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Know what to grow

Often, inexperienced farmers fail in their farm projects—not due to inadequate resources but because of a lack of understanding of what to grow.

Knowing what to grow in a regenerative agriculture system is vital in determining the success of every regenerative agriculture project. Several farmers encounter challenges in choosing plant combinations due to the complexity involved, as there are many factors to consider to achieve the goal of regenerative agriculture. The farmer must understand the soil type and health before deciding on the plant combinations, as certain crops adapt better than others to harsh or unfavorable soil conditions. Also, the rainfall pattern is a crucial factor that can not be neglected when planning a regenerative agriculture project. All these, and more, work hand in hand to determine how successful the project will be in terms of productivity and sustainability.

Which factors play a role in designing a successful regenerative system?

Measuring success in a regenerative agriculture project is seen in the productivity and longevity of the system established. The concept of regenerative agriculture is to design or develop an agroecological system that requires fewer inputs from man for continuity. You can only develop a system if all vital things are considered in the design process. Some significant factors that play a role in designing a successful regenerative agriculture system;

  • Soil type;
  • Longterm planning;
  • Companion planting;
  • Local and regional demand;
  • Available labor and tools;
  • Available storage and processing;
  • Circularity;
  • Farmer’s personal preference.

Let’s look at each factor; 

Soil types and other local conditions can require different systems and combinations.

Soil is the foundation for all farm projects and must be prioritized as a major determining factor for choosing plant combinations. Understanding soil characteristics is fundamental. Different crops require different soil types to perform at their best, and, on the other hand, different soil types require different crops to rebuild themselves. 

A regenerative agriculture practitioner is expected to understand the interdependence or relationship between the soil and the crops to be grown. Certain plant combinations, for instance, can expose or protect the soil from direct sunlight, thereby reducing or maintaining the soil moisture content. Also, soil particle sizes determine the water infiltration capacity of the soil and tend to make water more readily available or less available to crops. Therefore, crops with a higher affinity for moisture are more compatible with soils that hold water.

Working from depleted land to regenerated soil requires a plant succession plan and a long-term vision.

The aim of regenerative agriculture is to restore soil health in order to make the soil habitable for organisms that help renew lost nutrients. This makes highly depleted land usable and still relevant in the fight against global food insecurity and climate change. But it takes time.

Regenerating the soil involves a long-term goal; therefore, while designing the project, one must consider a plant succession plan to gradually help transition depleted land to a fertile and productive one.

Source: Plant the Planet

Plant succession is an ecological approach that involves changing plant communities over time in response to management. It is the process of changing plant species in a given environment over a given period. In plant communities, succession begins when an area is partially or completely devoid of vegetation because of a disturbance. The succession process can be seen in many different systems, from establishing grasslands after a volcanic eruption to re-establishing forests after agricultural fields have been abandoned.

Neglecting a crucial factor such as plant succession while designing a regenerative agriculture system brings about a decline in productivity. It makes a regenerative agriculture project unsustainable as the degree of vegetation reduces rather than causing an increase due to inadequate structure aimed at helping the soil to rebuild itself over time. Different crops require different nutrients at different levels. Crops that require more nitrogen, for instance, would quickly deplete the soil of nitrogen. Therefore, a good plant succession plan requires that crops with a lower need for nitrogen be grown immediately after the initial crops to help make up for the lost nutrients. Plant succession planning is a long-term approach to achieving the goal of regenerative agriculture, especially on depleted land.

Hedgerow planting system for Fodder – Illustrations; Ilaria Gioli

Companion plants empower the natural system.

Not all crops like each other, and some plants are besties. These best friends, or companion plants, must exist together in the regenerative agroecological system to aid growth, survival, and productivity. Companion plants, in regenerative agriculture, are different crops grown close to boost productivity, improve soil health, and control pest damage. However, deciding what companion plants to grow is a complex task, as the farmer must consider certain factors. The essence of each companion plant is fundamental in the choice of crops grown. Certain crops provide suitable hiding places for soil organisms. Some crops help in disrupting the host-finding mechanism of certain crop pests, thereby serving as a means of pest control within a cropping system. This strategy has been used in several trials to fight against major insect pests of crops. Diverse crops perform several other functions in a regenerative agriculture system that help to increase efficiency and productivity in the ecosystem. One such function is fixing atmospheric nitrogen in the soil to restore lost nutrients.

Companion plants create a balance in the ecosystem as each plant serves a function in ensuring that neither biotic nor abiotic factors can cause a total wipeout of plant species in an ecosystem. However, understanding that not all plants can serve as companion plants would save farmers unnecessary costs and help them design effective plans for restoring depleted soils.

Classic example of companion planting; three sisters with winter squash, maize, and climbing beans.

Regenerative agriculture is not only a nature-based solution. It also provides socioeconomic benefits. Some economic factors not to be forgotten are;

The local or regional demand for new crops can secure the transition.

Demand is another factor that must not be overlooked while deciding on plant combinations. Aside from considering the soil type, plant succession plan, and companion plants to grow, local or regional demand for new crops is vital to choosing plant combinations to use in a profitable regenerative system.

It would be discouraging if the products derived had little or no market demand after investing time and resources in a regenerative agriculture project. Therefore, we must conduct market research, especially for new crops, to ensure their efforts are well rewarded.

Questions as “What is the local demand for new crops?”, “What are the options in processing new crops?”, and “How far is the market or processing facility away from the field?”, must be answered before designing a new regenerative system.

Cocoa processing, Peru

New crops require different labor, harvesting tools, and knowledge.

Every regenerative agriculture practitioner must understand that when cultivating new crops, more and sometimes different labor is required, new harvesting tools are needed, and basic knowledge is crucial. As such, it takes more resources to cultivate new crops in regenerative agriculture than in conventional farming systems. This translates to financial complexity, and all of these must be considered by farmers before venturing into regenerative agriculture.

Drying of Sundakkai berries, using tarpaulins

New crops ask for different methods of storage and processing.

Learning how to cultivate new crops is one thing. Some crops also require different processing and storage techniques. This must be factored into the project plan, as neglecting it may lead to severe post-harvest loss. When a farmer lacks the necessary facilities to process and store new crops, he or she might fall back to old routines.

A planting system can come with livestock.

A good practice is to add livestock to a planting system. Fodder trees and shrubs represent an enormous potential source of protein for ruminants. Until relatively recently, these feed resources have been generally ignored in feeding systems for ruminants, mainly because of inadequate knowledge on various aspects of their potential use. A proper understanding of the benefits of an integrated farming system, which combines crop and livestock production, gives a farmer an added advantage as regards overall yield. Livestock can be fed using fodder crops, and these crops can also provide ecological benefits, such as reducing wind speed and serving as shade. Therefore, the choice of what to grow also depends on whether a farmer plans to integrate livestock or not.

Ducks in a rice field, Indonesia

The personal preference of the farmer is the absolute key to success.

Above all, the farmer does all the work. You have to hear his or her preference in deciding what to grow in every regenerative agriculture project. The farmer may be used to a certain crop and has little experience in other crops. What they want, need, or would love to grow is often not asked.

Research what you need to know before starting

Most of the things mentioned above add to the project’s success rate. However, you don’t always need to research all elements, and some are a part of the expertise the experts bring to the table. Whether a project entails setting up a model farm in a heavily depleted and bare land or capacity building with five hundred cocoa farmers, the things you need to know to develop a model farm differ in intensity, complexity, and costs.