As we prepare to give thanks and eat well with family and friends, we may stop and think about the food we are eating, specifically, where it comes from and how it nourishes our bodies.
If you’ve grown your own food or bought it from a local farmer, chances are you know a lot more about your food than if it came from far away. Growing your own garden or buying from local producers reduces the impact on the earth of long distance transport, as well as reducing packaging and other impacts that stress the earth. Pesticide-free local farming helps reduce the loss of bird and bee species and also produces better food for our bodies.
As awareness grows regarding the dangers to the earth from climate change and the health problems that result from eating pesticide-treated food, many local gardeners and farmers are thinking back to the agricultural techniques used by our ancestors who grew nutritious food and kept healthy soils and plenty of water. The natives here have grown the three sisters: corn, beans and squash together so that each plant provides benefits to the others and creates long-term soil fertility and healthy crops. Known as regenerative agriculture, such practices add to the health of the planet and humans.
“By using regenerative practices, we’re improving the soil as we farm, as opposed to practices that have led to soil degradation and biodiversity loss,” explains Chris Pieper, who runs Flourish Farms near Arroyo Seco with his wife, Elana Lombard. “These practices aim to make farms centers for biodiversity and to increase the water holding capacity and biodiversity of the soil. It’s a totally different approach than extracting resources from the earth; instead, we are actually acting as stewards of the earth.
Pieper explains that regenerative approaches focus on the biology of the soil itself rather than adding chemicals. Though he and Lombard have been farming organically for more than 20 years, it’s only in recent years that they’ve begun implementing regenerative practices.
Julian Laroza of San Cristobal believes that remedial approaches to agriculture will be critical to long-term human survival. “We are in a phase of mass extinction, and if we continue to do things the way we have done them through conventional agriculture, monoculture and the use of chemicals, we will not survive,” he says.
He believes that, without humans, the earth would regenerate itself, but as long as humans are here, we can work with nature to encourage natural ecology and all of the planet’s biodiversity.
There is general agreement on five core principles of regenerative agriculture:
Principle 1: Soil armouring, which means keeping organic material such as leaves and branches above the soil by helping the soil retain water, reducing soil temperatures and protecting against erosion.
Principle 2: Diversity, which is increasing the types of plants on the farm to mimic nature. Each plant can add different benefits to the soil. Laroza had a garden last year that contained 20 plant species that he added, along with more than 20 volunteer wild plants.
Principle 3: Continue to have plants and roots in the ground. Growing crops during the warm season and a cover crop during the cold months ensures that the soil is continuously receiving nutrients from the plants. Plants also capture carbon from the atmosphere.
Principle 4: Integrate livestock. “Livestock works like a walking composter,” says an article on the Eco Farming Daily website. At Flourish Farms, they incorporated goats, pigs, chickens, ducks and geese to reap the benefits of manure. Livestock may also be brought in temporarily to eat the latest crop and leave the manure.
“There’s a lot of talk in the media that meat is killing the planet,” says Pieper. “But soil scientists are now arguing that having animals is critical to soil health. Holistic grazing historically mimics the work done by large grazing animals, with animals grazing intensely but for short periods of time.
Principle 5: Minimize ground disturbance. This is the idea of not tilling the soil but rather adding nutrients through planting, mulching and manure. No synthetic chemicals are ever used which can disturb the health of the soil.
Better plants, better food
Farmers using regenerative techniques have noticed that their crops taste better. “The tomatoes we grew last year were the best we’ve ever grown, and we had the best garlic, too,” says Pieper. In addition to food tasting better, regenerative agriculture is actually less strenuous, as there is no tillage and leaves and other organic matter remain on the land.
Pieper explains the theory that the greater the biological diversity, the more nutrients are available to plants and the higher the nutrient density of the food. While there hasn’t been much research to support the theory, a new study published earlier this year by the University of Washington found that “Farms that used regenerative agriculture practices such as no-till farming, hedging and different crop rotations produced crops with higher levels of certain vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (chemicals in produce that can reduce the risk of disease) than farms using conventional practices.
The regenerative cultures had 34% more vitamin K, 15% more vitamin E, 14% more vitamin B1, and 17% more vitamin B2. Higher levels of calcium, phosphorus and copper (needed for energy, connective tissue and blood vessels, as well as maintaining the nervous and immune systems and keeping bones healthy) were also found.
What can people do now and this spring
While it’s probably too late to plant a cover crop this year, farmers and gardeners who want to start applying these principles can cover the soil with leaves or wood chips and cover that layer with aged manure. “Feeding the soil is the first step,” says Laroza. He also recommends planting garlic and trees now.
Pieper said now is a good time to start composting, making sure to add enough water that is said to be wet. The cold months also offer time to research regenerative practices and watch YouTube videos explaining some of the techniques.
“Once the soil has thawed with a soil temperature around 50 degrees, plant a cover crop mix so it can start pumping soil nutrients into the soil. Each seed contains billions of bacteria in and on it, which adds diversity to the soil,” says Pieper. There are parallels between soil health and gut health, with past humans having 20,000 to 40,000 species of bacteria and yeast in their systems, and modern humans in developed countries have far fewer of them, he explains.
The “gardens of victory” are needed now
Many factors are fueling growing awareness of more sustainable ways of farming, including concern about climate change and improved human health.
During the pandemic of the last few years, increasing numbers of people have turned to home gardens as a way to reduce stress, learn their supply chain dependency, and become more self-reliant.
“It’s important for people to recognize that, during WWII, nearly half of the vegetables consumed in this country were grown in victory gardens. We need to get back to that,” Pieper says. “Having more farms is better than having large farms. Conventional agriculture has had a negative impact on the climate, but with regenerative practices we can help look after the health of the earth, capture more carbon dioxide, increase insect diversity and help the water cycle hold more moisture. If we can transition to these practices, we can reverse the current climate crisis and focus on healing the ecosystems around us.”