Positive impact

The default phrases for being “green” these days tend to circle around “reducing your footprint” or at best living “sustainably”. Basically trying to do slightly less damage to the world than we already are. It’s a strange thought that, if done well, the process of growing food could — should — improve the soil year after year, not deplete it in the way that conventional agriculture does. Yet it’s a fact accepted by most, from large scale mono-cultural farms to well meaning home gardeners — and promoted of course by the global fertilisers industry — that in order to grow plentiful crops it is necessary to artificially pump nutrients into the soil on a regular basis.

Our aim — in growing food as well as in our whole way of living — shouldn’t merely be to be sustainable. It should be to have a positive impact. To leave the place better off than when we started.

“If wild spaces are considered sacred and protected, why not the spaces where we grow our food?”

The idea of what I am going to leave behind has been on my mind lately. The desire for some sort of legacy to be remembered by, I guess. It’s hard to hear and read about great people doing great things and not wonder what good I am doing. I console myself with the fact that we are raising two wonderful children — who will hopefully turn into compassionate, kind and good people — yet I am still grasping for something more concrete. One very small but achievable goal is to improve the biodiversity and fertility of the piece of land we live on. I have written already about the process and lessons of starting a food forest on our quarter acre suburban section, and a couple of great videos I saw recently have prompted me to look a bit more into specific aspects that I am eager to improve on.

I have been familiar with the concepts of permaculture and forest gardening for a while now, and this video not only documents larger scale processes, but also highlights the phenomenal environmental gains that arise from such practices, as well as how easy it is to achieve these gains — if you know what to do.

Whether you call it agroforestry, regenerative farming or “syntropic agriculture”, there is indeed a scientifically proven way to grow food in a competitive, efficient and economically viable manner while also improving the quality of the land as you go. It’s a circle of continuous improvement instead of perpetual depletion.

“At the time of harvesting, the soil will be better off than when we started”

It is time for me to try to apply the various techniques I have seen and read about and try to measure the effects for myself.

We have greatly improved the waterlogged clay soil of our West Auckland section in the few years we have been cultivating it, but it has been mainly through external inputs: mulch by the truckload, composting food waste and coffee grounds from my workplace etc… The next phase is to try to minimise these and get the system humming by itself.

Step 1 has already started, and has consisted of growing flowering perennials such as Jerusalem artichokes to generate lots of carbon to be returned to the soil. We have also made sure that a good proportion of our annual beds are used for carbon-rich crops each year (corn and amaranth in summer, oats in winter).

Another major takeaway from Ernst Gotsch’s work is the major role of pruning. My children struggle a bit with the idea that cutting down a tree can be a good thing, but as I have now learned, by planting especially for the purpose of pruning one constantly increases available resources and encourages new growth, both under and above the ground, which in turn means stronger plants.

So our next phase will be to identify and plant fast growing species appropriate to our location, climate, and the space we have available (preferably natives) that will be used for periodic heavy pruning to grow the soil.

The more I look, the more I find existing research, and the more I am keen to take a more scientific approach to our food growing.

Here’s a more thorough view on building a healthy soil:

I’m going to go away now dig more into the specifics of regenerative farming. Watch this space.

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