The term Regenerative Agriculture has been trending lately. People are seeing this fresh new approach to agriculture on all levels as an environmentally responsible and socially-minded approach to growing crops and managing land. In this article, we dive into what Regenerative Agriculture is, and how at Bush Order Provisions we will be implementing this method of growing vegetables and produce here in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
Truth be told, Regenerative Agriculture is simply going back to the methods used on small family farms before we had easy access to chemical fertilizers, large machinery, and before the world had an increasingly affluent world population to feed. Our generation (Millenials or Gen Y), and maybe our parents too, haven’t had to give much thought to food. Why should we? Our access to food is so easy. Our grocery store shelves are fully stocked with products from around the globe, and the products are affordable.
Regenerative Agriculture is a stark contrast to conventional agriculture, or what we’ve become accustomed to be conventional. The conventional approach is to obtain high yields on a short-term basis with heavy and indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, tillage and other energy-based inputs. On top of which global agriculture is already producing enough food to feed the world population, in theory. But a large portion of that is wasted because of other barriers.
We’re stuck in a loop of produce, waste, degrade, pollute, and produce even more.
Regenerative Agriculture is a soil-centric approach that includes no-till farming in conjunction with residue mulching, cover cropping, integrated nutrient and pest management, crop rotations, and integration of crops with trees and livestock. The approach is site-specific and fine-tuned to environmental factors of the farmers location. To put it simply, Regenerative Agriculture is a natural way to managing crops versus using harmful chemical fertilizers and degrading soil.
This system goes beyond the standard of sustainable agriculture. Sustainability simply means to not deplete natural resources, while regenerative practices strive to improve the condition of those resources.
The world witnessed a green revolution in the 1950s and ’60s after WWII when major efforts were put into creating chemical fertilizers. This put us on the path of overindulgence, but also provided millions of people with greater access to food, a human right at its most basic level.
At Bush Order, we believe it is time for a new green revolution, the green revolution of the 21st century, a revolution based on sustainable land management. Our future generations depend on it. When Kyle and I discuss the future and children, the thought of bringing unsuspecting little humans into the current state of the world (both within the food system and beyond) is grim. Something has to change, and no one action will save the planet, but a collective effort may help improve our planet’s fate.
One important question to ask is, can Regenerative Agriculture be adapted to produce enough food for the globe while lessening greenhouse gas emissions? Honestly, we can’t answer that question. What we do know is our current global model is failing our farmers, consumers, and communities.
Doing Our Part With Regenerative Agriculture
While our 1-acre Yellowknife market garden won’t reverse the climate crisis and will only sequester an infinitesimal fraction of carbon dioxide, we can effect change by setting an example for our community and our youth and hope that like-minded people around the globe effect similar change and set a new benchmark for food and fibre production.
It’s one thing to preach and promote, but tangible actions must be taken. Below we list and explain few ways Bush Order practices responsible agriculture:
1. Making Our Own Soil
I think back on the quantity of bagged soil and peat moss I have purchased in my lifetime and I shake my head. The extraction of peat requires the removal of a bog’s living surface to reach the partially decomposed layers beneath. Bog plants grow a sixteenth of an inch a year, taking centuries to recover after it has been stripped. Peat is one of the greatest vegetative carbon sinks on the planet. Digging it up and shipping it here so that we can grow a few vegetables for a 3rd of the year is irrational.
But we have virtually no soil north of the Great Slave Lake and therefore we require an alternative to bagged potting mix and peat moss. We are currently designing our own on-site compost program where all organic waste will be composted and returned to the ground.
Our soil fertility management includes enhancing soil organic matter, biological nitrogen fixation (see cover cropping below), and recycling of nutrients rather than indiscriminate inputs of chemical fertilizers.
We’re not completely off of bagged soil products yet, but we’re working towards reducing our dependence on it.
Mulching is the action of placing a layer of either organic or synthetic material in and around individual plants to help suppress weed pressure by blocking out the light, improve water retention, and provide a slow release of nutrients to the soil (when the mulch is organic matter).
We’re fortunate to have a steady supply of cocoa husks from a local chocolatier. This material slowly decomposes over time, releasing nutrients into the soil below, is loved by beneficial organisms such as earth worms, is 100% repurposed, and also smells amazing.
Bark, wood chips, or sawdust is also an option but will not break down as quickly. It also tends to bind up nitrogen because of its high carbon content. If sawdust or wood chips are your only option, place a thick layer of compost as a buffer between the soil and the wood by product to reduce nitrogen depletion.
3. Crop Rotation
By definition, crop rotation is the practice of changing the crop each year on the same piece of ground. Crop rotation means variety, and variety gives stability to biological systems.
Varying crops have varying nutrient demands, disease pressure, and cultivation practices. Crops may also be affected by the preceding or succeeding crop.
Rotations improve insect and disease control. A good rotation spaces susceptible crops far enough in time to hinder the buildup of their specific pest. Weeds are affected in a similar way.
Rotations can make nutrients more available. Plant residues of more effective plants capable of utilizing less soluble forms of nutrients will make minerals available later on to less effective plants in the next sequence of the rotation.
Crop rotation becomes very very complex and can be extremely complicated to master. It will take us years to master this but we’re dedicated to give it our best effort.
4. Cover Cropping
Cover cropping is an important component of crop rotation, where a section of the field/garden is seeded with a leguminous plant for one full growing season, and then turned into the soil, to serve as a natural fertilizer adding nitrogen back into the soil. Cover crops are also known as ‘green manure’.
Most plants cannot get nitrogen from the air despite it being over 70% of the air we breath. Nitrogen’s chemical bond is extremely stable and too strong for a plant to break it into a usable form. Leguminous plants however, have that capacity trough a symbiotic relationship with soil microbes in their root zone.
We have chosen annual ryegrass and vetch as our cover crop. Vetch is the nitrogen fixer while the rye is the quick growing crop with deep roots that will load up on nitrogen and subsequently released when cut down at the end of the year.
Cover crops can also be used to protect the ground from soil erosion and to improve soil structure.
You might have also realized that this method of growing can all be done with locally available materials. This means as we grow our operation we can move away from any reliance on southern suppliers and reduce transportation.
As we build our market garden we hope to share our findings on these management practices in the Northwest Territories with others who might be interested in this method of food production.
In case you missed it, also read Hydroponics vs. Soil – What is best for the Northwest Territories.