13th January 2023
This is a guest post from Jo at Soil Heroes, our regenerative farming impact partner. Through the partnership, we’re supporting UK farmers to transition to regenerative practices and nature-centric business models.
Toast Ale + Soil Heroes: a partnership with the earth at its heart.
Soil Heroes was set up in 2019 with a mission to improve the quality of life on Earth by reintegrating nature into our farming practices. Working with responsible businesses that want to invest in future food systems, they are creating a way of supporting farmers to transition to regenerative agriculture.
In 2020, Toast Ale began working with Soil Heroes to compensate for their carbon emissions (through soil sequestration - healthy soil locking in carbon from the air). The investment went beyond carbon though - regenerative agriculture also enhances biodiversity and improves water management.
Wanting to go beyond this basic offsetting approach, Toast Ale initiated a project to fund a unique experiment. Through its Companion Series, Toast supported Weston Park Farms to trial companion cropping.
This post explains that trial, which has provided proof of practice that companion cropping improves economic outlook for the farmer as well as the environmental gains (drastically reduces atmospheric carbon and chemical inputs, improves the soil biology and enhances biodiversity at a large scale).
Why is this important?
There couldn’t be a more crucial time for this trial: agriculture is the main threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 (86%) species at risk of extinction. [UNEP]
That’s not all, though. The industry is responsible for 24% of global emissions (the second biggest contributor behind energy production) [Our World In Data] as well as devastating levels of soil degradation, leading to forecasts of a 10 percent reduction in crop yields by 2050. [FAO]
If one thing’s certain, a serious rethink of our current food system is needed - and fast - to reverse this trajectory.
Our current system
Most of our food comes from monoculture systems: a single crop species grown in a given field. Soybeans, wheat, rice and corn are prime examples. These four crops occupy almost 50% of all agricultural lands. [Science Daily]
However, this system cannot provide food at its current rate for long.
According to Jones-Walters, research scientist at Wageningen University; “Diseases and pests can tear straight through such one-crop fields. Soil life is also severely impoverished, with negative consequences for nutrient and water management.” [WUR]
So, how on earth did they emerge and why are they so popular?
Monocultures emerged as easier access to larger, distant markets led to specialisation.
The increased efficiency meant increased productivity and profit: more efficient planting and harvesting, fewer types of expensive equipment, fewer labourers with specialist knowledge of individual crops and strengthened knowledge of one value chain and commercial market. [EC Europa]
However, we’re reaching a new era of understanding in agriculture, where high output can no longer cost the environment and the people who produce our food.
Strength in diversity
Companion cropping, put simply, is the practice of growing two or more crop species together. Through this, it creates an environment which allows natural processes to help one another.
And so a regenerative spiral begins, by “boost[ing] biodiversity, creating natural defences against external factors that can threaten an environment, such as pests, pollution and climate change.” says Jonas-Walters.
Embedded in history
Though aspects of this trial are unique, crop diversity is nothing new. Variations of companion cropping have existed since the very beginnings of agriculture.
North American Indigenous tribes coined the term Three Sisters gardening as far back as 6-8,000 years, whilst other forms have existed within their own contexts. It’s a natural law that has been carried by ancient wisdom and is now used in permaculture practices. [NAL Dep. of Ag]
Today companion cropping is a little like the Wild West; “you have to experiment to see what works for you” according to regenerative farmer Andrew Howard. Experimentation is not always feasible for commercial farmers who rely on known systems for their businesses survival. [CPM Magazine]
“There’s actually a lot of literature on intercropping... But it’s all sitting on a shelf – what’s needed is more on-farm research… We also need to develop specific machinery for certain intercropping systems for them to be successful” says Howard.
The Companion Series trial
This trial aimed to use companion cropping to solve challenges for the farmer:
1. Maintaining an efficient commercial method without needing new, expensive machinery or extra labour, by sowing a mixture of legumes (beans) and wheat to be harvested together as cash crops.
2. Replacing artificial inputs, by allowing the natural properties of legumes to provide free nitrogen to the wheat.
3. Increasing the yield, by using the different root lengths of legumes and wheat to take water at different levels in the soil.
Successful adaptations can provide the basis for simpler alternatives. This makes the transition into regenerative practices faster, easier and ultimately, the most attractive option.
Find out more about the trial by watching this short film, taken mid-way through the experiment at Weston Park Farms.
This experiment showed that crop combinations of beans and wheat deliver positive results.
Compared with the control plot, significantly more carbon was captured and avoided: the trial plot sequestered 26.8 tonnes of CO2 and avoided emissions of 6.3 tonnes CO2.
Nature rewarded the farmer with lower costs and a much higher yield. We saw a greater diversity of habitat available for insects and birds to flourish, and an overall healthier soil biology. The trial increased biomass by 20% (with an expected similar increase in yields), boosted naturally available nitrogen levels from the soil by 64% for plant growth (reducing the need for additional fertilisers).
This trial of companion cropping at a commercial scale is a great showcase of more fruitful opportunities for both farmers and our ecosystem, and was a great learning for all involved.
It will also support the wider transition to regenerative agriculture as we spread knowledge. Soil Heroes shares success cases like this with other farmers through peer-2-peer sessions, and works with companies to deliver financing to reintegrate nature in our farming and production systems.
We raised awareness for regen ag through the Companion Series, and delivered a successful trial that raised the bar in farming. We were pleased to see food systems given more time at COP27 and will be continuing to advocate for positive change from the ground up.