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Regenerative farming against desertification

Global Goals & Global Society
Regenerative farming against desertification

The family farm La Junquera is located in the south of Spain, in the region of Murcía, one of the driest regions of the Iberian Peninsula - not far from the only arid desert in Europe. The advancing desertification is one of the greatest threats to agriculture there. The land is degrading - also in a social sense.

Farm owner Alfonso Chico de Guzman (33) is actively counteracting this seemingly unstoppable process. He has been farming the approximately 1100-hectare farm, which has been in his family for 200 years, according to the principles of regenerative agriculture since 2015.

What is regenerative agriculture?

A consensus definition does not yet exist. But, for example, the nonprofit Regenerative Agriculture Institute "Regeneration International" describes it as a set of farming practices "that, among other things, reverse climate change by restoring soil organic matter and rebuilding weakened soil biodiversity - resulting in both a carbon sink and improved water cycle.

The basic idea, however, is to not only farm sustainably, but to farm in a way that increases humus. Practices are used which are adapted to the respective local conditions and take the people with them," Yanniek Schoonhoven (30), Alfonso's wife, explains. "Because before you can put the seed in the fields, you first have to sow it in the minds."

For La Junquera, this means in concrete terms: to farm sustainably even with annual rainfall of about 300 mm falling within a few days and a pH value of 8, and to counteract the increased risk of erosion in the fields.

The average soil erosion rate in this area is 10-20 tons per hectare per year. For La Junquera, this meant an annual erosion of about 9,000 tons of fertile soil on the 450 hectares of grain fields. To counteract this disaster, the soil is being worked and planted along the contour lines. In parallel, the first swales were planted in 2019. This refers to contour-following trenches in the soil in which water collects and is infiltrated evenly. In the process, arable land is lost for the time being. In return, however, the organic biomass on the field increases in the long term. In La Junquera, there are now more than 10 km of these swales - especially generously laid out so that they also function as ecological corridors. For this purpose, they are partially planted with native species well adapted to drought conditions, such as holm oak, Aleppo pine, esparto and juniper.

Furthermore, among other things, 10% of the crops are left standing each year as a food source for soil organisms, as well as wildlife. Before the next sowing in October, the remains are worked in shallowly with the disc harrow and left as a mulch layer for the following crop. This significantly increases the humus balance and allows the soil to be better held during heavy rains.

Transmission of knowledge

The Ecosystem Restoration Camp "Camp Altiplano", which forms the social capital of the community alongside the Regeneration Acadamy founded in 2018, offers courses and other educational opportunities in La Junquera every year to those interested. Many projects are realized in cooperation with universities, institutes and organizations that deal with regenerative agriculture and ecosystem restoration. Among them, the experimental study "Vermicompost", launched in 2019, was born. The worm compost is produced by the decomposition process of the red wigglers, and in a few years it should provide the whole farm with valuable minerals. The 25 Murciana-Levantina cattle, an ancient Spanish breed of which 35 individuals still exist worldwide, are also part of the same projects. The farm is collaborating with the University of Murcía on a project to archive sperm and eggs in order to prevent the extinction of the Murciana-Levantinas.

For its particularly innovative agricultural practices, Alfonso 2021 was awarded the FAMIGRO Award. Every year since 2013, this has recognized the best European rural entrepreneurship project.

The United Nations has set a goal to improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture as an Sustainable Development Goal by 2030. However, especially since consumer prices have been rising so sharply and people are looking more at money, it is becoming more difficult to achieve this goal.

At the same time, since the start of the war in Ukraine, there has been a loud discussion about whether as much yield as possible in agriculture should not be more important than measures to protect the environment, for example to cushion the absence of grain exports from Ukraine. In addition, farmers are currently struggling with high diesel, feed and fertilizer prices, as well as crop losses due to this year's drought. These in turn highlight how important the fight against climate change is for a global society and for agriculture as well.

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