SECA held a knowledge sharing session on regenerative farming on 4 December. Five speakers brought different but complementary perspectives to the discussion. This blog by Thalia Griffiths outlines some of the points raised.

With the season of festive feasting fast approaching, SECA brought together five experts on regenerative agriculture on 4 December to discuss how to make farming and food production more sustainable. You can watch a recording of the session here.

The speakers were Ed Kyrke-Smith, best known as Rebel Farmer, Kate Green from Petworth Community Garden, Andrew Knowles from Trenchmore Farm, Tom Daniell from Old Tree Soil, and environmentalist Nicola Peel speaking with an international focus and about her work teaching agroforestry for Rainforest Saver.

Kent market gardener Ed Kyrke-Smith described how he had “a bit of an epiphany in the supermarkets” after the birth of his son, and went on to discover permaculture.  “I hadn’t started a seed until the age of 30, I think I’d grown a tomato in my London garden before I left, and now I grow year-round food for me and my community”. He previously worked as a tree surgeon, but became concerned about the green waste created by his job and the difficulty of disposing of it in London. Moving to Kent enabled him to compost the waste on his land and start developing a market garden.

He started out mixing animal muck with wood chippings, “just to see what would happen”. “I learned along the way that this super rich compost was the base block for feeding this soil life. I really didn’t know anything about soil biomes or anything, I just knew that I was trying to create this medium that I could grow food in to start with.”

Once he’d started growing food he moved on to developing a community around his garden and started selling his micro-greens, salads and heritage tomatoes across Kent. Volunteers spend time at the garden learning to grow food at a community level, and Ed is keen to work more on getting people to understand the rhythms of nature. His next plan is to introduce monthly events at the garden based around the cycles of the moon.

Petworth Community Garden

Kate Green outlined Petworth Community Garden’s aim to share fresh produce and teach cultivation techniques. The garden has made extraordinary progress from its unpromising start 19 years ago as a site choked with bindweed, and aims to supply free, fresh, organic food to people who would not otherwise have access to it. A polytunnel ensures year-round supply. There have also been benefits for wildlife – when the pond was first dug a frog and toad found it overnight. The garden harvests rainwater, composts green waste, and generates power from solar panels on the shed. Two-thirds of the site is wheelchair accessible and one priority is working with young people to teach cultivation skills.

“It’s an accessible organic and wildlife garden for the community. We share free fresh fruit and vegetables, we teach organic gardening and permaculture and it’s now developed into a social and therapeutic horticulture place.”

Diversity is a key principle. The people involved in the project may be children, elderly, or have mental health support needs, learning disabilities or other support issues, but equally diversity is important as a gardening principle to create habitats for wildlife that will naturally control pests. “Integration rather than segregation is one of the permaculture principles that we really work with,” Kate said.

More recently the garden has started working with the local food bank to try to bring fresh produce to more families in need. “We’ve got six or seven different projects going that have just grown up over the years,” Kate said. These include men’s sheds, cooking projects, therapeutic activities for people with mental health support needs, jam making, local markets, and community supported agriculture – where people can sign up for veg boxes.

Cows in regenerative farming

Andrew Knowles described his experience at Trenchmore Farm, which produces beef and cider while trying to balance being ethical in terms of animal welfare, as well as both environmentally and economically sustainable. The cows are a Sussex wagyu cross whose calves stay with their mothers until they are seven to eight months old. Wagyu cows have a very high genetic potential to store fat within the muscle, known as marbling, which enhances the quality of the meat.

Andrew’s farm is about 400 acres and in order to be commercially viable at this scale he deals directly with restaurants and end customers. The cows graze outside during the summer but have to be brought in from the end of October as the ground gets too wet.

“Cattle definitely get a bad rap. There are good ways of faming cattle and there are bad ways of farming cattle and there are certain ways of farming cattle that are much kinder to the environment and there are ways of farming cattle that are much less kind to the environment. We try very hard to do it in a way that is kind,” he said.

While they monitor samples for worm load, routine worming, which used to be a standard annual process, has ceased. “They used to be an absolute standard every year. Pretty well all the farmers in this area would treat with wormers. And guess what? There’s no dung beetles. There’s no birds because there’s no insects for them to eat. And so we stopped doing that, and we find that we get a lot more birdlife coming onto the farm — particularly the swallows in early summer go crazy but also a whole variety of different birds coming onto the farm. And that’s one of the simple things we’ve been able to do to change the impact of farming on nature.”

Fields are spread with manure from the cows and green compost from the local council, which has led to significant soil improvement. Andrew cited a field which when he started farming the land 12 years ago was assessed to have just under 4% organic matter. “Today it’s 10% and we’ve got it from under 4% to 10% by a variety of means, one of which is compost,” he said. He has been successful in getting the council to reduce the plastic content of its green waste.

The cows are grazed on permanent pasture fields and also herbal leys, which form part of the farm’s crop rotation and do a huge amount to fix green carbon in the soil.

“The evidence for regenerative ag from people who’ve been practising it for a reasonable number of years is that in the first few years you suffer yield loss and in the later years, once you’ve got your soil healthy and the plant soil microbiology is in harmony and is synergistic, you will often get comparable yields or slightly lower yields than you would get with the most intensive farming but you will make more money because you have not spent as much on the synthetic ingredients.

“And I would say as time goes by it is getting harder and harder to produce acceptably high yields to pay for all those synthetic ingredients. Because the climate is getting more difficult. The soil is getting more damaged.”

He showed a test he’d done with putting three inches of water into a pipe to simulate three inches of rainfall on one of his best fields and on a field he’s had in grass for just a year. The first absorbed the water in just 60 seconds, the second still had an inch and a half of water in the tube an hour later. “So if you have three inches of water on that field, it will simply take all the lovely nutrients and they’ll run off the top. So that’s basically the living proof to me that if you’re getting your organic matter up it helps in so many ways, but particularly with the weather events we’re getting now,” he said.

“The synthetic approach is just a cul-de-sac and we’re coming to the end of it. So I think actually we can feed the world with regenerative agriculture, and it’s probably the only hope we’ve actually got of doing it in a semi environmentally sensitive way.”

Compost is the answer!

Tom Daniell of Old Tree Soil runs a kombucha brewery established to fundraise for ecological restoration, as well as a growing composting network. He talked about his experience of community composting, as well as the benefits that high quality compost can bring to soil.

He recounted how studying the compost at his Brighton community garden he realised it was more complex than he’d realised. “I realised with the steaming compost that we got from this compost tumbler I brought in that actually there was something going on with the biology. It sort of started this compost revolution in in my mind.”

He is concerned about the impact of industrial agriculture in reducing biodiversity, and sees potential for community food waste compost to revive the land, adding fungi, bacteria and microorganisms. “We need to cultivate this biodiversity and the place we need to start this is on a microbial level. I think fungi are our greatest partners.”

“The soil carbon sponge, this is how I like to think about soil. Carbon is like the spring in the soil that makes it alive, that makes it into a sponge that can hold the water and can store the carbon.” He cited research showing that one gramme of carbon in the soil stores eight grammes of water: “most of the carbon in the world is stored in the soil, or should be stored in the soil, and that’s where we’re trying to put it back with proper application of compost”, he said.

He showed soil testing reports comparing the content of soil on a local farm with the content of tumbled compost produced by his project, illustrating what the compost could add to the soil to enrich it. He’s also passionate about the benefit of adding biochar to compost to build soil carbon. “Charcoal is such a great habitat for microorganisms,” he said.

Having set up a compost club in Brighton during the first covid lockdown in 2020, Tom has set up The Mycelium Network to help other clubs share experiences and expertise.

How far does your food travel?

Nicola Peel talked about her work teaching agroforestry in the Amazon, introducing a system called Inga Alley Cropping to end the cycle of slash and burn. “So far now I’m working with over 100 farmers. I have 12 indigenous communities and eight agricultural colleges, teaching them a different system so that they don’t have to cut the forest down and burn it to be able to make some fertile soil, that they can actually be working on the soil themselves.”

Alleys of nitrogen-fixing Inga trees are grown then pruned. The leaves are left on the ground and crops are planted in the mulch, while the wood is turned into biochar, which acts as a home for beneficial microbes and fungi. Crops like cacao can be grown without needing fungicides. “This is a game changer, to be able to increase yield so much without using any kinds of agrochemicals, so by teaching others how they can help feed themselves and have more for market without cutting down forests is a win-win,” she said.

Showing a slide of land cleared to plant taro, she said the crop was being exported to Europe and the US to be made into plant-based foods “So these forests are being cleared and we are buying it in and it’s being turned into plant-based food. So on one side, we think the vegan diet, the plant-based diet is the answer. But if we are creating new drivers which cause deforestation for new processed food,  is that really environmentally friendly?” she asked.

Turning to Christmas dinners, she said 10 million Christmas turkeys are eaten in the UK every year. An average 6kg turkey has the carbon footprint equivalent of 65.4kg, the same as driving 162 miles. At least 66% of Britons admit to buying too much food, with around 7 million tonnes going to waste — the equivalent of 2 million turkeys, 5 million Christmas puddings and 74 million mince pies.

“If we take into account just the Christmas pudding and the spices from Sri Lanka and the raisins from California and the fruit from Turkey, you know, we’re still looking at a seriously well travelled international dessert,” Nicola said.

She urged “local, local, local, ideally organic and loose. Less meat and ensure it’s local, more veg, local wine. Can we make soup out of the leftovers and freeze it or give it away rather than allowing anything to end up in the bin? And finally, to be grateful for every mouthful we ate and remember to give thanks to those that grew it, to the water, to the soil, to all the microbes that live in the soil and all that it took to arrive on our table.”

Some of the resources recommended by our speakers:

Books: Regenerative Soil Microscopy, by Matt Powers, Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature Friendly Future, by Philip Lymbery, Rooted: How Regenerative Farming Can Change the World, by Sarah Langford, Toxic Legacy: How the Weedkiller Glyphosate Is Destroying Our Health and the Environment, by Stephanie Senef

To find out more about Permaculture,

Josh Sparkes’ natural farming philosophy

Regeneration International has information about initiatives around the world

Ethical Consumer can help you know who is behind the brands and shops where you buy your food

And you can support local farmers directly though veg box schemes, as well as initiatives such as Hodmedods and CrowdFarming 

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