Monocultures in Western agriculture have rapidly increased with the growth of industrial farming, synthetic fertilisers and heavy machinery, prescribing to the motto; more is more. This ‘maximise output, minimise time and labour’ method may have worked to feed a growing population, but our soils are paying the price. And if farmers’ soils are degraded, so too is their ability to produce crops.
A growing number of food producers are discovering a whole-systems thinking approach defined as regenerative agriculture, which incorporates land management designed in a way to mimic nature’s wise systems. This holistic approach to farming focuses on preserving soil health as a means to prevent soil degradation; increasing crop quality and yield per square hectare; and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
Regenerative agriculture works in harmony with the land by using techniques such as crop diversity and in the case of this article – companion cropping.
Derived from the Latin meaning “with whom one eats bread”, the word companion teaches us that food is not only the fuel on which human’s function, but it nourishes our relationships too.
Two of our companions have adopted this theme on their regenerative journeys, and it’s safe to say it’s working pretty well…
Bread’s in the name. These guys are one of the most innovative, forward-thinking and sustainably minded breweries in the industry. With their unique recipe which replaces around one-third of malted barley with surplus bread, Toast are making lemonade from lemons or, well, making beer from old bread… and yep, it’s delicious.
So where do companions come in?
After recognising the food production industry’s responsibility for 1/3 of the world’s carbon emissions and 80% of deforestation, Toast, in line with their purpose-driven philosophy, added to their inspiring list of meaningful ventures by forming the Companion Series – a coalition with 26 other breweries, including the well known brewers; Guinness and Beavertown.
To make a stance, the beer manufacturers involved brewed using surplus bread and signed an open letter addressed to World Leaders attending COP26 and beyond, highlighting the need for change. Competitors became companions on a collective mission, and the results so far have been beautiful.
Toast didn’t stop there, though. Searching for innovative ways to keep reducing their footprint, they decided to work with Soil Heroes and UK regenerative farmers to help the planet by storing carbon.
Due to the brewer’s forward-thinking philosophy, we could think of no one better to partner them with than the most innovative farmers in the UK.
The Cherrys, Weston Park Farms
Once a year in the Hertfordshire countryside, Groundswell, Europe’s first and largest Regenerative Agricultural show takes place; celebrating soil health within agriculture. The other days of the year, it is the UK’s most pioneering regenerative farm.
After almost 30 years of conventional farming, brothers John and Paul Cherry noticed their inputs mounting and their yields and crop quality declining. In light of this, they slowly but surely made the shift to regenerative farming. 10 years on, the farm has seen dramatic improvements to their soil’s water infiltration, fertility, crop quality, and yields.
Producing a variety of crops adhering to the 5 principles of regenerative agriculture, they’ve created a brilliantly holistic recipe for their farm to thrive.
After seeing the farm’s impressive transformation, the Cherrys were surprised to discover only a small number of food producers using this method. So they waited, waited, and waited some more, until they decided it was time to put on a show.
Started in 2016 as a rather small and niche show, Groundswell has since gained an increasing amount of traction with 3,500 visitors from all backgrounds now attending.
Perhaps most exciting are the world-renowned guest speakers such as Alan Savoury, Charles Massy, and this year, scientist Jill Clapperton giving their unique perspectives into the endless benefits that regenerative agriculture provides.
To commemorate their partnership with Toast Ale, the Cherrys have fittingly decided to push the boundaries of regenerative farming. Using the principle of ‘diversity’, they are experimenting with companion cropping.
Companion Crops and their Benefits
Companion crops are a polyculture, consisting of different crops grown together in close proximity for a variety of reasons.
Being an incredibly unique venture in Western agriculture, companion crops are typically found within “resource poor and marginal growing environments” such as South America to maximise land productivity. In Western contexts, the practice could potentially be adopted as natural alternatives to pesticides and chemical fertilisers typically found within monocultures.
As we face a risky future, where natural and financial resources are stretched, new efficient ways of thinking could help us to produce ever more food in a rapidly changing environment.
In the fields of Weston Park Farm, the chosen crops were beans and wheat. Upon arrival, the floral scent from the bean plants immediately hits the senses. So too, the sound of busy bees, hard at work. It is a spectacularly unfamiliar site amongst British landscape, but the obvious late spring-time beauty is not the most impressive thing about this field – it’s the turning cogs below ground.
This carefully selected variety of bean works to…
- Eradicate the need for nitrogen fertiliser meaning reduced production costs as well as an increase in soil’s organic matter
- Increase biodiversity, as the flower from the bean plant attracts various pollinating species
- Maximise water filtration due to different root lengths, allowing the soil to absorb water at different levels
- Improve plant health as they aren’t competing for nutrients. The different crops have root systems that work at different depths.
This spring has been very dry, the fields are rock solid and, according to Alex Cherry, the combination of plants has created the best quality of crop seen throughout the whole farm this year. As our chief scientist Leandro delved deeper into legume roots, the red appearance of the buds signified a very healthy amount of nitrogen fixed with the crop, confirming Alex’s observations.
As this method is relatively unexplored there is little evidence for farmers to base decisions on, making it a gamble for those who may have limited resources and rely on their yields for a living.
It is with pioneering farmers like the Cherrys paving the way that we will be able to quantify the benefits of this practice and contribute to the evolution of farming knowledge. Not to forget, turning a monocultural landscape into a beautifully diverse one that will complement nature and provide food for us sustainably, too.
So, How do we Measure Environmental Impact?
WE DIG HOLES! Through our platform and unique methodology, we can quantify and verify how much carbon is captured, water stored, and the boost to biodiversity.
This process begins by understanding the soil’s health. A baseline measurement – otherwise known as Timestamp 0 – is a mix of tried and tested soil samples and state of the art digital tech. We use this information to quantify the change in building soil health over time.
Timing is important in everything we do. In this instance, as companion cropping is a relatively unexplored field in agriculture, we measure the crops biomass just before harvest. This gives us a better understanding of how the selected variety have grown together, therefore helping to inform our future modelling for companion cropping.
Here at Soil Heroes, we celebrate outside-the-box thinking and recognise the need for change. Companion cropping is not one of our usual ventures which is why we are proud and excited to learn alongside our pioneering partners paving the way for the future of regenerative agriculture.
If you’d like to know more about our work, please get in touch with our Business Development Manager using the link below.
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