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Regenerative Agriculture: growth industry

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Nick Radford, Director of Ecoliving Design, digs into regenerative agriculture. First, some definitions. Agriculture is defined here as deliberate growing of human food. The definition covers any sized growing space, including farms, market gardens, community gardens, home gardens and urban terraces. One should not underestimate the importance of all of the above EXCEPT farms. In many poor areas of the world, farms are set up as export businesses by foreigners, with little financial or nutritional benefit to local people. In Australia, farming is a high risk business with tight economic margins in marginal climate and soils. Supermarket contracts demand high crop yields at low prices, encouraging short-term profit over long-term viability. A simple and all too common solution is to clear more land, the major cause of biodiversity loss and general environmental degradation. Wherever you live, if you are getting good nutrition produced ethically and sustainably, it has probably not come from a farm.


Below: David Holmgren transformed a bare, five acre block into a very productive model small farm in Victoria.    

The definition of regenerative: Organic matter content of soil is a crucial measure of fertility and agricultural viability. This has become far better understood and it is now widely accepted that a soil that drops to 2-3% organic matter is no longer viable for agriculture. Every time soil is ploughed, organic matter is released as a gas and soil organic matter falls. Regenerative refers to an increase in soil organic matter. This can only be achieved by increasing vegetation cover on site, minimising disturbance and importing organic waste products otherwise lost to ocean outfall. Transferring organic matter from one farm to another is not increasing soil organic matter but merely "robbing Peter to pay Paul". 

Below: Mark Sheppard's farm has 250 000 trees planted on 100 acres, arranged on contour for water retention and erosion control.    

The definition of production: Productivity in agriculture is commonly defined as the gross output. A realistic measure of productivity is the nett output. A monoculture that requires large inputs of water, fertiliser, energy and pesticides has greater values of inputs than output - obviously unsustainable. This is especially true when the environmental effects of conventional farming inputs are accounted for. In contrast, a diversely cropped home garden that works with nature, produces many of its own resources and recycles wastes has a high nett output and is thus genuinely more productive than a conventional farm. Nick Radford uses the hammock as a metaphor for two concepts in regenerative agriculture. The first is a test - what sort of agriculture would you like to spend time lying around in? A large, barren, freshly ploughed acreage easily fails. The environment that people are attracted to is likely to have a diversity of trees, shrubs, ground covers, light levels and a variety of birds and insects present. This also represents a functional, stable ecosystem. It is stable because it is well vegetated. It has many ecological connections and as a result has a balanced pest and predator relationship. Note that many of these attractive elements can also be cropped. So an edible garden with such a structure will provide a great variety of food. The second concept is the idea of lying around in the hammock observing nature and the garden. By doing this, we gain an appreciation of what a powerful ally nature is. 

Below: Miles Durand in a complex multi level garden aat Zaytuna farm, NSW (photo by Del Hansen)    

We also learn specific lessons and techniques that can be applied to our constructed, manipulated edible ecosystem. Productivity can be increased by reducing an input, adding a crop niche, consciously arranging a mutually beneficial relationship, or identifying and allowing a serendipitous mutually beneficial relationship to prosper. There are farms that have adopted this poly culture approach, like the ones in the US run by Joel Salatin and Mark Shepherd and they are influencing Australian farms like Taranaki Farm in Victoria (taranakifarm.com.au). They divide the land into many narrow strips of multi layered crops. Typically, the overstorey is of nut trees, the mid level of fruit trees and the ground cover is small fruits and berries. Between the strips are run a range of different animals in fast rotation. The animals range on the tree crop waste and the wastes of the previous animals grazing behaviour. 

Below:A very productive garden in a small space in Melbourne (photo by Angelo Eliades of Deep Green Permaculture)    

By vertically stacking the space with a variety of tree crop, the farms are more productive than conventionally grazed land and more financially viable than the monoculture farms they replaced. By using space efficient, well managed farms and growing food where people live, we can stop the mindless land clearing and return wasteful, oversized farms back to nature. If you live in an urban area and want to make a start, you could try a kitchen garden of a few square metres. You could fill it with closely spaced greens and herbs in a thick mulch. Much of the crop, like lettuce, spinach, garlic chives, capsicum, cherry tomato is plucked daily rather than harvested annually. Vertical space can be exploited by using trellis at the edges supporting beans, tomato, peas, cucumber. Perennial greens (Surinam spinach, Okinawa spinach, Ceylon spinach, Sorrel) can be grown around shady paths and leaky downpipes. Warrigal greens can be grown in tough conditions in deep woodchip mulch.

Nick Radford was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images from Nick Radford. Summary text from Victor Barry, August 2017.

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