Regenerative farming: a response to the climate crisis

16 September 2023

Regenerative farming is built on the twin foundations of a dialog with nature and the creation of knowledge groups.

At Cheese a training session was held on this topic; an opportunity to explore theories and tools with cheesemakers, herders, veterinarians, and farmers. This is part of the Slow Food Italy project to Save Permanent Meadows and Pastures: offering training for animal farmers and encouraging an improvement in pasture management.

This was in keeping with the theme of this 14th edition of Cheese: the taste of meadows. Because before we can talk about cheese from permanent meadows, we need to understand how permanent meadows and pastures can be maintained and restored.

“Conversing with nature” and “forming knowledge groups,” are two important tools for Professor Luis Carlos Pinheiro Machado. Just keeping these two principles in mind is enough to begin the journey towards regenerative farming. Valuable advice that Mariana Donnola, a livestock technician specializing in grazing and free-range farming, has skillfully applied within her farm, La Argentina.

The Deafal Manifesto

Mariana Donnola talked about rational grazing. She collaborates with Deafal, an NGO that operates in the following areas: food safety and sovereignty, organic and regenerative agriculture, the environment and biodiversity, responsible tourism, micro-enterprise, and co-development.

They began their outreach and training tours after Terra Madre 2010, at a time when such grazing techniques weren’t widely discussed: “There’s a significant connection between one area and another. If consumers aren’t aware of the importance of them, the hard work of food producers loses its value and meaning. Since then, we’ve conducted over 170 courses with more than 4000 farmers, technicians, agronomists, students, and 200 companies throughout Italy,” said Susanna De Benetti, coordinator of the AOR (Organic and Regenerative Agriculture) area.

The phenomenon of greenwashing threatens the sector as well. That’s why Deafal founded the National Association of Producers for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture to protect techniques already practiced by some Italian companies.

The Profitability of Farming

Mariana Donnola spoke about rational grazing: “When I was at university, most lands were cultivated with soybeans because it was profitable. Behind the ecology, there’s a delicate economic balance, so we started with an in-depth study of how farming can be competitive in the modern economy. The most important goal for us is to give those who work in a way that’s beneficial to nature the opportunity to earn money. It’s crucial that this work is profitable.”

University courses cover farming techniques, but they never seem to start from the most important factor of all: the soil. “It’s essential to consider its structure, the organic matter it stores, the humus it generates and retains. If the soil is constantly trampled, its structure simplifies, becoming solid, forming an impermeable layer that causes surface erosion. Healthy soil is characterized by the presence of holes. These holes are essential for gases and water to pass through. The soil breathes because it’s full of micro and macroorganisms, without which organic matter couldn’t be transformed. In 1 gram of soil, there can be up to 50,000 species of microorganisms. And we need to know how to prepare the soil for drought and torrential rain. Healthy soil can filter, while degraded soil cannot,” explained Mariana.

Imitating nature

There are many agricultural techniques whereby animals are integrated into this system. Ruminants play an extremely important role in soil health: “We must imitate nature. Wild herds usually graze together in a confined space, eating everything they find because they have neighbors competing for the same grass. Then they change grazing areas, returning when the grass cover has regenerated.”

Herds also behave this way because of predators. Domesticated ruminants have completely lost this instinct: they have vast grazing areas available, no longer sense competition for their food, and selectively graze, consuming the best plants and leaving the less desirable ones. This leads to ecological imbalances in the pasture.

Let the meadow rest

Why do we need to let the pasture rest? As Mariana explained: “A pasture, once grazed, must be left to rest. When animals graze, the roots degrade and release carbohydrates into the soil, making nutrients available for insects and other organisms in the soil. It’s a virtuous circle where plants store solar energy and produce green matter.”

The plant has an above-ground part and a root part. When the root part dies and feeds biological processes in the soil, a high-density pasture is created: “If animals graze for a limited period in the same area, they eat everything available before moving on. The grazing system guiding the animals consists of different pasture plots. So periods of rest alternate with periods of high-density grazing. For example, 300 cattle can easily graze one hectare of land without affecting their well-being. This promotes beneficial aeration in the pasture.”

Rational grazing to mitigate the climate crisis

“Rational grazing can be an answer to the climate crisis. How? By increasing soil microfauna activity, enhancing pasture biodiversity, storing atmospheric carbon than it emits, reducing soil erosion, increasing soil organic matter, avoiding the use of herbicides or chemical fertilizers, and limiting mechanical interventions,” says Mariana.

There aren’t any degree programs specifically designed for rational grazing and regenerative organic farming. There isn’t much literature available in this sector, so sharing knowledge, talking to other breeders and herders is crucial. Exchange between companies is essential for information sharing.

As Luis Carlos Pinheiro Machado also said, “People tend to look for contradictory shortcuts. Grouping together resists the temptation to change course with greater strength.” And that’s why the National Association of Producers for Organic and Regenerative Agriculture was founded: to resist and persevere with greater collective strength.

by Cecilia Cacre, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

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