Can farming help to store carbon, increase biodiversity, and stop depleting natural resources? Yes! These regenerative farming pioneers show how.
Contributes to achieving the following UN Sustainable Development Goals:
“I didn’t know there were so many cows in this country!” Ivar exclaims while we pass one pasture after another. Our research into New Zealand taught us that since the arrival of humans in the country more than 700 years ago, about 70 percent of the original forest has been destroyed. As a result, indigenous flora and fauna have lost much of their living space. It also means that staggering amounts of carbon storage capacity in trees and the soil have been removed. We now see what has replaced the forest: grasslands for the meat and dairy industry, which is big business here. But pastures are poor in biodiversity and store hardly any carbon. What’s more, cows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Research has shown that global deforestation – combined with methane emissions – contributes a substantial 20 percent to the climate crisis.
To add to the problem, irrigation and synthetic fertilizers led to an intensification of dairy and meat production in the last few decades. Gigantic sprinklers keep the grass green. But in naturally dry areas, so much water is needed that groundwater levels continuously drop. Fertilizer has multiple drawbacks. It is a finite additive with a long, polluting supply chain. It ends up in waterways, which leads to pollution and algae growth. We wonder whether farming can be done in such a way that it stores carbon, increases biodiversity, and avoids depleting natural resources. In other words, is regenerative farming possible?
Our search begins in Morrinsville, in the heart of New Zealand’s dairy country. At his farm just outside of town, we meet Neville. While many farmers are protesting against stricter environmental regulations, he is at work. “I took over this farm from my father,” Neville remarks. “He used phosphate as fertilizer but warned me against using nitrate, telling me that it was expensive, polluting, and detrimental for the soil in the long run. I did not want to use phosphate either and found an alternative. I now spray a seaweed-based biostimulant over the grass and am very happy with the results. It nourishes the soil, costs less, and even the cows are healthier.” Neville thereby confirms the benefits of using seaweed in agriculture, which producer Agrisea told us about when we visited them for our story Smart with Seaweed.
“It rains enough here, so I don’t irrigate. I do occasionally buy hay if I don’t have enough grass for all 250 cows.” They are always outside because it never freezes here. Neville’s son also lives on the property and plants trees. “They block the wind and give the cows some shade in summer”, he explains. The fact that the trees store CO2 is a bonus. Neville and his son are doing their utmost to cause as little damage as possible to nature. While this is commendable, cows remain a source of methane emissions. In addition, land such as theirs could be used for more carbon storage and biodiversity. But how?
From Grass To Food Forest
In the northernmost part of the North Island, we visit Chalice and Ken. A year ago, they bought a large piece of land from a dairy farmer. They have been busy turning pasture into a vegetable garden and food forest ever since. We can see their progress on a north-facing hill – the sunny side in the southern hemisphere. Chalice explains how they are going about transforming the land. “We first created terraces. They retain rainwater longer than the slope it was before and we can easily plant vegetables on them. We then covered the grass with cardboard or black plastic. It comes from Africa and overgrows everything. But once dried out, we can mix it with mulch to fertilize the soil. And that is what it is all about: fertile soil.” Her approach is visibly successful: the hill is bursting with varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Everything seems to grow in random places, which is intentional. “We aim for as much biodiversity as possible”, Chalice reveals. “Every crop or plant adds something, whether they bind nitrogen, attract insects, or increase erosion resistance.” Indeed, biodiversity is crucial for ecosystems to be resilient and sustainable.
Ken, meanwhile, has been busy planting trees all over the property. “I am trying out different trees, such as banana, citrus, and avocado trees. They all are doing well here, so I will also try papaya”, he beams. It reminds us of a food forest we visited in Brazil, where symbioses between plants and selective pruning yielded a rich, diverse harvest. As is the case with Chalice’s plants and flowers, Ken’s trees attract a multitude of insects and birds. All that vegetation also removes CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it as carbon in the biomass and soil. Their approach is a textbook example of regenerative farming and an indispensable weapon in the fight against the climate crisis.
Chalice and Ken want to do more than regenerate. “Our dream goes beyond increasing biodiversity and being self-sufficient”, Chalice begins. “We want to make this a community site where people can relax and rediscover what is important in life: taking good care of yourself, each other, and nature.” Next to a section of their land with native forest, they have dug out a pond. It is fed by a stream, which adds a serene ambiance to the scene. We can imagine visitors coming to peace and reconnecting with nature here. We can imagine it to be a perfect location for some of Chalice’s workshops on “exploring your innate wild self” to be held.
To see if regenerative farming can be done on a larger scale, we visit Streamside Organics. It is a commercial farm just outside Christchurch that seven years ago also started as grassland. Now it is an outlier among the area’s many pastoral fields. Co-founder Dominique shows us around. “We grow all vegetables organically, so we don’t use agricultural poisons”, she says. “We prevent soil depletion by alternating crops. In addition, we always cover some of our sections with legumes and wildflowers. Legumes replenish the nitrogen reserves in the soil so we don’t need synthetic fertilizers, and wildflowers attract all kinds of insects. We also spray our crops with compost-tea, a liquid that we brew from healthy compost and that contains lots of nutrients and microbes.” This all results in a healthy soil, which, as an additional benefit, can absorb more carbon.
Their approach works. The earth is teeming with life, the flowers are full of bees and other insects, and the vegetables grow prolifically. Dominique’s colleagues are busy harvesting them on a neighboring section. Fresh celery, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, and radishes pass us in yellow crates on their way to the shed to be packed into veggie boxes. Members of Streamside Organics buy directly from them, ensuring that Dominique and her colleagues receive a fair price for their produce. Yet their harvest is so plentiful that they also supply supermarkets in Christchurch, proving that regenerative farming can also be successful on a large scale.
The Food Jungle
Back in Whangarei, our favorite place to get fresh food is the weekly growers market. At Tim’s stand, we regularly buy avocados, bananas, and onions. When Ivar asks what his sign “Beyond Organic” means, Tim is eager to tell us about his farm and promptly invites us to have a look for ourselves. When he bought the land over 30 years ago, it was – you guessed it – a pasture. That’s different now. As soon as we leave the road and turn into his driveway, we are surrounded by jungle. It’s no wonder Tim named his farm The Food Jungle. “I grow what grows easily. Nature determines what I grow”, Tim sums up his approach. It leads to a colorful collection of crops: from pumpkins to avocados and from radishes to bananas. Tim does as little plowing as possible, which is better for soil life and for the soil’s carbon content. He uses mulch and compost, plants crops together to create symbiotic relationships, and changes after a season what he grows on a section, a practice known as crop rotation.
Tim next takes us to a dense bamboo forest, where we hear the twitter of countless birds. It is a safe place for them to build their nests. Rats cannot climb up the smooth bamboo trunks. “And the bird droppings are free fertilizer for me”, Tim remarks. “Bamboo grows at lightning speed. I use it as a building material. The leftovers are good for the vegetable garden”, he continues. Next to the forest is the orange orchard. Tim planted specific plants between the trees to nourish the soil and keep weeds at bay.
Beyond the boundary of his property, we see long rows of avocado trees. We ask what Tim thinks of his neighbor’s monoculture. “We respect each other. Fortunately, he takes the wind direction into account when he sprays poison. But I think that the way you farm is mainly a question of mentality. Many farmers are ignorant and attack all unknown plants with poison, which is an assault on biodiversity. Organic farmers often follow a monoculture approach, too, merely replacing poison with natural pesticides. That’s a shame because the bigger the biodiversity, the more productive and resilient a farm is. Don’t fight against nature, but make good use of it”, Tim asserts. According to him, regenerative farming is primarily a matter of knowledge and mentality.
We Can If We Want To
We are enthusiastic about the opportunities and benefits of regenerative farming. Our visits have convinced us that it is possible to grow food without harming biodiversity, depleting natural resources, polluting waterways, and emitting greenhouse gases. It is a matter of replacing grass with different crops, plowing less, integrating trees in agriculture, rotate crops, and using flowers to enrich the soil. If you follow those principles, you lend nature a hand and capture CO2. The latter is especially crucial in the fight against climate breakdown.
But regenerative farmers are a small minority and time is running out. What can we do to accelerate the transition? Everyone can play a role. The government can outlaw destructive and polluting farming practices and incentivize regenerative farming methods with subsidies, for example. Educational and training institutes can impart knowledge and show farmers how to apply regenerative farming methods. Banks can set conditions on their financing, such as that farmers transform their farms to become more regenerative. Supermarket chains can put more local, regenerative agricultural products on their shelves. And the most important role is perhaps reserved for consumers. Each time they buy produce from farms that practice regenerative farming, such as directly from regenerative farmers at a local market, they send an important signal. After all, where there is demand, supply arises.
Finally, everyone can eat more plant-based, meaning more fruit and vegetables and less dairy and meat. That choice has huge consequences for land use. The less land we need to rear livestock or grow animal feed, the more land can be returned to nature and covered in forest. With all these options, the only question is: which role do you choose to play in the transition to regenerative farming?