Image: Abby Rose tending to the vines at Vidacycle
What is regenerative farming, and how could it help protect the planet? We learn more about how the health of our soil can affect our ecosystems, in conversation with regenerative farming expert Abby Rose.
According to the United Nations, there are only 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues. As it stands, about a third of the world’s soil has been degraded due to chemical-heavy farming techniques, deforestation and global warming.
But instead of letting these formidable facts perpetuate eco-anxiety in us, let’s look at how we can make a conscious effort to help slow down and eventually reverse soil destruction, because while you may not be a farmer, you can have some impact. After all, 95% of our food comes from soil – and we choose where we source and purchase that food from.
In many ways, farmers are the caretakers of our earth. Their day-to-day and year-to-year decisions impact the health and resilience of the planet’s soil as well as the people around it. So with this in mind, it’s in our best interests to support those who are working to preserve the future of our planet as opposed to merely focusing their efforts on cash crops.
Images: Abby Rose, the farm at Vidacycle today
Abby Rose is a physicist, farmer, soil health expert and co-founder of Farmerama Radio, a podcast which shares the ideas, experiments and experiences of smaller-scale farmers across the world. Combining traditional farming methods with new technologies, she develops simple apps like Vidacycle that help farmers collect important data such as the productivity and health of their trees, vines, fruit and crucially, their soil.
According to Abby, the future of sustainable farming goes way beyond organic and biodynamic certification; it’s about regenerative farming, which is a holistic approach to agriculture.
Regenerative farmers take “a more ecological approach, observing the natural ecosystems on a particular plot of land and working with them to build a farming system that produces diverse and nutritious sources of food, whilst also providing income streams for the farm.” This essentially strengthens the soil beneath our feet, making it more resilient in the radically changing landscape.
“Regenerative farmers prioritise soil health and biodiversity on their farms. They are not just farmers, but environmentalists too, they want to see more wildlife and insects on their land because they know it’s part of a healthy farming system.”
Image: Abby recording Joh Cherry, Jo Sarah Photography
Unfortunately, the modern method of monoculture farming (the cultivation of a single crop) has become the norm. Abby explains this is “intensive on the land, depletes the soil of nutrients, and requires chemicals and pesticides which are bad for our health, farmers’ health, and our soil.”
So, where do we come into this? Farming, food, our health and our climate are all intrinsically linked. Ultimately, as consumers, the best thing we can all do is stop eating food grown from monoculture systems and shift to regenerative methods of producing food in order to keep supporting these farmers and their sustainable techniques.
Some crops have a bigger environmental impact than others. Abby says that “soy farming in Brazil has the biggest impact because of the destruction of the rainforests to make way for intensive agriculture.” But this doesn’t simply mean tofu, soya milk, or food products with soybeans in them, it’s a crop that’s used to feed animals. “It’s for this reason that, if you choose to eat meat and other animal products, it is important to only buy 100% pasture or grass-fed meat and milk as a lot of animal feed comes from soy crops. The 100% is key here!” Abby continues.
Images: Sheep were brought onto the farm help rebuild soil health at Vidacycle
Ten years ago, Abby’s family took over the organic olive oil and wine farm Vidacycle in Chile. This ignited her passion, but it also allowed her to experience first-hand the detrimental effects of climate change.
“In 2017 our whole farm burned amidst a one-million-acre fire. It was one of the scariest moments of my life, we lost 7000 olive trees and all our grapes burned on the vines. 2019 was our first harvest since the fire, that’s how devastating it was. This year, Chile has seen its worst drought in history. We’ve come to realise that extreme weather is the new normal and that we have to build a resilient, fire-friendly farm – one that would retain as much water on the land for as long as possible.”
“The key to this is building up health of the soil. Soil is a miracle substance – it cleans water, prevents drought and flooding, sequesters carbon and produces nutritious food. One of the ways we are rebuilding soil health is by grazing sheep to help retain more water in the soils – their excreting and grazing helps circulate more carbon and feed the billions of microorganisms in the soil, which ultimately helps to keep the plants green for longer throughout the year. It’s a long road, but we have already seen more green plants in the middle of Summer which gives us hope!”
Image: Vidacycle after the first fire
Below, Abby shares some immediate actions we can take to inform ourselves and support regenerative and sustainable farming techniques:
Listen to Farmerama Radio’s recent series CEREAL
CEREAL uses the humble loaf of bread as a lens to explore our food system and how radical changes have impacted our relationship with food, farmers, the land and each other.
Sign up to your local CSA or organic veg box scheme
The CSA scheme ensures farmers receive a more stable and secure income and closer connection with their community, and consumers benefit by eating fresh, healthy, local food. Because as we know, feeling more connected to the land where our food is grown and being aware to some degree of how it is cultivated, means we can make wiser choices.
If choosing to buy meat, get it from a source where you know the animals have been 100% pasture-fed
On a small scale, raising animals on pastures of grass, hebs and wildflowers is more environmentally friendly than grain feeding. It allows for soils to rejuvenate and ensures that the animals have been both reared in their natural habitat and treated as kindly as possible.
Spend some time on a farm and talk to farmers
They can tell you about the work they are doing to build natural ecosystems, and will happily explain the challenges the farming community face. Maybe incorporate this into your next holiday or staycation – there are plenty of farm stays and agritourism hotels in the UK and across Europe.
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