Let’s talk about Regenerative Agriculture

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Dave holding a block of soil on a sunny regenerative farm

In this article, we want to give a little insight into some of the things happening behind the scenes at Bellbird.  

Over the last three years, our production manager Dave has been training to become a monitor for Āta Regenerative. Dave is a passionate advocate for Regenerative Agriculture and is particularly interested in the impact of our food from farming to the end products that land on our table.  

Although Regenerative Agriculture (shortened to RA in this article) is a relatively recent term in global food production, regenerative farming practices have been around since the dawn of humanity.  

We asked Dave a few questions to get a better understanding of what RA is and why conversations around the way we grow our food are so important.  

How would you describe Regenerative Agriculture to someone who has never heard of it?

Regenerative agriculture is farming in sync with nature’s cycles, aiming to repair, revitalise and restore ecosystem function. Beginning with life in the soil, then moving to life above the ground, RA creates a circular system that replenishes itself and nourishes everything within that system (including us!).

How does RA work? What are its main principles?

The main principles of regenerative farming are:

  • Minimal soil disturbance
  • Keep soil covered with plants or plant matter
  • Integrate livestock
  • Maximise diversity of plant species
  • Maintain living roots in the ground at all times.
Example of a cover crop at the BHU in Lincoln
Example of a cover crop at the BHU in Lincoln

These principles are not restricted to farming and can be applied to any garden/landscape.

What are the differences between RA and conventional farming? Is it very different from organic farming?

Conventional farming

Conventional farming often focuses on monocultures (which do not happen in nature). This is not only far more extractive on the land but also incredibly damaging due to the amount of control measures that are required to grow them. Synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and fungicides are used to promote higher yields and control weeds, pests and plant diseases.

The problem with all of these control measures is that they not only kill the pests and weeds that are targeted, but also a lot of beneficial species, as well as interfering with the biology that happens naturally in the soil. Synthetic fertilisers are applied with the singular thought of promoting higher yields and faster growth. Excess nutrients and chemicals are all water-soluble. These leech into our waterways and underground aquifers, polluting them and destroying life within these environments, not to mention getting into our food system and causing all sorts of damage to our own health.

Organic farming

First of all, I’m a big proponent of organics and wholeheartedly support not spraying anything harmful into our food systems and not using any GMO products. However, there are some key differences between organic and regenerative farming practices.

Organic arable farming in particular (like conventional farming) generally uses ploughing to prepare the land for crops. This has a detrimental impact on the soil structure and the biology within the soil. Ploughing also releases carbon into the atmosphere, and in rain and wind events topsoil is lost into our waterways. New Zealand loses around 200 million tonnes of topsoil to the sea and waterways each year. Believe it or not, it’s New Zealand’s biggest export! It’s important to note that topsoil isn’t just created overnight, but takes a long time to rebuild.

There are some similarities between biodynamic farming and regenerative practices. Animals play a crucial role in the farming system by aiding in repairing the land, invigorating plant growth through grazing, and enhancing soil fertility and microbial activity through their manure.

Another key similarity would be holistic management practices.

Regenerative farming

Regenerative farming works with nature in a way that is far removed from the conventional farming methods mentioned above. Observation and good land management are fundamental.

In arable farming where the ground is not disturbed by way of ploughing, field preparation is quite different. Wild Farmed in the UK are a great example of this. They first grow cover crops, then they direct drill the wheat seed into the living cover crop – the wheat grows through the cover crop. Crop species are sometimes mixed as well (polycropping) and succession plantings restore nutrients to the soil. Animals play a crucial role in repairing the land after crops are harvested, assisting in replenishing nutrients to the ground and breaking down residual organic matter. This is a great example of growing within a living system.

There are no restrictions or limitations around RA in terms of what a farmer uses with their applications, such as fertilisers, sprays, etc. The responsibility lies with the farmer. However, taking a soil-first approach naturally guides farmers away from intensive input systems and toward seeking more natural farming methods, particularly during their transition from conventional farming.

I see verification as a very useful tool for the farmer. It provides a baseline test to show where their land base currently sits, followed by annual measurement to show that regeneration is actually happening.

Regenerative farmers have been sharing knowledge learned through their own transitions to help other farmers who are just getting started. This process really opens the door for exploration and discovery, and offers a pathway for farmers to start to understand the real potential of their farms.

The gold standard would be a regenerative organic system.

What made you interested in RA? Why does it matter to you? Why should it matter to everyone?

The desire to be more connected to where our food comes from was the initial driver. The more I learnt, the more I understood there is a direct link between our industrial farming and the ever-increasing rate of degenerative diseases. I want to be part of the change and support these farmers in their transitions, creating a better future for our children.

I want to be part of a food system that nourishes not only people, but also the landscape that food is grown in. Regenerative farming could be the most valuable tool we have to solve a host of the world’s current issues. When our landscapes are more diverse, they can support a more localised economy, strengthening connections to the land and building communities. They will be more resilient through their diversity and, as a result, also offer more food security.

On a larger scale, this shows the systemic change that can happen when we focus on improving our soils. Living plants draw down carbon from the atmosphere and store it below ground. Transpiration occurs with more actively growing plants, which increases rain. Soils have the ability to retain more moisture and nutrients as the improved soils act like sponges to capture and hold more rain (flooding is less of an issue). More available water in soils helps everything to grow. Waterways are cleaner with less toxins leaching into them in rain events. The list of benefits goes on and on. Healthy soils promote healthy life!

Can you explain what you do in the field of RA?

I am a short-term monitor for Āta Regenerative with the EOV program (Ecological Outcome Verification™). I usually engage with a farmer in their second year in our verification program. The first year is the baseline, which involves more in-depth data capture, soil tests, water infiltration tests, etc.

In the second year and every year that follows, there are a minimum of 10 GPS locations (decided in the first year) that I revisit. I assess the ecological health within a 30m circle around each location. I work through our scorecard and give a score for each of the 14 ecological health indicators. Finally, I do a visual soil assessment and take some reference photos. Once the scores have been locked in the system, we can then analyse the data and compare those scores to the previous year(s) to see whether the land is regenerating.

A report is compiled and given to the farmer. The report highlights areas across the farm where there is potential to improve. The responsibility is on the farmer to make some kind of management change, and they get to see if their practices have made any significant impact on the ecological health of the land.

How prevalent is RA in New Zealand? in the world?

Currently, the Savory Institute (Āta Regenerative’s parent company) has 6 million hectares being monitored for regenerative outcomes worldwide. Āta Regenerative monitors 220 farms across New Zealand being monitored for regenerative outcomes.

What are the challenges of RA in Aotearoa New Zealand?

Mindset change is probably the biggest challenge.

We have a very well-established farming system that a lot of farmers are happy with. However, with ever-increasing costs, a lot of farmers are looking towards people in the regenerative circles for ways to reduce their costs and make their farms more resilient.

How does Bellbird fit in that? Do our suppliers follow RA practices?

Milmore Downs, our flour supplier from North Canterbury, grows wheat under BioGro certification. They have similar growing principles to regenerative agriculture, with the exception of the field preparation by way of ploughing mentioned above.

Matt, Ian and Eva from Milmore Downs, Scargill, North Canterbury, with Dave from Bellbird Bakery
Matt, Ian and Eva from Milmore Downs (Dave second from left)

My personal goal for the bakery is to have all of our flour grown using regenerative practices.

What is the one thing you want people to take away?

I want people to realise that there is a direct connection between soil health and human health. We can reverse diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease by eating the right foods grown in the right conditions. There is both a health cost and an environmental cost to our current industrial food systems. Highly processed foods, excess sugars and trans fats are certainly to blame for many of our health issues. Combine that with all the herbicides, pesticides and fungicides that pollute our food and health system, and the environments they are grown in.

Farmers have the ability to turn this all around, but it’s up to us as consumers to ask for that change to happen and support them through their change. If we are more connected to farming and our food, then we can work together to implement change.

Where can people go if they want to learn more?

For insight into the company I am working with: https://ata.land/category/regenerative-agriculture

These guys are doing great things in the UK: https://www.wildfarmed.co.uk/pages/our-mission

Keep an eye on this one as Farmer’s Footprint has just arrived in NZ: https://farmersfootprint.nz
Their featured film is well worth the watch:

How can people find out if the food they buy is grown under RA principles? Where can they find such foods?

Good question and this is a tough one to answer. There are farming groups like Quorum Sense that are helping farmers in their transitions, but as a consumer, they can be hard to find at this point in time. Keep an eye on Farmer’s Footprint NZ for local farm stories being brought to light through videos. On a worldwide scale, the Land to Market program highlights some of the larger brands like New Balance and UGG working with some of our farmers in the EOV program.

The best thing you can really do is talk to your local farmers; again, connection is the key word here.

Thank you Dave for sharing this fascinating insight into the world of regenerative farming. Considering the degradation of our soils, waterways and oceans, and the continuous threat of climate change, RA appears to offer a promising solution.

Bellbird is enthusiastic about supporting regenerative farming practices. What about you?

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