Opinion

How restorative agriculture could lead to commercial advantage

22 September 2016

Amy Lance_Waitrose buyer
Amy Lance

Whilst working at Apricot Lane Farms, and moved by Wes Jackson founder of The Land Institutes quote – “Soil is more important than oil” – I experienced a strong and inspiring passion for regenerative agriculture. The concept of nourishing farm land and re-charging soil is ingrained and embraced with enthusiasm by all employees, even those not directly working in the field or orchard

The Apricot Lane team is also keen to educate customers and community members. A strong marketing plan has enabled the farm to have a vibrant and exciting presence on the LA food scene, on TV, radio, in magazines and other publications. The enthusiasm definitely rubbed off on me and made me keen to write a few words on my understanding of the concept of regenerative agriculture and the regeneration of the soil on the farm.

Watch the Apricot Lane video

To begin, soil provides us with such a valuable, underrated, free service. A focus on soil, its composition, quality (carbon content) and make-up can have a direct effect on food security, food quality, nutritional density of food, sustainability, climate change, crop yield, carbon sequestration, greenhouse-gas emissions, erosion, disease resistance or susceptibility, drought tolerance, organic matter… and no doubt so many other things.

Protecting, renewing, restoring, and growing soil to benefit ecosystems and build resilience to natural environmental fluctuations or events is increasingly being recognised as a vital component of good farming practice. The theory of improving soil health or the practice of regenerating soils has been labelled as many things, including most commonly agro-ecology or regenerative agriculture. 

Carbon storage and organic matter 

Within soil, carbon is primarily stored as soil organic matter, which may include compounds such as decomposing plant matter, animal matter and microorganisms. Carbon can enter the plants and from there move into the soil during photosynthesis or through the natural decay of the plant.

By actively using and promoting composts, vermiculture, specifically selected cover crops, a low tilling strategy, using compost teas and an integrated livestock and crop rotation strategy, Apricot Lane has increased organic matter significantly over the past five years. It has been enlightening for me to understand first hand why we should be increasing soil organic matter and to see the resulting benefits.

We want carbon to be stored in the soil predominantly to reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, whilst also increasing the soil’s resilience to flood, drought and increasing crop yields. The term carbon sequestration is often used alongside regenerative farming; it describes the long-term storage of carbon and how carbon can be captured into the soil for long-term storage from the environment.

Organic matter is packed full of nutrients that can be released to the soil. Any presence of organic matter in the soil can sequester and release nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur, which improves the nutrient supply to plants and minimises the requirement for additional fertiliser.

Organic matter can also help the soil to build a structure similar to a sponge, which allows the water to be stored in the soil and make it accessible to plants therefore increasing the water holding capacity. Clumps can also be built in the soil and form aggregates, and this in turn can improve permeability and the soil’s ability to take up and hold water.

By increasing organic matter, improving permeability and increasing water infiltration erosion can also be significantly decreased, not forgetting the source of food the organic matter provides for organisms that live in the soil. 

Endangered soil

In our everyday agricultural work, we are reducing reserves of carbon in the soil that need to be protected. The quality of many of our soils worldwide has been reducing year by year due to many factors including erosion, deforestation, desertification and pollution. Soil needs to be replenished, the soil carbon content increased and the system regenerated.

At Apricot Lane, the belief is that the healthy soil is capable of producing high quality, nutrient dense food while improving land quality, building resilience and ultimately creating a productive farm business and healthy community. The farm only uses farming practices that, over time, reduce outside inputs and focus on the enhancement of the environment, wildlife habitat, and biological regeneration of soil. Soil is one of the key building blocks on the farm, containing approximately 75% of the carbon pool on the land and delivering critical ecosystem services.

Public education

Engaging and then educating the general public about soil health is a challenge as it doesn’t initially excite or interest many, who are normally very disconnected from the agricultural world. However, along with Apricot Lane Farms, Patagonia, the Californian clothing brand recently took its film Unbroken Ground on tour in California – aiming to inspire consumers and demonstrate possible solutions to the environmental crisis.

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and his management team explained their beliefs and goals for the future ensuring every consideration for the environment.

The short film directed by Chris Malloy, explores four areas of agriculture aiming to change our relationship to the land and oceans, focusing heavily on restoration agriculture and how we can protect and restore our soils.

Producing such an inspiring and informative film allows brands to educate and positively influence their already engaged consumers about a range of subjects not just restoration agriculture and endangered soils.

Watch the Unbroken Ground Film

Long Root Ale (soon to be launched by Hopworks and Patagonia) was served on the tour, a great demonstration of how the development of perennial grains such as Kernza, a wheatgrass bred by The Land Institute, can be used to brew ale and helps to lock more carbon into the soils.

By launching the ale, the perennial grain concept was brought to life for consumers; linking soil health with crop selection, in an interesting, and palatable way. Perennial grains with a greater root mass can reduce erosion risks and maintain more soil carbon compared with annual crops. You can read more in the journal Science here.

If the public, opinion-formers and the press all understand more about the benefits of farms practising restoration agriculture, maybe we will reach a stage whereby those farms gain a competitive advantage in industry in the future. As Yvon Chouinard says: “We need people who are willing to break the paradigm.”

What I’ve learned in California has convinced me that he is right in so many ways. And as more of those people emerge and are successful, the exciting, positive stories that will be told to demonstrate how farming in a regenerative way can have a positive effect on climate change, could have a dramatic impact on the future of food provision and farming.

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