5 Soil Health Principles of Regenerative Agriculture
Soil health, plant health, and in many ways planet health come down to having healthy soil biology. The diversity of life in ours soils is astounding making up about a quarter of the planet's biodiversity. The story of our agriculture is in many ways a story of war on this diversity. The story of our future agriculture has to be about turning that around.
The 5 Soil Principles of Regenerative Agriculture are for farmers to follow in order not to be at war with this diversity. They are all aimed at building healthy soil biology. These 5 principles can be applied to almost all types of farming and in all contexts.
1. Minimum Disturbance - to put it simply don't break their house, don't smash it with ploughs and spades and don't douse it with deadly chemicals. For 10 000 years ploughing has been an integral part of farming and for 10 000 years we have bean breaking up the structure of the soil and breaking all the fungal mycelia that provide the communication network for life underground. In addition to this disturbing of soil also accelerates the combustion of soil organic mater, moving carbon from the soil into the atmosphere.
The application of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers similarly wrecks havoc with soil biology, hampering its ability to perform its vital tasks.
2. Keep it covered - with its abundance of life soil is a living entity and it needs a skin to protect it from the sun, the wind and the rain. Aside from the massive problem of soil loss from erosion bare soil also kills soil biology. Our soils need to be covered in a skin of mulch and living plants to ensure healthy soil biology. For too much of the year our agricultural fields are left bare and most of our orchards and vineyards are kept bare of all other plant life all year round. In addition to this all this bare soil is highly detrimental to the small water cycle, which ultimately translates into less localised rainfall (see the Soil Carbon Sponge).
3. Diversity - as plant interactions are researched more and more the incredible importance of diversity is being brought to the fore. Plants grown in mixed family groups out perform mono crops, are more resilient to drought, are more resilient to pests and are more resilient to disease. Diverse plants not only utilise different parts of the soil and access different minerals from the soil but they also work with and build different microbial communities, creating more diverse soil biology. These benefits are not just for themselves, via fungal pathways they are made available to the other plants growing with them. This soil biology needs a varied diet, which can be provided by crop rotation, intercropping and the use multi-species covers. In addition to this pollinator areas, trees and hedges provide more diversity and other benefits.
4. Living root - soil biology is primarily fed from the root exudates of plants. So important is soil biology for plants that they contribute 40% of the energy they make to feeding soil biology. If you don't have a living root in the ground your soil biology is not being fed. Most row crop fields around the world have a living root for only 4 months of the year. Cover crops are crucial for extending this period.
5. Incorporate animals - all farms used to be mixed farms and animals, especially cattle, sheep, goats, chickens and pigs were crucial in maintaining the farm fertility. With the advent of industrial agriculture we removed the animals from the farms and confined them over concrete, replacing the fertility they used to provide with synthetic fertilisers. Animals are mobile bio-degraders that very rapidly produce nutrient rich compost, taking plant material that is not available to soil biology and almost instantly breaking it down and making it available. This results in stimulating the soil biology to a higher level and improving ecosystem function.