By Blain Hjertaas
Introduction Shaun Soonias
Since First Nations in Saskatchewan completed the Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement in 1992, we have amassed over one million acres of land, most of which is best suited for agricultural purposes. While all of the land has been purchased on a willing buyer willing selling basis, often First Nations lease the land back to the farmer from which it was purchased. While this allows for a steady income stream it is not the ideal path in facilitating more sophisticated economic development opportunities. Nor is it an approach in which First Nations can apply our values as it relates to being stewards of the land as we have no control over the type of crops, rotation of crops, chemical and other inputs into the land among other things.
As First Nations contemplate economic development as it relates to agriculture and the corresponding value add components around food production and manufacturing, acting as stewards over our lands is a foundational part of these processes. At the Indigenous Agriculture Summit hosted in Regina in November 2016, Blain Hjertaas presented on ‘regenerative farming’: a type of organic farming designed to build soil health or to regenerate unhealthy soils. I believe that this farming method aligns with First Nations values, the future of agriculture and that all farmers should study this process for ways in which to become more productive and sustainable.
Regenerative agriculture is being practiced on an increasing number of farms worldwide. It is a small but growing movement. The characteristics are the building of people, soil and profit.
Our industrial approach to agriculture has many shortcomings. Soil degradation is a massive issue, huge capitalization is needed to enter agriculture, there is a demonstrable loss of biodiversity, and the nutrient density of the food produced is declining.
The key purpose of agriculture is to feed people and that implies nutrient dense food. At present knowledge we require 33 elements to be fully nourished. To have an agricultural system do this we need to have a strong biological community below the ground to achieve the nutrient exchange. Plant roots alone cannot exchange minerals with the soil. We need to have a thriving and diverse population of bacteria and fungi working in a synergistic relationship with the plant roots to create this nutrient dense food our bodies require.
To be successful an agricultural system has to ensure all four ecosystem processes are functioning and improving. These are solar capture, water cycle, mineral cycle and biodiversity. If the system is designed correctly, each one of these processes should get better with time.
Solar capture as the name implies means capturing energy from the sun. We have large amounts of energy for free every day. We need to have “solar panels” in place to capture this energy. In agriculture these are leaves. There are three things you can do to improve capture: put the leaves closer together, make the leaves bigger or leave them turned on longer. If our system is pasture-based and it is kept in a very short overgrazed system for the summer, it will be unable to capture much solar energy. Similarly in a cropping system of monoculture wheat or canola, it is only green for 70 days of the year. We have the potential to capture solar energy from snow melt till snow arrival approximately 220 to 250 days a year. This is our energy source. How successful we are as farmers is totally dependent upon how well we capture solar energy.
The water cycle is how well we capture water. We have no control over amounts or timing but we have lots of control about what happens when the rain or snow hits the land we are managing. If rain hits bare soil it creates a condition in which the surface becomes impenetrable to water and instead of going down, the water runs off. Similarly snow hitting smooth flat land will blow away. To make the water cycle effective, we need to keep the surface of the earth covered with litter or dead plant material. Think of litter as the skin on your body. It is a critical organ for the success of your body. Think of litter on the surface as performing the same function. The litter absorbs the force of the raindrop and makes the litter wet. This acts like a sponge and allows the water to slowly infiltrate into the earth. In the case of snow a rough irregular layer of dead somewhat erect plant material will help keep most of the snow where it falls. We have no control over the amount or timing of precipitation. As managers of land we have control over whether the water cycle is effective or not. This is determined by the surface of the land; is it covered or not?
The mineral cycle is an indicator of how well all the bugs in the soil are doing. They all need to be fed on a regular basis for them to work for us. Their feed is root exudates, which come from photosynthesis. The better we are at capturing sunshine the more root exudates there will be, hence more biological activity. The bacteria and fungi can exchange minerals with the soil particles that the plants roots cannot exchange on their own. It is a synergistic relationship, where the plants feed the bugs with root exudates and in return the bugs feed the plant with all the nutrition it requires to create nutrient dense food. As these tiny organisms do their thing they slowly build aggregates in the soil. They actually glue soil particles together to create tiny homes for themselves. As these aggregates increase it causes the soil to become looser or less dense. This allows rooting to be deeper and water and air to have more spaces to be held. All of this life living and dying beneath our feet creates organic matter. As the organic matter of our soils increase, yields go up; carbon dioxide is sequestered from the atmosphere; soils hold more water; and the food produced is more nutrient dense and healthier for our bodies.
The last ecosystem process is the biological community. To be successful we need to have diversity. This doesn’t mean just the crop we are growing. It is all the livings things; the birds in the area, the types of plant, the insect life, the number of people. All of these things make up a biological community and it gets more resilient as the diversity increases. The key to having a successful agricultural enterprise is depend upon how well we look after diversity. Pastures need to have multiple species in them. Cropping systems need to have diversity either in the crop or before it is planted or immediately after it is harvested. The current buzz words are poly cropping or cocktail planting. We have been so trained to monoculture, that it is difficult for us the get our heads around how to do this. Putting two crops together will result in more yield than each one grown alone. There is an effect known as synergy when more than one species is grown together. 1+1 is usually greater than 2.
Our success as a species will be determined by how good we can practice agriculture into the future. This is what regenerative agriculture is about. It is about building soil, people and communities. If this movement is successful, more food will be produced that is nutrient dense, more profit will be made, more people can be involved in agriculture and the carbon dioxide that is causing global climate change will be removed and put back down under our feet as organic matter. The future of agriculture is exciting and as people begin to understand the principles, the possibilities are endless.
Regenerative Agriculture – Blain Hjertaas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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