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August / September 2019

Regenerative Agriculture – A sustainable tool for fruit farmers

SA Fruit Journal: August / September 2019

Regenerative agriculture is set to transform agriculture as we know it, and it’s gaining traction.

Seeding next-generation farming requires a transformational approach and regenerative agriculture provides just that: a way of root-ing new prospects in a particular region.

This is the view of Matthew Addison, Hortgro Science’s crop protection programme manager. Addison is an entomologist based at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology, in the Faculty of AgriSciences. He views regenerative agriculture as being vital, to ensure sustainable production in the deciduous fruit industry.
Simply put, regenerative agriculture enables farming in such a way as to improve agricultural ecosystems. This approach would include management actions that improve soils, increase biodiversity, and restore a variety of ecosystem services (benefits that humans derive from nature). In turn, these management actions lead to a more sustain-able and resilient (agricultural) system. “Regenerative agriculture goes beyond following best practices around sustainability – it requires a transformative approach,” Addison explains. “This approach is based on principles of farming with nature, rather than against it.” One of the underlying assumptions of regenerative farming is that conventional agriculture depletes the environment. “The basic idea behind this is that if you are not doing good to the environment with agriculture, you are not farming in a regenerative way,” he says. Several important themes have emerged from this approach, including diversification of crops or multi-cropping, increasing soil organic matter, and water management. Climate change and methods to mitigate greenhouse gases have also entered the debate, Addison points out. Increasingly, regenerative agriculture is seen as a practical way of removing atmospheric carbon dioxide and storing carbon in soils. “There is the obvious need to address climate change and biodiversity loss in the sector,” Addison says. “The more agriculture can do to mitigate these two factors, the better.”

A climate of change

Improving the performance and competitiveness of the agricultural sector is of strategic importance to the industry. If such improvements are to be sustainable, they need to be made in a way that is cognisant of the changing ecological context, and be climate-sensitive. This is particularly true in the Western Cape, considered the heart of SA’s deciduous fruit production region. Across the province, like other parts of SA, many ecological changes have been observed over recent decades. The Western Cape is getting hotter, and more extreme events are being observed. This province has experienced an increase of between 1°C and 2°C in the minimum temperature, since the 1960s. Both the frequency and severity of climate-induced disasters are increasing. At the same time the extent, duration and seasonal distribution of rainfall are changing. The province is also set to become relatively drier and will experience moderate to strong warming in the next 100 years. This calls for farmers to adapt – and to do so quickly and effectively. “Along with increasing temperature levels and resultant evaporation, the implications of extreme events like droughts and climate change for run-off and long-term assurance of water supply are potentially serious,” Addison says. “This makes the deciduous fruit sector especially susceptible to changes in climate and the state of natural resources. “We cannot do more of the same – it’s time to take a long-term view.”

Farming for the future

Globally, most of the current action regarding regenerative agriculture is focussed on integrated crop and livestock production. There is already a wealth of information on regenerative agriculture from the United States and Australia, among others. Regenerative agriculture is also gaining traction locally, with commercial producers who farm maize, soybeans and sunflowers in the Free State to organic farmers in the Northern Cape increasingly embracing this approach. Agricultural practices related to this approach include the use of cover crops, mulching, application of compost, and minimising synthetic inputs. Although fruit production is more complex and longer-term rela-tive to row crops grown in rotations, there is also a growing inter-est in implementing regenerative agriculture in the fruit sector. In the orchard context, regenerative agriculture is aimed at enhancing orchard ecosystems, and an emphasis is placed on soil ecology. “The assumption is that increasing soil organic matter will enhance soil biodiversity, improve nutrient cycles and improve production overall,” Addison outlines. “To do this, the use of diverse cover crops is used along with the application of organic material on the orchard floor. Also, the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and conversion into soil carbon is seen as highly beneficial with respect to climate change. In fact, regenerative agriculture is being promoted as the future philosophy that will directly benefit agriculture.” One of the main drivers is the need for carbon sequestration (putting carbon back into the soil). Consumers are also increasingly sensitive to how food is produced. “This interest will grow, and aspects such as carbon-negative production methods and environmentalism will become critical,” Addison says.

Rooting sustainable production

Certain farming practices have come at a significant cost over many generations, including loss of topsoil and pollution caused by the excessive use of fertilisers. This has to change, given resource constraints and planetary boundaries, says Sheila Storey, director of Nemlab. Nemlab is a Western Cape-based nematology laboratory and research facility promoting efforts to ensure soil health in agricultural production. “Increasingly, farmers are embracing the fundamentals of a more holistic approach to agriculture – and it all begins in the soil,” Storey emphasises. The price of soil degradation is extremely high, she points out. It is estimated that 50-70% of soil carbon has, for instance, been lost in parts of the Free State. Significant efforts are underway to rectify this situation. Storey says fruit farmers can definitely benefit from following a regenerative approach. “Soil is a finite resource and a key environmental component that can be easily abused and lost,” she says. “The real challenge is developing natural and sustain-able ecosystems for agriculture.

Her advice to farmers? “Limit disturbance of the soil and keep it covered with cover crops or mulches,” she recommends. “Maintain diversity in plant and animal species above and below ground. Ensure living roots and integrate animals in farming where possible, to enhance nutrient cycling.” A healthy soil is considered to be a stable soil, rich in biological diversity, with high levels of internal cycling of nutrients and with resilience to stress factors. Soil remains critically important for farmers in this sector.

Louis Reynolds, a soil scientist at Fruitful Crop Advice, says living soils are crucial to sustainable and productive farming practices in the region, given emerging resource pressures. Storey says no blanket recipe for the use of cover crops can be applied across the board but that a mixture of cover crops should always be used that is suitable for a specific system or area. “It is not about increasing your yield but about increasing your profit. We need to work with nature and get nature to work with us. “The point is that you need living root systems that are part of your ‘workforce’. You need a living farm with living soil and you are not going to get that biology out of a bottle only. Efforts to ensure you have living roots in your orchard might require some fundamental changes in the way farming is done.”

Role of research

From a research point of view, the industry is yet to step fully into the regenerative agricultural space. “There is an awareness of this approach and there is interest in the ecosystem services it provides,” Addison says. “I predict that this will develop into a larger regenerative effort.” Until now, the approach has been to do research directed at orchard ecology and ecosystem services. Examples of such industry-funded integrated research include the biological control of mites in apple and pear orchards, research into cover crops and soil health, and floral plantings in orchards to enhance the biological control of pests. The biological control of mites in apple and pear orchards was initiated by Dr Ken Pringle in the 1980s. Research demonstrated that diverse cover crops allowed for predacious mite populations to survive and control pest mites. Also, pest mites in orchards without diverse cover crops developed resistance to miticides (pesticides used to control pest mites). This led to management practices that allowed for diverse cover crops to develop in orchards and, subsequently, the biological control of mites. Many research projects have also looked at the use of cover crops and mulches in orchards with regard to cover crops and soil health. A project is underway that considers the effects of cover crop diversity on orchard ecology. This has prompted some growers to initiate their own trials to assess various cover crops in orchards. “The assumption is that a diverse cover crop composed of the appropriate plant species will allow for enhanced ecosystem services within orchards, better water retention in soils, and a more resilient system,” Addison states. Efforts to promote functional ecosystems in orchards remain vital. “We know that diverse cover crops are beneficial to the biological control of some insect and mite pests,” he says. “The more plant species growing on the orchard floor, the better.” This is because pest mites feed on a number of the cover crop plant species, but this, in turn, allows for predacious mites to establish. Also, alternative prey species establish for the predators, thus allowing some predacious species to form and survive in the orchard. The net effect is that pest mite populations remain low and do not cause damage to the crop plants. “Monocultures are also not beneficial as they tend to be un-stable,” Addison elaborates. “The interaction between a diverse cover crop in an orchard and other organisms such as insects, mites, nematodes, bacteria and fungi is very complex. But such diversity is beneficial as it prevents any one species from becoming dominant.”

Sustaining living orchards

Hendrik Pohl, ZZ2’s orchard production manager, is considered one of the forerunners in adopting regenerative agriculture in the region. Pohl says ZZ2’s team has learnt many lessons about using this approach in their orchards. “In our experience, a biological system of farming offers many benefits,” Pohl reflects. “We consider this to be the future of farming.” Pohl is involved with experiments on the farm Bokveldskloof that demonstrates the interplay between rootstock and planting density in terms of cost and meeting production goals. They focus efforts on improving soil health, including through the use of cover crops. ZZ2 applies
20 m³ compost per hectare annually, uses mulches (a mixture of straw and wood chip), and has cut down on using chemical fertilisers. The spinoffs of this approach have been improved soil health, increased microbial and fungal activity in the soil, and improved water infiltration. They have also managed to increase soil carbon in experimental orchards from 0,4% in 2003 to 4% in 2015. This coincides with improved tree health, as well as better root health and development in ZZ2’s orchards. ZZ2 also has fewer problems with mites, nematodesm and woolly apple aphids in its orchards than before embracing this approach. “In general, our orchards are now more resilient,” Pohl points out. “Better soil and tree health provide a buffer against environmental stresses. We do ecological bookkeeping and have now integrated regenerative farming in every aspect of our business. This translates into improved quality and yield. “We believe this approach will ensure the sustain-ability of our business in future.”

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