The 5 principles of regenerative farming are;
1. Keep the soil surface covered as much as possible
2. Limit the amount of physical and chemical disturbance of the soil as much as possible
3. A wide variety of plants is encouraged to increase soil biodiversity
4. Keep living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible
5. Integrate grazing livestock into the system
Regenerative farming is designed to work with nature rather than against it. It starts with the soil and the understanding that a teaspoon of healthy soil will contain more living things in it than there are people on the earth. These will vary from things that we can see, like worms and beetles, to the microscopic life such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa. So we need to encourage this biodiversity in our soils by allowing them to live with the least disruption possible.
A healthy soil gives a healthy plant which makes healthy food to make healthy people.
This begins with the use of a 'No-Till' drill which has a disc to cut a slot in the soil and place the seed at the bottom of the slot and then close the slot with a rubber press wheel. This means that the majority of the field is undisturbed and allows worms and roots to cultivate the soil for us.
The biology in the soil also helps the roots of the plants to forage for nutrients. With the right fungi (mycorrhizal) in the soil, a plant can increase its foraging ability by up to 800%.
Healthy plants are more efficient at using sunlight for photosynthesis to transport carbon into the soil as food for the plant and soil life.
When the crops are growing we do not use insecticides and rely on beneficial insects to control pests. These beneficial insects, beetles ladybirds etc, are being encouraged by having pollen and nectar species environmental strips around the fields which gives them a habitat to live in.
We plant cover crops on fields that are then drilled with spring crops. Cover crops consist of species such as Phacelia, Berseem Clover, Sunflowers, Buckwheat, Camelina, Crimson Clover, Beans, Lupins and Vetch. These plants provide roots in the soil to keep it living as well as foraging for nutrients and providing an environment for invertebrates and small mammals to live in.
We also plant companion crops which are crops that are sown with crops to be harvested but are not actually harvested themselves. For instance, Oilseed Rape is sown with Buckwheat, Berseem Clover, Crimson Clover and Vetch. These species act as a deterrent for pests such as Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle and the legumes may also fix some nitrogen from the atmosphere. These companion crops die back through the winter and are removed in the spring to allow Oilseed Rape to grow to its full potential before harvesting.
We have tried to integrate livestock by having sheep graze some of the cover crops but at the moment we are concerned about the very wet winters we are having and the potential damage to the soil. As our soils improve we will look at this again.
The diversity of our crop rotation has been extended using cover crops and also integrating some ancient grains into our wheat varieties. Spelt is grown at the moment and Einkorn will be tried soon as well. These are specialty grains which are milled locally to produce high quality flour.
Wild Bird species spotted through 2021
The environmental benefits are manyfold.
Disturbing the soil as little as possible has meant an increase in the number of worms. They are a great benefit to the quality of the soil because they recycle all the decaying plant material to produce nutrients as well as helping rainfall infiltrate into the soil through their burrows instead of puddling on the surface.
Insects are also encouraged by regenerative farming. There is a balance between pest species and beneficial species and we have seen an increase in things like Rove Beetles, Carabid Beetles, Harvestman Spiders, Parasitic Wasps, Springtails and other spiders. These are helping to control pests like slugs, Cabbage Stem Flea Beetle and various aphids.
Bees are also encouraged. We have a number of hives around the farm where the bees produce honey from the flowering crops as well as the flower rich field margins. Bees are essential for pollinating the flowering crops.
We are seeing many more farmland birds in the hedgerows and across the fields. Skylarks are becoming much more common and their song is very evident through the spring and summer.
Other benefits we are seeing is less fertiliser making its way into the groundwater because of the cover crops and having growing roots in the soil capturing these nutrients for as long as possible.
Another very important benefit is around the release of carbon dioxide and the sequestration of carbon into the soil. These are both very important in mitigating Climate Change. Intensive cultivation, such as ploughing, can release as much as 3 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere for each hectare. Without cultivation we use 30% less diesel. Growing cover crops means having green leaves in the fields for longer which, by photosynthesis, is capturing sunlight to produce sugars and ultimately sequester carbon into the soil.