‘Farm like you will be a farmer forever’: How regenerative agriculture helps farmers think long-term

By Augustus Bambridge-Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Regenerative agriculture helps protect the land for future generations, according to the panel. Image Source: Getty Images/SolStock
Regenerative agriculture helps protect the land for future generations, according to the panel. Image Source: Getty Images/SolStock

Related tags regenerative agriculture Sustainability soil health

Regenerative agriculture is increasingly used by industry. How does it help farmers think long-term about their work, and protect their business for future generations?

‘Sustainability’ is not just about climate change. For a practice to be sustainable, it must be able to be sustained. Practices which use up resources or exhaust land are not, by this definition, sustainable. In short, according to French farmer Frédéric Thomas, live like you will die tomorrow but “farm like you will be a farmer forever.”

Regenerative agriculture is, many people in industry believe, an important part of making the food system more sustainable. Key industry players such as Danone​ and PepsiCo​ have adopted regenerative practices.

On the ground, regenerative practices can make agriculture itself more sustainable, allowing farmers to think long-term about the health of the land.

The health of the soil

Soil health, according to Frédéric Thomas, is so important that it can make or break civilisations, as it has done in the past. Today, soil health is still vital for the success of agriculture. When soil is degraded, it inhibits the flourishing of agricultural crops.

“The soil is the basic tool for every farmer. It shouldn’t be treated subjectively, it shouldn’t be treated short term. It should be useful for future generations,” agricultural researcher Piotr Zarzycki told an audience at EIT Food and the the Terra Nostra Foundation’s Bioreaction event in Poland last month. In other words, in order for agriculture to be sustainable, one must look after the soil.

Regular soil diagnostics – measuring its PH levels, for example – is an important part of keeping up with the soil’s health. However, only 30% of the soils in Zarzycki’s native Poland are being regularly tested, he said. The health of the soil, he suggested, determines the economic outcome of a farmer’s work.

Farmers today, he said, “are removing the ground from under their feet and destroying the foundation of future generations for very short term . . . profit.”

Farmers are now realising the importance of looking after the soil, added UK farmer Toby Simpson. Cover cropping, which protects soil from the elements, is an important part of this.

Analysing the soil can reframe certain misconceptions farmers may hold. For example, Lukasz Karmowski, President of the Polish Association of Distilleries and farmer, at one stage believed that the high potassium content in his soils could only be a good thing. It was only by soil analysis that he found it was restricting other nutrients from coming to the fore.

“By analysing the absorption abilities of the soil, it turned out that the potassium is actually inhibiting some other minerals present in the soil, some other nutrients that are made basically unavailable to plants by too much potassium,” he said.

No tillage

“When we were starting out we saw no till as just a system of establishment, but very quickly I learned that it was a much bigger system of soil health,” said Toby Simpson.

No tillage agriculture is the use of a direct drill to plant crops, rather than tillage machinery. For the farmers on the panel, the method provided many opportunities.

For Lukasz Karmowski, no till was at first a struggle to implement, as it was an unpopular idea with his employees. However, in the long-term, it prevented the rains from disrupting his crops.  

“Heavy rains were wonderfully absorbed by the soil. We didn’t have any waterlogged areas but my neighbours still do.”

Piotr Zarzycki agreed. “For me the milestones of regenerative agriculture was the introduction of no tillage system,” he said.

Poor weather, he said, was contributing to the erosion of the soils. No tillage allowed farmers to circumvent this problem. No tillage now accounts for 100% of his systems.

However, farmers must be ready for no-till, warned Frédéric Thomas. He has known farmers, he told the audience, who have bought all the proper equipment and then had soil not ready for no till. “Make a true proper diagnosis to where you are at the beginning,” he said.

Strip cropping and bacteria

Strip cropping, or strip tillage, is when crops are grown in strips in the contours of the land in order to minimise erosion. The crops are usually alternated on a crop rotation system.

Previously to adopting strip cropping, married farmers Izabela and Adam Jurczyk were struggling to achieve any yields from the land, where they were using heavy machinery and hitting sand. They were ready to give it up.

When they adopted the practice, many believed they would go bankrupt, Izabela told the audience. Older farmers, particularly, were sceptical. However, the couple saw success with the idea, which surprised these sceptics.

Soon afterwards, they added bacteria to the crops. The use of bacteria helps the farmers cut down on the use of chemical agents and fungicides (pesticides which kill fungi).

“We are a big farm and we managed to limit the amount of chemical agents that we use,” Adam said. “I have a daughter and I am not afraid to give her grains that we are growing.”

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