We’ve been hearing the words regenerative farming more and more recently, both in the popular media as well as in the farming press, so what exactly does it mean? It has actually become a bit of a catch-all term for a whole suite of farming approaches that can best be summed up by saying that they aim to be sustainable-plus – their intention is not just to maintain the status quo, but to actually improve the situation. In practical terms, this means that we farm for the benefit of holding onto our natural assets and increasing them through our farming practices, rather like compound interest.
This means that the health and future vitality of the ecosystems upon which our agriculture depends have to be prioritised over short-term gains. This is probably best visualised by taking a “soil-first” focus, in which we are farming to optimise the productivity of our “soil livestock” first and foremost. This will lead to optimised productivity of our above-soil livestock or plant-stock. By “soil livestock”, I’m referring to the complex inter-connected ecosystem of macro and microfauna and flora that together makes the soil function and upon which all life on our planet depends.
A soil-first approach looks at reducing harmful practices as well as introducing or increasing practices that aid and support soil function. One example would be applying fertilisers that are used as food by soil microbes, so that they can multiply and go about their business of exchanging deep soil minerals for liquid sugars that are photosynthesized by the grass or crop. This is the natural process for healthy plant growth, as well as the way carbon is transferred into our soils. In regenerative agriculture this approach is preferred over applying fertilisers that short-circuit natural processes, cause a decline in soil biodiversity and function, and ultimately lead to soil loss, erosion, sedimentation of the waterways and inhibit soil carbon capture.
A team from Landcare Research led by Gwen Grelet is conducting research that will ground-truth regenerative agriculture for the New Zealand situation. Right now there is good news and bad news regarding our soils. On one hand, we have naturally erodible soils that are vulnerable to climate change effects. On the other hand, our soils still have good carbon levels, so our farming practices need to build on that. Watch this space ...