Unlocking Water Manage­ment Secrets in Regen­er­a­tive Agri­cul­ture

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 look at how regen­er­a­tive farmers are managing water resources.

Water scarcity is an increasing problem in Europe, while many regions around the world are already expe­ri­encing water stress. Food produc­tion is often iden­ti­fied as a major contrib­utor to water scarcity. It is, there­fore, essen­tial that we learn from each other to reduce water stress, even in areas where supplies are currently abun­dant.

During our farm visits, we have seen areas that were hit hardest by water scarcity, in coun­tries like Jordan and Kenya.

It didn’t take much research to realise that we’ve been so passive in our farming approach: water is scarce yet we used no rain harvest.

Rakan Mehyar, from Carob Farm, Jordan

Rakan Mehyar, the owner of a Carob farm in Madaba, Jordan, has faced water stress since he began farming. Madaba has a ‘steppe’ or semi-arid climate with an average annual rain­fall of 191 mm a year.

When starting his farming career, Rakan designed his farm to capture and use rain­water as effi­ciently as possible. During an organ­ised farm tour, he explained that the first step in designing a water manage­ment system was to iden­tify the highest possible alti­tude on the farm.

Rakan’s farm with swale system, water pound, shaded nurs­eries and cover crops in olive field next to a conven­tional farm in Madaba, Jordan.

Slowing down the water flow

Rakan has slowed the water with rocks to diffuse its energy and used pipes to divert the flow. Swales then spread the water through fields which are bordered by trees. The tree roots help contain the water by acting as natural dams. Rakan high­lighted the impor­tance of the trees for the swales’ func­tioning. As we walk along the trees around the swales he explains that without them, the water would be even more damaging, as it would flow through the swales at high speed. The trees moderate satu­ra­tion levels, store more water in the soil through their root systems, and help stabilise the land­scape, making the soil more resis­tant to erosion.

Every year when it rains, there’s a natural system that feeds itself and holds the water and creates an eco-system that provides all the services needed for the crops to grow and leaves the soil more fertile then before.

Rakan Mehyar
Bedouins relo­cating, their live­stock creating dust clouds in Wadi Rajeb, Jordan.

Asked what the incen­tives were to start water harvesting, Rakan explained that he had realised winter rain­fall was causing serious erosion sweeping away the top soil. This has brought Rakan to the idea to make use of the runoff by building a reser­voir to store the water. He started storing rain­water in an above ground sheeted pool. A cheap and rela­tively simple solu­tion.

Fadoul Kawar, another farmer in the same region, has been prac­tising regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture for the past five years. Although his farm is still tran­si­tioning to a densely vege­tated land­scape, the soil health is already signif­i­cantly better than that of neigh­bouring fields where over­grazing causes sand columns to form in the sky above the barren fields. In contrast Fadoul’s fields are covered in mulch to help retain mois­ture and are far darker.

In the first few years, Fadoul planned and designed his field to use rain­fall runoff as effi­ciently as possible. He iden­ti­fied the highest point on the field and designed a water system to channel water to his fields. This water is slowed and filtered through strate­gi­cally placed then captured in a natural pond which also harvests and stores rain­water.

Being reliant on govern­ment water is not only expen­sive but also not sustain­able

Fadoul Kawar, from Jordan

Fadoul is still imple­menting the work so continues to rely on govern­ment water supply, for which he pays 2.5 JOD (£2.80) per cubic metre.

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 docu­ments regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture prac­tices, here they share a series of posts about their learn­ings.

The journey of Aisha & Lukas started in May in the Nether­lands and took them through Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herze­govina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Jordan and Egypt marking the comple­tion of phase one and two and the start of phase three of the Cycle to Farms journey. Currently, they are cycling and visiting farms in Rwanda. As they progress, they gain various insights of regen­er­a­tive farming prac­tices, which they cover in a series of arti­cles.

They visited regen­er­a­tive farms in various contexts to gain valu­able lessons and insights on tran­si­tioning to climate-resilient agri­cul­tural prac­tices. It gives them 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 they visited varied in size, from a few hectares to thou­sands, and in soil type, from clay to rocky and sandy desert soils. They also had different produc­tion systems, such as arable farming, fruit orchards, food forests, and market gardens, and often had a mixed produc­tion system.

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

Support Aisha’s & Lukas’s mission on www.cycletofarms.com

Joseph Lentunyoi, farmer at the Laikipia Perma­cul­ture Center (LPC) in Laikipia County, Kenya, lives like Rakan and Fadoul in a semi-arid region facing water stress. Joseph’s farm is in Jua Kali, which trans­lates to “fierce sun,” aptly describing the area’s climate. The area usually expe­ri­ences two warm seasons (January-February and July-October) and two rainy seasons (March-May and October-November) with slight vari­a­tions of a few weeks. However, climate change has caused water to become increas­ingly scarce, as rivers and reser­voirs rely heavily on rain­fall.

We irri­gate once a week and use heavy mulching. Under the papaya tree, we grow maize, rose­mary, pigeon pea, kale, and use the chop and drop method. We don’t need to bring mulch from else­where, because plants around create it and any water that goes here, stays here for a long time.

Joseph Lentunyoi, from LPC, Kenya

To manage water inflow and cope with extreme drought, Joseph has also used swales, sunken beds, mulch and zai pits. The pits are about 25cm wide and 15cm deep and filled with manure and organic fertilisers to help stop water runoff.

Joseph Lentunyoi in his food forest in Jua kali, Kenya

Employee at LPC picking kale in the food forest in Jua Kali, Kenya

Lekiji model farm drone picture showing water erosion as well as water harvesting systems such as swales, sunken beds, and mandala gardens built by the commu­nity in Lekiji, Kenya

More­over, Joseph and his team focus on planting indige­nous trees that are adapt­able to drylands, such as Pigeon pea and the African olive. These prac­tices are also used in the model farms to demon­strate possible sustain­able produc­tion systems. During our visit to Lakiji, we saw one of the model farms located between two big ranches. As we arrived, we met with a pastoralist commu­nity of 100 people consisting of various ethnic­i­ties, genders, and ages who are new to farming.

Water manage­ment in water abun­dant areas

Often, when we think of water manage­ment, we tend to focus on water scarcity rather than the manage­ment of water abun­dance. In Kenya, most farmers we spoke to discussed the scarcity; however, when we met farmers in Kericho County, they spoke of water abun­dance. They mentioned that there is often too much rain­fall, which carries away the topsoil with all its nutri­ents. Climate change is causing changing weather patterns and unpre­dictable rain­fall. There­fore, farmers in water-abun­dant areas are also focusing on water-storing methods.

Here in Kericho we have a lot of rain. We are talking about 2500 mm of rain in a year. At times we can reach as high as 60 mm per day of rain­fall. You can imagine what then can happen?

Aggrey Simuyu, from Finlays, Kenya

We visited the Finlays farms in Kericho, Kenya which is a 5000 ha conven­tional farm producing all kinds of tea for export. Due to growing market demand they are now expanding from 10 ha to 250 ha of organic fields. When we spoke to Aggrey Simuyu, the senior produc­tion manager at Finlays, he explained that they are now also applying regen­er­a­tive prac­tices but that their current chal­lenge is the hilly land­scape, which results in soil erosion. They found that in areas where the soil is bare, soil fertility is low and crop quality is poor.

At Finlays in Kericho, Kenya, trenches are used as steps to slow down water flow and allow for soaking into the soil

To tackle the issue, Finlays constructed swales along the contours of the fields and trenches. However, they also found that growing cover crops like mint plants, with a low growth pattern and good coverage, had helped. The leaves create shade while the roots benefit with soil struc­ture and limit erosion. Aggrey added that they also planned to add legu­mi­nous plants, which would act as nitrogen fixers and cover crops, helping to reduce erosion and provide a mulch.

During our cycling trip in Germany, we visited Hof Lebens­berg, a farm located in the North Palati­nate region of south­western Germany. The farm is situ­ated on a lush green hill with a beau­tiful view. In 2020, Paul and Janine Raabe founded Hof Lebens­berg with the goal of creating a glob­ally successful, regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­tural ecosystem.

Their aim is to estab­lish an ecosystem that actively protected the climate, improved soil fertility and water cycles, and produced nutri­tious food.

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

While walking around the 30-hectare farm, we asked Janine about their water usage. She explained that they use an old well on the farm to irri­gate their vegeta­bles and young trees. In addi­tion, they have built an 800m³ natural pond using only local clay, without the use of plastic sheeting. This pond is used to store roof surface and precip­i­ta­tion water in the winter and use it in the summer. Like most other farmers we have visited, they worked with Keyline water manage­ment to develop a method that improves water infil­tra­tion and is aimed at laying out sites that use water effec­tively.

As we walked through the hedge rows, Janine pointed out that a very impor­tant building block of water manage­ment is the build-up of humus and the use of mulch mate­rial on all the agri­cul­tural fields.

Humus and mulch work as a sponge in the soil and can store the water that accu­mu­lates on the spot. The sponge effect prevents evap­o­ra­tion and drying out of the soil in the summer. Basi­cally we try to be very careful with water and only irri­gate our vegeta­bles and fruit cultivation with drip irri­ga­tion or micro sprin­klers when there is no other way.

Janine Raabe, from Hof Lebens­berg, Germany

Regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture and water manage­ment

The regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­tural farms that we have visited all have soil health as the heart of their prac­tices. By focussing on soil fertility these prac­tices auto­mat­i­cally also improve water manage­ment. For instance the use of crop rota­tion, cover crop and agro­forestry are prac­tices that help water to better infil­trate and reduce runoff which helps to improve the water reten­tion in the soil and reduces the flooding and erosion of the soil.

Soil temper­a­ture test: first picture: bare soil …
… second picture: mulch and no shade …
… third picture: mulch and agro­forestry

When we were visiting Rakan’s farm it was a scorching hot 30 to 40 °C we were curious about the soil temper­a­ture and decided to do a simple soil temper­a­ture test. Where we tested soil that has been covered by mulch, soil under­neath the agro­forestry section as well as soil that was bare on the neigh­bouring farm. We found inter­esting although not entirely surprising results. The temper­a­ture on the bare field was 28 °C, where the soil was covered with mulch the temper­a­ture was 25 °C and the soil under neath the mulch and the agro­forestry was 19 °C.

Field where the soil temper­a­ture test was taken.

Keeping a constant soil temper­a­ture that is not too high and not too low is impor­tant for the soil respi­ra­tion which is an impor­tant process that regu­lates the amount of water that is avail­able to plants. Soil respi­ra­tion is also closely linked with to growth and activity of soil organ­isms, which are crucial for main­taining a healthy and fertile soil.

Preparing for a drier future

In response to the ever-increasing water stress faced by many parts of the world, the urgency for imme­diate and deci­sive action to prepare for a drier future is increasing. To prepare for this future we have learned from the farms visited. Whether suffering from water scarcity or abun­dance, a range of prac­tices have been adopted that can help to miti­gate the effects of drought.

These prac­tices include improving soil health, reducing runoff and increasing organic matter, which have the poten­tial to dras­ti­cally reduce the need for irri­ga­tion and lead to improved water quality. Addi­tion­ally, these prac­tices can also help to ensure that future gener­a­tions are better prepared for the inevitable water short­ages that will arise in the coming years.