Learn About Regenerative Agriculture

Richard Bowe of Regeneration Earth Discusses Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach to farming that aims to restore and enhance the health of the land, improve soil fertility, and promote biodiversity. It involves practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, agroforestry, and minimal tillage to regenerate the soil and ecosystem. By mimicking natural processes and working with nature, regenerative agriculture sequesters carbon, reduces erosion, and enhances water retention. It also promotes the use of organic inputs and reduces reliance on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. Ultimately, regenerative agriculture holds great promise for sustainable food production, climate change mitigation, and creating resilient, healthy ecosystems for future generations.

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Podcast Transcript

RICHARD

Let's just take a step back and instead of doing monoculture, Mother Nature doesn't work in monoculture. She works in a broad range of things, so let's enhance that and improve the soil along the way.

PAUL

Hello, and welcome to Rethink What Matters. The podcast dedicated to aligning the economy with the ecology and everyone for improved business performance, stronger families, and a greener, cooler planet.

And today I'm joined by Richard Bowe of Re-Generation Earth and we're going to be discussing regenerative agriculture.

RICHARD

Hello, Paul. Good to be here.

PAUL

Brilliant. Brilliant. So Re-Generation Earth are working with land managers to unlock the natural capital potential in their land. Build more financially and environmentally resilient businesses and help them benefit from new income streams.

You know, I'm really excited to be speaking with you today, Richard, because this is regenerative agriculture. And I know you're doing some really great things there at Re-Generation Earth. I mean, this really is addressing the two hundred and forty years of damage that we've been doing. And how can we repair that in a natural way? So great.

Perhaps we could start off with you just telling us a little bit more please about Re-Generation Earth?

RICHARD

Well, Re-Generation Earth was a combination of my past experience from farmer's son, farm manager, and then, lastly, into regenerative agriculture. And then Doug's family farm and his journey, he did enough of his scholarship. In 2015, we met in a field of maize, and the rest is history still, we say.

PAUL

Yeah. So tell us, you know, what benefit is Re-Generation Earth providing? 

RICHARD

Re-Generation Earth was set up to act as a conduit between businesses and individuals that want to reach net zero, and farmers and landowners that can do something. We've got a huge carbon sink underneath our feet. And let's face it, crops and the soil actually works better by having carbon in it rather than floating above the surface. So what's better in joining the two together and getting a positive outcome or a negative outcome, should I say?

PAUL

Right. I like that. I like that. So and how do you do that then? How do you actually approach that problem and solve that problem?

RICHARD

Well, there's a lot of schemes out there that just rely on almost analytical data, whereas we like go and delve a little bit more involved in that. So the first thing is conversation. We like to go out there and understand the farmer, the estate, the land owner, understand his farming system, whereabouts he is on the regenerative journey, understand what he's wanting to do his outcome.

And then we'll come away and put a proposal in place, and that will include auditing at the farm so we know where they are on the carbon journey, how far carbon positive they have to be. We then do baseline surveys randomly across fields. And so we know we've got a starting point. And then we sit down with the farmer and just see how much we think that he can sequester in a five-year period. He then has that to sell. And which we do the balance of that in year five when we do another secondary baseline survey. So we know actually what's sequestered in the soil.

Along the side of that, we do mapping. So we identify areas of potential biodiversity net gain, nutrient mitigation. We've got a very good GIS expert on board with us so we can identify spatial awareness. So we can identify areas of where we can concentrate ecologists to the right area rather than them wandering across the whole estate and trying to find where the best part is, we can send them to where there could be the best net gain of biodiversity.

PAUL

Right. So are the farmers coming to you in the first place because they're concerned about the state of their land or because they see it as an income stream?

RICHARD

Interesting question. There's a varied amount. There's farmers that have been on this journey for a long time, and they want to make sure they are doing the right thing. There's people on the start of the journey. And then there's those in between. And so it's really a broad spectrum of different people that come to the front. And they know in their heart of hearts they are doing the right thing. But they want to be on this journey and be rewarded. The payments and lines of farmers is placed there, BPS payments, and we'll move it more into public money for public good.

Why don't we look at this a different way? Businesses have to reach their net zero potential. So if they pay farmers for sequestering the carbon, looking at BNG, looking at natural capital, then that's got to be a win-win, while say we're in taxpayers money, to be able to do good with that money also.

PAUL

Sounds superb. It sounds like massive wins all round, doesn't it? So it is a viable income stream for farmers then, is it? I mean, does it replace other income streams that are probably less profitable for them at the moment? Or is it really just about land which has no use at the moment and they're finally trying to find a purpose for it?

RICHARD

Well, the biggest thing, I mean, when you take into consideration, soil—

Soil has become addicted to nitrogen, to pesticides, and one thing or another in the same the way as our mindset has. So if we go cold turkey, we'd just withdraw them all, start from scratch, we see massive reductions in yields and quality of grain. Whereas if we introduce different methodology, into this, but we can slowly reduce the amount of nitrogen pesticides and so forth that we're actually utilising in the soil. And just simple things, like, if you dig a hole around the outside of the field along the hedgerow, that's all of the bugs in there that's supposed to be in the soil and throughout the field. So mixing them with bit of water and applying them to the soil gets through those microbiome, the bugs, all of the bacteria and fungal working in the soil, how they should do.

And we've just driven them all out and made them lazy. So it's just invigorating all of that. But doing it slowly, it takes seven or eight years, possibly more, in some soil.

PAUL

So what's the difference then, between what you're doing there and just great land management? It sounds like you're doing a fantastic job of land management, sort of things that perhaps farmers might already be doing or perhaps not doing it well enough.

RICHARD

Well, no. I mean, we were tasked post war to feed the nation. And post war, it was considered the right thing to do - to pull hedges out. We weren't concerned about biodiversity. It was feeding the nation that was important. And now we've got to farm smarter, not harder. So, I love the analogy: a predatory spider takes six weeks to get into the middle of a hundred acre field or forty hectare field to do any good eating aphids or whatever.

We've got to think carefully about how we approach this. The monoculture is not working. We're proving that. We're having to do more and more on the GM of crops and get them working in a lab. Well, hold on. Let's just take a step back and instead of doing monoculture, Mother Nature doesn't work in monocultures. She works in a broad range of things. So let's enhance that and improve the soil along the way.

PAUL

Sounds brilliant. And does it improve the yield of crops for the farmers? Other crops, I mean, other—

RICHARD

Well, interesting enough, we've done some trials here at Bank Farm. And we've reduced our nitrogen. Typically, seven or eight years ago, we were putting two hundred and fifty kilos of nitrogen and on. Now we're down to seventy kilos of nitrogen.

And over half, under half of that is failure applied. There's no chance of any of that leaching into the water courses or up into the atmosphere, which is total use. Nitrogen use is something that we've got to bear in mind, not only carbon.

PAUL

What crops are these farmers growing on their fields and on their farm?

RICHARD

Typically here, we grow wheat, beans, oats, spring barley, obviously, great. We're growing a full range of crops here, including grass for our forage red beef. And, yeah, we're not receiving any yield penalties because of the way we've done it, to slowly get away from the nitrogen dependency and addiction.

But we still need to grow food, and that's our biggest principle. We're in a climate emergency. So we we've got to do something with the carbon, but we've also got to feed ourselves.

PAUL

Sure. Okay. So when it comes to then selling this carbon sequestration to individuals or businesses. How is that achieved?

RICHARD

Well, we go through something called the UK Carbon Code of Conduct. And very early on, we spoke to a number of the code companies. There's a few out there. And we very soon realised there were complete loopholes in there. So Doug, my business partner, decided that was his focus and left directorship of Re-Generation Earth and started working on the UK Carbon Code of Conduct with some like-minded people, landowners and individuals, small group. But they've come along with this, and it's gaining more traction because they've linked it to the voluntary carbon markets that Mark Carney's setting up rather than the ad hoc markets that leave various loopholes and carbon cowboy territory.

PAUL

Right. Okay. And does it require companies to show they've got a reduction plan in place first.

RICHARD

The ultimate sale will be to the companies, and we're not here for Greenwashing. They've got to show areas, solar panels, or reduction in their emissions to go on to that ladder. We just don't want to supply people that just want to buy them to offset. We're on a journey, so everybody should be on that journey. 

PAUL

Right. Yes. Absolutely. So it's very much about identifying high biomass crops then to make this effective. Is that right?

RICHARD

No. I would say that we need, first of all, we need to feed ourselves, but also we need to look at what we clothe ourselves with where we've got huge potential with wool. And farmers are getting paid less than less than, well, ten and fifteen pence a fleece. It's wrong with that. That's just wrong. We've got a natural fibre that for generations has been good enough to keep us warm.

We were also looking at hemp fibres for various things. There was a company that we work with, these bulrushes for insulation in buffer jackets. And so we need to start looking at all of the different things around us to utilise them better. But, ultimately, we've got to eat. And so rewilding is a great thing, planting trees is a great thing. But, ultimately, we've got to eat. And importing food from right the way across the planet isn’t sustainable impact either. 

PAUL

No. Absolutely. I'm with you on that, one hundred percent. And so your work is helping with that then? Is it to, you know, so that we can grow more food locally? 

RICHARD

Yes. We're working with farmers, both to promote local foods. I mean, we're very lucky here. The Wanstall family has a vending machine. It's called the Egg Machine, locally. It's principally there to sell eggs. But they upcycle people's local fruit, local apple juice, and Doug's mom made scotch eggs, they make sausage rolls and cookies and all sorts. And it's all about connecting with the local people to sell that produce locally. So it's-- they understand the journey.

PAUL

Right. So it's really all encompassing, isn't it? The farm is carbon offsets. It's an additional income stream for farmers. It's helping to improve yields by the sun or allow--?

RICHARD

Maintain yields.

PAUL

Yes. Okay. And obviously help to feed ourselves as well. So it's much more. So that's what—so regenerative agriculture is very much about finding nature-based solutions then, is it, to the way that we've learnt to do things over the last one hundred or two hundred years? Maybe with lots of pesticides.

RICHARD

Well, interesting love. I looked that up on the dictionary about regenerative agriculture. And it says, the farming practise that aims to enrich soil and protect water and increase biodiversity. And that kind of summons that all up in one phrase.

PAUL

Right. Okay. So what is your view on soil erosion? Because I know that is a big problem for a lot of farmers at the moment.

RICHARD

The biggest part of soil is uncovering it. You see bare soil which reflects the heat back and we're also losing soil at a vast rate. So the best thing for a soil is to be growing things. It keeps hold of the nutrients within that crop. And then when you plant a crop in there, it slowly dies away. A natural progression to let the other crop come through. And all the nutrients are held in there, the roots hold on to the soil, And it's just a natural process. We've just become used to seeing bare fields, but it's all changing.

PAUL

Right. Okay. So high biomass CO2 crops?

RICHARD

They are crops that basically produce a lot of volume, miscanthus. We can use that, you know, replacement of concrete blocks. So effectively with growing those in agroforestry, we could actually grow our own houses. What better way to lock CO2 up?

Hemp gets a really bad rap because it's connected with cannabis and that's a dirty word. But we're learning it’s got a huge area of fibres for clothing, and also for making fabrics as well as making building products.

The bulrushes that have been used as, like, the puffer parts of the coats. So these are all natural products that we can actually use in… Wool there's another one. We seem to have forgotten wool. Sheep need hearing. It doesn't matter what your beliefs are. Sheep needs shearing to shed their coats, and it's a good way for them to lose their coat and also use the natural product. We seem to have lost our way with that.

PAUL

Okay. And how biomass CO2 crops, are they all the reason for highlighting high biomass CO2 crops then? Is it because it's a very good way of achieving carbon sequestration? Or are there other reasons just for biodiversity in itself?

RICHARD

Well, done in the right way, high biomass crops can be very good, but we're in danger of carrying on with monoculture. So they need to be broken up and varied by diversity across the farm is a great way to start with the use of high biomass crops in the areas that aren't productive for traditional crops, wheat, barley, vegetables, etcetera. It's a good way of increasing biodiversity within those areas as well as getting them some natural products that are always beneficial. 

PAUL

Okay. Alright. And I think that brings us on nicely because you mentioned timber there, tree planting. So what would your tree planting cover? It's part of the service that you're providing.

RICHARD

Well, we back a very fast-growing tree called the Paulownia. Now if you Google Paulownia, you'll go, Richard, what on earth are you doing? But we've isolated a sterile cloned hybrid. So this tree will grow to the size of a forty year old Oak in eight to ten years. You cut it down and very similar to Chestnut, it regrows from the same stump. And we know this for about five years, which is the dates that we've got.

The interest in it has got a C for metabolism. So rather than conventional trees, native species trees, it breathes in at night where as others etcetera breathe out in the night, and so they're not taking in the amount.

So typically a Paulownia tree right from the day it's planted, which is typically about thirty centimetres high. It's over an average lifetime is taking in sixty-three kilos of carbon per day, per tree, which is phenomenal. 

PAUL

Right. Okay. It sounds fantastic. Why isn't everybody doing this? This sounds too good to be true?

RICHARD

Because it's got a label and a non-native. It's been grown in China now for about two thousand years. And it is got a bad rep because it tends to spread, but that's why we've used a sterile cloned hybrid. And we've got a lot of data before we introduced it into the UK to do trial work. And we're importing phenomenal amounts of timber from places, we shouldn't be cutting it down.

And if we introduce this in an agroforestry system, such as we've got at Bank Farm, you can have both. And that's rewarding farmers. It's doubling the income from a hectare of land. And doing both offering shelter, to both livestock and to crops. It's picking up all the nutrients were underneath the crops that would typically be leached away. And a revenue statement timber into the market.

PAUL

Brilliant. And I was reading about Google making timber cities. So that's fantastic idea because apparently, you know, the steel and all the materials that go into making these buildings, they obviously generate with all of CO2. So that's one way round of, you know, producing—

RICHARD

Well, this is an ideal opportunity to grow our crops and also grow our timber that we require and sequester carbon all at the same time. And it doesn't hinder the terrific traditional arable crop. We see massive fields, small and large fields, that the hedges were taken out, which was the right thing to do at the time. I'm not going to get into that. But we can introduce these trees as biodiversity super highways.

And we'll introduce things like cobb trees and walnut trees to encourage the field mice and dormice into those areas to enrich those two metre strips full of biodiversity, and they link from hedge to hedge. So it's benefiting everybody. 

PAUL

Right. Great. And this all helps towards achieving biodiversity net gain then, which I know something is so I'm speaking with-- I recorded of the podcast recently about green roofs, living walls, and rain gardens. And so bringing nature to an urban environment. And that biodiversity net gain is obviously very important to that. There's some laws coming in whereby they need to improve biodiversity by at least ten percent. Is there a link here between what you're doing and by diversity net gain in an urban setting?

RICHARD

Well, I'm not sure about urban settings only on the hedge urban settings completely. But within an arable or a farm setting, there's always that field that backs on to a village. So it's not very productive. And as you said, developers need to offset a minimum of a hundred and ten percent of their biodiversity net gain from any development. Most councils are insisting on a hundred and thirty percent, which is quite doing some good. So we work with farmers to unlock that capital, and that's all part of a mapping system. We can identify though those areas because let's face it, ecologists are very expensive, very short on time. So if we can identify the areas, the field corners are not productive, that kind of thing in front of the ecologist, that saves their time on the ground and enables them to take on so much more. 

PAUL

Right. Excellent. I see. And you mentioned already, I think, the UK Carbon Code of Conduct.

RICHARD

One way or the other, it falls very neatly into the voluntary carbon code. And Mark Carney was working on, which should be released later this month in order to straighten the voluntary carbon market. There's nothing validated out there. And the UK carbon code works on MRV protocols, so they're measured, reported, and verified. And that's the whole-- takes a holistic approach to the whole estate.

PAUL

What's been the interest in your service then from business in terms of the carbon sequestration?

RICHARD

It's a slight burner as it has been worldwide. I mean, people remember Boris Johnson signed a declaration, and people seem to forget this is mandatory, this is in law. In respect to it was a club climate emergency that we're in. We are subject to law to get things done. And people seem to be lost in that, and we're just carrying on in the background, learn by doing and rewarding people that are doing the hard work. And businesses are starting to realise that.

PAUL

What doors are in place at the moment to encourage people to sequestrate their carbon?

RICHARD

The only—a company (that has) over two hundred and fifty employees has to do a carbon audit so they know where they are on the carbon footprint, but there's nothing in law to say that they have to offset them. It's just a lot of greenwashing out there by big, big companies to say that they are carbon neutral. And to me, carbon neutral is not good enough. We need to be beyond zero, not just at zero, beyond it. 

PAUL

Yeah. Brilliant. That's definitely an Awardaroo philosophy. We need to be net gain. Moving companies to be net gain and what exactly that means for them in terms of the investment?

RICHARD

Yes. They're trying to do the right thing, but also they want to see where they're doing the right thing. There's lots of move to move away from fossil fuels into electric cars. But also, that final bit that they can't offset - they want to see a tree or take their customers to see that tree or involve their whole employment, all of their employees to see what they're doing and get them involved.

It's more so than that's just a commodity over there that we have to buy in. They want to get involved in it. They want our open days there. They want to see where their bang for their buck is.

PAUL

Great. I know you can buy mangroves, can't you, in the jungle somewhere or swamp? 

RICHARD

Well, let's sort of go back to what you said about the mangroves. Those farmers will begin. Some two dollars, maybe one dollar a ton for their offset. That's not rewarding anything to change. That's just greenwashing. But how about we pay those farmers to do more good? And democratise carbon and make the whole system.

So the farmer in Africa gets paid the same as a UK farmer for doing good. Let's knock the world on the head and just say, look, instead of ripping these people off, let's just make them work together. So maybe we introduce Paulownia, the sterile clone, so they start bringing in shelter, and then they can start cultivating their soil.

Perhaps I'm too idealistic. I don't know.

PAUL

We've got to be idealistic today. You know, that's got to be our goal. You know, that's got to be part of the north star that we head to because we've gotten so far off our ideals, I think, and our values in the last couple of hundred years.

RICHARD

I mean, the last thing people want is charity. It doesn't matter whether you're at home or Africa or wherever. If you can do something yourself and you could democratise that carbon, and grow your own food. That's got to be a win-win, not only for communities, but for the world. 

PAUL

Yeah. Absolutely. I don't know. Just in terms of obstacles that you face on a day to day basis, what's your biggest frustration there?

RICHARD

Greenwashing. I look at some of the adverts that we see on television and just think, do you know what? This is just absolute Greenwashing, and it's worse. We need to be going out there and not being selfish about it. Let's be open book.

A very good friend of mine put, “We're in a climate emergency. Your house is on fire, for example. You have a state-of-the-art hydrant that - all the bells and whistles; and you have a garden hose. Which one do you use to put the fire out?” Well, of course, the answer is both, so let's not just look at the bigger people in this. Every single one of us can play a part in this by their choice in buying things, by what they do in their garden. Is it essential to have an artificial lawn? Or do we need start looking at what we're doing in our own gardens to make that much of a difference?

And that to me is important. We always seem to blame farmers for all the negative in the world, but perhaps we need to look in our own backyard once in a while. 

PAUL

I think it's you know, landowners and farmers are really the key to solving this problem, aren't they?

RICHARD

They have a part to play. They have a part to play within this, but so does everything. You look at the vast waves of trees that are planted on the side of motorways, and not looked after. And they have a huge carbon debt. So let's work a bit clever in what we're actually trying to do here. Instead of saying we've done the right thing, let's make sure we do it, not just say it.

PAUL

I think your colleague was saying, Doug was saying, that a lot of these trees planted on the sides of most ways, you know, a lot of them just die. It's because they're not looked after.

RICHARD

Well, that that's exactly my point. I mean, people-- we've supplied Paulownia trees to surfboard manufacturers, to furniture manufacturers. And because they have seen that tree within their lifetime, they care for it. And you manage, you get farmers to-- that's what they do. They look after livestock. They look after crops. They get them see the potential and the revenue of growing this crop, and they'll be on it all day long.

PAUL

Right. So nature based solutions is really what we're talking about here. Is that right?

RICHARD

Yes. Totally. We've driven nature out of our lives so much, and it's time to bring it back and with abundance. We've got to learn that having the latest phone, having the latest computer or car isn't, excuse me, isn't essential.

We need to start looking at our lives. And that is a big frustration for me. I know we're in a cost of living crisis, and I know food is hard for some people, and I'm fortunate that we have enough to live. But the days of the cheap and cheerful food, the processed food, look at what we do into our bodies. We need to start looking closer to home.

PAUL

Absolutely. I'm a hundred percent with you there. That’s definitely Awardaroo. And the whole processed food thing is very central to Awardaroo as well. You know, to making a nice meal at home is so rewarding. So much better for the planet and the family enjoy it too, don't they?

Nobody ever says you died when you took the Chicken Kiev out of a box. But they might if you made a hash of it, yourself.

And I believe also that natural carbon sequestration could meet all of our needs in terms of carbon sequestration that we need to meet the zero-- the two degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

RICHARD

I think we have to grab every opportunity because we were in such a mess. Doing nothing isn't an option. So I think we need to throw everything at it.

The quicker we can get those two degrees down, the faster. And if that's by mechanically harvesting carbon out the atmosphere and putting it deep underground, then so much the better. We have more time to get to that stage.

If we just rely on one set of sciences, then we're so slow to adopt it. And it might be ten years before regenerative agriculture gets to be the mainstay, and that's too long.

PAUL

Right. Got you.

And a lot of the practises that will see, you know, somebody visits to your farm and will come on to that in a moment. Whatever they-- some of the things they're seeing that you're doing at your farm, they would be able to do at home for themselves in their own gardens?

RICHARD

Oh, absolutely. I mean, making composts, the compost teas, instead of buying slug pellets and fertilisers, you can make your own beer traps and also compost with the waste vegetables, grass, and whatnot. It's easily anybody can do it. It's just because as a human nature, we become lazy.

It's easy to open a bottle, it's easy to open a can or a bag in order to apply these things rather than actually having to do something. I get a lot of satisfaction from teaching my daughter how to make compost tea and how it improves and working with the worms.

PAUL

If somebody wants to visit your farm, where should they go? What's the address?

RICHARD

Well, we're based just out of Ashford, but if they get in contact with us, we have an open day once, we may be looking at a couple of times a year. But also, we work with various groups to have visits. We have the Three Men of Kent coming in a couple of weeks and various other people, come for visits just to see what we're doing.

PAUL

Brilliant. What's your website address, Richard?

RICHARD

It's www.re-generationearth.com

PAUL

Brilliant. And if people want to contact you directly, can they do that or to best to go to the website?

RICHARD

Best to go through the website. Think my email address is on there or the hello one. Either way, they'll come to me.

PAUL

Brilliant. That's fantastic. Richard, it's been a real pleasure to have you on this podcast. Thank you very much for your time in explaining all about, you know, regenerative agriculture and what you're doing there at Re-Generation Earth. It's a fantastic thing that you're doing there. And, you know, we need more people like you doing exactly what you're doing to help us all out of a big mess, the big mess that we're in. So once again, thank you very much, Richard.

RICHARD

Thank you for having me, Paul.

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