Updated: Aug 16, 2020
Why we need more small-scale regenerative farms and less large-scale organic ones
There is a lot of talk about sustainable food production these days. What is usually meant by this is a system that allows us to feed ourselves without permanently damaging the environment we live in.
Perhaps tweaking modern agriculture might be enough to produce food without destroying our planet. But I am not personally interested in this. What is needed, in my view, is to entirely rethink the way we interact with the natural world, and design practices that not only sustain, but regenerate the ecosystems we are part of.
Is Organic enough?
Organic agriculture is often thought to be the best way to produce nutrient-rich, healthy food in a sustainable way. But although many of the aspects discussed in the above are mentioned in the Organic Standards, some are not, and others cannot effectively be checked and monitored. For instance, mainstream organic growers are allowed to use several types of pesticides, as well as organic fertilisers imported from soil- and atmosphere-depleting operations. Wildlife encouragement and conservation are not monitored nor measured by organic certifiers. Monoculture, tillage and the use of oil-powered machinery are ubiquitous in large-scale organic farming. Peat use in propagating compost is not restricted, and very little effort is made to monitor the quantity of plastic employed. For these and many other reasons, mainstream organic agriculture is, to all extents and purposes, a degenerative process. Although organic growers are asked to work within natural systems and cycles at all levels, there is no guarantee that they do so. In fact, when large-scale operations are considered, it is often hard to see how they could improve ecosystems; they can, at best, limit the damage we do while trying to feed ourselves. But this is not enough.
Is it possible to produce food while increasing the diversity of wild species in our fields, enriching the soils we walk upon, storing carbon in the soil rather than emitting it in the atmosphere, connecting people directly to the food they eat? Is a Regenerative Agriculture possible?
Living Soil Garden
I believe it is possible, and that’s why my partner Flavia and I set out on our journey as small-scale vegetable growers and started Living Soil Garden. Armed with a science and horticulture background, a good dose of naivety and lots of energy, this February we began cultivating a plot of 0.5 acres in Exeter, UK. We call ourselves a Regenerative No-Dig Market Garden, because we strive not only to produce high-quality vegetables, but also to enrich the ecosystems we depend upon, starting from the most fundamental node in this intricate web: life in the soil.
We think of vegetable growing as a link in a complex and marvellously organised web of relationships. Agriculture does not have to be “against nature”, because this would mean that agriculture is against us — as we are part of nature as much as a bird, worm or a bacterium are. Our practices are aimed at building a network of living relationships above and below ground, between bacteria and fungi, plants and insects, people and food, growers and customers. We see our ecosystem as a community of which we are only some of the members. So, you may be wondering, how are the vegetables that end up in your salad boxes grown and tended? What makes our operation different from all others?
In the footsteps of nature
Managing an ecosystem is difficult for us because we are not outside what we want to manage, we are deeply embedded part of it. Our experience of trying to tame and control natural processes to our advantages seems to point towards the inevitability of slowly destroying the basis of what we are working with: topsoil disappears, the air we breath becomes polluted, the nutrient content of our vegetables is lower as it’s their flavour. All too often, we have tried to solve these self-inflicted problems by coming up with new technologies or new expedients, such as importing fertility resources from far away landscapes, or relying more heavily on engineered and fossil-fueled machinery. These are temporary or partial solutions, as they displace the issue by creating more problems in other parts of the ecosystem: air and water pollution, loss of jobs and connection to food production, loss of wildlife.
For these reasons, we are deeply convinced that the correct approach to managing agriculture in a regenerative way must come from mimicking and enhancing natural processes, rather than controlling them and upsetting them. This approach, often referred to as permaculture, is based on closely observing patterns in wild and natural systems and trying to re-establishing them on our farms.
The Soil first: No-Dig, no chemicals
At Living Soil Garden, we place the soil ecosystem above everything else we do. Unfortunately in agriculture, caring for soil health is an expression often used to describe a series of different strategies, which are sometimes in contrast with one another. Some farmers care for their soil by prioritising the improvement of its physical structure, therefore applying compost and tilling, ploughing or rotovating to help oxygen, water and plant roots penetrate into the earth. Another strategy associated with soil health consists of closely monitoring the mineral content of the soil: which nutrients are deficient and which are in excess, so as to provide plants with the perfect blend of feed and make them into nutritious crops. Although physical and chemical aspects of soils are important and should not be overlooked, if taken in isolation and not contextualised within the ecosystem as a whole they can lead to extremely degenerative effects.
For instance, tilling induces the interaction of oxygen from the atmosphere with carbon in the soil, thus increasing CO2 emissions. Moreover, by turning the soil layers over, an imbalance between fungi and bacteria is created, and this stimulates the appearance of so-called weeds and disrupts plant nutrition — which relies on the close relationship between plant roots and fungi.
Similarly, introducing minerals to feed plants and microbes can cause more harm than benefits. First of all, any mined, synthetic or chemically extracted minerals come at a huge cost, both in terms of energy needed to process them and the destruction of wild ecosystems which are deprived of these substances in order to enrich agricultural soils. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine how any natural event could cause large amounts of volcanic rock dust to be transferred from Scottish quarries to a farm in Devon. Our local soil ecosystem has not evolved to function in such a foreign chemical environment, and it would take time for it to respond (even if only positively) to any dramatic change of chemistry. Often times, many of the nutrients needed by plants are present in our clayey soils, but are not easily available because they are either distant from their roots or in a chemical form that plants cannot use. Although it is true that these minerals can be made available by tweaking the mineral composition of our soil, the key to obtaining the same result without mining, importing and applying material from far away is to learn from wild ecosystems and delegate some of this work to the soil’s living inhabitants.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of soil biology in vegetable growing. Plants transform energy from the sun into sugars (and other carbon compounds) that are released in the soil via their roots. These substances are used to attract bacteria, fungi and other microbes which in turn source and provide precious minerals and also protection from other harmful soil-dwelling organisms. This community of living creatures is the soil food web, and in wild, undisturbed environments it includes not only fungi and bacteria but also an immensely diverse population of insects, worms, mites, nematodes and many others. Without these, our soil would be just a mass of sand, clay and silt — lifeless, much less able to hold on to organic matter (carbon), water and nutrients and subject to erosion.
For us at LSG, prioritising soil health means starting from soil life: we strive to create the conditions for a diverse ecosystem with a thriving soil food web. In order to build soil rather than deplete it, we do not use any type of synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, which would harm the microbes that live in the soil and that form important relationships with plant roots. In our garden, naturally obtained mineral amendments are used only if there is evidence of a serious deficiency that cannot be easily addressed by fostering biological activity and diversity in the soil. All our fertilisation consists of feeding the soil food web, not plants directly: we sparingly apply seaweed, worm castings, crushed eggshells, bone meal and similar amendments. You could almost say that we are farming the soil food web, which is in turn used by plants to grow with very little human inputs. In order to preserve fungi, which are very sensitive to any disturbance — we avoid any digging or rotovating. This allows them to form intricate networks along which nutrients get transported from wherever they are found to plant roots, where they are traded in exchange for plant sugars. No-dig or no-till soil management also reduces the release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and improves soil structure thanks to a healthy population of worms. The roots of all our crops are left in the ground, to continue feeding life in the soil even when the above-ground vegetables have been harvested. The topsoil is constantly protected and replenished with organic matter by application of compost, which is sourced from Coastal Organics — a local recycling facility that collects and processes garden waste. We then inoculate it with biologically active compost and vermicompost that we make in the garden.
Recycled & recyclable
Another important aspect of our operation is that we avoid the extraction of any non-renewable resources — whenever possible. This means that we do not use peat in any of our compost, and that we limit the use of plastic to the very essential (polytunnel cover, insect mesh, durable propagation trays). Our packing is also minimal, recycled and recyclable.
Small-scale, community-centred growing
We are a small-scale market garden. It is paramount, in our view, to bring attention to the issue of scale. What scale is appropriate to optimise the process of regeneration? Large operations, with hundreds of acres of land at their disposal, require heavy and expensive fossil-fuelled machinery, storage facilities, and high investment. As with any other business, in order to be profitable, large farms need to sell lots of produce fast, therefore they rely on advertisement, distribution, supplying and delivering to large areas. This increases their carbon footprint, the use of material resources, it incentivises robotization and monoculture, and it ultimately brings food to your table that has been grown far away by people you do not know. The large scale requires economies of scale; this involves commodifying food, maximising profit and put less emphasis on quality.
The price of vegetables produced on a small scale is high, when compared to industrially grown ones. But is a cheap cauliflower really cheaper or is someone else invisible paying part of its cost? Food produced by large industrial or organic farms is less expensive, but part of the real cost is being paid by someone or something else: exploited ecosystems, people, and our posterity — we who will struggle to produce food in depleted soils on a hotter planet. If small-scale producers were more common, most neighbourhoods could be supplied by their small local vegetable farm, and transport wouldn’t be an issue. Machinery is not needed on small operations, and in fact it is a hindrance where bio-intensive regenerative methods are applied. Another reason to grow food on a small scale is that the connections between the grower and the customer, the food and the eater are much more natural. Customers can easily see the importance of regenerative practices, when these result in a better environment in which to work and play. The grower does not want to put profit before the health of his customers, because they are his neighbours and friends.
At Living Soil Garden, we have an open-gate policy. Customers and neighbours can come to visit us any time they wish to see what we do and how we do it. This makes the need for a certifying body almost obsolete, as in time customers get to understand and appreciate how food is grown and what aspects are important to consider when choosing what to eat and where to buy it — ultimately, a small-scale vegetable farm is certified directly by its customers.
I always say that our profession is biodegradable. If done well, our work and the services it provides to the community have the result of encouraging and enthusing people to grow their own food. Our role in society would slowly become less central, because people would be growing most of their own food. In my ideal neighbourhood, the vegetable grower should only supply the vegetables that are difficult to grow and for people who don’t have the time or space to grow them.
Regenerative food production builds resilient ecosystems and, if done on a small-scale, also resilient communities.
Mainstream organic farming is a degenerative practice, unless it is done on a small scale, using cutting edge ecosystems science instead of efficiency — and profit-driven strategies. We must go beyond organic and start regenerating. We must reflect on the role of microbiology, fertility loops and animal presence on the land. We must question our use of tillage, ubiquitous tractors of all types, the scale of our growing operations, the importance of enthusiastic, enriching, and skilful human labour.
That is why we strive to be an alternative not only to big industrial agriculture — but also to organic farms that use tractors, plastic, tillage, organic fertilisers, bio-pesticides, and obsolete cultural practices. Because the only profit we believe in is measured in ecological capital. It is obtained by regenerating soil, atmosphere, and community, and does not belong to an individual, a family, a nation, or a species — it belongs to all living ecosystems.
Learn more about Regenerative Vegetable Growing
The one-straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
Regenerative Agriculture by Richard Perkins
No-dig Organic Gardening by Charles Dowding
Life in the soil by James B. Nardi
Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard
Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis