Regenerative Agriculture | A Portrait in Greece
Agriculture and nature have always been at odds with each other. Food production puts an enormous strain on the carrying capacity of the environment. Various agricultural systems, such as organic farming, are trying to reconcile the two. Regenerative agriculture takes things one step further, combining food production with ecosystem restoration.
"Look," says Sheila Darmos, as she digs up some loose soil with her hands. "See those white threads? That's mycelium, the root network of fungi, just like in the subsoil of forests. It's an important indicator of soil health. That's where it all starts."
We make our way through the tall grass between the fruit trees of The Southern Lights, Sheila's farm here in Skala, a village not far from Sparta. Like large parts of southern Greece, this rural region is dominated by orange and olive groves. But The Southern Lights, To Notio Selas in Greek, has more in common with a forest than with the surrounding plantations. Not because the farm is being neglected, but because five years ago, Sheila Darmos began to manage the land according to the principles of regenerative agriculture, a philosophy that aims to produce food while restoring the local ecosystem.
Organic farming to regenerative agriculture
White fungal filaments. Photo Credit: Toon Lambrechts
The Southern Lights is a place with a long history. Sheila's grandfather bought the land when it was still an olive grove. The oldest olive trees on the farm, with their impressive twisted trunks, were already hundreds of years old back then. "Later, my father planted orange trees. Then, some 35 years ago, he switched to organic farming. He was really a pioneer at the time."
Five years ago, after the death of her father, Sheila took over the farm. The orange trees had just been cut down to graft a wide variety of other citrus fruits, such as lime, winter oranges and lemons, on the remaining trunks. "Suddenly the trees got a lot of sunlight, and mulberries and fig trees started appearing everywhere. I had just come across the teachings of Masanobu Fukuoka, the founder of regenerative agriculture. The idea of transforming the plantation into a forest full of different types of fruit really spoke to me. Now, five years later, we're reaping the benefits of everything that started growing then.
Polyculture and efficient use of sunlight
Beyond the farm lies the vegetable garden, looking every bit as wild as the fruit forest. Here, too, a tremendous variety of crops all grow together. A self-proclaimed plant connoisseur, Sheila knows them all by their scientific names. "I estimate that there are about a hundred different kinds of fruit growing here at the moment. Of some varieties we only have a few plants, just to experiment with. That multitude of varieties not only allows us to harvest fruit all year round, it also creates a very high level of biodiversity on this small piece of land."
Indeed, The Southern Lights is a beacon of biodiversity. As we walk among the fruit trees, we can hear the chirping of crickets, that quintessential soundscape of the Mediterranean summer. The high grass is teeming with insects and multi-coloured lizards. An owl darts off from the top of one of the olive trees.
Close to the farm, most of the trees are still arranged in relatively neat lines, but further away, the plantation looks more and more like a forest. "That's actually intentional," Sheila says. "We're imitating the ecosystem of a forest, only with trees that bear fruit. That's why the trees are so close together. You won't see that in your typical orchard, but that's how a forest works. Figs and mulberries form the top layer here. Citrus fruits are the middle layer, as they want a little bit of shade, but not too much. The undergrowth is mostly bushy crops, such as berries. It may look messy, but it's actually a very efficient use of sunlight."
Oranges. Photo Credit: Toon Lambrechts
Regenerative agriculture: a circular system
Regenerative agriculture is not so much about specific farming methods as it is about the idea that ecological recovery and food production can go hand-in-hand. In practice, principles from permaculture and agroforestry are used. A central figure in all of this is the Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka who, in his book The One-Straw Revolution, set out the main principles of natural agriculture.
"Conventional agriculture is essentially a system of extraction," Sheila explains. "Organic matter – fruit, vegetables, prunings, and so on – is taken away from the land. By contrast, in circular ecosystems, this is not the case. If you keep taking from the land, the soil will become exhausted and you'll have to start using fertiliser. Heavily depleted soils, the result of a long history of overexploitation, are a major problem in our region."
Since her father switched to organic farming 35 years ago, the land Sheila farms today has not seen any pesticides or chemical fertiliser. But regenerative agriculture really takes things to the next level. "Organic farming is just scratching the surface. Many organic farms are still monocultures, with only one crop. That's not a natural situation at all. Regenerative agriculture has a broader perspective, a deep understanding that agriculture operates in a natural cycle."
How regenerative agriculture helps vulnerable soil
"In regenerative agriculture, the soil is of key importance," Sheila emphasises as we stroll through her fruit forest. She turns over one of the half-decayed pieces of wood scattered around the orange trees. "Our plantation may look messy, but it involves more work than you might think at first glance. For example, we prune more than is customary, in order to imitate the renewal cycle of a natural forest. We do leave all the woody material behind, as it creates habitats for small animals, insects and micro-organisms. This organic material is essential. The more lignin – a component of wood – there is in the soil, the more fungi will thrive. Those fungi and their mycelial networks help trees to absorb nutrients."
It is precisely this soil that is a sore point in the south of Greece and in large parts of the Mediterranean. Increasing drought, erosion, wildfires and unsustainable farming methods are taking their toll. In many areas, especially in mountainous regions, the land is now so depleted that it can only be used to have sheep or goats graze on it.
"Regenerative agriculture offers a new outlook for the recovery of these fragile soils," says Sheila Darmos. "There was a major forest fire in the nearby Parnos mountains in 2009. The vegetation there still hasn't recovered. This is largely due to the fact that farmers constantly keep vegetation short in order to make grazing possible. In the long term, this is very destructive, but that's where the money is, so it's still common practice. But here, trees are sprouting spontaneously."
"Regenerative agriculture involves more work than you might think at first glance." Photo Credit: Toon Lambrechts
Soil regeneration: a matter of ethics
There's no fence surrounding the farm here in Skala, but there really is no need for one. It's abundantly clear where The Southern Lights' borders are. High grass and shrubbery on one side, bare dirt on the other. Here, as elsewhere in Greece, it's still customary to keep the ground below olive or citrus trees bare by ploughing, by using pesticides or by burning away all vegetation.
"As a consequence, erosion is a huge problem here," says Sheila. "With the slightest rainfall, the topsoil simply washes away. For me, soil regeneration is not merely an agricultural issue; it's a matter of ethics. Generation after generation, we've exhausted the soil. It is our responsibility to work on recovery. Unfortunately, many people still don't realise this."
Can regenerative agriculture be scaled up?
Working on ecological recovery while producing food is one thing, but is this form of agriculture economically viable? "It's a challenge," Sheila admits. "The fact that we have so many different kinds of fruit means that we can't sell large quantities. Bulk buyers aren't interested in half a tonne of oranges."
"This type of agriculture is struggling on the conventional market. Fortunately, we do have some loyal customers who support our philosophy. But we're definitely faced with the excesses of the market. The limes in the shop here in Sparta come from Brazil, the lemons from Africa. While we produce fine lemons and limes here in Greece. The irony is that I would get a better price if I sold my fruit in Germany, where there's much greater demand for ecological products. However, for ethical reasons, we strive to sell our fruit locally.
Regenerative agriculture is still a very small niche for the time being, but the share of organic farming is growing – albeit slowly. Discussions are raging between organic farmers and conventional farmers on how to feed the growing world population. You'll often hear the argument that organic farming is less productive and therefore requires more land than conventional farming. Indirectly, organic farming thereby puts more strain on the carrying capacity of our planet.
Sheila Darmos disagrees. "In the whole productivity debate, people conveniently overlook the fact that conventional agriculture relies on a huge input of fertiliser and energy. These raw materials have to come from somewhere, and the damage caused by their extraction isn't taken into account. Many elements, such as damage to ecosystems, are also difficult to quantify in our current economic way of thinking. That makes any fair comparison all but impossible."
Sheila Darmos. Photo Credit: Toon Lambrechts
The future of agriculture
For Sheila Darmos, switching to regenerative agriculture is starting to bear fruit – literally. The citrus trees that were grafted five years ago are producing plenty of fruit today. And she's convinced this is only the beginning. "More than anything, The Southern Lights is a place to experiment, and to learn. Knowledge about regenerative agriculture in the Mediterranean is very limited, which makes me a pioneer. The many interactions between plants and animals here, the layered composition of our fruit forest ... it's all uncharted territory. I can only hope that my farm will grow into a place that inspires others, a place that proves that other ways of farming are not just possible in theory, but viable in actual practice. We seem to have lost the ability to dream, and I hope I can help bring it back".
The author originally wrote this piece for Belgian outlet Eos Tracé. Read the piece in Dutch here.