It’s impossible to miss the jaunty kadaknath hens strutting around artist Rashmi Kaleka’s Farm8, an integrated farming unit in the urban village of Aya Nagar, just off NCR’s Mehrauli-Gurgaon road. The 3.5 acres of land lay barren save for a line of teak trees about two years ago. Until Kaleka decided to turn it into a ‘regenerative farm’.
“I call it a regenerative practice because it implies renewal and restoration,” says Kaleka, pointing out the numerous edible plants, healthier soil, restored pollinator habitats, a flock of hens and the composting area.
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There is no strict definition of regenerative agriculture, or regen ag; it encompasses a host of farming methods and philosophies — permaculture, agroecology, agroforestry, keyline design, holistic management—which treat farms as individual ecosystems that can be re-synced with nature. In other words, it allows the instincts of diversity, regeneration and resilience of natural ecosystems, which are impeded by deleterious agricultural practices, to set in and flourish.
Regenerative agriculture eschews machinery, monocropping, pesticides, herbicides and fossil fuel energy. It focuses on soil health, biodiversity, and water management. Globally, conventional farming is responsible for one-third of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and India is the third-largest emitter of GHGs after China and the US.
When Kaleka began rewilding the land in mid-2020, she started by improving the groundwater recharge potential. “A way of storing water underground is to grow plants that have deep root systems. So we plant a lot of khus (vetiver) as its roots grow about 2.5-3 feet deep,” she says. Regenerative farming principles are designed to mimic nature and rely on the ecosystem’s self-regulating abilities.
At Farm8, a no-tilling approach married with the custom of returning organic matter to the soil aids carbon sequestration and erosion control. Kaleka ensures that the soil remains undisturbed. The kadaknaths are the only ones allowed to scratch and graze. They move around freely, and as their droppings mix with the earth, the soil is replenished with nutrients it lost during grazing. “There is no digging. If something is overgrown, we chop it and drop it,” she says, referring to a mulching technique that forms the cornerstone of regenerative practices. An effortless way of aping nature’s handling of waste.
As she talks about the tenets of permaculture, how she restored life on this once sterile piece of land, one can’t help but notice how the philosophy calls for a transformation in our relationships with other species, down to the fungi in the soil. “Permaculture teaches you to be intuitive, resourceful, more aware. There is no one method of doing anything. You just have to see how the land behaves, which way the wind works, who treads on your land,” she says.
“Returning organic matter is what makes the soil healthy. Once you begin to understand that soil is the foundation of all life, you begin to realise that it’s not just about what’s above the soil but also what’s beneath it,” says musician and natural farmer Krishna McKenzie, who started Solitude Farm in Auroville, Tamil Nadu in 1996. The farm grows nearly 200 varieties of edibles and houses a cafe with a menu based on the yield from the forest. MacKenzie also hosts weekly farm tours and workshops, and runs an eponymous YouTube channel where he offers glimpses into his life at the farm, advocates permaculture and shares scrumptious recipes for ramphal ice-cream, green papaya salad and more.
One of the main criticisms of regenerative agriculture is that it cannot scale up to provide for the world’s growing population. Feeding the world, though, isn’t merely a matter of yields. Numerous studies have demonstrated that regenerative farming practices can fulfill the global population’s nutritional needs and evidenced that input-intensive agriculture is both a cause and victim of climate change. “Business-as-usual cannot be the way forward. What we need instead is a system that has the potential to replenish itself; one that allows for a cyclical mode of development,” says agri-expert Devinder Sharma citing the example of Andhra Pradesh’s Community-managed Natural Farming (APCNF) model, “they were able to scale it because the government stepped in. For regenerative agriculture to scale up, that has to be the way forward”.
APCNF, which aims to shift 6 million farmers cultivating 8 million hectares of land to chemical-free, low-input natural farming by 2030, also places emphasis on farmer livelihoods. It trains farmers in practices that use locally available resources to reduce input costs while encouraging them to explore allied livelihood opportunities to generate additional income. “This model offers the country an opportunity to learn how sustainable agriculture can be supported and scaled up,” says Sharma.
A small but growing number are working to restore and manage degraded ecosystems across the country. The Timbaktu Collective in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, focuses on organic farming and the restoration of wastelands. Telangana-based Aranya Agricultural Alternatives promotes natural agricultural practices that enable food and nutrition security for the farmers and local communities. Samir Bordoloi from Assam uses his food forest to join forces with local communities to revive indigenous crops.
Sharma believes that “the next revolution in food will be driven by consumers. They are concerned about the environment. Many look for organic produce and are understanding the importance of buying food that is produced in an environment-friendly way.”
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