Don’t ask me to define regenerative agriculture. Not because it can’t be defined, but because I feel like it is different things to different people. A useful definition is given by GroundsWell, the UK based field days/ movement, were they give five principles of regenerative agriculture: don’t disturb the soil, keep the soil surface covered, keep living roots in the soil, grow a diverse range of crops, and bring grazing animals back to the land.
As for the photo, it’s John Kempf, I believe. John is not the only person of note in the regenerative agriculture space, and John is not only about regenerative agriculture, but he definitely is a driving force in the space. Plus I just like his style. In fact, I like his style so much, I’ve taken to reviewing his podcasts one-by-one with the specific goal of working of the problem of increasing regenerative practices within Scandinavian sugar beet production. To find these reviews, look right.
Ep 59: Updating Soil Analysis to Consider Microbial Influence with Rick Haney: “If we want to develop truly regenerative agriculture ecosystems, there can be no room for idealism, and there can be no room for dogma. We have to be willing to take a very pragmatic and a very practical approach, and always ask the question ‘what truly produces the best outcomes for soil health – long term and short term – and what truly produces the best crop quality and the best crop yield?’ “.
REGEN AG AND SUGAR BEETS
When it comes to sugar beets and regenerative agriculture, we start to come up against some opposing issues. Regenerative agriculture is a lot about building soil structure and soil microbial activity, and perennial cropping or minimal tillage are seen as good practices for this. Sugar beets are neither perennial nor are they generally cultivated with minimal tillage. But I still believe that there are number of practices that sugar beet farmers could adopt that would still allow them to regenerate rapidly.
Strip tillage has been applied to sugar beets in the US, inter-cropping is being investigated albeit with mixed success from the point of view from sugar beet yield, e.g.:
- 50 to 75% less beet yield when cropped with Moldavian balm, Proso millet, and soybean in Iran,
- what appears to be less yield when intersown (sown into the sugar beets in June/ July) with pea, rye, camelina, and brown mustard in Minnesota.
- potentially slightly higher net income when grown with chickpea and irrigated in Egypt (not sure about yield of sugar beet).
John Kempf is pretty confident that he can use his approach to keeping sugar beets free from aphids and flea bettles. I’m not actually sure this fits into the RegenAg approach, but John seems to.
There are also a number of traits of sugar beets that lend them kindly to regen ag:
- They are green at the time of the season with the greatest solar energy (regen ag podcast ep64)
One of the first things that struck me when I moved to Sweden was the lack of fences on the agricultural land. Some of this is cultural (people seem to be a little less ‘get off my land’ in Sweden), but a lot of it is to do with the lack of mixed cropping/ livestock systems. I guess pure cropping is just too profitable/ well subsidised/ easy.
There is a lot of chat in the Regen Ag community about how animals can supercharge the regeneration process. The “SoilSense” podcast has a number of episodes (such as season 4 ep 4, with a comment that animals speed up the process 10x). The talk I hear in the bubble I’m in is often about croppers agisting stock, and it’s usually seen as mutually benefit, if not a little poorly understood/ tested, arrangement.
Another piece of the puzzle for me and thing I remember well from my livestock days is a guy from up near the NSW/ Vic border talking about running a profitable 6,000 head production company with 0 ha under ownership – it was all leased. That is to say, there are many ways to organise an agricultural business.
So, with all this combined, I wonder if a mobile/ agistment arrangement that is based on grazing crops and cover crops could work? The main issues:
- Containment: virtual fencing like Vence (another thing I’ve picked up off a Tim Hammerich podcast)?
- Dogs: Maremmas?
- Water: portable tanks?
- Highly variable feed and the issues this can cause a ruminant: lots of phasing in and out? Breed selection?
- Highly variable feed and the issue of nutrient budgeting: lots of testing? Sticking with just one or two cover crops?
- Changing mind set: don’t think that’ll be too hard if it pays.
- Sugar beets: I don’t think you could ever put stock on a sugar beet crop, but they could eat the residue.