3 Uncommon Regenerative Farming Techniques In The Climate Crisis Era

Water and soil conservation in agriculture

Photo by Colin Watts on Unsplash

If I were to compare an obsolete technology with a more efficient once, I’d probably pick the replacement of faxes with e-mails. When e-mails came into existence, faxes, despite having played a major role in the sector of communication technology, gradually disappeared.

Regenerative farming and conventional agriculture can be compared to e-mails and faxes, respectively. Conventional agriculture is, in the society we live in today, nothing more than an old-fashioned way of farming, which has had undoubtedly a key role in granting access to food to millions of people, but is now inefficient and unable to provide a sustainable answer in the climate emergency. Actually, it can be considered one of the responsibles of the climate crisis that we are facing nowadays.

Regenerative agriculture instead, comprises of a series of conservation and rehabilitation techniques that aim at protecting and preserving the agriculture system, intended as an agroecosystem. What’s different between these two types of farming, is their approach.

On the one hand we have conventional agriculture, which considers the farming system merely as a mean for the production, exclusively finalized at the economic return of the farmer. On the other hand, there is regenerative agriculture, which has instead a holistic approach, that considers the welfare of all the parties involved in the system, from the farmer to the bee buzzing around and the microbes that create humus in the soil.

You may be acquainted with the most common regenerative agriculture strategies for soil and biodiversity conservation, but there are 3 techniques which are rather uncommon, but not for this, less efficient.

Keyline design

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The keyline design was originally adopted by the mining geologist and engineer P.A.Yeomans in the 1950’s, to prevent soil erosion and to fight off desertification in Australia.

In agriculture, the keyline design is used mostly (but not limited to) water management, in order to slow, sink, spread and store rainwater. The central idea of the design is

to capture water at the highest possible elevation and distribute it outward toward the drier ridges using gravity, slowing the natural concentration of water in valleys

The flow of water is regulated by precise plough lines, which control the movement of the water across the field and its even spreading over the land. By using this technique, we have at the same time a control over the moisture content in the soil (to fight off droughts) and a flood prevention, since the water flow is “guided” by the plow lines. When a keyline geometry is associated to a cultivation pattern, we talk about “keyline pattern cultivation”.

The main advantages of a kyeline pattern cultivation are:

  1. increased water use efficiency and availability
  2. reduced flooding and drought risk
  3. increased nutrient infiltration in the soil
  4. improved soil structure and soil drainage

This techinque comes, nontheless, with some disadvantages such as high costs of production and steep land for a safe tractor use.

Natural Sequence Farming

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Australia seems to be a fertile land for regenerative farming techniques, since Natural Sequence Farming (NSF) was originally designed by the Australian farmer Peter Andrews in the 1970's.

NSF is a water management technique which aims at regenerate and restore riparian zones, which have been degraded by deforestation and intensive agriculture activities. The approach of NSF considers the whole landscape, from the top of the hills to the lowest points of the floodplains, allowing and supporting the natural flow of water and nutrients across the land.

No-till farming

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This time, we are considering a farming technique which aims at reducing soil erosion and loss of soil organic carbon. In no-till farming, the land is not ploughed like it usually happens before sowing, but it is instead left undisturbed.

Although plouhing makes the soil softer for the plants’ roots, it also causes a higher loss of soil humus via a process called mineralization, by exposing soil organic carbon to the air and, because of that, triggering its oxidation. Deep ploughing is also responsible for an increased soil erosion, especially if carried out on sloping lands, with consequent loss of topsoil (the soil layer which mostly contributes to plants’ growth) and reduction of soil fertility.

There are three types of no-till farming:

  1. Sod seeding: in this case the crops are sown with a seeding machinery into a sod
  2. Direct seeding: this technique simply leaves the seeds directly on the soil surface, without even creating a sod

Besides increasing soil organic matter and, consequently, carbon storage, no-till improves water retention and soil biodiversity as well.

However, a drawback of no tillage is a higher need for weeding and thus, use of herbicides if it is not done mechanically.

No-till does not always perform better than conventional tillage, as its efficiency is strongly related to the climatic conditions. The best results of no tillage are under rainfed conditions in dry climates, where the advantages of reducing soil erosion and improving water retention can be exploited at their maximum.

Take-home message

Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

Citing Bob Dyland’s “The Times They Are a-Changin”, the new era we live in, the era of the climate crisis, poses new challenges to us, and these challenges cannot be addressed with the same mentality that contributed to take us up to this point.

New farming systems need to be first integrated alongside the existing ones and then replace them. Regenerative farming can be part of the solution, and its science-backed results are a proof of it. We just need the open-mindedness of letting go the old way for the new one.

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