Regenerative agriculture case studies and the story of Laureano

ReStory Narrator: Roland Bunch 

In order to better understand the impact of what has been happening among the more than 15 million smallholder farmers using “regenerative agriculture” (RA) across the developing world, let’s first look at the impact it has had on a single, more or less average farmer, among them. In the photo above, Laureano is showing us the nature and results of his switch to RA. Why did Laureano begin practicing RA? Frankly, it’s because of the impressive list of benefits. One of the many beauties of RA is that by the very act of benefiting the individual farmer in multitudinous ways, it also benefits all of humankind in multitudinous ways. Contrary to what so often happens in human life, there is no contradiction in RA between the individual welfare of the producer and the general welfare of humankind.

But what are these benefits for Laureano, and what is Laureano doing to achieve them? First and foremost, Laureano wants to have enough food to feed his family. That is the highest goal of virtually all smallholder farmers in any developing country, be they Mayans from Guatemala, Quechua from Bolivia, Luo from Kenya or Tai from Vietnam. In his left hand, Laureano is holding one medium-sized ear of maize, like those he used to harvest four or five years ago from each of his maize plants. In his right hand, he has two large ears of maize, which is what he now harvests, on average, from each plant. That means that he is now harvesting close to three times what he previously did. And that, in turn, means that his son and his grandchildren will never again have to go hungry. They will be able to go to high school and buy the simple medicines they need and maybe even, someday, buy a used pick-up to take their excess produce to the market to get a better price.

Laureano used to have to work as a day labourer on a nearby sugarcane plantation every year. Not now, nor ever again. With the tripling of yields, he easily grows far more food than his family needs on his own farm. And now that he has soil fertile enough to grow most anything else, he is experimenting with several cash crops. That is, he will start feeding other Hondurans. In the process, he will add biodiversity to his farm, which will enrich the environment, reduce the concentration of pests and make his farm even more profitable.

The second goal for Laureano, as most other farmers like him, is that he wants to do all this with his human dignity still intact. He doesn’t want hand-outs. He doesn’t want to stand in line waiting for a bowl of soup while his children stand behind him, realising he’s incapable of feeding his own family. He very much wants the satisfaction of knowing, at the end of the day, that what he has achieved in life, he has accomplished himself, without dependency, or, worst of all, having to beg.

One of the beauties of RA as described below is that there is no need for hand-outs because there is nothing to hand out ­– at least, nothing beyond a handful of seed for an initial experiment. And giving someone a handful of seed in a village is not charity; it’s just a normal, everyday act of friendship.

The third goal for Laureano is to contribute toward the reduction of climate change. You’d be surprised how many of the world’s villager farmers know about climate change. Have they been watching television? Maybe. But hundreds of millions of Laureanos around the world know about climate change because they are living on the receiving end of it.

To give just one example, fifty years ago, the Laureanos of the world planted according to the calendar. For example, Mayan farmers in Patzum, Guatemala, planted their maize on the 24 June. If the rainy season hadn’t started a few days before that, it would within a week or so. But today, in Patzum, it may start raining as early as the middle of May, or as late as early August. I don’t know of a single group of smallholder farmers anywhere in the world without irrigation who can now plant by the calendar.

Planting maize has become like playing the lottery. Sure, you just might win. But it’s far more likely you will plant your crop when it should start raining, and it won’t rain for a month, so you’ve lost all your seed. Or you wait for the rain, it starts, you plant your maize, and then the rain stops again. Or you wait until you’re sure it’s going to keep on raining, and you wind up planting so late that the rainy season ends before your maize has produced any grain. And for many Laureanos in this world, some years it will rain so infrequently that no matter when you plant your maize, you won’t get a decent harvest. So they know something has changed, and none of them I know has any doubts that climate change is one of the causes.

Look at that rich, black soil at Laureano’s feet. It is black and soft because he has put tremendous amounts of organic matter back into the soil. Every ounce of that organic matter has carbon in it. So, the same organic matter that has tripled his yields is sequestering carbon. He is putting carbon that makes up atmospheric CO2 back into the soil where much of it belongs – where nature stored it for millennia before it ever became part of the atmosphere.

Where did he get all that organic matter? It must have taken a lot of work for him to carry it all onto his field and spread it around. Well, no, he grew it right there where he would need it. See that weed growing up the maize behind him? That’s what we call a green manure/cover crop (gm/cc). It fixes more nitrogen than his crops will ever need and produces about 60 t/ha/year (green weight) of organic matter that makes his soil soft and black and fertile. He doesn’t have to buy it, or compost it, or haul it anywhere, or spread it around his field, or bury it, or even cut it down. He just plants it. When it dies, and he cuts down his maize stalks, it starts fertilizing his soil. It also keeps his soil well-covered so the sun doesn’t heat it up too much. Neither tropical soils nor tropical crops do well with all that heat.

Last, but far from least, Laureano doesn’t want all this just for himself. He wants it for his children and his grandchildren. In a word, he wants his farm to be sustainable. It will be. After all, tropical forests represent the height of sustainability. They have been producing huge amounts of organic matter for tens of millions of years. As Laureano continues to improve his soil, as he continues to increase his farm’s biodiversity, as he produces all that organic matter, as he keeps his soil covered (foresters call it a “litter layer”, agronomists call it a “mulch”), and as he adopts more of the practices described below, such as growing dispersed shade trees on his farm, his fields will look more and more like tropical forests. They will also function more and more like tropical forests.

Among other things, if Laureano’s farm is still going to retain its productivity a couple of generations from now, that rich black soil at his feet is going to have to stay there. He can’t let it go running down the hillside every time it rains. See that grass growing right behind Laureano? That grass is part of a contour grass barrier that stops his topsoil from washing down the slope. In fact, Laureano’s son, Marcos, is sitting on the edge of a 60-cm high terrace made up entirely of the soil that the grass has already stopped after it had begun washing down the hillside.

Will Laureano actually achieve sustainability? Some gm/cc systems we use have been producing well for over 500 years. Marcos obviously believes his father’s farm has achieved sustainability. After all, he is still living here in the village rather than having left for Tegucigalpa to search for one of those almost non-existent jobs in the capital’s slums. Marcos is showing through his actions that he believes his father’s farm will provide him and his own future family with a decent living for at least another generation.

I started by saying that RA would benefit all of humankind. We will all benefit from the end of poverty and hunger in this world. There will be fewer poverty-related diseases that tend to travel on planes to everywhere else. (Interestingly, I wrote this last sentence in 2017, more than two years before the term COVID-19 had even been invented.) There will be more moderate numbers of immigrants clamouring to reach Europe and the US, so there will be mutual benefit for and from those who do. We and our governments will be asked to provide fewer hand-outs for the victims of famines. Those of us in the developed world will also have the satisfaction of knowing that we live in a world with at least a little more economic justice. And when fewer of the sons of the world’s Laureanos are crowding into those deathly slums, there will be less civil unrest and fewer youths growing up in the kind of environment that produces more terrorists per km2 than any other on earth (except, perhaps, for jail cells and terrorist-controlled territory).

Lastly, it turns out that the farmers and ranchers of the world could sequester a good share of the carbon we need to take out of the atmosphere to keep our world safe. Even fairly simple gm/cc systems can sequester about 6 t/ha/year of long-term carbon in a decent tropical soil. If all the world’s farmers and ranchers sequestered carbon at this rate for a period of about 40 years, they would sequester over 25% of all the carbon needed to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accords by the year 2100. And what will it cost humanity to sequester all this carbon? A whole lot less than storing carbon in caves or subsidising wind energy or spraying our atmosphere with anti-global-warming particles. In fact, it will cost nothing for the world’s Laureanos, because sequestering that carbon is a free by-product of their producing three times what they did before. So Laureano’s process of developing a sustainable lifestyle will help the rest of us to also enjoy a more sustainable lifestyle, without a global environmental catastrophe staring us in the face.

Of course, RA is not going to storm the world overnight. Nor will getting us there be totally free of cost. Some people are going to have to spend the next 25 years training a lot of Laureanos for us to get there.

The process will cost each farmer only a few handfuls of seed to get started. No one has ever given Laureano any hand-outs, in spite of his being from a small village in Honduras, a country with a rate of rural malnutrition equal to that of most of sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, he is farming on what most farmers from the world North would considers a postage stamp of a farm. Yet in his case and in every case study in this series, farmers who have learnt to use RA are spreading it to other farmers spontaneously – at no cost to anyone else.

The most positive news of these stories is that trainers won’t be starting from scratch. There are already well over 15 million other Laureanos out there using RA. This series present the stories of about 7 million of them. I have selected some of these stories from among the many dozens I could tell because of the millions of farmers they have benefited, while I have chosen others to give an idea of the wide variety of RA technologies that exist, and still others because they illustrate important points about RA or agricultural development in general.

Regenerative agriculture case study: Dispersed shade with gliricidia (Imagine Afrika/Better Soils, Better Lives; southern Malawi)

In southern Malawi, one of the development programs will continue working until it actually becomes dangerous to work with groups of farmers, and even then, the farmers themselves will carry on much of the work of spreading the technology. After all, gliricidia grows a good deal taller than tephrosia, so people who live kilometres away often realise that some other farmers are purposely violating the principle, widely believed in much of Africa, that maize always suffers when growing under a tree.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) began working with green manure/cover crops (gm/ccs) in this area back in the mid-2010s. Working with me during several consultancies, CRS found that gliricidia trees (Gliricidia sepium) were the most appropriate gm/cc here, and began spreading these among the farmers throughout the program area. However, the CRS’s work ended prematurely because of a funding shortage and two of its top leaders decided to establish a local NGO, Imagine Afrika (IA), to continue the work.

The only difference between this lead farmer’s tall, dark green maize inside the fence and the stunted yellow maize outside it is that she is using gliricidia leaves (from trees still too short to see in the tall maize) to fertilize the maize inside the fence. Both fields were planted the same day. The row of small plants just inside the fence is of monkey thorn trees, which within one year will provide a live fence strong enough and thorny enough that neither cattle nor goats can get through it. The fence will last for 80 to 100 years, during which the only labour required is to prune it once a year and protect it from bushfires. This represents, in most cases, a negative labour cost, because, just as with intermittent shade, women will no longer have to do so much work collecting firewood. Monkey thorn fences also reduce the destruction of forests, both by replacing some of the firewood normally cut from the forest, and by eliminating the cutting of hundreds of branches used each year to construct every fence built like the one in the photo.

The gliricidia is being planted as a dispersed shade. Dispersed shade reduces ambient temperatures, which in the lowland tropics actually reduce maize and millet yields by about 20–30%. Research in Australia and Honduras, as well as widespread farmer experience, indicates that maximum crop production can be achieved with something between 15% and 50% shade. Furthermore, dispersed shade helps to prevent the soil drying out too quickly by reducing evaporation and transpiration rates. This same shade will also protect crops in the future as global warming heats up the environment. How? All the farmers will need to do to protect their crops from the increasing heat is to prune fewer branches off their trees.

These women in Mali are walking through their own savings group’s field of dispersed shade provided by gliricidia trees. The trees are not as heavily pruned as they should be because the women were selling gliricidia seeds to other interested farmers for US$ 5.00/kg. These trees are only four years old, yet are obviously providing the only fresh fodder cattle have in this area during the last three months of the dry season. In a major variant to this system, the farmers in southern Malawi have virtually all decided to plant their trees 4 m x 4 m, or even 5 m x 3 m, instead of the 5 m x 10 m as in this photo, thereby increasing the tree population/ha by about 3 times. This means that even if farmers use all their intercropped gm/ccs to feed themselves and their animals, they will be able to triple or quadruple their maize productivity over the next 6 to 8 years with just the biomass of the gliricidia leaves.

Dispersed shade is a traditional practice in many parts of the developing world, but rarely are mother of cacao, or gliricidia trees, used in this way. Yet these trees provide an impressive list of advantages: (i) they grow very quickly, (ii) they can be propagated by seed, seedlings or cuttings, (iii) their flowers are edible and are commonly eaten in Honduras and El Salvador, where the tree is native, (iv) their leaves are one of the three or four best tree leaves in the world that we know of for fertilising soil and raising crop yields, (v) they withstand heavy annual pruning, which can be done with a machete while standing on the ground, (vi) their leaves are an excellent dry season cattle feed, (vii) the wood can be used as firewood, (viii) they are very resistant to drought, even in their first year, and (ix) the bark is an excellent rodenticide (although, as with all rodenticides, it must be used with extreme caution).

Gliricidia leaves are not, however, very palatable. We had always seen this as a serious disadvantage. But in areas of frequent droughts, it turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Some people who feel that gm/ccs would never work in droughty areas argue that farmers would always prefer to use the gm/cc biomass to feed their cattle rather than leave it on the soil. They are right – with just a few exceptions. Since gliricidia leaves don’t taste very good, once the rains come the cattle abandon them in favour of the tender new grass that is sprouting everywhere. By the time the crops need the organic matter – about a month after the rains have started – farmers are plenty happy to use all the newly sprouted gliricidia leaves to feed their soil.

Easily the most universally overlooked advantage of dispersed shade is that by lowering the ambient temperature by about 10°C, it creates an environment in which nitrogen burn-off (called “volatilisation”) is no longer a real problem. This means that food legumes planted all over Africa, such as peanuts, cowpeas and mung beans, could, for the first time in most tropical lowlands, contribute significantly to long-term soil fertility. Over the long haul, this advantage could well become the single most important benefit of dispersed shade systems in Africa.

The gliricidia has become so popular in southern Malawi that hundreds of farmers planted these trees for the first time this last year. In fact, each lead farmer, working voluntarily, taught an average of 15 other farmers, and some of their trainees taught 10 or 15 more. As a result, in addition to the trees planted along trails and roadsides and near people’s homes, over 20 000 gliricidia trees were planted in farmers’ fields – more than all previous four years combined. Most of these trees were planted as small-scale experiments, which will be greatly expanded in the coming years, if farmers like the results. Farmer leaders were willing to do all this work voluntarily because they were so enthused by the advantages produced by the trees. As a result, the total cost to the program for all this work came to a total of less than $5 000.

Furthermore, farmers bought, at the standard commercial price, from the program enough monkey thorn seed to plant approximately 100 km of monkey thorn fencing – enough to completely fence off 200 farms of the average size (1.5 ha) of smallholder farms in Africa.

If we can maintain anywhere near even half this level of multiplication of our efforts – and assuming that (i) the coronavirus problem will pass soon, (ii) we can raise the money to expand our program as planned, and (iii) we can work with other NGOs – we will definitely be able to reach Better Soils’ target of ending hunger among 70% of sub-Saharan Africa’s farmers by the year 2045. Of course, COVID presents enormous challenges in the continuation of working with communities. Also, the larger a program gets, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the level of enthusiasm that this program currently has, but this start is certainly encouraging.

More case studies will follow in future editions of ReStory.