Regenerative Farming at Tillingham 15.06.2022
Over the last five years of farming at Dew Farm, there has been much to learn, about our farm and how best to farm it. Regeneration // regenerative agriculture, which is gaining more and more traction, best describes our journey and how we will continue to farm. This blog entry aims to outline the main principles of regenerative agriculture and how this is put into practice here. The overall approach to farming, winemaking, and other aspects of the business are best described as holistic, this refers not just to practices and procedures but to how synergies can be built across different facets of the company to maximise efficiency, minimise waste, and reduce the volume of materials, packaging, and other items that could otherwise be produced here on the farm or avoided altogether.
The principles of Regen Ag
Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming that acknowledges the need to rejuvenate and restore the soil and wider farmed environment. Regenerative agriculture is a response to the damage caused by industrial farming with its reliance upon chemical inputs and the depletion of our soils and biodiversity which are a direct result of this approach, with its wider environmental impacts.
Some of the key elements of Regen ag are as follows:
- Building topsoil and a healthy living soil
- Increasing Biodiversity
- Integrating livestock
- Use of cover crops
- Promoting nutrient cycling
- Improving water retention
- Carbon sequestration
- Building soil organic matter
- Avoiding cultivation & herbicides (no bare soil)
- Reducing farm input costs
The fundamental motivations for Regen Ag
The goal of regen is to restore the soil to a living healthy state, by this we mean a soil where the biology is intact and alive and has a good structure, which is aerated and permeable: with the ability to absorb and retain water. Healthy soil is a prerequisite of the soil food web performing its role of cycling nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) and storing carbon. Plants rely upon myriad and often reciprocal relationships with microbial life to uptake nutrients from the soil. In addition to providing essential and complex nutrition, the role of soil biology in the operation of the plant’s immune system cannot be underestimated. The counter to this is a soil that is repeatedly cultivated and treated with herbicides, the soil biology, and soil organic matter are disturbed and impoverished, as a result, a plant is more reliant on chemical fertilisers and sprays for its nutrition and to prevent or cure diseases. This is a route of diminishing returns and an inevitable decline in the health of the whole farm system and arguably human health. The environmental impact of this approach; releasing carbon, growing chemical toxicity in the soil, reduced biodiversity, decreased resilience to climate events, soil erosion, and chemical residues in food, are just some of the main reasons we need to radically alter our way of farming.
Regen is not just about the soil. The success, viability even, of a farm is about the myriad relationships above the ground too. The more types of plants we have, the greater the diversity of insects, birds, and other animals. Predator-prey dynamics on numerous trophic levels can play an important role in pest control.
Regen will result in a reduction of inputs, the theory being that once the soil is restored and the wider environment is in balance then the vines won’t need us to add these things, it will be there already. Adding nutrition to the soil or throwing it at the vine – when in nature, a plant will take what it needs when it needs it from the soil – is an inherently wasteful approach, especially in a time where the costs of all inputs are soaring dramatically.
The argument that abandoning conventional viticulture in the UK due to increased disease pressure (tricky climate) because it is too risky, is a fundamentally wrong supposition. Regen offers a viable route to a better way of farming. The healthier the soil, the better positioned a plant is to withstand disease pressures. Regen does not mean the stabilisers are off, it means the bike will eventually ride itself, and for sure there may be the odd wobble along the way!
The Regen journey at Tillingham
I wish I had known then what I know now! The journey into Regen at Tillingham has been complex, with plenty of mistakes along the way, as well intentioned as they were. The desire to foster soil health and eschew cultivation etc and increase biodiversity was motivated by a combination of gut feel and a basic knowledge of Biodynamics and its benefits, but with scant scientific grounding.
I arrived at Tillingham convinced that through a biodynamic approach with elements of permaculture, agroforestry, and livestock integration we would get somewhere towards healthy soils and better wine. I was mostly unaware of regen 5 years ago and all the incredible research, insightful podcasts and YouTube tutorials that to this day inform what we put into practice here at Tillingham. Taking advice from others has also been key, viticulturalist Luke Spalding and Regen consultant Ben Taylor Davies have both been instrumental in the journey so far.
The beauty of regen, outside of the unavoidable fact that this is the best hope for a viable way of farming for the future, is that it allows and encourages a gentle and sympathetic transition away from the industrial. The cold turkey alternatives of Organic or Biodynamic conversion are off-putting for most, with the potential for crop losses and the risk that brings to what are often already financially perilous farming businesses. Reducing inputs and reaching an end point of good soil health and ecosystem balance will not happen overnight. One must also accept that not all farms are created equally and what we inherit can vary enormously. Another attraction of Regen is that it is science-led and evidence-based, the confidence that this can bring aids in making the move that many of us feel that we must take. Just because there are sound scientific grounds for adopting Regen and a certain flexibility about how we get there doesn’t mean it will always be easy and that some things won’t work. The complexity of environmental systems and the infinite and unfathomably complex relationships that exist in the natural world means that we have much to learn while at the same time accepting that there will be things that we may never know.
We can only try our best, observe and listen.
I thought it would be helpful to run over some of our successes and failures as well as goals for the future here.
- Avoiding cultivation and planting vines into a soil that was compacted and with nutritional challenges, delayed the establishment of our wines. Localised or Strip tillage may have been a better route. (2 years of conventional first?)
- Blanket use of cover crops at planting – this resulted in excess competition and slower establishment of the vines.
- Better analysis of plant nutrition. Vines will have been better off (less disease) if we had had a better view of the vines’ real-time needs.
- Vineyard design – alternative to VSP of a high trellis with lower input costs and the ability to integrate sheep year-round
- Eschewing herbicide and all systemics during establishment // transition
Successes and the future:
- Compost and rotted wood chip spreading/mulching
- Johnson-Su compost reactors
- Cover crops
- Sap analysis
- Biodynamic preps (500 & 501) + compost preps
- Weather monitoring & Moon position as part of disease prediction (science & voodoo)
- Zero cultivation
- Direct drilling of cover crops
- Minimal herbicide use*
- Alternative spray program (goal of no nasties)
- Livestock integration (sheep and chickens, (mobile chicken hotel))
- Better pasture management and mob grazing
- Reinstating historic field boundaries & crop rotations
*In May 2022 we used an herbicide application Finalsan (Pelargonic acid) with a low rate of glyphosate (2l/ha) and citric acid. This was to knock back grass sward in order to establish new cover crops. After this, we aim to not repeat this and revert to mechanical weed controls: crimping & mowing. A small step back for a giant leap forward in terms of biodiversity. Defra, the Biodynamic Association, and our distribution agents have been informed. Our conversion to BD began again this month.
Regen and Biodynamics
In some ways unlikely bedfellows: Regen the science/evidence-based approach vs Biodynamics with its often spiritual leanings. The goal of both schools however is aligned: to build healthy living soils and a holistically managed, balanced system. We will continue to integrate Biodynamic practices into our Regen approach (such as the field sprays BD500, BD501, Nettle tea, Horsetail tea, Dandelion tea, and essential oils as well as using Biodynamic preps in our composting). After 2 years of conversion to BD, we recently had to do a reset due to the one-off use of glyphosate to initiate a cover cropping rotation. Choosing to pursue this rather than cultivation as the lesser of two evils for soil quality and especially fungal networks which are so important to vine health.
Ben Walgate 15.06.2022