Celebrating regenerative agriculture. Heal the land; heal the people
South Africa is not unique compared to the rest of the world in any sense when it comes to agricultural debt, and the way we treat our most valued resource – SOIL
Currently the agricultural debt is R187 billion – this is double the agricultural GDP. There is a shortfall of R20 billion for the next planting season. One reason being the problems at the Land Bank, and the inability of the farmers to service their production loans – and this after a near record harvest in the 2019 – 2020 season.
Dr. James Blignaut has written an opinion piece in the Daily Maverick – “Investing in unsustainable agriculture is reckless and endangers our future” – 5 August 2020. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2020-08-05-investing-in-unsustainable-farming-is-reckless-and-endangers-our-future
Are we heading for a collapse in our agricultural system where we hope that government will bail us out? Is agriculture the next fiscal crisis that is going to happen with more severe consequences than any other industry, because our livelihood depends on it?
We know what unforeseen consequences conventional agriculture has:
- Soil erosion – 3 tons topsoil is lost each year from agricultural land
- Nutrient deficient food – Thomas, D.E (2003). A study of the mineral depletion of foods available to us as a nation over the period 1940 – 1991. Nutrition and Health, 17: 85 – 115.
- Starved soil Biology
- Dysfunctional water cycle
- Dysfunctional mineral cycles
If we do not change our management system where we enhance rather than destroy our biological services that nature offers for free, our input costs will rise we will become more vulnerable to ever-increasing prices. We must bring robustness back into our farming enterprise. Having only a yield as a measure of success is not sustainable – Banks do not bank yields.
How do we regenerate our soil?
Source: Integra Webpage: www.integrafood.co.za
In the process of regenerating soil, the farmer is the most important aspect of the whole chain. There are however certain key points that you as the farmer, owner or manager of the farm must be aware of. This will provide a measure of success in changing your management system to make soil health the primary goal of your farm.
The first step in knowing there is a problem, is to recognise the problem.
It you can relate to any of the following, then you do not have a problem and do not need to change anything:
- You are not affected by drought
- All your chemical inputs are effective. The chemicals do not harm the environment nor animal or human health
- You are producing a nutrient dense food.
- Your water and mineral cycles are functioning optimally.
- You do not have soil erosion or degradation
We must fully understand why we must change; this is far more important than how we must change. If you fully understand the why, the how becomes easier to understand.
You as the farm owner must make the process of regeneration of soil your own. It is nobody’s project. It is not an idea that the consumer can implement on your farm. You must fully buy into the process where you understand the why and how – Ask yourself: what is in it for me?
This is your farm. You must make it happen; you are the jockey. Nobody is going to do it for you on your farm. You must apply it. There are people doing it already and we must see how we can build a community to help each other. At the end it is you that must drive the process, on your farm.
Make it happen. At this stage you are probably convinced that what must be done is correct and to the benefit of everyone around you and the environment at large. Now you just must take the action and make it happen.
The other five principles of soil health are about HOW we achieve:
Minimum soil disturbances – both chemically and mechanically
We must acknowledge that we are working with a degraded resource – soil. Our management practices have been of such a nature that we have starved and destroyed the soil biology, and the structure of our soil with modern agricultural practices.
I have written about quite a bit about the five principles of soil health. Read more here
Soil cover or armour
Erosion – Caused by wind and rain
Temperature – Bare soil is always hotter than covered soil, and the variation in temperature is detrimental to the soil biology
Diversity – in all aspects
The bigger our diversity becomes the more biological services we will activate. The more robust our farming enterprise will become in terms of:
Having a living root on your cash crop fields via cover crops, companion cropping or inter-seeding, feeds your soil biology for longer. This stimulates a larger variety or diversity of soil micro-organisms, that in return improve your soil health.
On your cash crop fields, either by eating the stover, or more advantageously cover crops. The symbiotic relationship between grazing ruminates and root and plant stimulation, has been proven by various farmers world-wide. The anecdotal evidence where the biomass growth, and the hay harvest has doubled in certain instances.
How does all this fit together and why should we bother?
What I do, however, want to mention is the advantages of Mycorrhizal fungi and how can we establish Mycorrhizal fungi in our degraded soil.
Mycorrhizal fungi form a mutualistic symbiotic relationship in the rhizosphere of plants. The fungal hyphae allow a larger volume contact with soil. Mycorrhizal fungi are transport “highways” for the plant to transport water, minerals, and various nutrients to the plant. Mycorrhizal fungi are also thinner than root hairs and can therefore penetrate smaller cracks in the soil to access water in the soil that would otherwise not be available to the plant. The symbiotic relationship between the plant and the Mycorrhizal fungi is then completed. The plant “pays” for the biological service that the Mycorrhizal fungi gives, by supplying various root exudates to the microbial world beneath our feed.
Through photosynthesis, the plant captures light energy and converts this to chemical energy. Chemical energy transforms into a carbon-based molecule which nourishes and sustains most living organisms on the planet.
6CO2 + 6H2O = C6H12O6 + 6O2 – is the most important piece of chemistry in the world!
The simple carbon glucose molecule formed in photosynthesis is the basis for our entire food chain.
Soil health and our survival
No feature on earth is more complex, dynamic, and diverse than the biosphere, the layer of living organisms that occupy our soil surface and chemically unites the atmosphere, geosphere, and the hydrosphere into on environmental ecosystem within which millions of species, including humans have thrived. – Green Cover Seed – Soil Health the sixth edition.
It must become clear why the soil biology is so important for our survival – and why the destruction of it is so detrimental for all living species on earth including humans.
Books often mention how important Mycorrhizal fungi is. But how can we restore Mycorrhizal fungi and more importantly how have our conventional agricultural practices destroyed Mycorrhizal fungi.
The importance of Mycorrhizal fungi
Mycorrhizal fungi consist of hyphae, and these can increase the root surface area of the specific host plant by approximately forty times. As mentioned before, the Mycorrhizal fungi receives its energy from the host plant in exchange for all the various minerals, elements, and water that it transports to the host plant. This exchange can only take place when the host plant photosynthesis. So, if a monocrop, soy, corn, or wheat does not photosynthesis it cannot feed the Mycorrhizal fungi anymore. That is of course assuming that there was Mycorrhizal fungi in the first place. Remember we are working with a degraded resource, our soil.
The Mycorrhizal fungi has enough energy stored in its hyphae to survive for about one month if the host plant does not excrete any root exudates anymore. It takes three months before the crop is ready for harvesting.
If we only plant monocrops, and then leave the field fallow until the next season, we risk the chance of any living Mycorrhizal fungi left form the previous year. If there are any fungal spores in the soil these will sporulate when they come into contact with a living root, but as is obvious the fungal spores will diminish each year, as each year the fallow period is too long to sustain the sporulated hyphae.
Therefore, the fourth principle is so important, to keep feeding the Mycorrhizal fungi through the fallow period.
The problem with inorganic fertiliser applications, is that we are giving the cash crop plant the basic elements and minerals that they need. This is normally done in excess, the plant does not have to excrete root exudates anymore, as it has enough nitrogen, Phosphorus, and potassium – this also starves the soil biology. This is where the microminerals, and various other vital elements and minerals that healthy plants need, are not transported to the cash crop plant anymore. We wonder, then, why we produce nutrient deficient food.
Hyphae are thin strands, thinner than root hairs, which can enter cracks that are small for a root hair to penetrate. This however also does not make them strong, and tillage destroys the hyphae. You are breaking your soil’s ability to communicate – remember bacteria cannot move, they signal. The hyphae are the “vessels” through which the water, elements and minerals are transported. You have destroyed your underworld highway.
The problem with conventional agriculture, is that we are destroying our soil biology. The two examples given, are sufficient to see that if this is done year in and year out that in a brief period we have destroyed our Mycorrhizal fungi. We have diminished the fungi spore count in the soil so that it is no longer viable.
How can we change our management practices?
So how can we change our management practices to enhance and to improve our soil biology especially Mycorrhizal fungi? Please remember, regenerative agriculture is never a sole product or a single change. Everything is connected, and everything you do influences the environment. Nothing happens in isolation.
As mentioned before, we are restoring a degraded system. One of our aims should be to build-up our soil biology so that the Mycorrhizal fungi is so abundant that it produces spores again.
The hyphae never touch each other and will always branch away from each other. Once they become so abundant, that they cannot branch away from each other, they will then start making spores. It is obvious that the smaller the area, like a pot plant, will start producing spores much quicker than on an open cash crop field.
On an open cash crop field, it can probably take up to eighteen months before the hyphae are so dense that they start making spores. How can we achieve eighteen months of minimal disturbance, having a living root, 24/7 365, having armour on the ground, and plant diversity? The answer simply becomes: A perennial cover crop. To give that specific land parcel, the best chance to restore its resource, namely soil biology.
The integration of the animals now becomes easy, as the animals will harvest the cover crops to mitigate the cost of the cover crop.
It is also obvious that not all your cash crop fields can be done during the same year as you still need an income.
It must also become obvious that the crop rotation is no longer between two, three or four crops, but it is a crop and perennial cover crop rotation. There is a farmer that has a twelve-year cycle, of which eight years is a perennial pasture. The pastured is grazed multiple times during the wet season, and once during the dry season. The last grazing is done mechanically in the wet season, for hay.
Regenerating your soil biology is a management system, it is not a single event, nor is it a specific product. It is a combination of various management principles that when implemented, work together with the common goal of restoring the soil biology. If you have implemented one of the principles of soil health, it does not mean that you have now become a regenerative farmer. Rather apply the constant implementation of all five principles.
Regenerative agriculture heal the land heal the people
The implementation of regenerative agriculture and restoration is not a sprint but a continuation from generation to generation. The future of agriculture is secure when we can heal the land and heal the people. Celebrating regenerative agriculture Heal the land; heal the people.