How does regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture increase biodi­ver­sity?

Aisha Hassan and Lukas Paltanav­ičius are cycling across the world to learn hands-on about prac­tices of regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture. In a series of arti­cles, they will share their insights from the field. In this guest article they uncover how regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture helps to increase biodi­ver­sity.

Along their journey, Aisha and Lucas met many regen­er­a­tive farmers. But what prompted those farmers to adopt the prac­tice?

In 2020, Paul and Janine Raabe started the commu­nity farm Hof Lebens­berg in the Northern Palati­nate, Germany after concluding that the only tangible way they could combat climate change was to create their own inher­ently sustain­able ecosystem.

Also working as regen­er­a­tive agro­forestry consul­tants, the couple soon realised that the market was not providing nursery trees of the right species, quality, or price. Hoping to facil­i­tate the spread of agro­forestry and make it scal­able for other farmers to imple­ment, they decided to estab­lished the tree nursery ‘Acker­baum’ in 2018, looking to fulfill the demand gener­ated by their consul­tancy clients.

We prac­tise regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture because we wanted to restore the degraded ecosystem, the biodi­ver­sity losses, but also to contribute to a healthy and lively region.

Janine Raabe

Janine Raabe explains about the impor­tance of the multi­func­tional agro­forestry stripe system as a wind­break for their farm located on top of the hill.

In Jordan, Rakan Mehyar, from Carob Farm, explained that it was bees that drew him into regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture. He started with 30 hives, but soon found that the colony was strug­gling to survive. He tried planting lavender and rose­mary, hoping the pollen would solve the problem, but began to under­stand that the bees needed a larger area to polli­nate. Mr Mehyar’s farm is surrounded by mono­cul­ture olive fields, which are consis­tently sprayed and ploughed, with no wild­flowers to be found. The only solu­tion to keep the bees alive was to start increasing biodi­ver­sity on his own piece of land and to feed the bees with nectar in the mean­time.

Feeding bees with nectar at Carob Farm, Jordan.

In Absdorf, Austria, the cycling duo visited Alfred Grand, an organic arable farmer, market gardener and managing director at Vermi­grand, a vermi­com­post company he started about 25 years ago to produce peat-free soil substrates using epigean earth­worms.

Mr Grand explained what had inspired him to tran­si­tion to regen­er­a­tive farming prac­tices. “The earth­worms trained me and initi­ated my curiosity for soil and soil-plant inter­ac­tions. The earth­worms also inspired me to convert to organic agri­cul­ture. The worms are a lot more intel­li­gent than humans.”

Cycling around 90 ha Grand Farm with Alfred Grand.

The earth­worms seem­ingly effort­lessly, seem to have a symbi­otic rela­tion­ship with so many aspects of their ecosystem, like with water and soil. Real­ising this made me tran­si­tion our family farm to organic produc­tion and later to regen­er­a­tive. Despite the commu­nity around who had little trust in the success of organic agri­cul­ture.

Alfred Grand

All the farmers had one thing in common: the desire for change. They have all expe­ri­enced the conse­quences of biodi­ver­sity decline and aim to reverse this trend.

About Cycle to Farms

Cycle to Farms is a project by Aisha & Lukas, who cycle 7000 km from farm to farm in Europe, The Middle-East and Africa. Along the way Aisha & Lukas docu­ment regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture prac­tices, here they share a series of posts about their learn­ings.

Our journey started in May 2022 in the Nether­lands and took us through Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herze­govina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Jordan, Egypt and Kenya. Currently, we are cycling and visiting farms in Uganda. As we progress, we gain various insights of regen­er­a­tive farming prac­tices, which we cover in a series of arti­cles.

We visited regen­er­a­tive farms in various contexts to gain valu­able lessons and insights on tran­si­tioning to climate-resilient agri­cul­tural prac­tices. It gaves us a better under­standing of how farmers regen­erate their land, how to best support regen­er­a­tive farmers and inspire others to tran­si­tion to regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture.

The farms we visited varied in size, from a few hectares to thou­sands, and in soil type, from clay to rocky and sandy desert soils. We also saw different produc­tion systems, such as arable farming, fruit orchards, food forests, and market gardens, often farms had a mix of produc­tion systems.

Despite the diver­sity, all farms shared a common goal: combat­ting climate change, strength­ening soil health, managing water, and increasing biodi­ver­sity. All the farmers we visited were solu­tion-oriented and focused on shared prin­ci­ples, while main­taining indi­vidual prac­tices and unique busi­ness models.

Find out more about the project Cycle to Farms

How to increase biodi­ver­sity above ground

Most of the farms visited combine different produc­tion systems, from arable farming, market gardening, to agro­forestry and live­stock. The inte­gra­tion of systems is impor­tant for restoring the ecosystem, enabling enter­prises to func­tion with reduced external inputs. All the farmers visited had an agro­forestry system in their design plan, because they have bene­fits like the poten­tial for higher crop yields, reduced topsoil erosion, provi­sion of shade and shelter, and can act as a wind and fire­break.

In 2020, we planted 30 000 trees and shrubs, and in the next 15 years, we will have a nut forest between the 50-meter stripes. On the larger stripes, we grow crops such as pota­toes and cereals. The nut forest provides shade and wind break, which is very impor­tant because our farm is located on top of a hill.

Janine Raabe

Mr and Mrs Raabe planted a multi variety nut forest, including chestnut, almond, peanut, quad nut, hazelnut, walnut, pecan, and black walnut trees, as well as other vari­eties with different genomes, which can cross-polli­nate. On the outer rows, they planted poplar and tayberry every metre. In between, they planted biomass trees which are increasing soil biomass and protecting the soil.

Hof Lebens­berg 30 ha regen­er­a­tive farm and tree nursery Acker­baum in Germany.

Besides agro­forestry systems, most farms also have a market garden, where they offer a wide range and steady supply of fresh produce during the local growing season.

In the Nether­lands, we visited Howard Koster and Claudia Rudorf, a young family who started farming in March 2022 on a 35ha plot of land owned by Land van Ons – a citizen’s co-oper­a­tive which works to restore biodi­ver­sity and land­scapes by leasing land to farmers who want to work in a nature-friendly way. Volun­teers from Land van Ons support lease­holders to imple­ment their plans, assisting with day-to-day oper­a­tions.

“We plan to use nature-inclu­sive methods across our plot,” explains Mr Koster. “In the arable fields we’re going to grow hemp, lupins (for protein) and cereals, in rota­tion with other crops. And to regen­erate soils we’ll use a mixture of grass and clover for the cows and sheep to graze.”

While trying to catch an escaped sheep, Mr Koster stresses the impor­tance of having live­stock on the farm. “Animals are part of the ecosystem and also have an essen­tial role in our food produc­tion system and the regen­er­a­tion of soils.”

Farm De Biesterhof, where Howard loosens a fence after a pair of sheep escape.

The farmers visited also focus on diver­si­fying the plant species and vari­eties grown on their land, bene­fiting biodi­ver­sity across the farms. Different plants and trees attract and create habi­tats for organ­isms like birds, owls, bats, butter­flies, and bees, all of which contribute to the health of a farm and have an impact both above and below ground.

Prac­tices to increase biodi­ver­sity below ground

Unlike other farming systems, regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture is specif­i­cally aimed at improving soil health. Soil is the foun­da­tion of farming and the main factor in increasing biodi­ver­sity, both above and below ground.

On our journey, we have seen common prac­tices that focus on building organic matter in the soil using compost. This is a complex decom­po­si­tion process where plant mate­rial, water and animal residues are combined to form a sani­tised compost.

Compost is like a blank page, the more colours you put into it the more colours you get out of it.

Fadoul Kawar

Amid degraded land char­ac­terised by over­grazed fields and an occa­sional passing cyclone carrying eroded soil, the couple met Fadoul Kawar, who is regen­er­ating a one-hectare field in Jordan using compost. “Compost theo­ries are focused on one specific context of soil compo­si­tion, but different contexts require different compost,” he says. “For example, it’s not common to use orange peels in compost. But while the orange peel may disturb some soils, it tends to enhance the nutrient and pH balance here.”

There are several ways to restore nutrient balance. Mr Grand uses earth­worms in his compost to restore soil nutri­ents. “Different organ­isms are respon­sible for different nutrient cycles,” he says. “Earth­worms are very effi­cient at recy­cling food waste and other organic matter into nutrient-rich compost.”

We want to grow food but we also want to grow soil

Alfred Grand, Grand Garden, Austria
Alfred Grand holding small black crum­bles, which are the bio-humus – the by-product of earth­worms.

Regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture a beacon of hope for biodi­ver­sity

For all the farmers, the tran­si­tion to regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture was prompted by chal­lenges, be it a lack of plant mate­rial to develop fertile agro­forestry systems, or a lack of diver­sity to keep bee colonies alive, or the need to revi­talise the soil with compost. Its clear farmers are taking an active role in addressing the chal­lenges posed by climate change, and perhaps the most impor­tant lesson is that we cannot wait for solu­tions to arrive at our doors. If climate related issues are to be addressed, we must start now, and develop healthy ecosys­tems at a regional level.