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Regenerative agriculture and soils

Regenerative Agriculture – a Grounded definition

‘Regenerative agriculture’ has slipped into the modern lexicon. In conversations about sustainability and the environment you’ll find it there right alongside ‘nature based solutions’ and ‘circular economy’. In a general sense, people are increasingly aware that it offers a means for confronting our most pressing threats – from the climate crisis and overpopulation to ecosystem collapse. Regenerative agriculture could be a solution. But what is it?

By Daniel Fourie & Edited by Hailey Gaunt

28 October 2021

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You may have heard of regenerative agriculture but is it different from ‘organic’ or ‘permaculture’? Well, yes and no.

The big umbrella of regenerative agriculture

Grounded’s vision is to create thriving farmers and ecosystems through the large-scale adoption of regenerative farming practices in Africa. We want to see ecosystem restoration and, at the same time, create an economically viable agribusiness that will support the producer and hopefully help them prosper. Our chosen tool to drive this work is regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture can be many things, but what is it to Grounded? After looking at how others define it, and examining how we’ve been putting it into practice, we concluded that regenerative agriculture is whatever you make of it. Sure, there are some ‘rules’. Regenerative agriculture should be focused on re-creating a system of farming that will not only be sustainable, but actually reverse a century worth of destruction caused by ignorant industrialisation.

There are many tools and well thought out definitions that suit specific applications. At Grounded, our definition of regenerative agriculture takes into account the diverse landscapes in which we operate, and the diverse perspectives of the skilled individuals we work with and who make up our team.

The five pillars that prop up regenerative ag

Person looking at soil underneath plants.

Healthy soil is the foundation for everything: healthy ecosystems, healthy economies, and healthy people.

Soil

There are five pillars of regenerative agriculture that together create a thriving farmer, but everything begins with the soil. Soil health is critical to the long-term success of farming and it is critical to the long-term survival of our species. It’s not a new concept. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, said that the nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. We measure ecosystem health by the health of the soil: if our farmers have healthy living soils, we can assume that they and their ecosystems will be healthy and thriving.

Infographic illustration of poly-cropping rosemary.

We see everything as an interconnected, symbiotic whole. Designing a regenerative farm means asking ourselves: how will this decision affect the soil, the crop, the farmer and the entire ecosystem?

Design

The next pillar is design. Design is a blueprint for action. Design is the creative means for making a better world. Because Grounded works in such different landscapes with diverse crops and producers, we cannot and will not adopt a single-system approach – there is no one-size-fits-all model. We need to adapt and change as we learn and grow in our landscapes, and thus constantly recreate and regenerate our ideas around farming sustainably. Without being limited by dogma or tradition, we incorporate the tools most suitable to the situation, opening ourselves up to unlimited possibilities to find the form and functionality that best suit each landscape.

Goats in a green field.

For generations goats had been important to farmers’ livelihoods in the Baviaanskloof, but they were also largely to blame for the erosion and overtaxed soil system. With the right crop combination, however – plants that goats avoided and others that they loved – we found a way to benefit from the goats as natural fertilisers, soil-tillers and pest-killers.

Rosemary with cover crops well-established between the rows.

Rosemary with cover crops well-established between the rows. Cover crops help retain moisture and prevent erosion while providing additional nourishment to depleted soils.

Adapt

Once the first two pillars are in place, we use resilience as our yardstick to see if the soil and the crop system will stand the test of time. We are aware that the world is changing quickly and we must adapt to different conditions – much like a river seeking its course to the sea. If a landscape cannot support a crop type, we don’t force it by adjusting the chemistry of the soil or killing pests that challenge us. Rather, we adapt and focus on the things that work in that environment. To us, success is not dominating our environment so that our plans prevail no matter the cost; it’s about finding the crop or selection of crops that want to grow and thrive in the environment – even if it means changing our original plans. Resilience is the ability to adapt to survive, not the ability to resist defeat.

Measure

Resilience is progressive and its success can be verified. This is where the fourth pillar comes into play. We feel strongly that a regenerative approach should be proven: we should be able to see if we are moving towards a more sustainable system or if things are not working out. Measurement requires honesty. Often we want to ignore failure, overlooking facts just to stay the course; but if we are honest with ourselves, we might see when things are faltering. To measure is the only way to learn.

Man in white stripey shirt standing in a crop inspecting lavender.

Regenerative agriculture requires a proactive approach and a commitment to evolution – we’re hoping to partner with nature, after all. Even once a crop is productive, we look at how things can be improved for the farmer and the soil and the entire ecosystem.

Manage

Once we have measured we come to the last pillar, and that is to manage. Regenerative agriculture does not end with the soil. It’s a complete system: the crop, the farmer, the business, the market, the entire value chain. This approach judges success on the health of the whole – from the insects and the crops to the consumers – constantly working to improve life for everyone and everything involved.

At Grounded we treat it this way. To us, regenerative agriculture is a business that must function optimally so that it can achieve far more than the bottom line. We strive to support a thriving farmer who farms in harmony with her environment, and to deliver an honest product that is resilient because it comes from foundations designed for lasting good. We do this to achieve soil health so that we can contribute to preserving farmers and ecosystems.

For more practical tools, look out for our upcoming series on regenerative practices, starting with a structured approach to regenerating soil.

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