It is no exaggeration to say that agriculture has been the turning point in human history. The nature of a hunter-gatherer life prior to agriculture did not allow human beings to settle in one place long enough for culture, tradition and civilization to flourish. Although it is hard to identify where the practice of agriculture originally started, it is believed that the Indus valley, ancient Egypt and separate developments in China were the first regions to experience agrarian societies.
Fast forward to modern-day agriculture, we discussed in our very first article Agriculture is NOT Industry how the 18th-century global green revolution altered the field in many ways. In the same article, we have illustrated the environmental downsides of the green revolution, and how alternative agricultural practices such as hydroponic, organic farming and permaculture provide better solutions. Today in this article we expand on the alternative methods of farming, and why they are regarded as ‘regenerative’.
From a simple language understanding, regenerative indicates that the output of a process feeds again into the input or resources. Regenerative agriculture is the term used for farming methods which boost soil health through a variety of techniques. It is said that one teaspoon of healthy soil has more microorganisms than there are people on earth. This lively richness is, unfortunately, victim to harsh synthetic fertilizers, heavy machinery and monocropping as we have discussed in this article. Contrary to conventional farming, regenerative farming practices prioritize soil health. Some of the most common practices are:
- No-Till: mechanical, physical, and chemical (synthetic fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide) disturbances all have a negative effect on the soil microbiome, putting soil nutrient cycling and environmental resilience at risk. No-till technique limits the disturbance of the soil and maintains the soil structure preventing erosion.
- Biodynamic: a holistic and ecological approach to farming, founded by the work of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamic farming recognizes the livelihood of soil and addresses agriculture as a whole ecosystem. The technique adopts biodiversity, fertility and awareness of the surrounding natural system of the farm as its main pillars. Applying biodynamic farming include preparing the land by using nutritious humus compost, following a planting calendar and open pollination of proprietary seeds.
- Agroforestry: agroforestry systems, “Agriculture with trees”, understand the interaction between agriculture and trees as well as utilize this mutually beneficial relationship. Diverse varieties of fruit trees can be introduced in croplands. This practice improves the farmer’s economic conditions and soil healing. A research article from Stanford University explains in more detail the symbiotic relationship between trees and microbes worldwide.
- Crop-cover: one of the key principles of regenerative agriculture techniques is to keep the soil covered at all times. This can be achieved through the so-called cover crops, which protect the soil from wind and water erosion when no other crops are planted on land. This technique not only protects from erosion, but it also lowers the temperature of the soil and feeds the microorganisms within it.
- Crop-rotation: an ancient system designed to cultivate different crops through a piece of land in a cycle. The aim is to sustain natural nutrients in the soil and fight pests or disease. According to this article from Permaculture News, the crop cycle usually alternates from cash crops (such as vegetables) to cover crops (such as cereals) to green manures (such as lentils). Crop-rotation has been overlooked since the beginning of the green revolution, where profit-making and high yield crops were prioritized over any other type while synthetic fertilizers offered short-term fixes to the depleted soil.
- Multi-cropping: is when two or more different crop species are cultivated simultaneously. When the planted species are harmonious, the ecological potential of this technique can eliminate competition on resources such as soil nutrients and water, mutual benefit for the plants and optimal space utilization.
- Mulching: a way of spreading plant residues or other organic deposit on the surface of the soil. This method is used for conserving moisture, controlling temperature, prevention of surface compaction, reducing the surface runoff and erosion, improvement in soil structure and weed control. Mulching also provides micronutrients to the plants as it slowly composts. If you find yourself confused between mulching and cover cropping, differences between both techniques are well explained on this webpage.
Now that we described some of the techniques used in regenerative agriculture, do they actually work? And how is it to apply them on the ground? We got in touch with Anurag Singh again, our young guest from The Mitti Podcast – Episode 3, to get some real-life insights on that.
What does regenerative agriculture mean to you?
Regenerative practices are the ones that help us build up the soil. For example, no-till, biodynamic and agroforestry provide plant yields but at the same time enrich the soil with healthy deposits. As agriculturists, we have to close this cycle and not depend on a one-way system which depletes the land from its natural nutrients.
What type of regenerative practices do you apply on your farm?
At the moment, I am working with multiple methods in different land portions – for some portions, I use absolutely no machinery, for others, I practice organic farming, others are no-till or micronutrient based and so on. I usually experiment and see what works best.
Why did you adopt this experimental approach with different techniques?
In the first season, I tried not using any type of fertilizers at all. It was not optimal since my land experienced a lot of chemicals previously and the soil was not ready to nurture the plants instantly without aiding with some sort of added nutrients. It seemed like the soil was experiencing withdrawal from its drug addiction! I made this mistake in two seasons, then I wanted to optimize my methods given the soil condition. For example, when practising biodynamic farming I had a lot of weed that needed to be dealt with. So, I learnt to continue with one practice and readapt it whenever I see needed. Now I plan to try with compost-based fertilizers to renutrient the soil along with agroforestry and permaculture food forest design.
What technique do you think enhances the productivity of your soil without stripping away its natural nutrients?
For me, it is important to utilize crop-covering and rotating. Some farmers keep growing grains or vegetables several seasons in a row. This drains the soil from nutrients. Rotating crops through seasons limits this and nurtures the soil.
How about multi-cropping instead of crop-rotation?
It always depends on the soil and condition of the land. One of my neighbours was successful to plant pulses and grains. Another tried the same in a different type of soil it failed. So, it always has to be catering to the soil needs.
Do you think experimenting is the only way to know which regenerative method is suitable?
There are some plant combinations that have been traditionally known to be harmonious and work well in a multi-cropping system. For example, pigeon pea and wheat are usually good to plant together because they have almost the same harvesting times and similar water requirements. Another example is making use of mango tree shade and moisture to grow turmeric. These days many experiment with layer farming starting with a small patch of land.
Would you tell us more about layer farming?
The concept is that you plant multiple crops in layers mainly according to their height. Starting from the ground, the first layer would be root plants. Second, comes leafy greens which are around one foot tall. Then you start planting higher crops such as tomatoes and chillies. Afterwards comes creepers, and lastly trees.
Do you usually exchange knowledge about these techniques within your community or cross communities?
Not so often. Before the COVID-19 virus outbreak, some farmers and I who were interested in regenerative agriculture used to arrange workshops and exchange information about projects. Now, it is only through personal communication or asking for guidance and advice or sometimes comparing outputs of applying the same technique in our lands.
What are your near future plans for your farm?
I have been collecting seeds from all over India during my journey – some are plants, some and shrubs, and so on. I built a wildlife nursery with these seeds! My plan is to plant some of the tree seeds on some land borders. We experience strong wind rates, so adding trees as a windbreaker is a good idea. Beneath the soil, there are many stories happening. I am trying to make a story out of my farm; how this journey happened and how it continues to grow.
We thank Anurag Singh for this helpful insight into practical regenerative agriculture, and wish him a rich experience with his wildlife nursery!
There are numerous regenerative techniques other than the ones we discussed in our conversation – integrating livestock, intercropping, forage and biomass planting, wind barriers and field borders, in-field compost preparation and application and pollinator habitats to name just a few. Some sources list these methods scientifically such as this webpage from the Encyclopedia of Applied Plant Sciences, others telltale their experiences à la Mitti (!) like the reference page of the Agriculture for Impact project. No matter what type of reader you are, we definitely encourage you to look through the sources you find interesting and share your findings with us in the comments below.