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Podcast Regenerative agriculture summary

Collocutors Martin Mikush, urbanist performing PhD research on opportunities to develop conservation agriculture in proximity to large urban agglomerations; and Toma Staykov, manager of the Bulgarian no-till association. As a child he lived in a village and didn’t like farm work. But after more than 10 years of business entrepreneurship in a big city, he decided to go back to the land.

The reasons why a farmer should switch to conservation agriculture

Conservation agriculture is becoming a label, just as organic or biological farming. It depends where the farmer starts. For large producers it is a race in their attempt to survive, even financially. Some people do it for ethical or moral reasons in today’s climatic chaos. No tiling is a principle of conservation agriculture but not the only one and not self-sufficient. It became world-recognized as a technique because tilling is the foundation of agriculture and therefore no-till is a revolution. We have these farmers who without being told by science, and that’s the curious part, were forced to sow directly by limiting factors. Later on, this practice achieved symbiosis with science and developed.

How the no-till reduces soil erosion

At the end of the summer a ploughed field starts turning into adobe if there are continuous draughts. The adobe is very dense, and any tilling would take a huge amount of energy. The soil and all microorganisms and tiny creatures that inhabit the soil are actually doing a great job. The soil is a fine-tuned mechanism, the product of a long evolution, which has ultimately achieved a maximum energy exchange on a minimum land volume. The result of what warms do down there, the rotting roots create a microstructure that retains an optimum amount of water. And it has to be covered. There is this coverage that consists of plant residues from previous crops but there are also the so-called cover crops, own among the main ones, i.e. between harvesting and sowing. During the winter months there are plants which photosynthesize and thus infiltrate carbon into the soil and feed the microorganisms. To stop the erosion, the soil need to be covered with plants between the main crops but also the crops must be rotated. That will restore the biodiversity. When there is photosynthesis, meaning plants for the better part of the year, there will be more organic matter and even in the case of a flood, the soil will be able to retain more water.

Does organic farming use the no-till principle?

Organic farming is more about imposing limitations, what can and what cannot be done. No-till is not one of its principles. But actually organic farmers can use conservation practices. I would say that will be the best option, a combination of organic and no-till. Conservation agriculture in turn does not prohibit the use of pesticides at the start, that is part of the journey. So when one starts the transition, the journey will gradually take him or her to the moment when there will be no need for pesticides or even herbicides.

The steps of the transition from conventional to conservation agriculture: how to change the practice

A serious initial preparation is needed. I have often seen in the social media lately this question, “May I try no-till/conservation farming?”. Many people think it is quite simple. That is wrong. To be a successful farmer one should have good knowledge of chemistry, good knowledge of biology, mechanics, entrepreneurship, I guess I am missing something. What I mean is, the transition starts with some serious training, gaining understanding of the things, understanding of how the entire ecosystem functions. Industrial farming already possesses the technology that facilitates the transition. After the understanding comes minimum or no tilling, and them restoring the biodiversity. In-depth research is still missing, specifying the parameters, such as what is the effectiveness of one and the type of agriculture. There isn’t any consensus yet how to measure the amount of carbon in the soil. One of the first steps of the scientific community will be to develop monitoring tools.

The accompanying costs

Tilling is a very serious cost in itself, and not just the fuel but also depreciation. Tilling is a complicated operation and machines wear and tear. So farmers will save and eventually be able to buy a header, which leaves plant residues behind. Some people sell the old equipment to buy them, others adapt. Both are valid options. And we also include pasture stockbreeding in the equation. So, we have the cost of human resource and renegotiating here. One farmer may provide an ecosystem service to another with his animals. So, in addition to investments, we should talk about reorganization. We must mention the legal limitations as well. If a farmer does not use vaccines and antibiotics with his animals, they will still be healthy and the meat products will have an entirely different taste and nutrition value. Here is an example: the law says that fallow land helps the soil rest and recover, which is in total dissonance with modern regenerative science. When people educate and start demanding, the politicians will change the norms.

Regenerative food

A regenerative food standard already exists in the US, it was created by several organisations interested in regenerative organic. There is a methodology, there is proper control that proves how it was produced. That is nutritious food. That was how people produced their food in the village where I grew up. Every family had its goats and a shepherd took them to the field every day, including in winter. We should not forget that agriculture is one of the last industrialised human activities with a short history and should reconsider the traditional practices and make them adequate to contemporary life.