Current as of 2020-11-20 21:04:12 +0000
Unlike what is still common in industrial agriculture we try to use different methods that are optimized for a different goal. We are not trying to make money out of animals or plants our primary goal.
Instead, we seek to improve soil fertility first. Second, the soil will feed plants. Third, plants will feed animals and humans. And then, fourth, we can turn a profit by selling a high quality product to customers who value what we produce. With this approach making money is an outcome instead of a goal.
This way of doing agriculture has gotten many different names in recent years. We like the term regenerative agriculture as it reminds us that we should help nature so that nature helps us.
Help nature help itself
In nature, when left alone, there is no need to import anything from outside a system. Nobody trucks in fertilizer into an established forest. Nobody feeds fish in the ocean. Neither does anybody feed wildlife. Nature has a way to create stable systems. It’s us humans whom we alter how things work and more often than not we forget a few key ingredients to the mix and our creation is less stable than nature’s.
Still we can help nature a bit in the beginning of a repair job. Here is an incomplete list of things we are doing at Caimito Farm:
Retain as much water as possible
Erosion by wind and water flow creates topography. Humans create topography using heavy equipment like bulldozer and excavators. The result can either wash away topsoil and leave a dry and barren landscape or topsoil can be accumulated and water will be retained within the fertile humus layer.
We use heavy equipment to modify water flow on our land in order to avoid erosion and to more evenly distribute rainfall. We are in a mediterrean climate, which means it rains quite a lot during winter and seldom during summer. There is some rain but it occurs when a thunderstorm forms, which it turn depends on humidity. We need to harvest and store all the rainwater and retain it through summer.
Nature has another way to retain water. During night a lot of condensation happens on plant leafs and structures. In the morning when the sun starts heating everything rapidly one can observe the evaporation of that portion of water that could not be retained in the soil. Therefore we need to employ any and all means to retain water and protect it from evaporation.
To provide more surfaces for condensation at night we need more plant leafs and thus more plants. But plants need water to grow, which means we need to irrigate a bit in the beginning to help young plants get established.
Once we have significantly more plants in our soil, we also have more biomass in the soil (the roots and leaf litter) and thus an accelerated humus growth. So we get more surfaces for condentation and more humus to retain water. Plus more leafs mean also more shade and thus less evaporation. If done well, we establish a system that is able to maintain itself.
Food forests are a different kind of food production system. A well designed food forest mimicks a natural young forest and is kept in the young state by continuously harvesting for human or animal consumption.
Our farm is located in an area of Spain where centuries ago humans established an agrosylvopastoral system called Dehesa. A Dehesa is not that much different from a food forest but it is less dense and therefore more receptible to abuse.
The basic idea of a Dehesa is that we have lots of oak trees that produce acorns during fall and winter for pigs and at the same time pasture is grown between the trees so that cows, sheeps and goats can graze it. In the past people would rotate the animals frequently and thus allow herbaceous layer of the forest to regrow. In recent times many farmers are not using any kind of rotational grazing on their land, which prevents regrowth and provokes loss of plant matter and humus which in turn accelerates the process of desertification.
On our land we use the planned grazing method as described by Allan Savory in his works on Holistic Management. This technique ensures that we are creating humus by growing plant matter (leaf and root) and through larger root systems our pasture grass has better access to soil moisture, which in turn provides more feed for the animals which in turn allows for a faster grazing rotation which in turn stimulates further plant growth.
In order to further help the Dehesa on our land we refill large gaps between the oak trees with designed food forests. Due to the continuous regeneration of humus these additional food forests retain rainwater and the pasture areas and oak trees around the food forest can benefit from an increased offering of nutrients and moisture. It can be said that our additional food forests take our Dehesa back in time to when the Dehesa were more dense and when there was less erosion and evaporation.
Use animal instincts as much as possible
Except for earthworks we avoid the use of heavy machinery on the land. Instead, we use animal instincts to accomplish what we want.
In a planned grazing system cows eat and trample grass more efficiently than when allowed to roam large areas. As Allan Savory found out in Africa herds of grazing animals stay closely together in fear of predators and the presence of predators in the vicinity makes them move away from an area. Grasses benefit from this behavior and thus it makes sense to mimick it. We mimick the presence of predators by using electric fencing and daily moves or even more frequently.
That way the cow droppings and urine are spread more evently on the land and in higher concentration. Hoof action also helps to loosen the soil and allow seeds to germinate more easily. What the cows don’t eat, they trample when the herd is held closely together. That helps to control weeds and puts biomass into the soil. With improved conditions more plants grow and soil fertility is improved.
Our pigs do not get nose rings that impede their digging habit. The nose ring is a common practice in Spain where pigs and cows share the same space. We value animal wellbeing and instead of inflicting pain on young piglets we think we can easily use a different method to protect our pasture from the digging habit.
Digging creates channels for rainwater where it is held and can seep away into the soil. Pigs dig when the soil is soft and they can find food in it. That condition occurs during fall and winter when rainfall is high. To us it makes sense to let them dig as it improves the soil.
We use rotation through a number of paddocks to avoid the negative effects of digging for too long in the same spot. Wild boar also visit our land frequently and they do dig a bit and then move on. We simply move the pigs when an area needs rest.
Chicken are perfect for pest and disease control. They simply eat all bugs and maggots before those can do harm to other animals. We let a flock of chicken sanitize a pasture area once other animals have moved on to the next area.
Chicken also scratch the soil constantly. That keeps the soil surface loose. They also go through manure and thus
Augment biomass dramatically
Humus is the organic matter contained in soil. It is created by the decomposition of plant and animal substances. Humus consists of about 60% carbon, 6% nitrogen, and smaller amounts of phosphorus and sulfur. Further decomposition makes its components change into forms usable by plants.
Today cultivated soils with just two percent humus are considered high-quality farmland. According to literature before industrial agriculture the humus content was more in the 30 percent range. The loss is due to harvesting and non-regenerative practices.
As humus is, simply speaking, dead plants, we need to introduce a lot of plants to our land so that later on they can become humus.
We can’t accept the current status of oak trees plus grasses. We need a huge diversity of pioneering species to quickly create soon-to-be-dead plants.
Maintain and augment biodiversity
Nature comes up with a lot of solutions to any given problem. Evolution creates many different animal and plant species. Each of them has a specific niche and role to play. As nature likes diversity an issue with one species, such as a species disappearing, will not lead to system failure. There are other species that can take over the job of the disappeared species.
Diversity is also the tool to help against diseases. The more diverse the mix is, the more resilient its members become.
It is therefore important that we have more than oak trees and couple of grass species on our land. Food forests are stable ecosystems as they hold the necessary depth of species. We are working on increasing the amount of plant species that live on our land by planting a lot.
Sequester carbon out of CO2
Plants consume CO2 from the atmosphere and use water plus the sunlight to drive photosynthesis. The outcome is carbohydates and oxygen. Carbohydates (sugar) is then used to grow the plant.
Small roots of living plants die and decay and thus carbon is deposited in the soil. As plants grow they offer carbon (in the form of sugar) to mycorrhiza which funnel additional nutrients to the plant.
The net effect is that by growing a lot more plants than live currently on our land we sequester quite a bit of carbon out of the CO2 in the air and thus contribute a bit to removing excess CO2 from our atmosphere.
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