In simple times, the population survived on what nature provided; but now, simple times seem like a distant memory. A growing population carries with it an increased demand for food, a demand that nature itself is no longer able to satisfy, or can it? Regenerative farming utilises sustainable methods that work with nature rather than against it. With the constant battle of innovation and science versus nature, with the growing demand and thus pressure on our agricultural systems, perhaps nature provides us with all that we need. In this article we talk to David Miller, the farm manager at Wheatsheaf Farming, about how adopting regenerative farming methods has affected his farm, and the future of farming.
What is Regenerative Farming?
Regenerative Farming, or as it is also known, conservation agriculture, can be defined as: a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services. It works off five key principles:
- Keep the soil surface covered as much as possible
- Limit the amount of physical and chemical disturbance of the soil as much as possible
- A wide variety of plants are encouraged to increase soil biodiversity
- Keep living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible
- Integrate grazing livestock into the system
It aims to use natural processes, utilising resources that nature already provides to result in more resilient yields. Did you know – a teaspoon of healthy soil will contain more living things than there are people on this Earth? David Miller describes the difference in regenerative farming compared to conventional farming as: ‘better explain[ing] what a farmer is trying to do – trying to regenerate your soil … a conventional farmer has probably not accepted that there is a problem, whereas a regenerative farmer has accepted that there is an issue and has started to understand that the soil is the limiting factor to producing nutritious crops.’
Science Vs. Nature
The growing pressure on our agricultural system to produce higher and higher yields has resulted in the inevitable intervention of science, causing crops to be covered in synthetic chemicals in order to make these yields possible. David likens the action of continuously attempting to reach these yields as being on a ‘treadmill’ and being very difficult to get off. However; we are now at a point in time where the progression in science has plateaued, and the benefit of chemical intervention has run its course, leaving us with land depleted in vital nutrients needed to continue to grow crops. Appearing to be stuck in a never-ending cycle of chemical intervention causing yield plateaus causing further intervention, the conflict with nature must be addressed. Science does still have its advantages, as David explained, ‘glyphosate is a huge benefit to [them] in being able to be zero till’ and how they ‘have to use chemicals to control the weeds, but [they’re] not ploughing to cultivate. The aim is to use a lot less chemicals, but not zero’.
Perhaps we should be asking whether scientific intervention was ever needed at all. David explains how he is ‘no longer chasing after high yields because [he] knows in order to achieve them, there has to be a detrimental impact on the environment and the primary resource of those crops‘. Instead, he now uses methods such as ‘cover crops’; this is where a variety of crops or plant species are grown to create a microclimate that encourages the survival of each plant, maximises potential yields of following crops and enhances soil fertility. This not only creates biodiversity preventing the depletion of nutrients in the soil, but utilises products of nature rather than relying on intervention. By caring about the resource that produces the crops, David has found a balance within nature that favours his yields as well as the environment providing them. But if this is possible, then it must be questioned why scientific or chemical interference is still continually used if it carries with it such high consequences.
The Future of Farming
David states that ‘conventional farming is not sustainable’ and that ‘regenerative has got to be the future environmentally’. Having already established that conventional farming depletes the soil of all nutrients, it has to be questioned how much longer conventional farming can take place before we are void of arable land. It could be argued that in order to change the future of farming, we need to start with education to produce a new generation of sustainable, environmentally conscious farmers. We are at the point in time where we could potentially reach a full circular moment, where the future of farming actually takes us back to how we used to farm before industrialisation and chemical interference. David states that ‘for too long, as farmers, we’ve had environmental schemes on one hand and we’ve had food production on the other. We’ve never had to look at those two ever being part of the same system’. With a growing population driving the wheel of food production faster and faster, it’s understandable how these two elements became disconnected. But in terms of the future, this disconnect must be mended, nature once provided everything we needed; and if we work harmoniously with it, it can do so again.
What Can You Do?
If you are a farmer yourself, then research regenerative farming or seek support in taking those first steps. As David states, the change is ‘not something you can do overnight’ and how you need to change the way you see your farm. For example, rather than judging your farm on what yields it’s produced, focus on ,‘what the fixed costs are, how much diesel [you’re] using, the amount of machinery [you] need compared to what you want, the amount of labour [you] need’, all of which David claims has ‘dropped dramatically’.
As a consumer the best thing you can do is to support a regenerative farm near you! Educate yourself on the practices and why it is so important, for example, why the term organic might not always mean ‘organic’ and why it may not always be a good thing. Start reading food labels and realise that what you think is in a loaf of bread may actually be the smallest fraction when compared to the additional chemicals and preservatives. Education is key in changing the future, and it starts with you.