Take a look at the regenerative agriculture lessons learned from 6 years experience in the 4 returns network of landscape partners.
Recently, Commonland launched an online learning program (rewatch here) to hear from our landscape partners in Spain, the Netherlands, Australia and South Africa. We went on a so called Mountain Trail with AlVelAl, Wij.land, RegenWA, Wide Open Agriculture, Living Lands and Grounded. Together, we harvested to find out what our 4 returns network has learnt about regenerative agriculture over the last 6 years.
If you’re not sure what regenerative agriculture is, check out this great explanimation.
Otherwise, read on to find out the 6 biggest lessons learned.
1. Listen from a place of not knowing as you Think big, start small, and act fast
When problems like land degradation and biodiversity loss seem so great, it makes us want to do as much as possible at once. However, with regenerative agriculture there remain many unknowns. And out of enthusiasm, ambition and a doer’s mentality we sometimes outrun ourselves and overestimate the potential of a particular technique.
For South African farmers eager to restore the Baviaanskloof, aromatic crops like lavander were chosen as the regenerative crop. On paper it looked simple and it was clear that this would provide a multitude of positive benefits to the landscape and the wallets of farmers. In a bid to make change happen fast, 100 ha was planted at once. This was a big gamble. And in practice, it did not work out as anticipated. Check out these blogs written by Grounded: in their first post, they examine the complexity of finding the right crop alternatives for the soil and the farmers; in the second, they unpack the mistakes made in the transition.
With regenerative agriculture it is important to: Think BIG, Start small and Act Fast. Or as Thekla Teunis, co-director of Grounded, South Africa, best put it:
“In a world that celebrates moving fast and straddling the edge of risk, who still dares to think big, but also start small and be patient?”
2. RegenAg is one term – not one solution
Regenerative Agriculture is not an end point. Nor is it a silver bullet solution. Regenerative Agriculture rather takes place on a continuum guided by a set of principles and should be considered differently in each context. For example, check out this supplier brochure from Dirty Clean Food in Australia (page 8) or AlVelAl’s protocol that gives guidance to farmers in the region. It is about moving in the right direction and taking part in a collaborative learning journey towards a process of constant regenerative production. As part of this, there is not one particular starting point. Yet as regenerative agriculture continues to grow in popularity, there seems to be a felt need for non-linear but clear performance indicators along a pathway that tell you where you are on your journey.
“There is no one size fits all solution, Regen Agri encompasses a whole host of techniques, practices and concepts. In the absence of a close working network or existing guidelines for any given farming sector, options must be narrowed down from a large suit, this can often seem daunting and without a clear playbook it can be intimidating to new farmers.” – Matt Sephton, Living Lands, South Africa
Regenerative Agriculture needs to be adapted to a specific landscape. Ideally, the practice leaves a positive impact on the ecosystem it is situated in and it contributes to the regeneration of the surrounding landscape. That requires a intricate understanding of the local ecosystem you are operating in. Moreover, as regenerative agriculture is a relatively new (or ancient?) set of principles, it is important to find out what works where.
In the Altiplano, Spain, farmers adapt traditional agroforestry systems – known as dehesa, into almendrehesa – which is based on almond production. Regenerative techniques like ground cover crops, composting, water swales, aromatic crops are incorporated into this practice. In this way, the farmers working with AlVelAl take farming techniques which evolved in their landscape and enhance them with regenerative agriculture.
4. There is a serious science – evidence gap we need to close
There is a serious expertise, knowledge and science gap. It’s important to close that gap in order to develop better understandings on how to implement regenerative agriculture. As the practice develops traction, there is hope that peer-reviewed research will also increase. Currently, it is difficult to find the right expertise and evidence-base to support a certain practice or approach. That results in a lot of trial and error, piloting, learning and failing forward.
To start closing this gap, the landscape partners have strong ties in place with research institutions across all the core landscapes which Commonland support. Some examples include:
- PhD research on whether regenerative almonds are more profitable than conventional (Spain),
- Perth NRM is developing natural capital case studies with leading regenerative farmers throughout Western Australia.
- Wij.land is a practice partner of the research program “Regenerative farming” in the Netherlands
5. Farmer-centric networks are the way to go and soil health is the key to every farmer’s heart
Soil is the basis of a farmer’s business, and soil health is a great way to open up a conversation with a farmer. To keep that conversation going, the implementation and learning process of regenerative agriculture is best facilitated through farmer-centric networks. Within that, the local landscape partners work on farmer-to-farmer learning through on-farm demonstration workshops, pilots and trails, and off-farm events with knowledgeable specialists. These activities are integral to curating a movement across a landscape. Working in a step-by-step pilot approach is an effective way to keep momentum building. In this way, people within the farmer network moved from being skeptics towards curious experimentation.
We do still, however, need more convincing whole farm examples and schemes that financially support farmers in the first years of transition.
“I was Mr. Plougher #1 and all this “green cover” business, well… I didn’t buy it. But now I’m convinced and capable to convince anyone.” – Francisco Martínez López, Spanish farmer in the AlVelal territory
“For us, it’s about finding a balance, we now farm extensively and don’t have to push our land anymore which makes for a more calm farming business, more in balance.” – Wilko Kemp, Dutch farmer in the peat meadow area.
6. Mismatch between diversified systems and current market infrastructure
There is a mismatch between diversified farming systems and current market infrastructure. Think about the dominance of one commodity value chains or how export and input are commonplace as compared to the local or regional use of resources. Do we want regenerative agriculture to “fit” into an “old” market system of conventional agriculture? Or do we not want to develop new value chains that better reflect the diversity and complexity of healthy and regenerative farming systems.
“We tend to underestimate the scope of the work; we are not just developing a business case for a more sustainable and fair agri system – but we need to prove that a business case really works and we are capable of successfully entering and selling produce in the market place. This involves specialist expertise at various points in the value chain (…). Each crop feeds into its own very unique industry and there is often a lot more than meets the eye regarding pre- and post-harvest operations and considerations.” – Gijs Boers, Co-director Grounded, South Africa
Across the landscapes, the local partners believe that the growing appetite for regenerative agriculture can act as a lever to make change happen. In order to tilt the balance, you need to embrace complexity while drilling down into concrete actions that you can take together with others (as in farmer-centric support networks). An ecosystem of partners is required for regenerative agriculture to be that lever for change. Meanwhile, you need to regularly check and identify pressure points within the system and act on those.
We have come so far
The transition towards regenerative agriculture is increasingly seen as a broad and effective way to deal with the threat of climate change and the growing issue of landscape degradation worldwide. Yet we are still in a learning journey. There is still much to discover about the practice and how to integrate it into wider landscape restoration goals.
“Regenerative farming is shifting several paradigms; it’s going from a controlled system to an adaptive farming system and going from high-input farming steered by advisors of these inputs, to low-input farming steered by the knowledge of the farmer and/or his advisors. Shifting paradigms doesn’t go overnight so we really need to get smart on how to accelerate and facilitate these transition process.” – Matthijs Boeschoten, Wij.land, the Netherlands
But given the attention that RegenAg is receiving, it feels like we are approaching a tipping point. And we should make sure to celebrate all the steps that are being taken.