For most of the last 70 years, many of us have become used to a system of farming which has evolved to take much of the guesswork out of agriculture.  Predicated by a drive for food security and a perceived requirement for repeatable systematised food production systems, we have evolved a set of systems, processes and supporting technology which have reduced our exposure to many of the uncertainties associated with the natural ecosystem.  From one perspective this system achieved its objectives and “conventional farmers” now have a wide range of relatively predictable interventions and tools to manage food production.

As is often the way, this move has had a range of, often unseen, side effects, among which are the degradation of the agricultural soil ecosystem and a reduction in nutrient density in much of the food that is produced.  This has, in turn triggered a number of knock-on impacts ranging from global warming to human health crises.

If we choose to farm using one of the more natural or regenerative systems, we need to re-engage natural systems, organisms and processes which have often been either disengaged or destroyed by conventional farming practices (or other catastrophic events).  Once we have engaged the ecosystem, we must then work with it and be sensitive to its evolution if we are to manage it effectively.

At a practical level, this is characterised by a shift in the way that we must interact with the farmed ecosystem if we are to be effective.  At risk of oversimplification, we must shift from a position where we are managing artificial production on a relatively inert production matrix to a position where we are creating conditions for a functional and dynamic ecosystem to become the heart of the production engine.   We can then, if required, attempt to shape the ecosystem engine to suit our objectives, but we can only do this if we understand what is going on in it.

On a personal level – understanding this has been the game changer for me; I am thrilled about the changes I am seeing at Mindrum from an ecosystem perspective since we started following this route.  We are seeing increased numbers of wild birds (already pretty plentiful), also increases in insects and fungi (especially field mushrooms). The tricky thing has been to establish and maintain a profitable business system.  Conventional doctrine would suggest that fertility is dependent on fertiliser.  This is probably true in a conventional system.  If, however, one can engage the farm ecosystem, one can make use of natural fertility cycles to produce most of the needs of the crops we are growing. 

Clearly, removal of nutrients in food needs to be replenished somehow, but there are many natural systems which have evolved to do this.  When we understand that every square meter of air contains over a kilogram of Nitrogen, it makes sense to engage the natural mechanisms to harvest this, rather than dumping expensive, inefficient and damaging inorganic fertiliser on the ground.  

Whilst we do, occasionally have to make good a defecit – as an ironic example – many arable farms today are deficient in Sulphur, critical for plant defensive mechanisms, because of the lack of coal fired pollution.  (Note I am not advocating a resurgence of dirty coal here – but we lose sight of the nuances of the ecosystem at our peril!).  We need to get better at monitoring the health of our particular part of the ecosystem, identifying any deficiencies, and understanding the ecosystem response before applying an artificial intervention that may have wide impact.

Agricultural ecosystems are complex and nuanced systems.  If we can listen to the systems, and harness harness them, its clear we can feed the world, but we may have to sacrifice some of the artificial, conventional controls on which we have come to rely, and collaborate with the ecosystem rather than seek to control it.