Regenerating Ecosystem Services


Last week we had the privilege of travelling to a number of regenerative farms in the Eastern Free State. To arrive at a regenerative farm, at the end of a long dusty road, having driven past innumerable hills and valleys of overgrazed veld and moeg geploeg fields of bare earth, the soil turning to dust and blowing off to join the sand storms, is an uplifting experience. To arrive at a farm that is shifting from wrestling with nature to extract an income, to a farm that is dancing with nature to restore ecosystem function, heal the carbon cycle, water cycle, nitrogen cycle, nutrient cycle and many more, is indeed a privilege.

The first thing you experience is the dust, or should I say the lack of it, it's not there. The wind still blows, but your eyes don't sting. The lands are not leaking soil as they are covered in residues and cover crops - green in the middle of a high veld winter. You literally can't see the soil, but more importantly neither can the sun, the rain and the wind. Rather than being brown and lifeless the fields are green with winter cover crops, protecting the soil, feeding the soil biology, keeping the ecosystem of the soil alive through the long, dry winter. The cattle don't look forlorn like those on the overgrazed veld, wandering backwards and forwards in searching for something to eat. Instead they are alert, they are full and their coats, although shaggy with winter hair, are shiny.

Video:  Cattle moving onto cover crops

Interestingly the expression moeg geploeg used to apply to the farmer, exhausted at the end of a hard day's manual labour behind the plough. Today, in large part thanks to the plough, it is the soil that is moeg geploeg. We have depleted the carbon in our cultivated soils across the country by somewhere between 40 and 70% of the pre-plough stocks, lost from the soil to the atmosphere. With that we have lost many of the ecosystem services our soils used to deliver, services that once enabled those soils to produce crops, have resilience to dry periods, infiltrate and store water, to mention but a few. The loss of these services once derived from healthy soils has resulted in us having to replace them with purchased external inputs and a decrease in the resilience, both physical and financial, of our farms.

Until recently carbon and its crucial role in the soil-plant relationship was something we never heard of in soil science lectures at university or on farm visits from extension officers, agronomists and reps. With the increased variability of climate change, new insights into carbon's importance in living soils and more recently the arrival of carbon credits, carbon is now the subject of many agricultural conversations.

It is this carbon, the currency of the plant-soil relationship, that brings back the health of the soil. Enabling the water and other cycles to be restored and returning the resilience that lies at the core of our future farming. We know from research all around the world that implementing no-till and practising crop rotations alone do not heal ailing soils. We know that the majority of carbon in our soils comes via plants and their roots, via the liquid carbon pathway, and not from broken down plant residues. We know that unless we grow cover crops, reduce our synthetic inputs, return livestock to our crop rotations, keep our soil covered and protected from the elements, we will not return that lost carbon to our soils. We will not get back our ecosystem services.