Regenerative Agriculture Revolution in Poland: Farmers Who Care and Take Action
Six farmers, who are convinced that regenerative agricultural practices can help to stop unfavorable climate changes resulting from agricultural activity, while still being profitable, are in the final of Regenerative Revolution in Agriculture, the EIT Food project implemented in Poland.
Regenerative agriculture is an alternative to the conventional, i.e. often destructive, management model. It pays special attention to the proper condition of the natural environment and aims to produce healthy, sustainable food in a profitable way. This concept covers not only the traditional agricultural practices, known in villages for centuries, and enriched with modern knowledge but also modern agricultural tools. Somewhat forgotten, the old farming methods are returning to favour in the face of the progressing degradation of the natural environment, climate change unfavourable for humans, and the assumptions of the European Green Deal. Do they herald a return to the times when farms were fully self-sufficient, and living in symbiosis with nature and following its rhythm was something completely natural? Can resignation from the constant struggle for increased farm productivity and maximization of profits, in the name of respect and acceptance of what nature offers us, be profitable at all? The answers to these questions are already clear to the participants of the “Regenerative Revolution in Agriculture” project. It has been run by EIT Food CLC North-East and implemented in Poland by the Radom Branch of the Agricultural Advisory Center in Brwinów.
Healthy Soil = Healthy Food
According to dr hab. Jerzy Grabiński, professor at the Institute of Soil Science and Plant Cultivation at the National Research Institute, regenerative agriculture is a higher level of sustainable agriculture. It uses several elements of integrated, precision, and ecological agriculture, but it is not synonymous with it. Among the finalists of the EIT Food project were farmers from a wide variety of farms, both small, medium, and large (from 2ha to over 100ha), crops, livestock, and mixed farms with heavy machinery, and those where manual labour prevails. The common denominator is the owners' exceptional sensitivity to the laws of nature and concern for biodiversity while maintaining the profitability of the business. In practice, this means, first of all, restoring and maintaining the yielding potential of the soil.
- We are going back to the roots of our agriculture and we are showing that monoculture farming is a road to nowhere and, with time, to bankruptcy. If we do not have good quality soil, we do not have good quality products - says Tomasz Jakiel, one of the finalists of the project, who runs the 18-hectare Lubuskie Angusowo farm, where he focused on animal breeding, mainly the herd of Red Angus. His dream was a minimally labour-intensive farm, maximally cooperating with nature and bringing as much profit as possible without investment in machinery, fertilizers, or facilities. Initially, the piece of land he purchased was fallow land. The restoration of the soil was done by ... animals, and now they are the main workers on the farm. In winter, the farmer supports them using the American method of bale grazing, which involves making whole bales of hay and straw available to cattle in an open field.
New Old Way to Grow Food
One of the main management practices in regenerative farming is no-plow tillage. Traditional plowing involves the use of fuels and consumes a lot of energy and time. In regenerative agriculture, no-plow tillage is preferred, which replaces plowing with traditional conservation using non-reversing tools. As a result of these activities, humus accumulates in the topsoil, the stability of its structure increases, and a macropore system is created. With plowing the soil loses water faster, and millions of soil organisms die, including mycorrhiza and earthworms, which have a beneficial effect on the soil. Prolonged use of deep tillage can result in dead, barren soil.
Regenerative agriculture is also close to such practices as growing plants for green manure, soil mulching, the use of extensive crop rotations to increase biodiversity, including varieties with well-developed root systems and cover plants, rotational grazing of animals with access to pasture sward while enriching the soil with manure, increasing water retention in soil. All this is accompanied by reduced intensity of tillage, as well as optimization of fertilization and plant protection products. The implementation of the principles of regenerative agriculture has a positive effect on the soil environment, in particular the level of organic carbon (humus), as well as its structure. Many of these rules are already applied daily by farmers participating in the project.
- We care about biodiversity. Our animals complement one another well. Their manure regenerates the soil. We put stress on the elimination of fertilizers, we do not move the plants in autumn and use them for green manure and as food for birds and insects. We mulch and cover the soil with natural materials such as cardboard or straw. We also produce our compost and vermicompost, and by growing Californian earthworms, we transform organic particles into aerobic bacteria and produce the most fertile soil. We focus on manual work, we do not use heavy machines that damage the structure of the soil. This year we sowed maize by hand - says Anna Panter, the finalist of the project, who runs a self-sufficient regenerative farm "Natural Habitat" with an area of almost three hectares.
Early Adopters Become Leaders
Poland is one of the countries that actively participate in the promotion of regenerative agriculture and support for farmers interested in implementing similar solutions. One example is the EIT Food Regenerative Revolution in Agriculture project.
- One hundred farmers signed up for our program. They represented both conventional, mixed and ecological farms. We invited 36 of them to the second stage. They took part in workshops, where they gained knowledge and practical skills in the field of regenerative agriculture, e.g. techniques of performing agrotechnical practices. Six people qualified for the finals. Each of them is a winner and receives mentoring support in the preparation of a regenerative development plan for the farm and a non-returnable subsidy for this purpose in the amount of EUR 2,500 - explains Mateusz Ciasnocha, Junior RIS Project Manager - Regeneration Agriculture Revolution, EIT Food CLC North-East.
Among the leaders, there are farmers running small, self-sufficient farms as well as agricultural entrepreneurs farming on an area of over 100 hectares. They have one thing in common: enthusiasm for regenerative agriculture and willingness to further develop in this direction. Here they are:
- Aleksander Dybiec. He runs a family farm with a plant profile on 110 hectares in central Poland, where he grows mainly maize, rape, and winter cereals, as well as seeds of aftercrop crops: phacelia, oilseed radish, clover. There is also an apiary on the farm. He stopped plowing a few years ago, he has consistently been applying no-plow cultivation. In the near future, Aleksander wants to try strip sowing and introduce cover plants.
- Arkadiusz Dłużniewski applies no-plow tillage on his 16-hectare family farm. He grows, among others, pasture mixtures, honey plants, and potatoes. Arkadiusz sows flower meadows, often in reclaimed areas, and keeps cover crops for the winter, and he breeds beef cattle in a non-tether system. A large part of his work is establishing forages for pollinators.
- Tomasz Jakiel and his wife run a regenerative farm with an area of 18 hectares, where they breed cattle, goats, and poultry. They also use mobile henhouses. He is proud to say that the land is almost maintenance-free - no machines, no fertilizers or liming, which means considerable savings. Biodiversity is one of the basic principles of the farm. During the growing season, the cattle graze in a strict holistic rotational system, 12 hours a day, which allows the animals to migrate in a cycle very close to nature.
- Anna Panter is the owner of the self-sufficient farm Natural Habitat. The farm is small but very diverse. Anna breeds dairy sheep, rabbits, geese, ducks, and chicken (including green-legged chicken). The farm consists mainly of pastures for animals and a small area where winter food for animals is grown (corn, wheat). To protect water resources, the farm collects rainwater, which is used for watering.
- Krzysztof Kwiatek runs a family farm with a plant profile on an area of 5.5 hectares. Because of the owner's education in the field of herbalism and herbal commodity science, the development of the farm focused on the cultivation of herbs, mushrooms, and plants such as buckwheat and marigold. Krzysztof Kwiatek does not use synthetic fertilizers and has limited mowing of the grass. He keeps cover plants for the period of winter dormancy. The cultivated fruits and herbs are used to make herbal preparations - vinegars, syrups and jams, as well as peloid distillate/hydrolate.
- Natalia Grzesińska runs a family farm with an area of 50 hectares, in which she implements an agri-environmental program using three-field crop rotation. The farm is equipped with many modern machines, including a set for precise dosing of fertilizers. As part of the regenerative development, Natalia plans to pay more attention to cover crops and crop rotation and to minimize soil interference through no-plow cultivation.
Regenerative Agriculture: How does it add up?
There is no doubt that the practices of regenerative farming, as opposed to intensive farming, enhance biodiversity. Therefore, they are in line with the EU Farm to Fork strategy which favours the implementation of environmentally friendly practices in food production.
- At the global level, there is an understanding of regenerative agriculture. We are faced with the task of transferring knowledge to the level of individual farms. The main concern of farmers is whether this type of practice is likely to be profitable - says Mateusz Ciasnocha from EIT Food. In his opinion, what is needed to change the situation is education on how the system works and that it can be profitable, but also support for farmers in the transformation process.
An important argument for the profitability of regenerative agriculture is the running costs of such activity. It may bring considerable savings, both in terms of investment (e.g. purchase and maintenance of many agricultural machines) and time savings (elimination of plowing). And time is money.
- The economic result prompted me to use regenerative farming techniques. It is better with no-plow cultivation, but most of all it is faster - says Aleksander Dybiec.
Farmers participating in the EIT Food project also note the shortening of the supply chain and the elimination of high intermediary costs. They most often sell their products online, which gives them virtually unlimited range, or at trade fairs. Some of them are not big profit-oriented and see many ways to earn.
- Above all, we are pleased to be are self-sufficient, we produce food mainly for ourselves, and we sell the surplus as part of agricultural retail trade. We process vegetables into preserves, we also sell meat from our animals, mainly rabbits, geese, ducks, and broilers. We organize workshops, e.g. on manual hay-cutting, we build facilities for agritourism, and we plan to organize an educational path devoted to regenerative agriculture - says Ms. Anna Panter. Karina and Tomasz Jakiel are also planning to conduct workshops and training.
EIT Food representatives emphasize that on the way to reach the goal, even the smallest step is important, as long as it is in the right direction. This applies to all links in the supply chain. The full potential of regenerative agriculture will be achieved when agrifood companies change their food sourcing strategies. Therefore, EIT Food is working closely with farmers, its Partners, and other agri-food businesses to support the design and implementation of procurement strategies that encourage the adoption of regenerative farming practices.
- EIT Food, being a part of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, as a leading European food innovation initiative, aims to make the food system more sustainable, healthy, and trustworthy. At the same time, we want to promote farmers’ entrepreneurship. The Regenerative Revolution in Agriculture project realized in Poland enabled the participants to exchange information, promote expert knowledge, and establish relationships between people interested in the subject of regenerative agriculture. We are all aware that apart from the obvious environmental benefits, agriculture should also be profitable. And we try to show this to farmers - says Mateusz Ciasnocha.
EIT Food plans to continue the project in Poland in 2022 in a similar formula. It will extend to other countries in the region that are within the scope of EIT Food CLC North-East (their full list is available here: EIT Food North-East | EIT Food). Organizations interested in cooperation and willing to implement the project in their country can contact EIT Food for additional information.
Article by Anna Czasak