide. Think of it as a last resort.
I have seen farmers use a combination of grazing and crimp rolling. Sheep or cattle go on in December and grazing through to January. Once the first frost come in January, the crimp roller is attached to the tractor and the cover crops is mercilessly rolled into submission. I think this combination can be very effective when timed right. Consider using Holistic Grazing (i.e. mob-grazing); a tight-knit herd or flock can cause considerable damage. A side benefit is that you are presenting an opportunity to bring livestock onto your farm (if you want to). This helps to deposit manure (for fertility) and a second income stream from the same piece of land. You can either use your livestock, or rent the land to a neighbour – I believe they call this a “win-win”. Many cover crop species are susceptible to frost and when crimp rolling, you can break the stalk and expose the plant. This helps to speed up the degradation of the plant.
If needed, these methods can then be followed by a minimal glypshosate application to finish the cover crop off. I would like to add one last point. Once you have established a Regenerative Agriculture system and have started to build up soil health, you will find that soil biology (especially earthworms) can do a very good job at breaking down trash left on the surface and dragging it into the soil structure.
To me, cover crops are an absolute no-brainer no matter what your situation is. They will require some tinkering as you find the species mixes that work for you. Be persistent and don’t be afraid to try making your own seed mixes.
It is important to understand that the context of farming and climate is not just linked to reducing emissions, but rather the wider need to be part of the solution in mitigating global warming, but also in adapting to fit in to a changing climate.
The trusty earthworm – one of the most undervalued creatures on the earth.
Soil is one of the most important carbon sinks. It is estimated that about 2,500 gigatons of carbon is stored away in the earth’s soil. That is three times as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere. This highlights the fundamental need to protect our soils. It is also explains why there is such a drive towards increasing soil organic carbon (SOC) levels.
A significant contributing factor to atmospheric carbon increases over recent centuries has been due to the ploughing of soil. When soil is tilled and exposed to air, carbon is mineralised and lost into the atmosphere. Although we find instances of ploughing in the natural world, the contribution of carbon to the atmosphere from tillage is very much due to human activity. Overall, agricultural soils across the world have lost over 50 percent of their soil organic carbon. This has contributed roughly a quarter of man made atmospheric carbon.
However, soil, like much of the natural world, has this amazing ability to repair and rebuild. A key tool in mitigating climate change is to take the atmospheric carbon and fix it back into agricultural soils. This is particularly the case for arable soil. But what can farmers do to be part of that solution to global warming?
Lets start with the physical practices that take place. First of all, it is worth considering the Conservation Agriculture model of no-tillage, cover crops and wide rotations. These three combined practices can go a long way towards sequestering carbon into soil and keeping it locked away. However, they have to integrated into your farming model as a trio; they are synonymous with each other if you truly want to gain benefits. It is no good incorporating cover crops into your rotation, if you are going to plough your soil every year and lose carbon from it. A number of farmers have mastered Conservation Agriculture systems in on their land, seeing increases in soil organic carbon. This has actually led to many of these farmers seeing yields increase, while the need for inputs reducing.
This is not to say that ploughing should be locked in the shed and the key thrown away. The plough is a useful tool that should only be used as a last resort. It can be effective at cutting through compaction and it can act as a good way of controlling weeds when they are rampant. But saying that, try and consider locking it up and throwing away the key. Once you have a Conservation Agriculture system up and running, you could even think about selling it. If you get it right, you should not experience compaction and you should not have out-of-control weed issues. Your cover crops and wide rotations do they work for you.
When you consider soil as an asset that is worth a lot of money to your business, it makes absolute sense to improve its health and protect it in the long-term. Put soil as a key priority for your farm business. You could go as far as to say it is more more important than yield. A healthy agricultural soil will provide much of the nutrition which a cash crop needs. It will provide resilience to your crops, helping to better fight disease. Consider plants like humans; the more diverse their diet is in minerals and nutrients, the healthier they are and the better at fighting disease and pests. Healthy soil establishes a relationship with the plant where carbon is traded for nutrients. Improving the nutrient cycling of your soil is key to having a long-term and productive farming system.
Soil organic carbon is effectively food for soil biology. This is an integral part of the nutrient cycling aspect to your soil. Soil biota break down organic material and turn it into soil organic matter (SOM). Earthworms are one of the most important living creatures on this planet (in my opinion). Their function in human civilisation is very much undervalued. They are natures plough. Without soil biology, including the trusty earthworms, soils would degrade and civilisations would collapse. There are examples all over the world of civilisations, such as Mesopotamia and the Incas, collapsing with soil degradation being a leading factor.
All this effort is not just to help mitigate global warming. It is a critical step towards building resilience within your business as an adaptation tool. Take the last couple of years in the UK. We have experienced two very unusually hot summers, one bizarre early spring snow storm (good old Beast from the East), a lot of flooding across many parts of the country, and oddly mild winter periods at times. Our climate is clearly changing. We have just experienced the hottest decade on record.
Building resilience within your business, especially as one which relies so heavily on the environment, is key to adapting to global warming. Soil is again central to that. Namely for the same reasons I have mentioned above, but also because soil health is a long-term goal that will lead to a more sustainable business. Diversity within your business is also key and this includes what you grown. Wide rotations, mixed farming, and the use of Agroforestry systems, can provide much needed diversity across landscapes that often see the same monoculture thing each year.
The term agroforestry encompasses a number of different models. For example, silvopastural (integrating trees into grasslands), silvoarable (integrating trees into arable fields), agrosilvipasture (integrating trees into a mixed farming system) and forest farming (more commonly known as the edible forest). The basis of this way of farming is using trees to benefit food production and environmental outcomes. It is a way of farming that is common in many parts of southern America, Africa and parts of Asia. Here in Europe, it is just starting to gain a footing within the farming sector.
For many farmers, this means utilising food trees (usually fruit or nut) to provide a diversified income from the farm. There are examples in the UK of farmers placing rows of apple, pear and nut trees within fields. These are spaced wide enough to allow combinable arable cash crops to be grown (usually a minimum of 14 metres), or allow space for silage production and grazing animals. However, not all farmers use food trees and it comes down to what you want to achieve from an agroforestry system. So what are the farming, or business, benefits? If you could reduce your variable inputs (e.g. fertiliser and pesticide) without reducing yield, you would think that was a positive route to take.
Fairly recent research suggests that agroforestry can support the increase in soil organic matter (SOM). Improving the health of your soil provides a number of benefits, namely improved ecosystem functions–water infiltration, water holding capacity, nutrient cycling, soil structure, and soil biology. When soils are healthy and functioning better, they can provide the majority of nutrients which a cash crop needs in order to grow. It can also help to fight off soil born disease, reducing the need for fungicides. Better above ground diversity also plays its part. Providing more space for pollinators and beneficial insects can help you on your way towards implementing a fully working Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan. More diversity means better crop pest predation, reducing your need for insecticides. That same diversity can also play a role in helping to suppress weeds, especially if you integrate cover crops into your silvoarable system. This does not mean you can completely cut out your fertiliser and pesticide applications, but it allows you to go to them as a last resort. This means less gives you a healthier looking bottom line–profit is arguably more important than yield. You want to be receiving the cheques to cash, not givingthem to pay for inputs.
Some of the environmental benefits which have proved to be gained can include above ground carbon sequestration, reduced field runoff of soil and nutrients, space for habitat and biodiversity, and reduced wind erosion on lighter sandy soils. The diversification of income from the field can also be a huge benefit to a farmer. This extra security can present opportunities to use direct sales models along side more commercial contracts. This builds relationships with local people and other businesses (restaurants, pubs and cafes) and can add value to the crop.
So what are some of the drawbacks? It can lead to a reduction in yield from what is commonly known as the cash crop, but if you change your perception of this, you can improve your yield per hectare when using food trees. There is a much higher labour requirement, as the trees need pruning and other management requirements. However, reducing the need to apply inputs can increase time that can be dedicated to managing the trees, which does not have to mean spending money on extra labour.
For the first time, I decided to write a poem–for some reason. It’s my nostalgic view of British farming and the countryside. I enjoy reading John Clare’s poetry, a person who lived as a farm worker, gardener and many other rural jobs in the early- and mid-1800s. He was born in Helpston near Stamford and spent most of his time growing up and working in the east Midlands.
I hope you enjoy it: ‘A spring morning‘
The gentle glow of the sun rises above the horizon skyline, A mist floats across the field as the morning dew caresses the ground. The birds start their morning chorus as the hedge begins to rustle, The cows, sheep and hens waking up to a new day.
The farmer heads out to check the flourishing field of wheat, The sound of birds, bees and a gentle breeze blows through the air. They look up to the sky and take a deep breath, The smell of spring and the trees showing signs of new life.
You stop and think about the world around you, One built on hardship but also love and compassion. A sense of community and openness to those around you, And a realisation of who we are and what it means.
To be part of this livelihood, This way of life that connects you with nature. Think back and then forward, Knowing all that’s been achieved and where to head next.
The soil beneath your feet and the sound of life moving across the ground, To be a part of this and to protect it is joyful. On that clear spring morning, You smile, think of happiness, and start your day.
When you think about the fundamentals of
a farm, soil should always be one of the main priorities—if not the main
priority. It is the lifeblood of a farm and provides the building blocks for
everything else. Without a healthy soil, you do not have a healthy farm
It is also the beating heart of a strong
environment. It provides a list of ecosystem functions that are crucial for a
working and biodiverse situation. Soil cycle’s nutrients for plants, regulates
water flow through the profile of the land, stores carbon, is often the
foundations of nature’s food web, and more widely supports much of life on
So why should farmers spend some much
time, effort and resource to improve and protect the health of their soils?
First off all, as hinted at in the
previous paragraph, it is more than just about the farm—healthy soil helps to
have a healthy environment and society. But from a farming perspective, healthy
soil means healthy crops and good yields. It also means longevity and a
foresight into the generations ahead who will take over and farm the land.
Good soil means balance. It provides
nutrient cycling for growing arable, horticultural and grass crops. It builds
soil organic matter (or soil organic carbon) which is essential for plants to
grow. Healthy soil provides a greater resilience against drought or flooding
situations. You can hold more water in your soil, but also allow it to flow
through the soil profile quicker—a better water holding and water infiltration
capacity. A well-oiled soil means high functioning soil biology, which in turn
means better control of disease and pests, as well as better utilisation of
nutrients for crop growth. The practices that improve and protect soil also
benefit weed suppression.
Soil biology does wonders. Mycorrhizal
fungi delivers nutrients to the plants through a complex web of receptors.
Earthworms drag material into soil and turn it into soil organic matter. If you
protect these types of soil biology, you are protecting your farming business.
If you continually destroy and disturb these types of soil biology, you are
damaging your farm business.
A healthy soil can also equate to a
healthy business account. One of the reasons why a farmer might need to rely on
high cost inputs, like synthetic fertiliser and agro-chemicals, is because the soil
has been bashed and bruised for so many years. Farmers across the world,
including in the UK and across northern Europe, are greatly reducing their
input costs as they work towards improving their soil. It does not happen
overnight and requires patience and persistence, but once you have a system set
up that will help your soil, you will start to get opportunities to reduce
fertiliser and pesticide inputs.
There are so many ways in which farmers
can improve and protect their soil health. For example, minimising soil
disturbance through no-tillage helps soil to keep structure and retain that all-important
carbon. Integrating cover crops into your rotation provides organic material
for biology to turn into soil organic matter (and cancel out compaction issues
from no-tillage). Cover crops provide opportunities for fixing nitrogen in the
soil, as well as dragging it up from the depths of the soils profile; this can
support your drive towards reducing fertiliser use.
Developing a diverse grass sward (and
not a monoculture of rye and white clover) provides greater structure to soil
and a range of rooting depths and mass that support soil through its profile. Furthermore,
the use of cover cropping in arable rotations provides opportunities for
farmers to integrate livestock into their system. This can help to build soil
organic matter and utilise livestock manure and urea as added fertility to soil.
Grazing systems like mob-grazing are starting to show that when carried out
correctly, they can greatly increase forage growth with minimal inputs when
compared to more open grazing systems.
These systems are more commonly known as
Conservation or Regenerative Agriculture. The prospects are there for the
taking, but getting it right for your climate and soil type is crucial.
Charles Massy, who farms in Australia, talks about the importance of regenerating our soils, biodiversity, and other ecosystem functions:
I believe that if a farm is seen as having a healthy status, it needs to be protecting its Natural Capital. That of soil, water, air and biodiversity. These four fundamentals are pivotal for a farm to be functioning productively and in a regenerative way.
Natural Capital is just another jargon term, but effectively it encompasses the accounting of natural resources that are important to a healthy environment. That environment includes to ability to produce food in a sustainable way.
If we are honest, the so-called Green Revolution in the 1950s and 1960s led to degradation of our Natural Capital in the United Kingdom. More recently, there has been a greater recognition of the importance of having healthy soil, clean water, good air quality and abundant biodiversity, and greater strides have been taken towards protecting them.
There is an essential link between these Natural Capital elements. If one is not ‘healthy’, then the others are also being affected. In my opinion, soil is arguably the most important, but this does not mean that the others are put to one side – all should be given equal standing.
From a farming perspective, why is it important that they are healthy?
Soil: this is the foundation of all farming businesses; a healthy soil means productive land
Water: retention of water in soils and on land is key for crop growth. Clean water is key for thriving biodiversity
Air: the quality of our air is key to human health and to protect vital habitats
Biodiversity: good biodiversity on a farm means functioning ecosystem services; for example, crop pollination and natural pest predation through beneficial insects
There are many ways in which farmers can aim towards having healthy Natural Capital, but the integration of a Conservation or Regenerative Agriculture system is one of the best ways to do so. These holistic farming systems bring food production, sustainability and environmental considerations into the centre of each decision. Each three of those business principles can benefit each other, which is one of the reasons why Conservation and Regenerative Agriculture can work.
Taking stock of your Natural Capital is an important step towards understanding why it is important, what state it is in and where improvements can be made.