Regenerative Agroforestry: (A few) Basic Challenges and Solutions

In our last post we took a general look at Regenerative Agroforestry. We looked a bit at the philosophy of it, and the basics of why it might be necessary, but didn’t give a good sense of how it’s used practically. So, if you’d like to give that post a read before reading today’s post, you can find it here. Today, we’d like to take a look at some common challenges and solutions faced by projects that use regenerative agroforestry. Keep in mind that this is an art-form that extends well beyond the few basic challenges we’re highlighting here. Our goal is to provide some basic insight into the heart of the process, and some common solutions.

Challenge #1 – Soil Formation is Slow

Soil is decomposition. It’s the end result of all life when it’s broken down. As some wise man once (almost) said, “Soil you are, and to soil you will return.” For example, when trees drop their leaves and branches to the ground, or wildlife eats some fruit or grass they poop it out. Then, microorganisms are around to decompose those leaves, eat that poop and make soil. Even lichen, sitting on a rock for generations, is slowly eating the stone, breaking it down to the base minerals the stone is made of.

Any time one form of life eats another you can bet soil is the eventual result. However, this can be a long process. Under normal circumstances taking a few hundred years to create something as small as a centimeter of soil. But frankly, if we want to build soil at a pace that allows us to create healthy ecosystems and act towards mitigating climate change, we don’t have that kind of time. So, to be able to put back all the fertility we’ve eroded away, we need a some way to organically accelerate the process of soil formation.

Solution #1 – Accelerate the Cycle of Soil Formation

The clearest example of quick soil formation is compost. With the right ingredients, and under the right conditions, a compost can become very similar to a mature forest soil within a few weeks. But to understand why compost works the way it does, we’ll have to take a step back to understand a bit more about soil.

The fertility of soil is often equated with high numbers in a soil analysis. That’s the question too many farmers ask, ‘How many minerals are in my soil?” But, in reality, the amount of nitrogen, potassium, or phosphorous means nothing by itself. Soil is the result of a deep interaction between Minerals, organic Matter, and Microorganisms acting together as a single living organism. (The 3 M’s.)

What compost is doing then, is concentrating a much higher amount of those 3 M’s (minerals, organic matter, and microorganisms) than you would find naturally in nature. Then, by placing them into a moist and shady environment that decomposition loves, compost is able to take a process that can take decades and focus it into one that takes weeks.

And while regenerative agroforestry is definitely interested in using composts to improve soil quality, it’s also interested in turning entire forest floors into one gigantic compost. But, in order to have enough raw material (manure, green waste, wood, etc) for a forest floor to behave like a compost we have to accumulate it there. And all of that organic matter has to grow somewhere. Which leads us to our next challenge.

Challenge #2 – How Do You Generate Growth in Degraded Environments?

For most crops, the quality and quantity of what you produce is directly proportional to the fertility of the soil and conditions of the ecosystem. But, as we’ve established in the previous post, the majority of the ecosystems we work with are severely degraded. And we can’t realistically rely on them to support the health of what we plant.

At a small scale, compost would definitely work. But, when you start thinking about reforesting a whole region, there’s a bottleneck. Organic projects will usually buy their fertility in the form of hay bales, compost, manure, or woodchips. But every time you buy one of these, you’re taking it from another piece of land that’s losing that potential fertility. There is no way to produce enough fertility for a whole region without stealing it from somewhere else.

So, scalable projects need to discover a way to produce organic matter, and build fertility from within an ecosystem.

Solution #2 – Syntropic Growth

Most plants have more energy in reserve than what they use. It’s the bit of energy they’re saving for emergencies (browsing deer, insect attacks etc). So, it might seem that when you prune a plant you’re hurting it (and that’s sometimes true) but from another point of view, you’re behaving like a deer or an insect in order to stimulate growth.

Here regenerative agriculture owes a great debt to Ernst Gotsch and Syntropic agriculture which takes this understanding about plants and brings it to its extreme. Oversimplifying: through over-planting hundreds of species where only a few would otherwise be, the natural competition between plants along with vigorous pruning, stimulates a lot of growth. And, in this way, we can stimulate a soil and an ecosystem by accelerating the cycle of the 3 M’s currently available to it, without having to rely on external inputs.

The accumulation of organic matter in a syntropic plantation, as some growth is pruned.

Challenge #3 – How to distribute light?

Though we can do plenty about the fertility and quality of soil, there’s much less we can do about the conditions of the ecosystem (amount of light, water, strength of wind, etc). And the element we have the least control over is light. We can’t bring light from somewhere else like we do with water. So, instead, we develop strategies to use light as efficiently as we can.

We’d go so far as to say that farmers are meant to be artists who convert light into food. And while conventional farming has pushed away from having to consider light at all (usually by cutting everything down, and making sure that the chosen monoculture gets 100% of all available light.) any ecosystem that works with biodiversity will have to think about how it uses light. It’s a real puzzle to figure out how light can be distributed to make sure there’s enough light not only for the tallest canopy trees, but also for the bushes, climbers, and the smallest plants in the shade.

What we need to keep in mind here is that the more healthy leaves we can grow, the more light we can capture. In light of this, the quest that develops from this challenge of distributing light is “How can we, given that every plot of land is unique, use a diversity of sizes, shapes and species to create structures that maximize the growth of an ecosystem?”

Solution #3 – The Architecture of the Forest

In the same way most people wouldn’t simply want to start building a house without a plan, you might not want to start planting a forest without one either. Special attention needs to be placed into the architecture of the forest to account for each space’s particularities, that is, how species will be arranged to maximize the capture and movement of light.

How to arrange a forest is one of those rabbit holes that could easily take up a few years of your life. And, if that’s something you’re interested, here and here are the two volumes of probably the best (and most complete) book on forest gardening we’ve found. In this post, however, I’d like to explore some of the basics.

  1. There are 7 basic layers or strata in a forest. As an example, in a native forest here, you might see large oak trees shading smaller hawthorne trees, over some native wild plants, bushes, or ivy all while still leaving enough light left over for some native medicinals to grow in the deep shade. By understanding the different physical shapes and sizes a forest can take, we can understand the different ways a forest can capture sunlight and begin to design them in a way that uses the full range of nature’s variability.
  2. Niches (ecological spaces) aren’t all physical. They can extend in many ways: through a day, or over seasons. For example, aromatics only need about 4-6 hours of sunlight a day to develop, so they can be planted to the eastern side of a tree or bush so that they sit in full sun only during the morning hours and then stay in shade for the rest of the day. Or, spring flowers that enjoy full sun in early spring , but are then shaded out for the rest of the year when trees grow their leaves. There are many ways we can position plants to efficiently take advantage of the full range of the sun’s light.
  3. Building on this idea of niches, there are many species who thrive in shade, low-light or semi-shade environments. Currants, for example, don’t do much of anything after they get about 70% of a day’s light, while ginseng needs to be grown in complete shade.

Essentially, the deeper we can grow into 3 dimensions of space, the greater potential for production there is. And, regenerative agroforestry uses these insights to continuously deepen what an ecosystem is capable of producing. But this need to use differing structures, means getting comfortable in working with many species; which brings its own challenge.

Challenge #4 – Diversity

Monoculture’s easy. You can kill a piece of land, and not even have to think about it. You rip up the soil, pick a seed, sow it everywhere, apply plenty of convenient chemicals and poisons to ensure no other life can take hold, and then you water and wait.

Diversity is hard. Every piece of land is unique and needs its own design in which water, air, soil, fire, how the sun moves, and a thousand other small details must be taken into account. Instead of an individual plant, you have to think about and listen to a living, breathing system in continual evolving relationship with everything around it. It requires people. People who slowly become aware of the deep inter-relationships between all things. And it requires people to adapt their plans to the reality of their surroundings instead of imposing them.

And this need (people who know how to listen to nature), in our opinion, is the leading reason why conventional agriculture has not taken on the challenge. However, with the challenges of climate change and it becoming abundantly clear that a well designed diverse ecosystems outproduces monocultures in almost every way, its only a matter of time before diverse ecosystems become the norm.

So, what to do?

Solution #4 – Mimic/Organize Nature

If you’re ever lucky enough to discover one of the dwindling patches of undisturbed forest left, walk slowly and take in what you see. There’s a lot to learn there. Breathe in the musky scent of soil, while listening to music of life. Note the variety of species, and structures. How the light plays and pokes through the canopy, and how the air moves around you. This is how nature would like to behave. And this is the base on which regenerative agroforestry wants to design.

And while the art/science of designing/organizing these natural constellations of species goes well beyond this post we can begin to gain insight into the types of relationships that arise through studying ecological guilds.

A guild in this context is a group of species that live and grow in the same space and whose relationship leads to symbiotic connections that benefit the ecosystem and the people who live within it. Those relationships can be summarized by the following table.

Species that produce food or materials that can be used. This can include not only calories, but herbal tea, syrups, paper, rope….
Everything you’ve ever eaten, or have ever seen made from organic materials.
Dynamic AccumulatorsAll species accumulate minerals in their tissues, but there are some species that accumulate especially high amounts of particular minerals. Sometimes hundreds of times more than a normal amount.Black locust, comfrey, yarrow, nettle…
Nitrogen Fixers
Species, mainly legumes and frankia, that have underground associations with bacteria that remove unstable nitrogen from the air, and convert it to stable nitrogen in the soil.Alder, Broom, lupine, clover, beans, alfalfa, wisteria, honey locust…
Plants that generate a lot of organic matter and withstand chop-and-drop well. Ideal mulch species would be those that accumulate many minerals, are not very woody, and that have a strong root that regrow easily.Banana, comfrey, vetiver, Borrage….
Pest Confusers
Species that exude pheromones and components into the air that repel vermin and pests. In large quantities they can ensure that pests do not concentrate.Alliums, chamomile, marigolds…
Beneficial attractors
Species such as flowers that attract pollinating bugs, or other beneficial species to increase the diversity of the ecosystem.Calendula, parsley, comfrey…
Species that when present change the behavior of the species around them. As if they were being taught. For example, when mugwort is planted with tomatoes, the tomatoes become more resistant to herbivores.Tobacco, mugwort, stevia…

Nature doesn’t really go through a design process. She spreads her seed, and wherever they germinate is the right place. People, however, design. We have the capacity to look and learn from natural behavior of nature, and organize it to create ecosystems that maximize growth.

By learning from what nature does, regenerative agroforestry has the ability to make informed choices about how to create guilds of different species, how to distribute them effectively, and how to establish symbioses between our plantations and the wild world.

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