Positive-impact farming initiatives are greenest when they work as closely as possible with the environment. Those who consider how their practices can help address the biggest challenges we face recognise the need for more biodiversity, richer soil and minimal chemicals entering our food systems. Spending time on a working farm is an enjoyable way to engage with nature and connect more with it for the sake of our wellbeing and that of the world at large. We take a look at the future of farming, innovative techniques and schemes, and how to learn more about it all.
What is regenerative agriculture?
Soil conservation and regeneration is the headline benefit of this agroecological approach – and arguably one of the greatest needs of the planet. While there are lots of different perspectives on specific methods, what is generally appreciated is the focus on processes not just yield. A mixed farm that has arable and grazing stock ensures that muck from hosting animals provides a good source of nutrients and creates a closed-loop system. Grazing also enhances the microbiology of the soil thanks to the animals’ enzyme-rich saliva, and their tread turns the topsoil. In the USA, Ranchlands properties – as featured on Regenerative Travel – are run by third-generation rancher Duke Phillips, a conservation-minded cowboy in Colorado. As well as demonstrating how responsible land management and conscious cattle-grazing can be a game-changing force for environmental regeneration, his ranches revive the epoch-old positive symbiotic relationship between animals and land. Their methods recall the natural system of pre-settler times, when herds of bison would pass through the high plains, trampling grass into the ground and turning the topsoil, recycling nutrients with their manure, then leaving the land to recover over many months. Stay in Ranchlands’ stylish experiential tented camps in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas or Wyoming and experience first-hand how they practise and preach a holistic approach to nurturing the entire ecosystem here.
How is organic farming helping?
In a world obsessed with returns and profits, chemical manufacturers have pushed an agenda that is less about self-sustaining methods and naturally encouraging the fertility of soil and more about relying on industrial and synthetic nutrients. Non-renewable petrochemicals provide the base for most short-term-benefit fertilisers – and the nitrogen run-off from these is responsible for significant pollution and die-offs in waterways. Industrial-scale intensive farming has been blamed for dead zones in coastal areas where the effluent discharges. So let’s salute those with a seal of approval from the Soil Association, the charity that campaigns for a healthy, humane and happy food system. Wherever you see their marque – for example at the Rhug Estate Farm Shop in North Wales or the Daylesford Organic Farm Shops in London’s Brompton Cross, Marylebone, Notting Hill and Pimlico – you know that they’ve followed internationally recognised principles to bring you their products. As well as advocating chemical-free farming, the Soil Association campaigns for the highest possible standards of animal welfare, environmental and wildlife protection, a ban on the routine use of antibiotics on farm animals, good husbandry and against harmful chemicals in packaging.
Is biodynamic farming the future?
Tuning into the lunar cycle, this approach is part of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy, which links science and spiritualism. Some may feel it requires a leap of faith – but really it boils down to a better connection with nature, instinct and common sense. Heckfield Place in Hampshire recently achieved BDA certification after working hard to gain organic status; it has taken things to the next level as part of a dedicated three-year commitment. Jane Scotter of Fern Varrow farm and culinary director Skye Gyngell work closely together as members of the forward-thinking team thinking outside the box to grow the best possible produce. One of the most powerful ways for the hospitality industry to influence change is to educate guests on provenance and food systems, and to bring to life the benefits of eating ingredients that are seasonal and hyperlocal. Taste the milk, butter, cream and cheese from the herd of Guernsey cows and the flavour speaks for itself – and exemplifies the distinction of single-origin sources. Yes, the hotel is one of the most beautiful in the country, but it’s the composting system and carbon-sequestering management that make this sustainability enthusiast’s heart flutter. Heckfield’s fruit, vegetables, flowers and dairy products aren’t exclusive to non-residents and restaurant diners – it hosts a market every first and third Saturday, and is about to open a farm shop in Notting Hill. In Tuscany, Villa Lena is on a journey to become biodynamic. Guests are invited to take part in Get Your Hands Dirty cooking sessions, where you pick organic vegetables with Donato the gardener. In olive-harvesting season, join agricultural manager Pietro Castellani, who speaks about biodynamic farming in truly poetic terms.
What is agroforestry?
This is the art of combining agriculture and forestry through planting trees and shrubs among and around crops and pastureland, improving biodiversity and reducing soil erosion. An example is framing crops with banana trees to provide shade for the people working the land and reducing the sun’s evaporation powers so less watering is needed. In Brazil, Comuna do Ibitipoca’s cultivating of a polyculture – a mix of plants in the same soil – naturally reinvigorates the topsoil. Nearby Ibitipoca State Park was created to provide wildlife corridors after founder Renato Muchado bought up tracts of land that had suffered from over-farming and soil burnout. Elders from the local community are enlisted to share their wisdom on pre-industrial agriculture and local flora to create the best plant combinations and travellers are invited to stay in smart rooms in this nature reserve north of Rio.
How can farming help with mental health?
Grower Tom Morphew has been engaging with hotel guests at Birch in Hertfordshire. When he started doing farm tours they only had four people; now if you look on TripAdvisor it’s what everyone’s gushing about. Why? Because he gently shifts mindsets about what we put in our bodies, and learning about the reality of where our food comes from is always enlightening. Now the founder of Full Circle Farms has created a charity, The Garden Army. ‘Horticultural therapy is what we used to know simply as gardening,’ he says. ‘People did it because it just made them happy. It’s our natural way to be. You forget that just being outside is a breath of fresh air. What we’re doing at Full Circle Farms isn’t rocket science, we’ve just forgotten how health-enhancing it is. As people we’re made up of bacteria and carbon – there’s no hippieness to this – we are nature.’ It was always Morphew’s dream to build a farm to produce amazing vegetables and meat. But he imagined that one day all of this could be the by-product and farms would also give people hope, a safe space, a community. ‘Recognising the research on the health of the human microbiome – the health of the trillions of bacteria living in our guts – and how it plays an important role in everything from regulating mood to chronic diseases such as diabetes, shows us that one of the ways we boost our immune systems is through contact with the microbes in soil,’ he adds. ‘No pricey supplements needed:just some good old-fashioned time in the dirt helps reap impressive health benefits.’
What can we do?
Truth is, farming has always involved a bit of a tussle between humans and nature, and agricultural systems that follow a holistic approach to boost the health of the land deserve to be celebrated. Fighting weeds is a battle when big chemical companies like to convince landowners they’re better off using their products. Less fertiliser leads to less weeds, sure, and possibly lower yield, but often the reduced costs balance it out. Fungal diseases are naturally less likely to flourish when soil and crops are healthier – and just as a varied diet is better for us humans, a healthy mixed-use of land means it’s richer in minerals. Better soil drains more effectively and stores more water, depending on the season, with minimal human manipulation. There’s been a big push for our diets to be more plant-heavy to relieve the carbon emissions generated from rearing livestock, but as with all sustainability conversations, it’s nuanced with variables. It would be hard to feed the western world its favoured diet without intensive agriculture. Rewilding, together with a reduction in meat consumption and a slow-down in the rise of the global population, is what’s needed. How can you support good farming in the meantime? Buy local and seasonal from the country or, even better, the region you live in. Food should not be judged on price, but by looking at its nutritional value. Flavour is usually a good indicator of whether produce is nutrient rich. And it leaves a better taste in your mouth knowing you’re eating ingredients that hail from a positive-impact system which is better for people and planet.
TV shows to watch
The celebrity-studded documentary Kiss the Ground makes the case that by regenerating the world’s soils, we can completely and rapidly stabilise Earth’s climate, restore lost ecosystems and create abundant food supplies (watch trailer). The Biggest Little Farm is a sweet documentary about a couple who leave LA to farm the land using traditional, eco-friendly methods (watch trailer).
Places to stay
Farmstays close to home in the UK include 200-acre estate Old Lands in Monmouthshire, Wales. In Tuscany, enjoy tours of Borgo Pignano’s estate with Enzo Maccioni, head farmer and gamekeeper. Metohi Kindelis is a highly regarded yet tiny working organic farm near Chania in Crete, where you can book one of three stylish apartments in the centuries-old farmhouse.
These are our favourite sustainable hotels in the UK
Instagram accounts to follow
The Garden Army is charity set up by a team of ex-military personnel to help people suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues, encouraging time spent outside and engaging with nature.
The Soil Association is the UK’s leading membership charity, campaigning for healthy and sustainable food by transforming the way we farm and use land.
Natural England is the UK government’s adviser for the protection and restoration of England’s natural environment.
Zach Bush MD is an internationally recognised educator and physician specialising on the microbiome as it relates to health, disease, and food systems.
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