Episode 152. Regen Ag from Manitoba to Berlin Via an Irish Sojourn

This is the World Organic News for the week ending the 21st of January 2019.

Jon Moore reporting!

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

A little housekeeping. Some of you have noticed the website is down. I’m discussions with my host about appropriate levels of performance and hope it will be back up soon. In the meantime I’m posting things to the Facebook page if you’re interested. And now to the show.

This week we look at some of the faces of regenerative agriculture.

From the Manitoba Co-operator a piece entitled: Regenerative agriculture creates a sprawling road map.

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Regenerative agriculture has got lots of time in the headlines, but the movement may look very different for an organic farmer with 3,000 acres of annual crops versus a rancher whose land is mostly pasture.

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As we can all agree, I think, every piece of land is different, every person will have different vision for their particular piece of land and if we toss in the variability of the weather, different approaches are critical.

Whether grazing, cropping, horticulturing (?) or a combination of these, flexibility and the ability to pivot are skills we need. An example will illustrate.

Last Northern Summer I observed a 100 acre organic farm in East Cork, Ireland coming to terms with a drought. The last time this occurred with the mid 1970s. There was, therefore, not much institutional memory of what to do in these circumstances. On nearby properties I saw potato paddocks of 20 acres and a single sprinkler with a spread of twenty metres in the middle of the field. It was a pointless but heroic effort.

The country itself is not equipped for drought. The image of Ireland as a green paradise is there for a reason. The amount of bare soil became an issue. This was especially so in the outdoor horticultural parts of the farm. Eventually the rain returned but the deficit was obvious.

The pastured based sections of the farm were rotated through more quickly than usual as the feed had stopped growing. The grain part of the farm fared best. The barley was well underway before the rains stopped arriving and the soil had a fair amount of moisture from a late finishing winter with an unusually heavy snowfall.

The challenges for each section of the enterprise were, therefore, different.

This brings us back to the Manitoba Co-operator piece:

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Blain Hjertaas of Redvers, Sask., and David Rourke of Minto, Man., were both well-known faces before their panel at the MFGA Regenerative Agriculture Conference in Brandon late last November.

For Hjertaas, it’s all about livestock. The longtime beef producer and holistic management instructor counts pasture as a good portion of his land base. He has become a passionate advocate for planned grazing, often called to conferences and workshops to share his experiences with high-density rotational grazing and the benefits he’s seen in his soil organic matter, sequestered carbon, forage yields and pasture performance.

But high stock density grazing, with its small paddocks and frequent herd movements, also seems like a long reach for farmers like Rourke, whose operation revolves around annual crops and who has no livestock of his own.

Instead, Rourke’s experience with regenerative agriculture slants more towards green manures, field cover and biodiversity.

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Either way, you can see the focus on the soil. These two methodologies point to the different effects of the same thought. Keeping the soil covered allows the soil to re-generate. So either through tight grazing regimes or cover crops, the effect is similar. The fossil fuel inputs may well be different but the soil health is the key. And there are good reasons for following the regenerative farming philosophy.

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Both are believers in regenerative agriculture, a movement that, among other things, promises more efficient production, resiliency against drought and flood, and the promise that the farm will not only be sustainable with the environment, but actually help regenerate degraded soil.

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And the demand from farmers for these technologies and methodologies is growing. From the CNBC website comes a piece entitled: Thousands of farmers, supporters take to streets in Germany demanding climate-friendly agriculture.

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Thousands of farmers from across Germany and their supporters protested at Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate on Saturday, calling for climate-friendly agriculture and healthy food.

Organizers say 170 tractors drove in from farms around the country to join 35,000 other protesters for the Saturday demonstration under the motto “we are fed up with the agricultural industry.” Among other things, the protesters called for more animal welfare and protection.

The protest was called to coincide with the German capital’s “Green Week” agricultural fair, and Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner’s meetings with dozens of countries about more international cooperation on agricultural issues, the dpa news agency reported.

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This is a remarkable thing. The actual people with their feet on the ground are calling for support. This means by inference less support for industrial food production. Now the EU is a special case. Given the food shortages caused by war during the twentieth century, subsidised farming is a decision for a safety net rather than a neoliberal “let a thousand flowers bloom ruthless market based approach”. (And yes I am aware I’m quoting Mao in the same sentence as the word neoliberal).

With these subsidy systems in place, it is possible to send price signals to farmers, it is just a matter of political will. If the EU and the other great subsidiser, the US of A redirected those subsidies to regenerative practices, farmers would take those practices up. Farmers aren’t stupid and they will follow the money. Hence the huge areas of maize planted in the US as a result of subsidies for that crop. Equally in industrial ag farmers won’t keep using unlimited amounts of glyphosate in the way local councils do to “combat” invasive plant species. Farmers are looking to make a living after all.

So redirecting subsidies to regenerative practices and even giving incentives to smaller farmers would have benefits beyond just food production. Employment, carbon drawdown, less reliance of fossil fuels are just a few. And remember small has its own benefits. I can’t find the link but I read some years ago that 85% or something like that percentage of soft fruit in Russia is produced in backyards. Given the size of Russia, the poor travel characteristics of raspberries and other brambles, this makes a certain amount of sense. Again from my Irish Odyssey, I was eating up to 5 kilos of blackberries a week just from the hedgerows as I walked the paddocks of South Kerry. Local food systems with a certain amount of “foraging” food available for people is a wonderful thing.

If we can find ways to have people outdoors, collecting “free” food and getting their feet on the soil, we can “sell” the regenerative message more easily.

And we need to sell the message. The time is now!

And on that note I’ll draw this episode to a conclusion.

Remember: Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

So with all the above in mind and the fact we live in the twenty first century, I’m opening up applications for a Regenerative Agriculture Mastermind group. It will be limited to twelve people, we’ll meet weekly, online to discuss our successes, challenges and decisions. The wisdom of the crowd applied to this necessary field of endeavour. You can have a look at the intro page and click through to the application at worldorganicnews.com/mastermind-application There’s also a link in the show notes.

Of course the podcasting checklists are still available over at mrjonmoore.com

A transcript of this episode is available at worldorganicnews.com

Thank you for listening and I’ll be back next week.

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