Imagine a single technology capable of feeding people and wildlife at the same time. Whose work removes carbon from the air, and whose residue builds houses (and heats them.) Now, imagine that this same technology was able to clean the air, water and soil, keep us healthy, create rain, and play a key role in reversing climate change. If you know us at all you’ve probably guessed by now that we’re describing a forest.
The catch to this miraculous tech, however, is that we can’t plant a biodiverse/productive forest wherever we like. The truth is that we’ve destroyed or seriously weakened most of the soils and ecosystems capable of supporting them. Most places we’d plant a forest these days would soon dry out, burn up in a wildfire, or succumb to disease. But instead of descending into the doom and gloom that seems to surround every conversation about climate change, we’d like to move instead towards something that gives us hope.
We have a tool at our disposal capable of transitioning degraded lands where barely a pine will grow, into thriving productive and biodiverse forests. That tool is regenerative agroforestry.
What is Regenerative Agroforestry?
Less a strict methodology, and more a kind of ecologic hygiene, regenerative agroforestry is a group of patterns, insights, and techniques that allow us to work within nature, instead of imposing our order on it. Through it we can create highly productive and biodiverse ecosystems. What sets it apart, is its capacity not just to sustain some small ecologic benefits, but to go above and beyond to use a strong, resilient, and healthy ecology as the primary engine that fuels productivity.
Through a deep understanding of ecology, regenerative agroforestry is used to design forested ecosystems that:
- Improve and build soil through organic methods.
- Direct natural flows of resources (light, air, soil, and wind) and materials to create positive feedbacks.
- Accelerate natural processes in order to strengthen the ecosystem, and eliminate our reliance on external inputs and chemical fertilizers.
- Work with a deep diversity of species and the interconnection between them to generate natural resilience.
- Adapt to the contours and particularities of the land it’s on.
This might seem quite straight forward, but we’ve noticed that for many people it’s hard to understand why regeneration is necessary if they don’t first understand how degraded our ecosystems are.
Most people have become so used to seeing nature in its current state, that they can’t quite imagine what it might have been like in the past. So, we’d like to ask you to use your imagination to travel back in time to a moment where people first began to cultivate a particular plot of land in our region.
You’ll see that those people understood that forested lands were very fertile. And it was worth it for them to spend months burning or cutting away the forest, digging into the soil to pull out roots, eliminating large rocks from underground, and often terracing whole hills by hand in order to plow it under and cultivate some annual cereal crops. Now, these few months of work would have generations of benefits as they would support their family year after year (with some down years, of course) with only the fertility already present in the soil, and the manure they’d cycle back to it.
Ask yourself, who created that original fertility? And then compare it to today.
Today, if you visit those same plots of lands it seems like they can’t produce without continual doses of chemical fertilizer, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides….. Something about our management has led to agriculture that left to itself produces poorly, becomes diseased, or simply burns away. This is the degenerated state of our land. We’ve made it completely reliant on our (poor) management.
It’s clear, that for better or worse, our choices transform the world. The good news, however, is that in the same way that we’ve degenerated the world, we can build it back up.
This is regeneration. It’s the understanding that we live in weakened ecosystems. But that we can return fertility, resilience, and health to them. And, in the same way that our influence has pushed us into this corner of climate change, we have the ability to change our behavior and regenerate ecosystems back to (and beyond) what they once were.
What is Agroforestry?
Agroforestry in its most basic form is an attempt to design land so that agricultural crops share space with perennial bushes and trees. By doing this, agroforestry creates ecosystems that instead of struggling to keep the land producing a single crop, actually benefit from the presence of multiple species (and animals).
A typical agforoestry system might look like quite simple: a row of crops, between rows of trees. However, this can get much more interesting. For example, here’s a picture of New Forest Farms run by Mark Shepard. You can see rows of annuals and perennials in between rows of trees. And, you can also see the diversity of species he uses, as well as how the design of the land allows for it to be efficiently managed by machine.
This becomes especially interesting when you realize that in these same sections, he’ll also run cows, pigs, sheep, geese, chickens and more. Through projects like his, you really begin to glimpse how immensely productive land can be when our goal is to create an ecosystem in which we prioritize people, the planet, and profit.
Monoculture vs. Polyculture
For entirely too long, the majority of agriculture has worked mostly with monoculture. Or the practice of keeping only a single species on a plot of land. What agroforestry pushes towards is a deeply diverse polycultural system, in which many species coexist and actually help each other to create ecologically resilient ecosystems.
What’s become clear is that monocropping degrades the world around us. It’s most common implementations erode soil, exposing and killing microorganisms within it. While its design stops the natural succession of ecological events from taking place.
Nature relies on the relationships between all things. For example, the presences of birds and their manure fertilize soils. Their poop also brings with it a wide variety of “weeds” which (against common knowledge) actually work to improve the soil and protect from diseases while creating conditions for young trees. This is a very narrow example of a very wide and complex web of relationships that nature creates. But the richer the polyculture (the more species there are), the more relationships can arise, and the more stable the ecosystem can become.
When you put regeneration and agroforestry together you get something that, in our opinion, is absolutely transformative.
We’ve become used to having to make choice between spaces that are either productive, or ecologic. To us, this has always been a bit sad to have to make that choice. Yet, regenerative agroforestry eliminates that choice. It as a tool capable of taking highly degraded spaces and converting them into beautiful and productive forests that regenerate the space in which they grow.
Yet the how it does that, is a very large question, we can’t fully tackle in a single post. Which is why we’ll be going over some of the challenges and solutions that Regenerative Agroforestry faces in our next post.
Until then, ciao!