Farmers and people

Regenerative Agriculture, explained

We’re delving deep into the mysteries of regenerative agriculture with long-time partner and new Grounded team member Daniel Fourie. We learn how a little soil knowledge goes a long way to empowering farmers, and that stretchy definitions apply when it comes to understanding what regen. agri. actually is. Daniel tells us his approach to collaboration, and what thrills him most about transforming farming systems (spoiler: nothing is wasted).

By Thekla Teunis edited by Hailey Gaunt

7 December 2020

Blog artwork

Daniel Fourie, regenerative agriculture enthusiast

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you become a regenerative agriculture expert?

I’m definitely not a regen ag expert. ‘Expert’ to me is someone who wrote a PhD once upon a time and hasn’t figured out something new for a very long time. I’m curious about regenerative agriculture and I try and learn as much as I can as I go along.

I did a BSc at Tuks University, biochemistry and microbiology together. From there I went up to Limpopo, where I got my first exposure to farming. I worked as an intern for a company called ZZ2, who are large tomato farmers up in Limpopo. They’ve got a thing they do called ‘natuur boerdery’, which just means natural farming methods. They focus on the biological farming aspects of things. Then I moved through to Joburg and spent three years working in industrial waste management.

Essentially, I looked at recycling on organic waste streams, trying to recycle them into a usable product. I got to see a lot of different industries, and what is wrong with them. It’s an interesting industry to work in, but not a pleasant one. I got tired of the stress, so I moved to Mpumalanga with my wife, where we helped my uncle, a dairy farmer, set up a Greek yoghurt product. We did everything from helping on the farm to working in the processing, to marketing and delivering. Eventually, we were taking two tons of yogurt to Joburg a week.

After that I moved with my family to the Baviaanskloof for the job with [Grounded’s partner] Devco for the last two and a half years, doing organic farming and production management. I love farming and I love the way farmers operate. It gives a person some perspective to have dealt with multiple scales—from the small-scale enterprising and bringing a single product to market, to ZZ2, which is a huge commercial farm with thousands and thousands of hectares.

What first made you curious about regenerative agriculture? Where do your interests lie?

I think regenerative agriculture is a really broad term. For me, what I saw was that farmers started losing resiliency. They are more and more dependent on inputs. What I learned at ZZ2 was that there they started to take control of their own destiny by doing composting.

Having worked in waste management, I view waste differently to how most people see it. I don’t see it as a nuisance, as a problem to get rid of. I see it rather as an opportunity. So, that’s what I focus on with regenerative farming: How do you take a waste stream—how do you take something that is a nuisance—and turn it around to use it as a resource to increase your resiliency?

Because of my studies, I’m very focused on microbiology. I’ve seen that people really overdo things. We overapply materials to the soils, and don’t allow nature to do what it’s really good at doing, which is to be able to naturally produce plants and animals. I try to find a natural balance by working with the soil microbiology. There are a lot of resources locked up in our ground, and we just don’t give it the chance to show itself and be productive. We’re just constantly trying to put things on to force nature in a direction, rather than taking a step back and looking at the direction it wants to move into, and giving it the opportunity to show us what it can do. So that’s what I try and do: find a new kind of balance in farming. To find that balance between high-input and high-yields and natural systems and acceptable yields.

I try to find a natural balance by working with the soil microbiology. There are a lot of resources locked up in our ground, and we just don’t give it the chance to show itself and be productive.

Organic doesn’t mean the absence of inputs. Daniel uses many natural methods to enrich soil and support growth
Photo by Gareth Hubbard

Give us a very simple explanation of regenerative agriculture. How does it differ from organic farming, for instance?

If you look at the word ‘regenerative’, it means “to make new”. Regenerative agriculture looks to try and make something new again. A lot of people doing regenerative agriculture are trying to restore the soil to a new state, to a virgin state. Other groups doing regenerative agriculture look to develop new agriculture models, where they’re going from a monocrop system to multicrop systems that complement each other. Some are trying to focus on the markets—finding a new market, an innovative market.

It’s really difficult to define. To me, it just means to make a new type of agriculture. Even advances in chemical fertilizers, people moving over to more advanced fertilizers and insecticides—even GMOs—can be a form of regenerative agriculture. As long as it’s supposed to be better than the way they’ve been doing it previously. Even in large-scale, chemical-based farming, a lot of those people are very focused on sustainability and how they can farm in a more intelligent way to ensure their long-term sustainability. Large farmers aren’t stupid. They’re also looking to be sustainable. They’ve got farming enterprises and companies that need to be running for the next hundred to two hundred years. Everyone is looking for a new way of doing agriculture and a lot of people are realising they need to renew the soils and apply new knowledge to agriculture to try and make it more sustainable in the long-run.

Large farmers aren’t stupid. They’re also looking to be sustainable. They’ve got farming enterprises and companies that need to be running for the next hundred to two hundred years.

What excites you most about regenerative agriculture? What aspect of it are you most passionate about?

My focus in regenerative farming is to recover waste, and the main way to do that is through composting. I’m very passionate about composting. I like to see it as a kind of alchemy—you take something and you transmute it from a lower state into a higher state. You look at the soil microbiology and you look at changing the chemistry of the soil using biology—you look at the life in the soil. So that’s what I’m particularly passionate about: how we can use the tiniest organisms to completely change the way our soils behave. There’s so little knowledge and research done on it so far. It’s a very new field, and it’s got a huge potential to grow.

I’m very passionate about composting. I like to see it as a kind of alchemy—you take something and you transmute it from a lower state into a higher state.

Tell us about your work with the farmers in the Baviaanskloof. How did you persuade people who have been farming a certain way for generations to try something new?

I introduced them to soil microbiology and the idea of looking at the soil at that level. That knowledge is never really taught to farmers. They’re taught livestock production. They’re taught how to look after a sick animal. They’re taught how to plow and to plant. So a large part of what I did in the Baviaanskloof was just education. I must say they were very open to learning more about the soil life and the chemistry and all those types of things. I showed them how to use fertilizers in the organic system that are just slightly different to the fertilizers they’re used to. It was just a matter of teaching them what that difference is, how it’s essentially the same thing. You just need biology to activate a regenerative fertilizer, where a chemical fertilizer is immediately available.

What is difficult, and what I’m still working on doing with the farmers, is teaching them different ideas around grazing management. They’re quite set in their ways when it comes to this. It’s not bad, per se, but I try to show them that there are different approaches. Unfortunately, farmers often fall into a lowest-energy position: because it’s always so difficult to make ends meet, they go for the cheapest way of managing their livestock. They keep cutting and cutting costs as things get more and more expensive, so if you now suggest they go to a more labour-intensive system, then they can’t envision how it can be better. That is quite tricky.

Intercropping Regenerative Agriculture

Intercropping in action: a field of rosemary, protected from weeds by an auxiliary cover crop
Credit: Daniel Fourie

They are starting to see the benefit of grazing systems and so on. With farmers you need to show them a working example they can relate to in their context. A lot of what I did is just purely learning from the farmers what they do–what their challenges are. They taught me a lot with the grazing. It’s still a work in progress. It’s difficult to change generations of knowledge; like you say, to change it in such a short period of time.

What are some of the practices that they applied—maybe one or two examples of the most dramatic shifts they made in terms of the style of agriculture?

In the Baviaanskloof, it’s difficult because the original type of agriculture there is livestock grazing. When they started with the rosemary project, they were really struggling with the organic system, to try and find that balance to get the soil and plants productive at the same time. One of the main things they were doing was fighting the weeds. They were very stuck in terms of what they could put out, so they were spending a lot of time trying to have these perfectly clean, weed-free fields. With their help, I developed a whole cover crop system. We planted cover crops between the rosemary and I showed them how to use their livestock to manage it, gaining double income from the same piece of land. They had sort of sacrificed the land to the rosemary, not realising they could use the livestock at the same time. I think that was something that worked well. The rosemary and cover cropping at the same time, having a good mix of cover crops to build soil life and cycle nutrients. If anything was successful, that was probably most successful of what we tried over there.

Tell us your approach to working in a landscape? How do you work with farmers, and what sort of time-frames do you operate with?

By sharing knowledge with farmers and empowering them with that knowledge, they can learn the tools that are available. In the Baviaanskloof, for instance, they spent a lot of money and effort on a regenerative agriculture programme, and in the last two years they definitely started to see its benefit. They’re all very excited about the multi-species cover crops. I think that’s the main thing for me: getting the farmers excited about farming again, getting them interested and curious. It wasn’t just that I had to come and teach them the whole time, or keep forcing the lessons on them. They’ve started looking at things differently, exploring things differently themselves.

Oom Pieter, for instance, discovered the soil microbiology and he just loved it. Every time we go out on the mountain to show people the spekboom, he’s so excited to go scratch the mulch out underneath the spekboom to show them the fungi growing, and explain how the microbiology is busy forming topsoil. He used to be the biggest proponent of cultivating and plowing and so on. And slowly but surely he gained the insight that maybe that’s not always the best option. He started appreciating soil microbiology and appreciating its place. As he gains more knowledge he passes it on to other people who pass by his farm.

All of the farmers in the Baviaanskloof to an extent have found something to be excited about, something about this new knowledge and new techniques that truly excites them. Willie is very excited about the compost tea system. For him, it’s a really, really low-cost way to improve his soil. This way he doesn’t have to spend tons of money on fertilizers; it’s quite a simple thing to do, to inoculate the soil with this microbiology. To him, the idea that you could go input-less—you don’t have to put any fertilizer down to be able to grow your crops—is a very exciting prospect. So each one of the farmers has found a little bit of passion again for farming, and for learning. And that for me is the most important thing, to stimulate their curiosity so they can start to regenerate—to renew their knowledge of farming.

That’s so interesting. And it’s so much more effective to get the farmers on the ground to find their own angle on regenerative farming. As you say, there’s no single formula for it.

I definitely don’t have all the answers. We’re learning together. Instead of coming in, saying we’re the experts—this is what you must do, that’s what you must not do—I believe that only once they’ve accepted it for themselves, and embraced the knowledge for themselves, can you really look to change anything. I try to be curious with the farmers rather than telling them what to do, guiding them to the knowledge so they can find it themselves.

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