A Blank Canvas

Written by Tom Chapman, Head of Regenerative at Innovation for Agriculture

How would we design agriculture now, in the 21st Century, if we were starting from scratch? What would we do differently, given what we know about regenerative agriculture and about farming with, not battling against, nature? Would we continue with the same cropping, the same machinery, the same fertiliser & spray regime and the same field layout or would things be radically different?

We should all know the five golden rules of soil health, but it never harms to reiterate them. They are:

1. Always keep the soil covered and protected from the elements

2. Keep a living root in the soil at all times

3. Avoid both chemical and physical disturbance of the soil

4. Avoid monocultures, diversity is essential

5. Integrate livestock into your system

Starting with a blank canvas, the farming system that most closely meets the above rules is a perennial crop of forage plants interspersed with trees and shrubs and grazed by a mixture of ruminants, monogastrics and poultry. However, humankind has a massive (and some would say disproportionate and unhealthy) demand for grains so we need to find a way of integrating the growing of these into our ‘new’ farming systems. Unfortunately, perennial grain crops still appear to be many years from commercial reality, so we need to find a different way to tick the soil health rules using annual cropping.

A number of farmers in Australia are growing crops drilled directly into longterm permanent pasture, giving it the obvious name of ‘pasture cropping’. As the grasses start to slow in growth and become dormant in the autumn, these pasture croppers drill their cereal crops directly into the sward. In early spring the combinable crop grows away from the grass, shading the latter and slowing its growth. After the crop is harvested in mid to late summer, sunlight can, once again, penetrate to the forage understorey and its growth accelerates.

They accept that the grain yields from the system will be lower than we currently achieve, but they also know they can, effectively, doublecrop it, moving their grazing animals onto the grass understorey once the grain crop has been harvested. The wonderful thing about the system is that it captures much more sunlight: No more bare earth, lacking in green leaves to photosynthesise and produce sugars. Consequently, they are seeing tremendous improvements in soil health. Root exudates feed the soil life, year-round; grazing livestock convert the crop residue and forage plants into plant food; humus levels rise; and the land becomes vastly more fertile.

There are a number of farmers here in the UK who are experimenting with this technique. At the moment forage rye is most popular, so not strictly a standard combinable crop, but its ability to continue to grow at low temperatures and its tall growth habit, relative to the grasses, means they are having some success (I drilled a mixture of forage rye and vetches, last autumn, directly into permanent pasture and am watching its development with great interest).

If we were to adopt this practice more widely in the UK, and to do it with mainstream wheats, barleys and oats, would we see a return to the tallergrowing varieties of yesteryear? Plants that could rise above the grasses growing at their base would capture more sunlight, as well as making harvest easier. They would also have to be deeper rooting, to out-compete the grasses below ground. The improving natural fertility offered by the healthy soil is likely to lead to stronger plant stems which, combined with the slightly lower yields, means lodging risk would be lower than we experience with tall plants in our current farming regime.

There is a downside to the above plan, from a regenerative point of view, in that the annuals being sown are still a monoculture, albeit sown into a (hopefully) diverse sward. Would our ‘designed from scratch’ farm truly be drilling monoculture crops, or would it be drilling a range of different crops – grains, pulses and legumes, oilseeds and brassicas – into the same field? This would be the ‘herbal ley’ of the cropping world. The mixed crop would have a varied leaf architecture, to maximize the amount of sunlight it intercepts. The roots would differ too, with some surface feeders and some reaching deep down into the subsoil, bringing up water, minerals and other nutrients as well as adding organic matter at depth. The diversity would host an amazing array of beneficial organisms and fungi, all working to improve the soil still further.

Designing such a farm from scratch, though, would also mean designing from scratch the way we harvest our crops. A traditional combine harvester probably wouldn’t be able to handle a range of different-sized seeds. Now I’m no mechanic – those who know me will ascertain that I’m a true ‘dog and stick’ farmer (though without the dog!) – so will leave predictions of what the new harvesting machine would look like to those with more of an engineering bent. Could such a machine do the harvesting, the cleaning and the sorting of seeds in one go, or would the mixed crop need transporting back to a specialised threshing and dressing machine at the farm?

Shrubs and trees would also feature in our ‘new model farm’. Silvoculture can already be seen on a number of farms with fruit and nut trees forming alleys wide enough to allow a sprayer or fertiliser spreader to pass through. Typically these are in straight lines, though with GPS and autosteer, do they need to be? It would be much more natural to have sweeping curves to our cropped areas, reducing wind flow and creating microclimates across the land. There could be a mixture of hedges, grazeable shrubs and trees, some for firewood and some for fruit and nut production. Certain tree species even fix nitrogen!

Would we be able to throw away our sprayer and fertiliser spreader on our ‘new’ farm? Monocultures are like commuters on the London Tube: one person coughs and they all catch a cold. Likewise in your fields, a stray fungal spore, or a swarm of insects and the whole crop is decimated. Growing a ‘herbal ley’ of arable crops in a permanent pasture sward would mean disease would find it incredibly difficult to spread, just as insects would have a tough time targeting their preferred host plant.

The mixture of plant species, in conjunction with the animal grazing, would mean the crop is also self-fertilising. We already see this with foragebased herbal leys and never seem to need artificial fertiliser to make them grow. Nitrates in water, nitrous oxide emissions polluting the air, such things could be consigned to the annals of history, were we to follow this path.

Putting the engineering challenges to one side, a mixture of crops, surrounded by trees and shrubs, all growing in a permanent pasture field that is grazed by cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry for part of the year ticks all the soil health rules. Soil is continually covered, there are always a diverse mixture of living roots in the ground, which isn’t disturbed (either by machine or by chemical), and the livestock dung, urinate and salivate onto the fields to stimulate the soil biota. Cash crops are harvested each year and the land also produces beef and lamb for sale.

Sunlight would be captured all year round, pumping energy into the system, minerals would be cycled and recycled, both in the acidic root zone and by the growing quantities of soil fungi and bacteria, and the water cycle would start to function properly, with surplus rain captured and held by the carbon in the soils to tide you over the dry periods, rather than running in sheets over the land and out to sea, carrying precious topsoil and nutrients as it goes.

We are all weighed down by the baggage of our existing paradigms, and many will say the above is just fanciful, but could it be the future, if we started with a blank canvas?