It has now been almost a year since I started this vegan experiment, all because of my love for the ocean. The Ocean is dying, and as an individual, as a consumer I wanted to do everything in my power to minimise my environmental impact. It all began with watching the now well known documentary Cowspiracy and calculating my own carbon footprint through WWFs carbon footprint calculator. I realized, that no amount of turning the tap off while brushing my teeth would create any significant change while I ate the way I did. Picture this : for 21 years, I ate meat almost three times daily. I loved meat. Bacon for breakfast, chicken for lunch and steak for dinner. I was that anoyying person waving meat infront of my vegetarian friends meals. However, Cows are responsible so many environmental issues..
Through a crazy turn of events, which included a visa set back and a hurt back, I ended up on Mazi Farm. A recently started up agroforestry farm focusing on the regeneration of degraded meditireanean soils. Watch a day on the farm here! Luckily, one of my family friends is actually the owner of this farm, so when I contacted them about whether or not I could come and vollunteer and bring my vast array of useless skills, they said yes! I say useless skills, because while I may consider myself an expert in diving, fluent in veganism, apt at physics, none of these skills seemed very transferable to what they were doing there : planting a forest. In any manner, the combination of curiosity and wanting to get out of the cold French winter, I hopped onto a plane to Athens to immerse myself in farmer life.
“What if there was one answer to the climate change? The food crisis? Carbon emissions? Deforestation? Topsoil loss? “
Maybe there is…
“An economics graduate turned farmer’ is how Dimitri was described on their “Farming for the future Team” page, someone who wished to have been born a tree and passionate about the environment. The farm is in its infancy stages where previous workers laboured on removing the rock from the land to allow cultivation to occur. I was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm, as well as cautioned about the amount of tree talk I would hear. I was excited : what do trees have to do with farming? Why the constant mention of trees? Aren’t they going to be growing vegetables? Basically, I spent the whole first week just asking question after question. The magnitude of the meaning of the response I received was something I was unprepared for. Honestly, in my mind : Revolutionary!
It’s funny that in the entire year I was thinking about what food I was putting into my body, very little thought amounted to where the food was coming from. Yes I have mentioned many times that I support local farmers, that I pride myself in being a locavore, and I have even delved into trying to work out the differences in Organic and non organic, but coming to a farm never crossed my mind.
The difference Mazi farm is attempting to make, is to develop a sustainable agricultural model which incorporates restoring ecosystems through imitating nature. They believe that we need to move away from conventional agriculture : monocultures, which decrease soil fertility and run great risk of diseases, annual tilling, which brings carbon from under ground to our atmosphere, over grazing, which does not allow natural forest areas to remain as such and the large abundance of pesticides and fertilisers : believing that nature has given us everything we need.
Biomimicry is the future, and regenerative farming, especially agroforestry farming, is looking at the wisest and best experimenter imaginable at how to create a functioning, well balanced and sustainable system : The Planet Earth.
I will be getting into what regenerative farming a little more on a future post, and obviously will leave the real nitty gritty to the professionals. (Mazi Farm will be starting their very own blog to answer all these questions soon!) The essence, or at least my understanding of it is that instead of continuously taking from the soil, regenerative farming focuses on giving back. The systems put in place mean that greater amounts of fertiliser do not need to be used with each passing year, or new forests cut down for nutrient rich earth to be revealed.
It is a technique to regenerate soil, by increasing biodiversity.
How does any ecosystem work ? There are hundreds of tiny moving parts, we have the insects, the various plants, animals all with their own adaptations filling in a niche in the habitat. If you look at conventional agriculture, there is typically only one plant farmed on extensive hectares. This plant is also then cut down and taken to be processed hundreds of km away. What is left behind is the same soil, only now lacking the nutrients, minerals that the plants have taken away in their bodies. The soil is not getting anything back. Fertiliser is a bandage on what really is a growing, expanding wound. Just watch any one of David Attenborough’s documentaries to learn new and amazing things about the intricacies of nature.
Regenerative agriculture ensures that the biodiversity that is planted on soil, also stays with the soil. Using systems of support species to create balances in fruit and vegetable orchards and green manures to provide natural fertilisers. In the video I made, it was of a day where we focused on Green Manures and Planting support species.
This is an ancient technique used to create natural fertilisers from plants growing right there in the earth. A vast combination of species is selected, all for various reasons. All however, play a part in improving the biodivesitry of the soil and act as natural, relatively hassle free fertilisers. On Mazi Farm, the following green manures were chosen :
Leguminous species such as
- Lupin (Which also has up to 10m deep root systems!! Ideal for breaking up compact soil and preparing the earth for trees)
- Field Bean
- Wheat (great carbon storing abilities)
The earth Mazi Farm is dealing with has been used for agricultural purposes for centuries, which means it has been severely depleted of carbon and nitrogen. Carbon, which is the building block for any life, is vital in soil and works cooperatively with nitrogen and nitrogen fixing bacteria, which acts as a natural fertiliser. The green manure crops sown are the environmentally friendly replacements to any chemical additives, as we are using plants to do the job commercial farms utilise fertiliser pellets for. Since we are interested in getting the carbon back in the soil, we sowed 70% grains (which are great carbon builders) and only 30% legumes (which are nitrogen fixers).
Once these annual plants grow, creating root systems, breaking up the soil and extracting vital elements from the air, they will be cut down and left to decompose right on the land. This fresh, green, mulch will add another layer of fertiliser and nutrients for the surrounding trees.
I keep mentioning trees, so how do they come in?
On this particular day, we went around the tree lines which were carefully designed according to keyline contours ( a technique to maximise natural water distribution while minimising erosion ), and planted a variety of native and fast growing species. We planted around 30 seeds per meter length, an average of one oak every 30cm.
My first question was : Why so many seeds? They won’t all grow! This is when Dimitri let me in on it : They aren’t meant to all grow. These aren’t the fruit trees that the farm is eventually going to be getting its produce from, these were trees that were meant to mimic forest environments. This is what agroforestry means. It’s marrying forestry with agriculture. Creating a whole ecosystem rather than a human manipulated one.
If you look at a forest, you will see a caucophony of colour, stratification, growth and decay. The floor is covered in leaves, baby plants sprouting from beneath, mushroom around tree trunks and moss, twigs, trees everywhere. As you look a little higher you can see the teenage trees, battling and racing towards the light. The top canopy is made out of veteran trees, having collaborated in the network of the ecosystem to gain one of the coveted spots nearest to the sun.
The system interacts with the natural distrubance regimes, as humans we can imitate these disturbance regimes that naturally occur. Each plant, each animal has a vital part to play in the ecosystem, just like when the wolves were reintroduced back into the yellow stone national park they culled the population of deer, which in turn allowed for parts to retun back to forest. Humans have been attempting to take ourselves out of nature, with the process accelerating since the industrial revolution. What we haven’t been noticing, is that we need nature. The earth will be okay if we make it uninhabitable for ourselves ( which we are doing through massive deforestation, climbing temperatures, ocean dead zones, plastic pollution, toxic waste etc.) but we need it.
Agroforestry : the marriage of agriculture and forestry. Is a movement to intertwine the perfection of natural systems with human needs. At Mazi farm, this is what they are attempting to do. Create a functioning, self sustaining ecosystem, where trees, plants and hopefully one day animals can flourish. Of course, it is still a farm, where the support species mentioned above will be pruned to best benefit the fruiting trees that will be planted soon. Usually, when a farmer abandons his land, (or hers), the earth is tired, nutrient deficient and dry. Potentially years of tilling, improper management has caused for an enormous amount of top soil to dissapear, in an agroforestry system, the land after planting will look unrecognizable.
“If I ever decide I am tired of having a farm, I can leave, and this will become a native forest”
A forest. The combination of organism on which we depend on, to extract carbon from our atmosphere, plants which are responsible for making earth habitable for animals all those millions of years ago. A flourishing, biodiverse ecosystem which will be a stark contrast to the eroded, fire stricken hills around us.
The Future Of Farming
What this month here has made me realize, that the answer isn’t solely in the hands of the people consuming. We can choose to eat vegetables all we want, but many agricultural practices will continue taking the toll on our earth. Agriculture is the leading cause of carbon emissions, ocean deadzones and we need the future of agriculture, the future of farming to be of one coming back to nature. I highly recommend checking out some more information about agroforestry, and considering my enthusiasm for the topic, I am certain that you can expect several more posts and videos discussing the topics.