Cover your... ground

"Organic." "Sustainable." Words that inspire a warm fuzzy feeling of do-goodness inside when you reach for that item on the grocery shelf, imagining it’s the right choice for Mother Earth, yourself and your family. These days though, organic and sustainable have become a bit of a low bar for good environmental stewardship. While "organic" means no chemicals and pesticides, "sustainable" means just that, maintaining the status quo. Though such measures are predicated on not harming the environment or the food chain, they don’t necessarily enhance conditions.

Discovering the limitations of organic farming methods led third-generation Okanagan farmer, Gene Covert (pictured below left) to expanding to regenerative farming practices, methods which focus on restoring the ecological balance and health of the soil that then translates into healthier and more abundant yields. When Covert and his wife Shelly (pictured below right), who are now also winemakers, took over the farm after Gene’s father died in 2005, they had already begun the move to organic farming.Gene Covert and Shelly Covert at the farmShari Saysomsack Photography“We were eating organic at home for health reasons,” Covert recalls. “I got sick spraying when I was younger, and it was one of those experiences that you don’t forget. It was at the back of my head.”

The Coverts struggled with how  to make the transition from conventional farming and not go broke in the process. “As part of our strategy, we leased out 300 acres of land to another vineyard and that revenue helped buffer the transition. It wasn’t an easy transition, that’s for sure. The first year, 2005, we did 20 acres. [In] 2006, we did another 20 acres.”

In the end, it was bureaucracy that helped make the last leap to become completely organic. The paperwork they had to file to keep track of two types of farming was overwhelming after a few years. “After the third [year], we thought ‘let’s just do it all [organic]' and we’ll figure out which crops are going to work.”

Once fully organic, the shift to regenerative agriculture was a natural progression. Regenerative farming uses nature for pest control and to combat invasive plants.

“We’ve learned quite quickly with the regenerative farming techniques of minimal tillage and keeping the ground covered all the time, biodiversity—maximizing that— integrating livestock into our vineyards…we’ve been doing soil tests and finding that our organic matter is climbing quite significantly now,” Covert explains.

Regenerative agriculture, though not widely practised, is not a new concept. It is a component of the larger permaculture movement (not to be confused with Rudolph Steiner’s cosmos-based biodynamics) developed 40 years ago by Australian scientist and biologist Bill Mollison.Javan Bernakevitch“Permaculture is an ethical-based design approach to create sustainable or regenerative human habitats,” says Javan Bernakevitch (pictured above), regenerative land designer and permaculture educator. “How do we live on the planet and how do we do that so that it’s ethical, first and foremost?”

Bernakevitch describes permaculture as an approach to living. “It’s a different operating system of how to look at the world where there’s interconnection and those connections matter,” he says.

Regenerative farming, as only one aspect of permaculture, is simply about agriculture and how we grow our food, he says. Bernakevitch readily admits that people aren’t always ready to embrace the entire philosophy, but will find elements of it that appeal to them or seem doable. And regenerative farming is a concept that is easily understandable and has broad appeal.

The fundamental tenet of regenerative agriculture is no bare land. Look to nature where there’s an abundance of ground cover and biodiversity to see how it works.

“When you explain the principles of regenerative agriculture, it’s don’t disturb the soil and keep it covered with plant material,” Covert says. “Walk out into a wild meadow and look down and see what you see. Well, yeah, the soil wasn’t disturbed. It’s covered with green plant material and also dead plant material. There’s biodiversity out there and there are lots of species, and every once in a while, a herd of animals comes through to graze it.”

Nature, Covert observes, abhors bare ground. “Every time you disturb the soil with a cultivator you hit this reset button and it goes back to its primary state of massive soil disturbance. So, you get these primary species of weeds that come back in that sort of  scavenge nutrients from the soil and many of them are suppressive to other plants growing. They tend to dominate for a while.”

Bernakevitch advises, be it a large-scale plot or a home garden, to keep that soil covered with living or dead mulch. If not plants, then ensure it’s covered with material like leaves or straw, or wood chips. “Once you’ve done that, you’ve created a little microclimate underneath the mulch for water to be retained within the soil,” he says. “Once you have water in the soil, where there is water, there is life... in the soil, we have an entire living soil food web that each exudates off the roots of plants and then creates an entire food web of predators and prey and they actually create all the nutrition that plants need.”

That nutrition for the plants translates into more nutritious food on your plate, according to Covert. “That’s where the soil health really comes to shine,” he says. “That’s where you see nutrient density increasing in the produce. Fruits and vegetables which are, I think just on average, 50 to 60 percent below what they were back in the ‘20s and ‘30s.”

Minimizing soil disturbance is integral to developing and maintaining soil health. Bernakevitch uses the example of Dr. Elaine Ingham’s discovery in the 1980s that the potassium needed for an entire acre of corn exists in a single grain of sand. But the dilemma was how to get that single grain of sand to the entire acre?

“The way to do that is to make sure that living soil food web is intact,” Bernakevitch says. “The way to make sure that happens is not to plow it up and break apart the mycelial strands, the fungal strands, to break up all the communities that are created there. Every time you do that, yes, all those organisms die, and you have a temporary bloom of nutrition... till, plow, till, plow then big crop, big crop, big crop Then you get to the 1930s and all of a sudden, we’ve depleted our soils. All of our soils are gone. They can no longer support life.”

Not all disturbance is harmful. Covert has found that livestock grazing which, when managed properly, can enhance the soil structure unlike the intense disturbance of mechanical tilling.

“The physical act of an animal eating a plant is different than if you mow it with a mower,” Covert explains. “When the animal bites on it, kind of tugs on it  and causes micro tears in the root system and if you don’t overgraze it, it stimulates the plant to inject a whole lot of carbohydrates in the soil which gives you a flush of biological activity, scavenges the water and nutrients for the plant’s regrowth.”Covert regenerative agricultureShari Saysomsack PhotographyBiodiversity plays a key role. Covert says that they’ve planted 12 different species of cover crops in the vineyards in addition to leaving whatever is growing there already. “We just add those on top to have different ecological functions. When they bloom, and bring in predators and pollinators and such, all that biodiversity helps with pest control,” he says.

Bernakevitch says that biodiversity in the way of intercropping, interplanting and interstoreys offers practical and ecological returns. “Using different layers... allows us to use the full photosynthetic capacity in an area,” he says. “This means if we’ve got a fence, we can put up some vines and also do some ground covers at the bottom of those vines. If we’re using perennials like raspberries or blackberries, and if we’re using annuals like peas, beans or tomatoes, there’s still all that ground cover there that could potentially be utilized... so that intercropping allows us to have a diversity of plants, but it also allows us to hedge our bets [against crop failure].”

One unexpected result of regenerative agriculture is how quickly soil health can be restored. Covert says soil courses in the past only focussed on the physics and chemistry of soil and not its biology. From that perspective, it was assumed that it took about a 100 to 1000 years to build an inch of topsoil. According to Covert, when taken from the biology side of the equation, that transformation can be sped up tens to a hundred times. 

“All of a sudden, this problem that had this solution that was 10 generations [away] is now possible in one generation,” he says. “That’s the fundamental part that is so exciting about regenerative farming is that it’s a clear path to a solution to a problem of degraded soils globally that can turn it around very fast and solve a lot of our climate issues along the way.”

The beauty about regenerative agriculture is that it can be done on any scale—large or small. “Always keep some plants growing,” Covert says. “Keep the ground covered and keep some biodiversity going. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a planter box on your patio or deck or 10,000 acres of corn. You can find ways to make it work either way.”

For those not interested in gardening, Bernakevitch suggests looking at the beneficial ways you can interact with your community and be mindful of where the food you consume comes from—the closer the source, the better.

“How can you further take responsibility for your needs in a local setting?” he posits. “The more you take responsibility for your personal needs, the better prepared you are for any hardship down the road. If you’re not into growing. That’s fair and fine, and not a judgement at all."

The question to ask yourself he says is, “’Where can I source my food then that best benefits my local community?’”