Learning the skills for regenerative farming

Duchy apple agroforestry, Copyright Phil Sumption organic research centre

By Nathan Einbinder – Regenerative Food and Farming lead – Schumacher College

Regenerative farming has been gaining increasing support in the last few years, as it is acknowledged that ‘sustainable’ agriculture, in other words, sustaining a broken system that is harming the land and the farmers who manage it, is no longer a viable option. Instead, regenerative farming offers a more holistic approach and one that ultimately helps tackle climate change by proposing transformation of the current industrial food and farming system, from the ground up.

A central focus of regenerative farming is caring for/regenerating the soil and the environment by managing biodiversity. This includes a set of techniques (no-dig, cover cropping, mob grazing, to name a few) meant to ‘draw-down’ carbon from the air into the ground while similarly adding to the complexity and biodiversity of soil microorganisms and fungi.

At Dartington we are growing forest gardens, have developed a large agroforestry field at Broadlears, and in our college growing space avoid ploughing up the soil, preferring to use ‘green manures’ to cover the soil and prevent unwanted, invasive plants from taking root.

These are working for us, but may not necessarily work elsewhere. By utilising a regenerative approach, we emphasise context specific problems with context specific practice, based on local knowledge, rather than applying regional, let alone nationwide, prescriptions.

Of course, there are several challenges to farmers who wish to develop a more regenerative approach. The first is the difficulty in accessing training and fitting this around the time commitments and various demands of running a farm or producing food on any kind of scale.

Other important challenges include labour costs, the low price of food, the centralisation and globalisation of the food system and dependency on external funding. It’s a complex problem. In this country, we are still, in general, set in a conventional paradigm regarding food and farming. Eco-focused approaches remain on the fringes and have only recently achieved wider acceptance and interest among the public and policy makers.

This is due to a number of factors, including a heightened awareness surrounding climate change and the impacts of industrial farming on greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the greater impacts from the global pandemic and Brexit.But it’s more important than ever to focus our efforts on regenerative farming, and training for current farmers and the next generation. Dartmoor specifically is already a challenging place for agriculture.

A regenerative approach could help farmers become less reliant on external inputs, agrochemicals, primarily, through the restoration of soil life and creation of biomass to be used as composts and organic fertilizers. It could also be beneficial to those hoping to receive subsidies for ecosystem services.

There are many benefits to regenerative/agroecology that are unaccounted for or undervalued, such as improving quality of life of the farmer and communities, water quality, biodiversity and human health. Finally, organic products generally bring in more income as do direct market sales, both supported in regenerative approaches.

The way we operate on the Dartington estate is a system of collaboration between farmers and businesses to bring regeneratively grown products to local market; farmer experimentation; support for small-scale producers, who are generally marginalized yet hold the key to biodiverse, knowledge intensive production.

These are things that can be replicated on other farms and we teach first hand on our courses. Farmers across South Devon and Dartmoor can work together to help each other out by participating in more working groups and social movements to facilitate knowledge transfer, sharing of ideas and challenges, and learning possibilities.

We’re currently running short courses in regenerative and sustainable growing practices, and will be launching a full, low-residency MSc in Regenerative, Food, Farming and Enterprise in January 2022.

Our undergraduate degree in Regenerative Food and Farming starts in September. We combine theory and practice, making it a practical, hands on and experiential course, very different from others at conventional agricultural universities and programmes. We hope these courses, local to Dartmoor farmers, will be helpful to those currently working the land in the area, or wishing to, as well as attracting students from further afield as we often do each year with our horticulture residency.

Author: Laura White

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