Regenerative wheat growing: it’s about soil health
Meet Ben, a farmer focused on stewarding the earth whilst growing grains.
Image: living wheat roots (supplied).
A small hessian bag printed with the mysterious, red-inked word “Bergamot” on the front was my introduction to regenerative spelt grain and the grower, Ben Ranford. A family-friend of Ben in one of my baking classes had brought along a small quantity of this aromatic and flavoursome grain. After fresh milling the grain into flour, the resulting wholegrain spelt sourdough loaf had a soft and tender crumb with a rich nutty flavour; it was spelt bread at its finest.
Being a home-gardening enthusiast with an interest in food, ingredients and the people growing them, I later spoke with Ben about his approach to growing crops.
A fourth-generation farmer from Cleve, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, Ben’s journey to the family 3000-hectare paddock/s was via an Agricultural Science degree.
His change-embracing, inquisitive personality combined with formal education and a father open to trying new methods resulted in pioneering no-till methods in the early 1990s. The standard practice was cultivation (digging/turning) of the soil before planting. Despite the negativity, from people who had never tried it, Ben persisted with this new method of growing, and no-till is now considered best practice in the industry. Then, with a focus on stewarding the earth, from 2016 he made the progression into regenerative farming methods.
Ben explains the principles of regenerative farming are about caring for the soil; and caring for the soil has benefits for everyone. The farmer gets improves yields and quality, reduces synthetic inputs (fertilisers, pesticides), and reduced seasonal risks. Us bakers, professional or hobbyist, and the people eating our baked goods get naturally increased nutrients grown with environmental care included.
So why care for the soil? Living plants photosynthesise taking in sunlight and water, converting these to sugars and oxygen. Via the roots these “exudates” (sugars) attract microbes and microbes feed on these sugars and make nutrients for the living plant to grow. The growing plant photosynthesises and the cycle continues.
Ben describes the five principles of regenerative farming as:
- Keep the soil covered. Home gardeners would use the term “mulch”. Like clothing protects us from hot/cold/wind and more, the life-filled soil benefits from cover. Moisture is retained, temperature extremes are moderated, erosion of topsoil is prevented, and the soil biology thrives. Traditionally land is left bare from early summer harvest until late Autumn seeding, suffering the scorching summer sun and winds. Ben’s regenerative land is planted with a sunflower and millet crop after the wheat harvest; the plants keep the soil covered.
- Minimise soil disturbance. Soil is a living system teeming with biological activity. Zero-till methods ensure the physical environment is undisturbed for the beneficial biology. Traditional tilling accelerates the decomposition of the organic matter in the soil. How does a no-till farmer plant seed? With a special machine “like a pizza cutter wheel” that gently separates a shallow layer of soil, seed is dropped in, and soil re-covered.
- One type of crop has one type of root depth, promotes specific soil biology, and has specific nutritional needs. Diversity, by planting different crops through the seasons or annually by crop-rotation encourages diverse soil activity and balanced nutritional needs and complements. For example, many legumes and beans add nitrogen to the soil; a wheat crop will use that nitrogen. A combined planting of tall sunflowers with long, deep roots complements a shorter grass like millet with shallow roots. The entire soil profile is utilised.
- Living roots. “Plants are the mouth for the soil.” Living plants take carbon from the air and store it in the soil via their roots. Soil with no plants, or just residue stubble, releases carbon into the air. Regenerative growing methods ensure there are constantly plants growing.
- Integrate livestock. Whilst Ben doesn’t have ‘big’ livestock (there is plenty of micro-livestock: insects, fungi, bacteria and more!) he describes the potential symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. Animals graze a field biting the plants, and like pruning, it stimulates new growth. Animals breathe CO2, and plants thrive when lots of CO2. Animals produce manure which adds microbes and nutrition to the soil.
The benefit of regenerative farming is healthy soils. Healthy soils improve yield and quality, reduce synthetic inputs (fertilisers), and reduce risks during the growing and harvesting process. It’s generally financially better-off for the farmer, although does require more planning and effort.
What does it look like in the field? Winter crops (wheat and lentils, depending on the rotation) are sown in Autumn (April-May). Those crops mature by early November and harvest is November-December. Typically, a conventional field is left with stubble through summer. But with the regenerative approach a warm season cover crop (Ben uses sunflowers and millet) is sown immediately after harvesting and grows until late January. These cover crops are “terminated” (killed) before they mature and set seed because their purpose is to cover the soil (see #1 above) to keep moisture and nutrients in the soil, not to harvest sunflower seed and millet seed. Their living roots (i.e., a growing plant) ensure the soil is continually fed (remember #4 above).
Image: sunflowers and millet growing after the wheat harvest (supplied).
It's an earth-stewarding approach, but regenerative farming doesn’t have certifications. It’s something a famer chooses to do and promotes directly to customers (if they have access to the end consumer). This raises the organic question in my mind. Certified organic is well known, regenerative is not, so what are the differences?
Certified organic is about certifying what’s not used (no synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides). The regenerative approach is about proactively building healthy soil (and therefore healthy plants and food). Certified organic growers may or may not have a regenerative philosophy.
Ben observes all crop farmers must manage (destroy) weeds. Organic farming uses tilling to kill weeds; regenerative farming accepts the use of herbicides—before planting anything that will be eaten—to kill weeds. The debate continues among the respective farmers which is the more acceptable trade-off.
The other hurdle is viability. Even with the high price of organic grain, the lower yields and higher production costs make it unviable. It’s also a 3-year process to achieve certification; effectively reducing yields over that period without the offset of premium organic grain price. Ben isn’t the first farmer I’ve heard with these concerns when considering organic certification.
Back to comparing regenerative with conventional, an example of regenerative management of nutritional needs versus conventional methods is with the use of fertilisers. Ben’s soil generally has a high pH (alkaline) and lime content. This makes the phosphorus in the soil “locked” unavailable to the plants. Rather than compensate with large amounts of synthetic fertilisers, he uses a significantly smaller amount and combines it with organic compost and a fermented carbon-base to minimise the quantity and maximise its uptake by the plants. It’s an example of the benefits of caring for the soil; the soil microbes release the locked-up phosphorus and supply the plants in exchange for the root exudates (sugars).
If you are wondering when the sales pitch is coming, it isn’t. As of writing (2023) you can’t buy Ben’s wheat (or lovely spelt grain). Despite the careful growing process, it ends up on a truck, and eventually in an enormous silo with all the other wheat. It was special in the field, but where it ends up its just more commodity cereal.
The good news is if it was available, at a reasonable scale it shouldn’t be much more expensive for the user; the added costs due to separate transport, processing, and milling. But Ben produces thousands of tons of wheat each season, and he is one of many. Until major industrial users, via their customers, want crops (food) grown a particular way, these crops will remain relegated to smaller-scale, higher-priced niche food producers. Without the advantages of large-scale efficiency in growing/processing/milling/distribution, the price will stay higher.
So, where does this fit in for the baker, professional or hobbyist?
Well, the wheat (or other grain) is still wheat (or the other grain), whether grown certified organic, regenerative, or conventional—all of them do make bread. Plus, there are many other variables impacting the final grain quality (rainfall, region, weather, soil type, inputs, farmer, and more).
But as stewards of this planet, people that make food for others, and ‘neighbours’ with all the other humans on earth, considering how yours, mine and our food is grown is a good first step.
PS https://www.vicnotill.com.au/ is a resource for farmers interested to find out more. Ben is also glad to chat further.