In 2020, Toast Ale began working with Soil Heroes to compensate for their carbon emissions.
Wanting to go beyond offsetting, Toast Ale initiated a project to fund a unique experiment. Through its Companion Series, Toast supported Weston Park Farms to trial Companion Cropping.
Why is this important?
There couldn’t be a more crucial time for this trial: farmers are facing soaring nitrogen prices, whilst devastating levels of soil degradation are leading to forecasts of a 10 percent reduction in crop yields by 2050.
That’s not all, though. The food and agriculture sector contributes to around 1/3 of global emissions (the second biggest contributor behind energy) as well as 24,000 of the 28,000 (86%) species at risk of extinction.
If one thing’s certain, a serious rethink of our current agriculture and commodity system is needed – and fast – to reverse this trajectory.
Our current system
Most of our food comes from monoculture systems: a single crop species grown in any given field. Soybeans, wheat, rice and corn are prime examples. These four crops alone occupy just shy of 50 per cent of the world’s entire agricultural lands.
However, this system cannot provide food at its current rate for long.
According to Jones-Walters, research scientist at Wageningen University; “Diseases and pests can tear straight through such one-crop fields. Soil life is also severely impoverished, with negative consequences for nutrient and water management.”
So, how on earth did they emerge and why are they so popular?
Monocultures emerged as easier access to larger, distant markets led to specialisation.
The increased efficiency meant an increase in productivity and profit: more efficient planting and harvesting, fewer types of expensive equipment, fewer labourers with specialist knowledge of individual crops and strengthened knowledge of one value chain and commercial market.
However, we’re reaching a new era of understanding in agriculture, where high output can no longer cost the environment and the people who produce our food.
The power of companions
Companion cropping, put simply, is the practice of growing two or more crop species together. Through this, it creates an environment which allows natural processes to reinforce one another.
And so a regenerative spiral begins, by “boost[ing] biodiversity, creating natural defences against external factors that can threaten an environment, such as pests, pollution and climate change.” says Jonas-Walters.
Embedded in history
Though aspects of this trial are unique, crop diversity is nothing new. Variations of companion cropping have existed since the very beginnings of agriculture.
North American Indigenous tribes coined the term Three Sisters gardening as far back as 6-8,000 years, whilst other forms have existed within their own contexts. It’s a natural law that has been carried by ancient wisdom and is now used in permaculture practices.
Today companion cropping is a little like the Wild West; “you have to experiment to see what works for you” says UK regenerative farmer Andrew Howard. Experimentation is not always feasible for commercial farmers who rely on known systems for their businesses survival.
“There’s actually a lot of literature on intercropping… But it’s all sitting on a shelf – what’s needed is more on-farm research… We also need to develop specific machinery for certain intercropping systems for them to be successful” says Howard.
The Companion Series trial
This trial aimed to use companion cropping to solve challenges for the farmer:
- Maintaining an efficient commercial method without needing new, expensive machinery or extra labour, by sowing a mixture of legumes (beans) and wheat to be harvested together as cash crops.
- Reducing artificial inputs used for growing wheat, by allowing the properties of legumes to increase the natural availability of nitrogen in the soil.
- Increasing the yield, by using the different root lengths of legumes and wheat to take water at different levels in the soil.
Successful adaptations can provide the basis for simpler alternatives. This makes the transition into regenerative practices faster, easier and ultimately, the most attractive option.
This experiment showed that crop combinations of beans and wheat deliver positive results.
Compared with the control plot, significantly more carbon was captured and avoided: the trial plot sequestered 26.8 tonnes of CO2 and avoided emissions of 6.3 tonnes CO2 – the equivalent to 7 cars being off the road for one year.
Nature rewarded the farmer with lower costs and a much higher yield.
We saw a greater diversity of habitat available for insects and birds to flourish, and an overall healthier soil biology. The trial increased biomass by 20% (with an expected similar increase in yields), boosted naturally available nitrogen levels from the soil by 64% for plant growth (reducing the need for additional fertilisers).
This trial of companion cropping at a commercial scale is a great showcase of more fruitful opportunities for both farmers and our ecosystem, and was a great learning for all involved.
It will also support the wider transition to regenerative agriculture as we spread knowledge. Soil Heroes shares success cases like this with other farmers through peer-2-peer sessions, and works with companies to deliver financing to reintegrate nature in our farming and production systems.
Toast Ale raised awareness for regen ag through the Companion Series, and delivered a successful trial that raised the bar in farming. We were pleased to see food systems given more time at COP27 and will be continuing to advocate for positive change from the ground up.
Do you want to make an impact like Toast Ale? Get in touch with Rubie, using the link below.
Rubie Van Crevel
Account Manager – Corporate Clients
Let’s talk about Regenerative Agriculture
You know you’ll dig it too.