Regenerative Farming | Ask The Expert
Soil plays a huge part in the life and health of a plant. It provides food, structure, and a home – in some ways it’s the all-encompassing parent of the crops we grow. So when the health of our soil is in peril, we need to find ways to restore it. So-called “regenerative agriculture” is fast becoming the spearhead of this healing process among farmers, but what is it and how does it work?
Mike Powley, a farmer based near York in the UK, practices regenerative farming on his mixed farm of suckler cows and crops. We asked Mike about the importance of soil health and the role that regenerative agriculture can play in protecting and restoring it in future.
What is regenerative farming?
I suppose regenerative farming or agriculture is really about regenerating the soils. What we’re trying to do is restore depleted soils back to really healthy soils that are packed full of biodiversity.
“Soils are very complex things – we walk on them, we walk past them, we look at them, but we don’t really think about them. But about one teaspoon of soil has more organisms in it than there are people on Earth.”
That’s everything from the single-celled funguses and amoebas right through to earthworms: we want to rebuild those populations back in the soil, giving us healthy soil which will hopefully grow healthier plants.
Why is soil health so important, and what happens if you neglect it?
If you have really damaged soils you can really struggle to grow crops in it at all. There are soils like that around the world now: in the worst cases you’re getting desertification, where the soil is literally blowing away and the land is returning to a desert, and once that happens there is nothing you can grow in it. Such badly damaged soils need a lot of remedial action really, really quickly.
What would cause such bad damage to soil health?
There are a number of ways you can neglect your soil health. One of the classic ways is over-cultivating it - every time you go through it with machines, tines, discs or ploughs and move the soil, you disturb the organic matter in the soil. Organic matter is mostly leftover material from plants that have been processed by organisms living in the soil. It’s a bit like mixing potting compost with the soil – the more of it you’ve got, the more biodiversity the soil can support. But if you work the soil too much, you can actually oxidise that organic matter and release it back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
“It’s the amount of organic matter in soil that’s really the best indicator of soil health.”
When this happens you lose carbon from the soil, and once organic levels get down to low, single figures – 2-5% organic matter, perhaps – soils will start to slump and lose their natural structure. It ends up being like when you walk on a beach – there are no lumps of sand, it’s all just single grains of sand. What we want is a soil structure where different soil particles are getting stuck together, and that can’t happen without plants, organic matter and healthy soil biology. It’s the amount of organic matter in soil that’s really the best indicator of soil health.
How does regenerative farming reverse damage to soils?
It depends on how bad your soil is in the first place. Initially, it’s about putting the brakes on and not damaging the soils any further. By disturbing the soil less, you don’t lose the organic matter in the first place, and you keep living roots in the ground at all times. Already this starts to rebuild damaged soil.
Once you’ve stopped any further damage, then you can start to look at how you’re going to rebuild those soils back to a healthy state. There are lots of things you can do: for example, our tractor has really big, wide tires, which gives us really low ground pressure so we don’t cause compaction of the soil.
Can you use livestock to help regenerate soil?
Absolutely. There’s a guy called Gabe Brown in the US who is probably one of the world's leading experts on this: he will take a piece of land where the soil is badly damaged and “mob-graze it”. This involves letting a very diverse selection of 12-15 different plant species grow 4-5 feet tall, and then putting a ‘mob’ of cattle on it. His aim is for the cattle to eat a third of what’s there, leave a third alive, and trample the final third onto the ground’s surface.
Mob grazing is the fastest way to regenerate the soil. It leaves behind living plant roots in the ground, and the plants that the animals tread down form a layer of “soil armour” which protects the soil from excesses of heat, moisture or cold and gives all of the soil biology somewhere to live. The other benefit of mob grazing is that you’ve got the dung from the cattle, which is very nutrient-rich and really kick starts the growth of the soil biology.
So why isn’t everyone doing ‘mob grazing’?
Mob grazing is the most extreme way of regenerating soil. It’s difficult to do in smaller areas, or when you need to sustain business as well as regenerate the soil.
So what we do instead is grow grass on the farm and graze cattle on it directly, or we grow grass and other crops together in the same area. For example, we grow ‘cover crops’ during the winter when fields are in-between harvests, and we grow red clover that we cut and feed back to the animals during the winter; those animals then produce muck which we then put back onto the land. ‘Mixed cropping’, where you grow two unrelated crops together in a way that both crops benefit from the presence of the other, also helps regenerate the soil. So there are many slightly different ways of doing regenerative farming, which allows you to integrate your existing farming system with your aim of regenerative soils. The more that you can do, the faster you’ll turn it around and the more you’ll improve your soils.
What made you decide to switch to regenerative agriculture on your farm?
We started to look at how to improve our soils and then got the opportunity to visit Gabe Brown, Joe Salatin and a few more of the real soil regenerative experts over in the United States.
To see what they’ve managed to achieve was incredible to see: if you compare Gabe Brown’s soil with his neighbour’s next door, they’re like chalk and cheese. It showed it can be done, going from intensive agriculture in the US to the soils that he had there - that’s what really started us down the route of doing regenerative agriculture ourselves.
Have you had much success using regenerative farming to regenerate the soils on your farm?
Our soils are definitely improving. It’s largely because we’ve put grass back into the rotation: grass has a fantastic ability to rebuild the soil structure. We plant the grass and then we don’t touch the soil for three years, which gives the soil and all the soil biology time to rebuild itself.
We’re fortunate here that we’ve been looking after our soils for years. We don’t over-cultivate the soil, and so our soils aren’t too badly damaged and have got a reasonably good soil population already. What we’re trying to do is try to encourage all of that soil biology to proliferate again and return our soils back to a really healthy state.
It’s been a very steep learning curve, and we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, sure, but we’re learning from those and overall I’m very pleased with the way it’s gone.
Are you seeing benefits from your improved soil health?
Definitely. For example, it’s costing me less to establish the crops than it used to since I only need to go once through the soil with my rig now (compared to 3-4 times when I was ploughing and breaking the soil down and then drilling it). That’s a huge saving in my time and in the expense of diesel, wearing parts and energy. It’s a much more carbon-efficient way of farming, which wasn’t the reason we set out on this journey but is becoming a major factor in terms of where we’re heading.
Also, if you’ve got healthy soil and healthy biology within the soil then crops grow better, they don’t get as much disease and so not as many chemical products, pesticides or fertilisers have to be used on them, reducing costs and the risk of those chemicals leaching into nearby watercourses and affecting water quality.
“Using less of everything to produce more food, which is also more nutritious? That would be the holy grail. If we can get to that stage, then I would say that’s job done, sorted.”
Another benefit is slow but widespread water infiltration through the soil. We farm in the Vale of York and because it’s flat but surrounded by hills, York has a flooding issue. What we’ve found is that regenerative practices allow the soil to capture more water and slowly let it drain through into land drains, rivers and streams over the course of weeks, rather than simply running off fields immediately. Not only does this help keep the fertile topsoil in the fields where it can nourish crops, but it also helps prevent flooding, which is a great benefit to the environment around us.
Do you think regenerative farming has the potential to change the way we farm forever?
Over in the US, Gabe’s got to the stage where he doesn’t use artificial fertilisers. With what we’re doing here with growing legumes and cover crops alongside our main crop, we could possibly get to that stage too. We’re fortunate that we’ve got a mixed farm, so we can use the straw from seed oil crop harvests to bed the cattle down during the winter, and then bring their manure back out into the fields. We need to learn more about how best to cycle these nutrients, but if one day I can get to the stage where the soil biology was naturally producing the fertiliser that the plants need and I can stop using artificial fertilisers, that would be fantastic.
When it comes to the potential of regenerative farming, my honest answer is I don’t know. I hope it’s as massive a change as I hope it is, so we can use less and less of the earth’s resources to actually produce better quality food.
Mike isn't the only farmer using regenerative farming practices. Read more about how regenerative agriculture has transformed this farm a stone's throw from Sparta, in Greece.
What’s next for you and your farm?
There’s a huge amount of interest and a huge amount of information out there, so we’re using that to really work out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. There are hundreds of us doing this now, thousands probably, at various different levels. It’s about constantly trying to learn and improve, and help others to do the same.
What do you think of regenerative farming? Let us know in the comments below!