Home Farmer's Inside Track Regenerative agriculture 'turns soils into sponges’

Regenerative agriculture ‘turns soils into sponges’

If there’s one thing that farmers should be learning from recent heavy rains, it’s that they have to turn their soil into sponges. Experts agree regenerative agriculture could help solve flooding troubles

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Farmer's Inside Track FIT

While farmers in many provinces are still suffering from soil erosion due to recent heavy rains, experts urge them to adopt regenerative agriculture practices to build healthier, more sponge-like soils.

This follows a warning by Dr Jack Armour, operations manager of Free State Agriculture, that some farmers still can’t harvest their crops due to severe earlier flooding. Others are even unable to visit their farmlands.

Operation manager of Free State Agriculture, Dr Jack Armour. Photo: Supplied
Operation manager of Free State Agriculture, Dr Jack Armour. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Armour says if protective measures are not put in place to prohibit soil erosion it might put the future of South African agriculture in jeopardy.

Farming regeneratively could help solve our flooding woes and save agriculture, he believes.

“Something that we have to face head-on is that the conventional practice of agriculture, where people are ploughing deep and leaving the soil bare is causing a lot of topsoil to be eroded.

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“Farmers have not been maintaining proper water ways. As a result, there has been a lot of topsoil washed away. That is a loss for agriculture for the next 100 generations,” he says.

Turn soils into sponges

Andrew Ardington is a founder of the Regenerative Agriculture Association of South Africa and the Food Club Hub. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Andrew Ardington is a founder of the Regenerative Agriculture Association of South Africa and the Food Club Hub. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Armour’s sentiments are echoed by Andrew Ardington, founder of the Regenerative Agriculture Association of South Africa and the Food Club Hub. He believes farming regeneratively will also assist farmers during dry spells.

“I am very much in favour of us all farming regeneratively,” he says. “One of the benefits is that the soil can hold much more water, and that water can infiltrate very quickly into the soil.

“The combination of those two things will help us greatly with reducing flooding. It can also help us greatly when we have periods of dryness. The soil can hold all that extra moisture which will help us get through those dry periods.”

ALSO READ: Can 4IR enable regenerative farming?

Ardington says, ultimately, if large enough areas get involved in farming practices that improve water retention and rehydrate the landscape, we can actually increase the rain brought about by the small water cycle in an area.

REGENERATIVE: Flood-related soil erosion is severely influenced by farming practices. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Flood-related soil erosion is severely influenced by farming practices. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

“So, all of those things are very intertwined in regenerative agriculture. They are all intertwined and linked into each other. They are all crucially important for our future and for our ability to be able to produce food and to be able to live on the land.”

Taking the first steps

Ardington admits that farming regeneratively is no easy feat.

“You certainly have to make some changes to farm regeneratively. Probably, that’s the hardest part of farming regeneratively, to make a change. We intrinsically, as the human race, are scared of change. We don’t like change.

“We like things to stay as they are. If the current form of agriculture has a recipe, it makes it easier to follow. It makes people anxious to change away from that. So, that’s the first barrier that we have to overcome,” he says.

“regenerative farming Is much more people-intensive AND requires greater observation.” – ANDREW ARDINGTON

“It is about changing the way we farm. It’s actually farming where your feet need to be on the ground and your eyes on the animals and on the crops and on the soil. Less so from being in the office and managing from the office,” says Ardington.

Dr Naude Malan, senior lecturer in development studies at the University of Johannesburg and founder of iZindaba Zokudla, Photo: Funiwe Ngwenya/Food For Mzansi
Dr Naude Malan, lecturer in development studies at the University of Johannesburg and founder of iZindaba Zokudla, Photo: Funiwe Ngwenya/Food For Mzansi

Dr Naudé Malan, senior lecturer in development studies at the University of Johannesburg and founder of iZindaba Zokudla, says regenerative agriculture can solve our flooding problems.

What about permaculture?

However, you need to have carbon-rich soil which has the ability to retain water. He also indicates the permaculture can spare us from our flooding woes, especially on large farms.

“What you will see on permaculture farms is a mixture of contour lines and key lines. Contour lines are level lines or shapes on a land that slow the flow of water. That’s very important because then water can sink down.

“Then you also have key lines. This is pictures of things people can construct on their farms that can move water around. Those practices are extremely significant. If you plant the right plants on the line, then they almost stop the flow of water. Water flows into the soil and that is really important.”

REGENERATIVE: To reduce the risk of soil and water loss, farmers are advised to establish a cover crop. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
To reduce the risk of soil and water loss, farmers are advised to establish a cover crop. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Malan says that some notable farmers leave their maize stubbles on the land. This is also a process that can be used to slow down water.

“You are making little mini-dams in your land with each plant that you leave. That then slows the water,” he says.

Mulching can also be used to bind the topsoil to slow water down. This has proven quite a few times that it is a more affordable practice for farmers. Also, it creates long-term benefits.

Malan says, “Farmers need to think long-term about their farms. The problem is actually the financialisation of farming which forces farmers into short-term production methods.”

ALSO READ: ‘Regenerative agri can herald a new dawn for farmers’

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Sinesipho Tom
Sinesipho Tom
Sinesipho Tom is an audience engagement journalist at Food for Mzansi. Before joining the team, she worked in financial and business news at Media24. She has an appetite for news reporting and has written articles for Business Insider, Fin24 and Parent 24. If you could describe Sinesipho in a sentence you would say that she is a small-town girl with big, big dreams.
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