For three years, Karen and Roger Galloway built their ideal regenerative smallholding using permaculture methodologies. Their operation is now almost fully off the grid, with almost every farming aspect utilised and accounted for.
As the threat of climate change becomes more apparent, more farmers are turning to regenerative agriculture to conserve the environment and to be sustainable in the future.
Regenerative agriculture is, as defined by RegenAgSA, essentially farming in such a way that the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere is limited. Carbon is instead caught in the soil, aiding both environmental and human health, and reversing some of the effects of climate change.
While a simple concept, regenerative agriculture can be practised in a number of different ways. Philosophies included under the regenerative agriculture umbrella are agroecology, holistic farm management, and permaculture.
Karen and Roger Galloway, owners of Heartwood Homestead in the Eastern Cape, used the principles of permaculture to design their regenerative operation. While familiar with permaculture, they had not even been aware of the bigger concept of regenerative agriculture until they started working on their operation.
“I did a permaculture course many years ago and we had a little bit of experience with farming Gods Way, so it was only in the last three or four years that we started to become aware of regenerative agriculture as a concept,” says Roger.
As farmers using permaculture philosophies to set up their farm, the Galloways made sure that they designed their operation to be integrative. They looked at all the factors involved in a working farm and designed their system bearing in mind how each element interacted with the next.
“We designed the farm from scratch, with everything in mind, including the water management system, fencing, the movement of people and animals, the location of the animals, especially in relation to each other, and in relation to the vegetable or the compost systems.”
Practise good soil health
In defining the Liquid Carbon Pathway, RegenAgSA explains that agriculture has the capacity to reduce carbon emissions by drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. Conventional agricultural practises like tilling, chemical fertiliser and monocropping instead degrade the soil, and contribute to the sector’s carbon footprint.
One of the ways in which the Galloways recommend practising good soil health is ultra-high stock density grazing. This occurs when you have a large number of your animals graze in a small section of mature forage for a short period of time.
Central to this method is ensuring that the forage area has enough time to recover or regrow before letting it be used for grazing again.
The Galloways use this method, or as closely as they can to this method, to preserve the grasslands at Heartwood Homestead. Karen explains that they had a consultant assess the state of the grassland when they first started three years ago, then again recently.
“We had the grassland reassessed three years after we began and it is interesting to see there were a lot more forbs – small leafy plants – compared to the previous assessment. This is good because ultra-high density grazing is meant to increase diversity in the field of indigenous plants. Also, the soil exposure was better this time around,” she says.
Finding what works for you
One of the tenants of permaculture is ensuring that there is little that goes to waste in your farming system. A great way to nourish your soil is through the use of “hugelkultur”. With hugelkultur you build a “hugel” bed using logs, manure from your animals, newspaper, cardboard, etc. The bed acts as a constant source of nutrition for your soil, and ensures that your soil also holds water well.
“People always talk about what type of soil they have and is it high in clay or sandy, but I find if you’re doing intensive veg farming, where you prep the beds and you actually have specific beds with dedicated walkways, you can amend the soil and it doesn’t really matter what the original soil was,” says Roger.
Before he used the modified hugelkultur method, their soil was not anything special, he adds. But after digging out the crop bed and applying this method, the difference between the crop bed and the soil next to it is ‘chalk and cheese’.
“We did a sort of a modified hugelkultur with cardboard, newspaper, and old logs and sticks. Then we put the topsoil back and then compost.”
He also explains how they grew their rabbits out over the crops, so all the rabbit excretions go into the soil.
“Once they weaned, we grow them out directly on the beds so their urine and the manure goes directly onto the bed, and then we just rake that down, put some more compost on and then mulch on top of that, then go ahead with the next crop.”
Setting up infrastructure
Limiting waste in a permaculture setting is also about using your infrastructure efficiently. The Galloways explain that many parts of their infrastructure have a dual function.
“Every item has a cost, but the costs are often carried by two different things. So catching rainwater, for example, by putting up a chicken coop which is also a rabbitry and a compost machine, that’s probably our most cost-effective material outlay.”
The Galloways catch 90 000 litres of water in their rain tanks annually, with the tanks spread across nearly all their roof space. Karen recommends that aspiring regenerative farmers set up their water systems as quickly as possible.
“Basically, you need to get your rainwater catchment in as soon as you can and off every single roof surface. We are catching off the chicken coup, the feed rooms, and the house. We don’t waste any roof surface area and we had the advantage of being able to design our setup so that we could imagine all of that and set-up a system so that our rainwater could be shared in a central area where we have all the tanks together.”
Karen also explains that you need infrastructure to manage your animals, like a milk stanchion for cows, a loading ramp, and a crush or race.
“Those kinds of things are really vital. Something where you can safely manage and capture animals. Without them, it just becomes a bit of a waste of time and a human endeavour. It’s not really efficient.”
With crop farming, on the other hand, Roger says what you use to farm is less important than how you farm.
“On the side of the vegetables, it’s less about infrastructure and more about methodology. We do have drip irrigation and just low-pressure drip, so that can get quite expensive depending on how big your systems are. But otherwise, it’s more the way of doing things as opposed to the physical infrastructure.”
Advice for aspiring regenerative farmers
The Galloways, who also offer courses on permaculture and homesteading, have the following advice for aspiring regenerative farmers:
Learn as much as you can
Talk to those who have got experience and talk to as diverse a set of people as you can, in terms of demographics and ages. Talk to people who have different approaches to farming. Read a lot, and spend a lot of time on YouTube.
Start where you are and just grow incrementally. If you’re in living in a flat and you’ve got a window box, start with that. Then just do what you can where you are and grow organically.
The regenerative movement is such a positive one, and there’s such an amazing community of people who are so willing to share what they’ve learned. Regenerative farming is better for the environment. It’s better for your health. It’s better for the health of the livestock or your plants. It’s just a positive force.
Sign up for Farmer’s Inside Track: Join our exclusive platform for new entrants into farming and agri-business, with newsletters and and podcasts.