Regenerative Agriculture Blogs

Dishing the Dirt on the Living Agriculture Meet | Arc2020

Source: Arc2020

Our Mazi farmer, Natasha Foote, joined the first International Meeting For Living Agriculture in Paris. It aims to forward agroecological transition by facilitating exchanges between people working in this field in diverse ways, in different areas and on all sorts of scales. Here is what she took back to the farm.

Living and working on a farm like Mazi, it’s easy sometimes to feel a bit isolated. As beautiful as it is, as passionate as you are about what you’re doing, being a pioneer can be an isolating experience.  You have to face the challenges of innovative systems like syntropic farming, which we practice, alone. It’s easy to feel a bit disheartened.

That’s why outreach work and networks of farmers can be such a life-line. Many farmers, like us, are rural and remote and such networks create a vital space for knowledge exchange and social connection with similar projects and people. Most of this at Mazi we do online, connecting with the many social media sites, organisations and forums, but this has it’s limits.  Sometimes it’s nice, or even necessary, to have a change of scene and to actually meet people in person.

It was with that in mind that I decided to attend the first ever International Meeting for Living Agriculture. Organised by the French organisation, the aptly named Ver de Terre Production(‘Earthworm’ Productions), in conjunction with the movement Pour une Agriculture du Vivant (‘For a living agriculture’), this conference was designed to support the agroecological transition and to connect like-minded people working in different ways and at different levels to practise and promote agroecological practices.

So, in the hope to re-inspire myself, discover and connect with the whole wealth of interesting projects, people and ideas that I know are out there, I took myself off to Paris this February and arrived at the beautiful Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris excited to see what the conference had in store for me.

It certainly did not disappoint. Offering 5 days of presentations, from farms of 5 hectares to 5000, from farmers to policy makers, from South Africa to Canada, this conference provided a rare opportunity for inter-disciplinary,as well as international exchange. Jam packed full of speakers ranging from researchers from institutions such as the FAO and INRA, including the incontestable pioneers of living soil science in France, the Bourguignons, to technical presentations from farmers working to perfect their methods of no-till, direct seeding and pruning, each speaker brought fresh perspectives and inspiring ideas.

Tash Foote at work in the nursery at Mazi.

Tash Foote at work in the nursery at Mazi.

Often, working on a project like Mazi means that you have multiple roles and interests. For instance, working as an agroecological farmer means you are not just a farmer, but also a researcher, an innovator and an ecologist. What I liked most about this conference was that it appealed to many sides of the work I do and am interested in.


As a farmer…

…the conference’s emphasis on technical agronomic knowledge was indispensable. Notable stand outs include ‘paysan-chercheurs’ (farmer-researchers) such as Felix Noblia, who managed within the space of 10 years to transform his conventional farm into a 100% organic, no-till, productive and economically viable farm.

Other innovative farmers included François Mulet, founder of Maraîchage sur Sol Vivant, a French organisation that works to support vegetable farmers using no-till methods, and Benoît Noël, who has worked to maximise his profit through, for example,  using his hedgerows to generate additional value and helping him produce more with less. Often, having precise and technical information can be difficult to access as a farmer, and such technical and practical presentations allowed such a valuable insight into their work.


As a researcher and scientist…

…this conference provided a rare opportunity to bridge the world of research and that of farming. It was a space to bring about practical and useful partnerships. At Mazi, we have been working on finding ways to measure and evaluate our soil quality, something we consider vital to the agroecological movement but which in practice has been time-consuming to research and difficult to standardise to allow comparisons between farms.

It turns out there is already an organisation in France trying out just that. Indiciades have been working on creating an accessible platform to support farmers in measuring, tracking and comparing progress. This conference has allowed me to link with this organisation in the hopes of using their knowledge and resources to help show how our practices are improving our soil health.


Source of Image: Arc2020

Source of Image: Arc2020

…this conference provided a rare opportunity to bridge the world of research and that of farming. It was a space to bring about practical and useful partnerships. At Mazi, we have been working on finding ways to measure and evaluate our soil quality, something we consider vital to the agroecological movement but which in practice has been time-consuming to research and difficult to standardise to allow comparisons between farms.

It turns out there is already an organisation in France trying out just that. Indiciades have been working on creating an accessible platform to support farmers in measuring, tracking and comparing progress. This conference has allowed me to link with this organisation in the hopes of using their knowledge and resources to help show how our practices are improving our soil health.

I am interested in the ways we can encourage people to engage with food quality and to create a way agroecological farmers can quantify the superior quality of their produce. Inspiration came from Dan Kettridge, founder of the Bionutrient Food Association, an organisation working to create a hand-held, pocket sized device that would allow the either the farmer or the consumer to directly test and quantify the quality of their food. This is exactly the kind of organisation that projects such as Mazi would love to support and work with, and it is really exciting to know that someone is working on this crucially important aspect of ecological farming.

Finally, as someone interested the transition from conventional farming to agroecological practices, a stand out moment of the conference for me was when Trey Hill, an American farmer, stood up on stage and started his talk with a beautifully made video about his farm. Cue beautiful shots of green fields, of the technology he uses to implement his no-till and direct seed agriculture- but with one difference;  this video was created by Bayer, the agrotech company, as part of their ‘Future Farming’ project. Safe to say, this caused a stir in the room. What on earth was someone that worked with companies like Bayer doing at an organic, agroecological conference?

Trey went on to explain that he had taken the decision to convert his conventionally farmed 5000 hectare farm of soya and corn crops into a 100% no-till production, using cover-cropping as well as planting strips of wildlfowers to encourage healthy biodiversity. He explained that he works with actors such as Bayer as well as environmental organisations across America to promote the work he is doing, and although he was not organic, he was interested in incorporating agroecological principles and practices into his farm. His farm and his story represented to me the missing link in the transition between conventional and agroecological farms, and ways that we must come together to work with farmers and people if we want to forward the agroecological transition.

As well as re-instating the importance of life and biology as the basis for agriculture, this conference, thanks to it’s diverse range of speakers, offered a number of other take home messages. It highlighted to me the importance of creating moments of exchange like this to encourage interdisciplinary and international collaborations which are key for accelerating the agricultural transition. This includes work between conventional and organic agriculture and between research institutes and farmers. These are unfortunately still rare.

It also emphasised the importance of creating accessible, high quality information, including how to accurately measure progress and collate this information together, to forward the agroecological movement. Lastly, conferences like this offer a boost of inspiration, reinvigoration of interests, exchange of ideas and connection of like-minded people that everyone needs from time to time.






Letter from the Farm | Spring Update from Greece’s Mazi Farm | Arc2020

Source: Arc2020

Hard to believe that not so long ago we were working on this farm in shorts! Definitely not the weather you’d usually associate with Greece.

Hard to believe that not so long ago we were working on this farm in shorts! Definitely not the weather you’d usually associate with Greece.

The last couple of months have brought a cold snap to our island. People rarely think of the Mediterranean winter, but our farm has been unrecognisable as for the first time we have seen our land covered in snow! Who would’ve thought the closest we’d get to a white Christmas would be in Greece!

As well as making the place look beautiful, the cold weather has given us some welcome respite and a bit of downtime to get cracking with some planning for Spring. Unlike elsewhere, farming in Greece means that we have a near year-round growing season. This may have its benefits agriculturally, but means that it can sometimes be difficult to squeeze in that all-important planning, as well as reflecting on the ups and downs of our first year together on the farm, so we’re more than happy to take the chance when the opportunity arises!

In my last letter, I spoke about the natural processes and patterns that we find in nature that we try to incorporate into the design of our farm.  This letter covers one other key part of our farm strategy – support species.

I get by with a little help from my friends

The Beatles weren’t just singing about humans with their well-known song – it’s the same for plants! And that is exactly the idea behind support species. So what are support species and why are they so important? To put it simply, support species are species that are incorporated into the system but do not produce a crop.

The idea of support species stems from the observation that in nature, you always find a diversity of species growing together. Famously, people tend to see this diversity through the frame of competition, with Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. Whilst this is true to some extent, it is also true that you can observe different species working together to support and facilitate the growth of others and help the good of the whole system in many complex interactions, for instance through creating a more biodiverse and species-rich system, as you find in a forest.

Farm volunteer, Carla Gams, standing next to one of our Poplar trees which have made enormous progress from the tiny cuttings we planted a year ago!

Farm volunteer, Carla Gams, standing next to one of our Poplar trees which have made enormous progress from the tiny cuttings we planted a year ago!

Why use support species?

So what kind of help do support species provide? Well, here at Mazi we’ve selected our support species on the farm to fit certain qualities needed at this early stage of our project. Namely, fast-growing trees that put down deep roots to de-compact and aerate the soil, and are incredibly hardy species that can grow in tough conditions. Typically, these are pioneer species which work to set the stage for the other species in the system, creating the conditions around our crops that they need to thrive. We have a mix of species that work to support our system in different ways, including Acacia, Cypress, Poplars, Mendicago and Carobs.

Support species can be used to optimise the system in a whole host of ways. A major role support species play at Mazi is for on-site biomass production. Our support species have been deliberately chosen as species that can both grow quickly and withstand heavy pruning. In this way, the branches and leaves can be turned into woodchips with the help of our trusty Greenmech chipping machine, and used as mulch to protect and improve our soil quality.

Here you can see our cypress support species inter-cropped with our crop species.

Here you can see our cypress support species inter-cropped with our crop species.

Another quality that has been important for us in our species choice is wind protection as, farming up on the hillside as we are, we are particularly vulnerable to wind damage. After looking into a range of wind strategies involving constructing artificial structures, it was unanimously decided that taking a natural approach using a wide border of trees around the circumference of the farm and at strategic places would be the most effective, both economically and ecologically. These trees, including fast-growing, tall cypress trees and slower-growth, sturdy carob trees with an understory of prickly pears, have been chosen to optimise wind resistance by stratification both through space and time. Although this might take a little while longer to create an effective wind barrier, we think it will ultimately be a much more durable and effective wind strategy.

Another less obvious way we are using support species in our system is for mechanical support for our grapes. Stakes, as we have recently found out, are costly, time consuming to put into place and eventually rot. So the question is, why use stakes when you can use trees? We have planted our vines next to our support species with the idea that they can grow up the trunk of their neighbour, as you observe vines doing naturally in forest systems.

Of course, as always in regenerative agriculture, it’s not just what is happening above ground that counts, but what is going on beneath your feet. Below ground you find a mirror image reflecting what’s happening above – by that, I mean that a tree will have an equivalent size root system below ground to support it. By introducing a diversity of species into your system, this means you therefore have a diversity of root depths, shapes and sizes, which works to prevent soil erosion, a huge problem here in Greece (and globally) and especially in sensitive areas such as on a hillside.

These roots also put out exudates to encourage a healthy root microbiome. Each individual species works to create an unique root zone microbiota, depending on their needs, so the more the merrier for creating a healthy, diverse soil microbiota. Furthermore, when the support species are pruned for their organic matter, the roots also shrink or grow to reflect the photosynthetic capacity of the plant. Therefore, any root die off caused by pruning means that nutrients from the roots are being put back into the ground, as well as providing more food for the all-important soil microbiology.

Our cover crops hard at work converting free nitrogen in to a form our plants are able to use. The little nodules you can see on the plant roots are where the magic happens and house the bacteria responsible for nitrogen fixation.

Our cover crops hard at work converting free nitrogen in to a form our plants are able to use. The little nodules you can see on the plant roots are where the magic happens and house the bacteria responsible for nitrogen fixation.

Last, but by no means least, our support species play a key role in our fertilisation strategy through the use of leguminous plants that have the ability to fix nitrogen. Certain trees and plants that have the ability to make symbiotic relationships with rhizobial bacteria who live in the root zone work hard to convert free nitrogen into a form that the plant can use. This relationship is vital for plant health as, although about 80% of our atmosphere is made up of nitrogen, plants themselves are unable to change inert nitrogen into the usable form of nitrogen required by plants in order to manufacture amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids, and the other nitrogen-containing components necessary for life. Nitrogen fixers we have used on the farm include Mendicago arborea and species of Acacia, as well as cover crops such as vetch, clover and lupin.

Support species show yet another way you can harness the power of biology to your advantage, optimising your system and your soil health through the incorporation of trees and plants in a whole range of ways!

Letter From The Farm | Mimicking Natural Processes in Greece | Arc2020

Source: Arc2020

Our interlines teaming with life after the rains have fallen. The mix of green manures are working hard to fix nitrogen in the soils, put down roots to decompact the soil and help prevent erosion on our sloped hillside farm.

Our interlines teaming with life after the rains have fallen. The mix of green manures are working hard to fix nitrogen in the soils, put down roots to decompact the soil and help prevent erosion on our sloped hillside farm.

We are back in Greece on Mazi Farm with Natasha Foote who talks us through the thinking behind the farm design. From the selection of crop varieties to the layout of the farm, it all comes down to observing nature and mimicking natural processes. 

Walking around Mazi farm, between a mix of trees and plants of all shapes and sizes, from pomegranates, to grapes, to eucalyptus, it becomes quickly apparent that this way of doing things is a far cry from the miles of monoculture crops we’ve come to associate with conventional farms. You’d be forgiven for wondering how this seemingly chaotic system came into place, but there is method in the madness! And it’s this farm design that I want to talk about here for you today.

Mazi Farm is what we would call a successional stratified agroforestry farm, rooted in the principles of ecology and inspired by syntropic agriculture, a concept pioneered by Ernst Gotch through his farm in Brazil.

Everything we try to do on the farm is inspired by natural processes, focusing on mimicking natural patterns found in forest systems. When looking for inspiration for how to create our food systems, forests, which produce an abundance of wood and fruits without the need for any human input, are the logical place to start.

Choosing your species

So, the first question when designing any farm is, which varieties should we be growing? Agroforstry and permaculture teacher Mark Shepard advocates for the careful study of your local biome and then drawing up your farm design based on the species you find there. We headed off to our local forest to identify the wild flora and fauna growing successfully around us and used them to inspire our crop choices.  This means trying to see the plants in your system not just as an individual species but as embedded in a system in which it plays a specific role.

We found wild pistachio and almonds thriving on the side of the mountain nearby which has only meagre layer of soil, bountiful fig trees which lined the sides of the roads and prickly pears which give an abundance of pears with nearly no water. The cultivated varieties of these we selected for the farm.

Of course, in an ideal world, the ecology alone would provide the design of our farm, but this ecological ideal also has to be weighed against specific contextual and economic factors. For instance, being far from the nearest city , and it therefore being difficult to sell fresh produce, means that we have focused on species that have the ability to be easily dried and transformed for ease of storage and transport, as well as making ecological sense. We also concentrated on high value crops to make sure our farm is both ecologically and economically viable. Weighing these variables up, we chose pistachios, figs, almonds, prickly pears and pomegranates as our main crops.

Farm intern, James McCallan, sowing a mix of lupin, vetch, barley, oats and clover for our green manure crops that will cover the interlines

Farm intern, James McCallan, sowing a mix of lupin, vetch, barley, oats and clover for our green manure crops that will cover the interlines

Where to put them?

So then question becomes, how best to organise these species in your system? For that, it is important to delve deeper into the ways that that forests are so successful, and draw inspiration from the natural patterns and processes we can observe there.

The first of these is the process of ecological succession. Forest systems are not static environments but are constantly evolving and changing. Each species sets the stage for the next as the system becomes increasingly complex and efficient until a so-called climax community is reached. This is when the vegetation in a given area reaches an equilibrium, consisting of species best adapted to the average conditions of that area.

The idea for us is to help speed up this ecological succession that would occur naturally over time, accelerating the process towards a more stable, fertile, healthy ecosystem. For this, we included a mix of pioneer and early successional species with later successional species, designing a system that constantly evolves through time in the same way a forest does. This means that our species all have different temporalities, with some designed to last just a few years and some designed for more long term production.

We also employed the concept of synchronicity. This is the idea that when a disturbance happens, all the system components are there ready to go, and ready to come into their own when their time is right, with seeds dormant in the seed bank reacting and tree stumps re-growing. This is crucial for establishing the whole network of species together in the space, allowing networks of communication to be established. This means that we planted out all (or as many as we could!) of our species all the same time, to allow the system to evolve together.

The second is process that is key to design organisation is stratification, i.e. that plants come in all shapes at sizes. For instance, in a forest system you will find a ‘full consortia’ of species (species at all levels and life cycles), from the top of the canopies towering above the others (‘emergent species’), to the sub-canopy thriving in their shadow (‘high-medium species’), to the vines winding down the trees, to the ground cover plants under your feet.

An artistic representation of the stratification of the polyculture in our tree lines, and how these components will all work together in the system.

An artistic representation of the stratification of the polyculture in our tree lines, and how these components will all work together in the system.

Imitating stratification is important for several reasons. One is that it is a key part of understanding the niche in which your species flourish best. For instance, taking a sub-canopy, low-level species, such as a pistachio, and putting it in direct sunlight will stress and burn the tree, especially in a climate like Greece. This will weaken the plant, and make it more susceptible to disease and other problems. Another reason strata is so important from a farming perspective is that organising your farm by strata maximises the amount of photosynthetic energy you can harvest, or the maximising the capacity of your crops to use sunlight to produce the nutrients they need to grow. By doing so, you are increasing the productivity of your system, producing calories at all light levels rather than on just one plane, as in a monoculture.

This stratification can take many forms. At Mazi, we have chosen to diversify our species along our tree lines, with each line a mix of different strata of species. It means that we have poplars as our emergent species, towering over the other lower level species. Underneath, protected in their shade, we have our figs, followed by our pistachios, our bushier pomegranates, our grapes (which will grow up neighbouring trees), our prickly pears and our green manure ground cover crops.

Our diverse tree lines in process, with prickly pears planted next to poplar cuttings and grapes that will grow up their neighbouring trees.

Our diverse tree lines in process, with prickly pears planted next to poplar cuttings and grapes that will grow up their neighbouring trees.

Another process that we seek to emulate on Mazi is the process of disturbance. In natural systems, there are constantly disturbances, such as a fire, an animal breaking a branch or a tree falling in a strong wind. These disturbances play a key role in the health of a natural system, keeping the system dynamic by unlocking key nutrients and opening niches for other species.

We can emulate these disturbances on our farms by using our chainsaw as a tool for disturbance. By pruning and tree thinning at strategic times and in an ecologically sensitive way, we can open up space on our land, and provide organic matter for the rest of the system to use in the form of wood chips from branches and trees.

Opening up space on our land also means that we can fill these gaps full of ground cover annuals, using a mix of plants we call ‘green manures’, emulating the strong pasture annuals which are the first to respond after disturbance in a forest system. These green manures are a mix of nitrogen-fixing plants such as lupin and vetch, and other crops which spread over the ground to help reduce soil erosion and speed up the natural succession of the system.

By mimicking these natural processes, re-establishing biological processes in the ecosystem and the soil, facilitating natural nutrient cycles and increasing the structure and fertility of the soil itself, we hope to create highly nutritious, quality food from a system which requires minimal inputs.

Letter From The Farm | Greece’s Mazi Farm Arc 2020

Source: Arc2020

If I started to tell you about the time that an Englishwoman, a Welshman and a Frenchman all got together to start a farm in Greece, you’d be forgiven if you thought it was the start of a joke. But in fact, that’s exactly what happened on a farm on the little known Greek island of Euboea almost exactly a year ago today where, if you come up the hillside on the outskirts of a sleepy village called Styra, you’ll find an unlikely group of people trying to farm in an even more unlikely place.

Dimitri Tsitos (Project Founder and Manager), inspecting one of our baby lemon trees after staking it to protect it in windy weather – an all to common occurrence on our hillside farm and a real challenge for our crops

Dimitri Tsitos (Project Founder and Manager), inspecting one of our baby lemon trees after staking it to protect it in windy weather – an all to common occurrence on our hillside farm and a real challenge for our crops

So welcome indeed to Mazi Farm, a regenerative agroforestry farm run by a team brought together by a common goal – to restore degraded farmland in the Mediterranean.

And ‘degraded’ is certainly a good way to describe our land. Shrubby, stony and suffering a severe lack of soil, Mazi’s home in Greece has a long history of land misuse and management, where overgrazing and prevalent fires have left the land in a vulnerable and damaged state. By using regenerative techniques, we are working to restore our land back to its former glory days when the Mediterranean was able to produce high quality, nutritious food from healthy soils. And if that doesn’t sound easy, that would be because it isn’t!

So how did this possibly come about? Well, ‘Mazi’ in Greek means together – and Mazi Farm is the story of how people from multiple nationalities and spanning across generations have come together to create a farm. Mazi Farm was started by the Tsitos family in 2017 who, with an impressive combination of six nationalities between them and after a life moving from country to country, decided instead it was time to reunite and put down roots in the Greek countryside alongside their baby trees.

The rest of the Mazi team have come to agroforestry through different avenues, but have all been drawn to agriculture as the crossroads where so many environmental and social problems lie, combined with a need to escape the drudgery of the city for a chance to reconnect with nature and get stuck into something practical.

Dimitri digging one of the thousands of holes we’ve made on the farm to plant our agroforest

Dimitri digging one of the thousands of holes we’ve made on the farm to plant our agroforest

This idea of ‘togetherness’ is also one that extends to our farm practices. At Mazi, we draw inspiration from the ‘syntropic’ model of agriculture, an ecological method of farming which has been developed and popularised by Ernst Gotsch. It involves mimicking nature’s patterns in everything we do, from farm design to management decisions to our crop choices. We work with our farm ecosystem as a whole, concentrating on the ways in which our plants and trees work together to support one another in our system. In this way, we aim to renew existing resources and regenerate damaged ecosystems, instead of depleting or sustaining them.

So what does that mean in practice? Well, this means a number of things. First and foremost, it means a focus on soil building. This includes things like not labouring our soil, the extensive covering of our land with organic matter, choosing perennial crops that do not require soil disturbance, incorporating cover crops and support species and including species with differing root layers which work to break up and aerate the soil.

Sowing our green manures, a mix of of nitrogen-fixers such as lupin, vetch and clover mixed with grains such as oat and barley. These green manures chosen for certain properties like nitrogen fixation to support our trees and help in the regeneration of our soils. They are also sown to protect and cover our soils to prevent erosion and start breaking up our compacted soil with their roots.

Sowing our green manures, a mix of of nitrogen-fixers such as lupin, vetch and clover mixed with grains such as oat and barley. These green manures chosen for certain properties like nitrogen fixation to support our trees and help in the regeneration of our soils. They are also sown to protect and cover our soils to prevent erosion and start breaking up our compacted soil with their roots.

It means harnessing the power of biology, from the tiniest bacteria to holistically grazed animals to help us run our farm, stocking and cycling nutrients for our plants. It means planting a diverse polyculture consisting of pistachios, figs, pomegranates, lemons, almonds, prickly pears, grapes and a whole range of ‘support species’ designed to offer various advantages to our system,such as nitrogen fixing or providing our own on-site organic matter from prunings, ready to be shredded up and integrated into our earth. 

One year down the line and it’s safe to say that our first year has been a rollercoaster ride filled with steep learning curves, long days, (literally) thousands of trees planted and many realisations of what life as a farmer actually entails.

The first is the realization that being a farmer means so much more than just growing food. In practice, being a farmer actually means juggling being a businessman, an engineer, an ecologist, a microbiologist, a mechanic, and a (at least semi-) functional human being all at the same time. In fact, a lot of the time you’re not so much as farmer as a problem-solver for huge variety of problems.

Busy planting a mix of support and productive species in our nursery, including species such as Carob, Eucalyptus, Fig, Oaks and Cypresses. The nursery is a key part of our reforestation strategy on the farm to ensure we have high quality saplings with a high diversity of genetics.

Busy planting a mix of support and productive species in our nursery, including species such as Carob, Eucalyptus, Fig, Oaks and Cypresses. The nursery is a key part of our reforestation strategy on the farm to ensure we have high quality saplings with a high diversity of genetics.

This means that monotony is certainly a word that doesn’t exist in farming, and it’s because of this that I can honestly say there is never a dull moment. I’m not sure there is a ‘typical’ day at Mazi, but on any given day we can be found researching innovative biological amendments and planting techniques, planting trees on the land, making compost tea and studying the life we brew there under our microscope or updating our blog and social media pages that we run. Challenging? Absolutely. But rewarding? Enormously so.

One thing though that we have all benefited from this year is a reconnection with nature. Being English, I can honestly say it was the first time in my life that I was excited to see rain, but seeing the response from the land after the long summer months, seeing the new life sprouting up and watching the trees that we planted grow, has helped me see my environment with new eyes.

Growing plants from seeds in our nursery in our root trainers, designed to prevent root bound trees and optimize growing conditions for them. They also come with the added bonus that you can open them up to have a sneak peek at the roots of your tree to see how they are forming.

Growing plants from seeds in our nursery in our root trainers, designed to prevent root bound trees and optimize growing conditions for them. They also come with the added bonus that you can open them up to have a sneak peek at the roots of your tree to see how they are forming.

I can honestly say that working with the land, and seeing it transform over the seasons, has transformed our relationship to our environment around us.

Life on the farm might not always be easy but it’s hard to complain when it comes with a view like this!

Life on the farm might not always be easy but it’s hard to complain when it comes with a view like this!

Which regenerative agriculture course is the one for you?

With the wealth of information that we have at our fingertips, the internet is an incredible tool to share tips and tricks from all over the world. Alongside various University and open access courses, some of the biggest names in Regenerative Agriculture have now started offering courses online, where you are able access their knowledge and ideas at your own pace in the comfort of your own home from anywhere in the world.

But sometimes it can be hard to figure out where your time, energy and hard earned money is best to go, and choose which option is best for you. Well, we’re here to tell you about our experiences to help you decide which course might benefit you the most to give you the most bang for your buck. Here we give you the lowdown on the three courses we have taken in order of our preferences for our context here at Mazi.

3. Dr Elaine Ingham (Soil Food Web Inc.)

Best for: Those interested in microbiology and its importance in agriculture and land restoration

Course Overview:

In this course, renowned soil expert Dr Elaine Ingham gives a detailed overview of life in the soil, explaining all the categories of organisms found in healthy soil and how these work to help you and your plants. The main take-home message for growers is that soil microbiology is the key for healthy soil and healthy crops, and the basis for plant nutrition and protection. She has developed practical techniques, through the use of composting, compost teas and innovative ways to use microscopes, to help growers grow beyond organic.

This course is sold as offering the theory and practice behind the ways that you can harness the power of microbiology on your farm. Whilst Elaine mentions a diversity of practical techniques, we felt these were given in less detail than we hoped for. Overall, the course has quite an academic feel to it.

Another key element of this course which initially attracted us was the real-time, personal interaction with Elaine herself. These moments are some of the most useful and interesting parts of the course as you really start to delve deep into her knowledge. However, the format of these sessions means that your relationship with Elaine remains quite impersonal.

That being said, we feel that there is a lot of valuable information put forward from Elaine, and there is definitely a lot to be gained from a course like this. One of our highlights from course was in the ‘Microscope Class’ which offers an innovative approach to quantifying microorganisms using a microscope, including more specific advice which is difficult to find elsewhere and a handy pre-prepared spreadsheet. However, there are a few ways we feel the course structure could be improved to help make the information more user-friendly. Things like quick links, subheadings and summaries of key take-home messages would make the knowledge that you can gain through this more course more easily accessible.

Where to access this course: You can sign up to this course at https://environmentcelebration.com.

For those on a budget: Elaine offers this whole course for $4,988, which is a pretty considerable price-tag and may be prohibitive for some. It’s also important to mention that for this price, you also only have access to the course for one year rather than for life, as offered by other programs. But the good news is that there we have found some great, cheaper alternatives to gain quality knowledge about soil microbiology. The book ‘Teaming with Microbesis a great alternative way to learn about soil microbiology at a fraction of the price. Other resources I’ve found really helpful include this free website which provides a detailed description of how best to brew compost tea. Elaine herself also offers several youtube videos (for example, see here and here) which give a nice introduction into many of the topics she covers in her course.  

2.Mark Shepard (New Forest Farm)

Best for: People interested in agroforestry and integrating forest ecology into agricultural systems

Course overview:

Mark’s course provides a great introduction into forest ecology. He provides a thorough understanding of the basic concepts of forest dynamics, such as the role of disturbances in forest systems and the patterns of natural succession, and, most crucially, how we can integrate this knowledge of ecology into our agricultural practices. From the ecological study of your biome, to water management and designing tree systems, this course provides a guide to creating low input, large scale, regenerative and productive farms.

A major strength of Mark’s course is his emphasis on how you can interact with an ecosystem in a way that provides a source of income, as making a living from the land is central to his whole philosophy. Another aspect which lends a lot of strength to this program is how rooted the course is in real-life farms, whether his own (a 40 hectare farm he manages solo) or one of the numerous case studies he cites, which clearly demonstrates how he combines academic ecological theory with practice.

However, we feel that the course doesn’t have a very structured format to it, which makes the knowledge sometimes difficult to access. Although the course gave us a solid foundation in how to integrate ecological theory on our farms, we sometimes found that we were lacking the practical details to implement this.


Where to access this course:

The course can be found on a website called https://www.eatcommunity.com, where buying a pass comes with the added bonus of access to a whole array of classes on natural chicken farming, aquaculture, permaculture and many others, as well as the opportunity to be part of a global community (which includes over 22,000+ Eco-Entrepreneurs) as well as many helpful resources, which definitely makes the course pretty good value for money.

Mark Shepard’s book provides a great insight into his work

Mark Shepard’s book provides a great insight into his work


For those on a budget: Lucky for us, Mark has helpfully written a book (called Restoration Agriculture) which details his ideas of the way forest ecology and agriculture can be linked, so reading it gives you a good idea of what’s involved in this course. Alternatively, much of Mark’s work is inspired from a book called Forest Ecology, from which you could gain all the basic forest ecology principles, although at around $100 this book is also an investment in itself.

1. Richard Perkins (Ridgedale Permaculture Farm)

Best for: People that have land and are ready to get up and running

Course Overview:

Like Richard’s farm itself, this course is efficient, practical and successful because of it. It is structured and extremely well thought out, guiding you through all the necessary steps for starting a farm, from clearly establishing your objectives and values, to the basics of forest ecology, right down to the nitty gritty numbers game of how to truly make a farm work in today’s economy. For everything planning and decision making, this course is invaluable. Richard describes the course as “helping you start smart”, and that is exactly what this course helps you to do.

One of the real strengths of this course is the interaction that you get with Richard himself. In addition to weekly seminars where you are invited to ask questions, you also have the chance to have your work and ideas critically evaluated with personal feedback tuned to your specific context and situation. It’s essentially like he is consulting for your farm, but remotely and much more cheaply than it would be to fly him onsite. Something else that is a real bonus is that all the videos, information and resources are available to you for life, meaning that if there are some bits that are more relevant to you later on, you can revisit them in your own time.

I have to stress though that this course is really designed only for practical purposes- if you have a farm or are in the process of buying land to start farming, this course is the one for you. However, although the course does touch upon the general principles of Regenerative Agriculture, if you’re looking for a more theoretical approach to agriculture from an ecological or more general viewpoint, you’d definitely be better off with one of the other courses on offer.

Where to access the course: You can access this course through Richard’s website, http://www.ridgedalepermaculture.com.

For those on a budget: Ridgedale just recently offered another, more affordable way to access the online course, making it available on a monthly subscription basis as opposed to all in one go, so you can pick and choose the chapters that suit you. Alternatively, you can buy his book, Making Small Farms Work’, and use the information inside to apply it to your situation. Rich also has a great youtube channel full of information about the work he does on his farm which, although doesn’t give you as much information as you gain through the course, does give you a flavour for the work he does at Ridgedale.

Hopefully this has given you a little flavour of what you can expect from each of these courses!

Happy learning,

Tash


Magical Mushrooms

Serious question. Is there anything more magical than a mushroom?

Yes, I know. Mushrooms might not look as pretty as a flower, they may not last as long as a tree, and they tend to be associated with dark, dingy and damp places where nobody really wants to go. But here at Mazi we think it’s high time to give mushrooms their due and start giving them the love they deserve.

Why so mad for mushrooms?

When we talk about mushrooms, what we are actually really talking about are fungi. Fungi are the interface between life and death, between organic and inorganic on this planet. They are the ultimate recyclers, breaking down the life’s leftovers into the building blocks of new life. Through the release of enzymes, these ‘myco-magicians’ work their magic to unlock nutrients for the rest of the ecosystem, doing the dirty work necessary to build soils and healthy systems. In fact, most plants depend on symbiotic relationships with fungi, such as mycorrhizae. Without our fungal friends, all ecosystems on this planet would fail.

What’s more, fungi achieve all of these ecological services whilst also providing a delicious edible fruiting body (a ‘mushroom’), many of which have important medicinal properties.

And yet mushrooms are as magical as they are mysterious. Despite the fact that fungi underpin life on this planet, relatively little is known about this mysterious kingdom.

A match made in heaven - Mushrooms and Agroforestry

Fungi and forests go hand in hand. When you walk through a forest, you may not realise that beneath your feet, you are stepping on miles and miles of fungal filaments, a ‘mycelial net’ that fungi have woven beneath your feet, connecting the trees and plants in many weird and wonderful ways which we are only just beginning to understand. So much so, that networks of soil mycelium are often referred to as the ‘internet’ of the soil, and have been shown to transmit information and help the exchange of much needed nutrients and water between trees.

One of the most important relationships between fungi and trees is with mycorrhizal fungi, part of the ‘symbiont’ category of fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi make symbiotic connections with the tree by wrapping their ‘hyphae’ (long fungal filaments) around the roots where they form an exchange interface. Here, they strike a deal with the trees. The fungi offer up nutrients that they alone can unlock from dead matter, in exchange for vital sugars that the trees produce through photosynthesis, a process that fungi can’t do. This makes a ‘win-win’ deal between the two, a perfect partnership where both parties come out on top. Mycorrhizal fungi, thanks to the helping hand of their forest friends, also create some of the yummiest and most sought after mushrooms, such as the chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) and various Boletus species.

Amazingly, virtually all of plants on this planet rely on these kind of relationships for their healthy growth. This makes mycorrhizal fungi a vital tool for agroforestry farms to harness the full potential of regenerative farm systems. Moreover, evidence is emerging that contrary to popular belief, it is due to these fungi (and not trees) that most of the carbon is sequestered in Northern boreal forests, making them a key player in efforts to combat climate change.

You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours - mycorrhizal fungi strike a deal between plants for an exchange of nutrients and sugars. Image from    Volterra Bio

You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours - mycorrhizal fungi strike a deal between plants for an exchange of nutrients and sugars. Image from Volterra Bio

Mushroom cultivation in agroforestry systems

Aside from the symbionts, there’s another group of fungi which are very interesting for cultivation in agroforestry systems, and that’s the ‘saprophytes’.

The saprophytes are the decomposers, designed to colonise dead organic matter and break it down into plant-ready nutrients, making them important players in the making of composts and the degradation of mulches. They also just happen to be one of the most interesting types of mushroom for cultivation, including mushrooms like the oyster, portobello and shiitake, which makes growing them a perfect complementary practice alongside agroforestry both as a decomposer and a profitable crop.

Making our own Mazi mushroom magic…

Here at Mazi, we have recently started our own exciting mushroom experiments to test ways we can connect mushrooms to agroforestry, both by integrating edible mushrooms in agroforestry systems and using fungi as a tool for the regeneration of agricultural landscapes.

We are firstly exploring the potential of mushrooms as a viable intermediary income in between waiting for your trees to grow and fruit. For this, we have started to cultivate oyster mushrooms, in a controlled environment in a room in our home, in the hope that we might be able to soon sell them locally, as well as add to our growing list of food we grow for ourselves here on the farm. We’re specifically aiming to find ways that this can be done in a Greek context, with the resources available here and the options we have for growing in a Mediterranean climate, with a view to ultimately creating a replicable model of a low input and low tech way to get involved growing mushrooms from the comfort of your own home.

Starting our cultivation of oyster mushrooms

Starting our cultivation of oyster mushrooms

With an easily observable and controlled mushroom room, these experiments are also providing us with an ideal way to learn about the life cycle of the mushroom, helping us to further understand the ways in which our fungal friends can help us on our land and be an ally in regeneration.

We have also started colonising logs of Oak and Eucalyptus with plugs of shiitake mushrooms. Given that mushrooms are well adapted to life growing under the forest canopy, we have left them beneath the shade of trees to grow, which makes them ideal for incorporation into an agroforestry farm. This is our first time playing with this type of cultivation, and we are excited to see how it works out.

Cultivating our shiitake mushrooms in the shade of trees

Cultivating our shiitake mushrooms in the shade of trees

There’s a reason there is ‘fun’ in fungi, and the fun is just getting started here on Mazi!

Thanks for reading,

Tash  



Γιατι καποιος να ασχοληθει με τους μυκητες ?

Μα γιατί κάποιος να ασχοληθεί με τους μύκητες ?

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Οι περισσότεροι άνθρωποι συσχετίζουν τους μύκητες με αυτούς του ποδιού ή την μούχλα που υπάρχει στους τοίχους του σπιτιού τους, αλλα τι θα λέγατε αν σας έλεγα οτι όλα τα όντα στον πλανήτη υπάρχουν  εξαιτίας των μυκητών?

 Πρώτα ας τα πάρουμε απο την αρχή και όταν λέω αρχή εννοώ πριν απο 440 εκατομμύρια χρόνια.

Να σας συστήσω λοιπόν τον Tortotubus.

Πριν απο 440 εκατομμύρια χρόνια,αυτός ο οργανισμός ήταν απο τους πρώτους που διέφυγε απο τις θάλασσες και άρχισε να αποικεί στην γη. Κατα τη διάρκεια της περιόδου που υπήρχε αυτός ο οργανισμός, η ζωή περιοριζόταν σχεδόν αποκλειστικά στους ωκεανούς. Δεν υπήρχε τίποτα πιο περίπλοκο απο τις λειχήνες που είχαν εξελιχθεί στη γη.

 Αλλα προτού να υπάρχουν ανθοφόρα φυτά, δέντρα η ζώα χρειάζονταν οι διαδικασίες της σήψης και του σχηματισμού εδάφους .

Ο Tortotubus βγήκε απο τους σκοτεινούς ωκεανούς και μας χάρισε το έδαφος.

Αυτός ο άγνωστος για τους περισσότερους απο εμάς, υπόγειος μύκητας έκανε σταθερά την εξυγίανση του για 70 εκατομμύρια χρόνια, μέχρι που η ζωή στην γη μετατράπηκε απο εχθρικό, καυτό πέτρινο περιβάλλον σε ενα πλούσιο οικοσύστημα.

Κάθε φορά που αντικρίζετε μια ανατριχιαστικά όμορφη θέα που σας γεμίζει με ζωή και θαυμασμό, φέρτε στο μυαλό σας αυτόν τον ταπεινό μύκητα που έπλασε την πραγματικότητα μας.

Μπορει ο Tortotubus να ήταν ένας απο τους πρωτοπόρους αλλα η δουλειά των μυκητών δεν έχει τελειώσει εκεί.

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 Οι μύκητες ειναι υπεύθυνοι στο μεγαλύτερο βαθμό για την ανακύκλωση στην γη. Χρησιμοποιούν νεκρή ύλη ( φυτά και ζώα) ως τροφή και μας δίνουν χώμα που προσφέρει πάλι ζωή. Είναι οι ανακυκλωτές της ζωής.

Μερικοί μύκητες έχουν μια θετική αλληλεξάρτηση με τα δέντρα  για την ανταλαγή θρεπτικών στοιχείων. Κατοικούν στις ρίζες των δέντρων για όλη τους την ζωή και απλώνονται υπόγεια συνδέοντας  όλες τις ρίζες σε ένα δίκτυο με στόχο ένα ακμάζων δάσος.

 Άλλοι μύκητες έχουν αρνητική αλληλεξάρτηση με τα δέντρα εφόσον επωφελούνται απο ένα αδύναμο, ασθενές ή γέρικο δέντρο και το χρησιμοποιούν ως τροφή. Σε ένα δάσος αυτό μόνο θετικό μπορεί να είναι εφόσον οι μύκητες αυτοί δίνουν την ευκαιρία σε νεαρά και γερά δέντρα να ακμάσουν και να συνεχιστεί ο κύκλος της ζωής.

Και δεν ξεχνάμε την πλούσια θρεπτίκη τροφή που μας χαρίζούν.  Τα μανιτάρια έχουν χρησιμοποιηθεί στην παραδοσιακή κινέζικη και ελληνική ιατρική εδώ και εκατοντάδες χρόνια για την βελτίωση της υγείας. 

Μερικά απο αυτά είναι :

1.  Ενισχύουν το ανοσοποιητικό σας σύστημα

2.  Δράση κατά του καρκίνου

3.  Προστασία της καρδιάς

4.  Αντιβακτηριακή δράση λόγω του χαλκού που περιέχουν

5.  Μείωση των επιπέδων της χοληστερίνης.

Το βασίλειο των μυκητών ανήκει στα πέντε βασίλεια των έμβιων όντων και ίσως είναι ενα απο τα πιο ανεξερεύνητα βασίλεια.

Τα τελευταία χρόνια λόγω της αναγκαιότητας εύρεσης λύσεων λόγο της κλιματικής αλλαγής  όλο και περισσότεροι επιστήμονες κατάλαβαν τις δυνατότητες και τις γνώσεις που μπορούν να χρησιμοποιήσουν απο αυτόν τον οργανισμό.

Ο μύκητας Tortotubus μας χάρισε την ζώη ,  μελετώντας τους μύκητες ίσως μπορέσουμε να διατηρήσουμε την ζωή!

Μαρία Γεωργαντά

How agriculture adds fuel to the fires

When we talk about wildfires, we usually talk about the well known tinderbox areas of Australia, California, and southern Europe. But, as recent events have shown, fires are a global concern. So much so that we have seen places like the UK (that well known “green and pleasant land”) and places as far north as Sweden burning. These unprecedented events show that nowhere can now be considered ‘safe’ from the risk of fires.

For us here at Mazi, this is not just something happening somewhere far away- this is very real and very personal. A few weeks ago, Greece saw some of deadliest wildfires ever known to Europe. The tragic fires that happened on our doorstep in Mati shows the seriousness of the situation, and have been a harsh reminder that we are still, and will continue to be, far from invincible to the forces of nature.

The fires at Mati saw devastation to wildlife and livelihoods. Source: The Guardian, 2018

The fires at Mati saw devastation to wildlife and livelihoods. Source: The Guardian, 2018

Currently, every year, fires consume vast swathes of land, and everything else in their path along the way - plants, trees, homes, livelihoods, animals and humans. In windy, dry and hot conditions, wildfires can sweep through landscapes in mere minutes. And their economic and social impacts are felt well beyond their charred edges.

That being said, it’s important to recognise that fires are not inherently bad. Like everything else, fires are contextual - in adapted ecosystems, fires play an important ecological role through, for example, nutrient cycling and ecosystem disruption. In fact, they have played a key role in evolution of both our environments and us, with our cultures built around fire and it’s abilities to transform raw food, gifting us with the energy we needed to fuel our development. But in places that historically did not evolve for fire, or in places where fire has become far too prevalent, is it environmentally destructive, releasing vast amounts of  carbon dioxide into the atmosphere whilst burning people's livelihoods to the ground.

So what do these fires have to do with agriculture? Well, everything. The way we manage the millions of kilometres of land we use to grow our food is key to quelling fires; sympathetic and intelligently managed land is an oasis, whereas poorly managed, degraded land is kindling.

Regenerative agriculture  works to prevent fire, and/or the detrimental effects of fire, in a number of ways. Firstly, it increases organic matter in the soil. This means two things; better water retention and more quality soil. Organic matter on and in soil is rapidly combusted by fire, therefore reducing the amount of organic matter in the soil. Agroforestry techniques, such as cover cropping, mulching and composting, work to quickly rebuild organic matter in degraded areas which, in the event of a fire, provides a safety buffer of soil organic matter that can be drawn upon, allowing the system to bounce back much quicker.

Furthermore, ground-water and soil moisture levels are correlated with fire retardation. This makes logical sense - any would be kindling is wet which, as any ‘happy camper’ in the British ‘summer’ can tell you for free, will not burn despite best efforts. Similarly, soil with high water retention will not burn so easily.  Organic matter plays a key role in soil water retention - just a 1% increase in soil organic matter equates to 150,000 litres of water stored in the ground per hectare. Water storage in the soil also means that during dry spells, leaf litter is able to draws up water through capillary action which keeps it from drying out. This is why everything we do at Mazi focuses on soil building, from wood chipping all the organic matter that would otherwise have been burned in the region (check out this video of us for more info) to mulch our land, to our huge compost project we have in the works which will bring life and organic matter to our soil.

Secondly, agroforestry works to prevent fire through intelligent incorporation of plants in a diverse polyculture. Intercropping plants and trees with different properties reduces the risk of fire and increases landscape resilience. For example, conifer foliage is notoriously flammable due to the high content of resins and oils. But combining conifer foliage with broadleaf trees drastically reduces the risk of fire compared to a pure conifer monoculture. These fire resistant trees can also be planted as a fire break around plantations for protection, such as the carob trees we are planting here at Mazi. As well as intercropping different fire resistant trees such as  we have also incorporated prickly pears into our intercropping strategy which, in addition to helping to prevent fire, also provide a tasty fruit crop.

Lastly, in general, trees (specifically native trees) play a key role in fire prevention. Dense regrowth and closed woodlands of native species are promoted as fire protection methods. This works to prevent the intensity of fires by changing the nature of them, for example switching from crown to surface fires. This means that instead of burning the trees all the way to the top creating intense and unmanageable fires (‘crown fire’), only the ground litter is burned which creates the least devastation for the woodland and are the easiest to put out (‘surface fire’).

The heat is (literally) on to build a more resilient agricultural system capable of offering practical solutions for our degraded and fire prone landscapes. Farmers may make unlikely firefighters, but agroforestry systems can make a formidable firebreak and I don’t know about you, but I’d say that’s definitely something to get fired up about.

Thanks for reading!

Tash



Why black and white thinking won’t work in a grey world

By now, you’ve hopefully read some of our blogs about regenerative agriculture (and if not, what are you waiting for? Click here to check out our latest pieces). If so, you’ve figured out that we’re trying to do things a little differently here at Mazi by implementing a forward-thinking agriculture which works towards a more resilient, happier, healthier tomorrow.

It may at first seem like that this kind of agriculture, with its focus on diverse polycultures, building soil health and using only organic inputs, is inherently at odds with conventional, industrial agricultural practices. It is easy to think of these systems as separate and opposing entities, non-compatible neighbours who argue over their high fences. But this ‘othering’ only serves to create animosity rather than the resilient food system we need.

 
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Yes, industrious, extractive and destructive farming exists, and this must be addressed- but so do many farmers that care for the earth and are just trying to get by and make a decent living.  From our experience here at Mazi, we know all too well that farm life brings with it complications. Sometimes, for whatever reason, compromises have to be taken and things don’t always go the way you wanted. It is not by pointing fingers that we will start transitioning our agriculture. Producing food, and providing the worlds vital sustenance, is no easy task and we have enormous respect for each and every farmer working to put food on our tables everyday.

It is for this reason that, far from being prescriptive, regenerative agriculture instead works to be a toolbox of farm-ready techniques and practices that can be chosen and adapted to different contexts.  Rather than a dogmatic approach, regeneration can take many shapes and sizes in the path to agricultural transition. Whether you are big, small, conventional, organic, regenerative or otherwise, there is something in regenerative agriculture for all.

It is the enormous potential of this hybrid approach which makes regenerative agriculture so exciting. Incorporating a few easily implementable, small changes can make a huge difference, regardless of your context.  For instance, research has shown that planting strips of wildflowers across fields of wheat monocultures drastically reduces pest pressure, therefore slashing pesticide use. Incorporating wildflowers in this way resulted in an increase in wheat yields of up to 10% (plus it comes with the added bonus of making the place look pretty at the same time!). Studies have also shown that planting strips of trees, or ‘shelter-belts’, around fields offer an array of benefits. For example, they can help protect plants against drought by modifying the microclimate around the crop by reducing wind speeds which removes moisture from the air. Research has shown that in this way, shelter-belts increase wheat yields by at least 3.5%. Trees can also help to reduce pesticide spray drift by trapping pesticides in their leaves, and even only a 10m tree belt has been shown to reduce ammonia in emissions by about 53%.  Lastly, only a 1% increase in organic matter in the top six inches of soil is enough to drastically change the soils water holding capacity by 20,000  gallons of water per hectare. Even without an overhaul in practices, all of these small steps can add up to a big difference not just for the environment, but your wallet.

Equally, regenerative agriculture must not automatically reject innovations gained through industrial agriculture. For all of its problems, industrial agriculture has brought with it a whole host of technologies and techniques which can be intelligently incorporated into regenerative agriculture for our benefit. Examples include smart mechanisation, such as tractors and keyline ploughs, which (unless we suddenly find millions of people struck with a serious case of green fingers) will be necessary to provide enough food for everyone. Other technologies we have borrowed here on Mazi include our drip irrigation system, which has saved time, water and many, many trees.  

There is a reason that we are called Mazi. Mazi in Greek means together, and we believe that it is only together, pooling knowledge and resources, borrowing tools and inspirations and adapting techniques to a range of contexts that we can create meaningful change. It is not our aim to separate ourselves with an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, but instead to unite, adapt and share.

‘Lettuce’ work together create the kind of tomorrow we’re working towards!

Thanks for reading,

Tash

The Dorito Effect: The truth about Food and Flavour

If you ask someone why they want to eat something, the answer is usually because it tastes good. Whichever food fad you follow, however long you spend counting calorie after calorie, however much we like to pretend we’re seeking out nutrients, vitamins and essential oils- ultimately it’s a flavour high that we’re all after. We make our food choices because we love the way the food tastes.

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It’s not often that a book concerning health and food encourages you to give in to your taste buds. But that’s exactly what Mark Schatzker’s illuminating new book, ‘The Dorito Effect- The Surprising New Truth about Food and Flavour’, wants you to do. Yes, you heard that right. Far from the usual telling-off you we’ve learned to expect in most discussions about nutrition, this book not only encourages you to indulge your pleasure seeking food behaviour, but argues that our health depends on it. Now that’s the kind of nutritional advice I can get on board with -although there is a catch.

This book delves deep into the relationship between flavour and food which, as it turns out, is a important part of the puzzle which has been sorely missing in our discussions around food. The main crux of Schatzker’s argument is that in nature,  flavour appears alongside nutrition, i.e. flavour = nutritional quality. Far from being the cause of our food problems, our flavour fascination is actually nature’s way of helping us get the healthy nutrients and vitamins, or as Schatzker refers to them ‘plant secondary compounds’, we need to survive. He argues therefore that flavour hedonism actually holds the key to reversing our health crisis, but if only we can reconnect food and flavour. However, the problem is that the way we have been practising agriculture, specifically the way in which we have selected for certain traits (such as shelf life and transportability) means the flavour has been diluted out of our food and, along with it, all the things which makes it wholesome and healthy.

 

Schatzker’s second, concurrent line of argument is that whilst we have been steadily divorcing flavour from nutrition, we have simultaneously been creating ever-more convincing artificial flavours. So, in short, we have become very good at making bad food taste good and good food taste bad. Eating has therefore become more about tricking our taste buds than the nutritional experience that they were originally designed for. It is this that Schatzker calls ‘the Dorito effect’, i.e. the process of taking something with relatively little nutritional value (plain corn chips) and managing to convince ourselves that we are eating something else (tacos). This leads Schatzker to add his own definition of junk food; “food that tastes like something it is not”.

The idea that humans may possess an innate nutritional wisdom may sound a little far fetched to you, but Schatzker creates a compelling argument robustly backed up with sound science. Thoroughly researched and resolute, The Dorito Effect is a  light and humorous read which steers you gently through the science of flavour research. By combining many perspectives from the agricultural and flavour world, it offers a refreshing and fascinating read.

This carries huge implications for the role of agriculture in producing and selecting for flavoursome, nutrient rich food. This applies not just to breeding and seed selection but also the actual techniques used which drowns out flavour (and therefore nutrition) from our food, such as over application of fertiliser and building of soil quality. Clearly this highlights the imperative of developing agricultural systems that are able to genuinely feed the world high quality nourishment. Although this is touched upon by Schatzker in his book, the main focus is given to proving  the link between flavour and nutritional value. His work could therefore make an interesting platform to expand upon research between agricultural techniques and flavour.

Clearly, flavour is a big cause for corn-cern and I enjoyed this book so much I just had to taco-’bout it. Hopefully you enjoyed reading about it too!

Tash

 

Why Regenerative Agriculture?

Humanity, and the planet that we have the privilege to call home, is facing no shortage of problems. Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Peak Oil. Food insecurity. Chances are you’re probably familiar with at least a few of these. Any one of these issues alone threatens life as we know it on our planet. Unfortunately, much like buses, they have come along all at once.

Our best minds have been hard at work engineering solutions for these problems, which read like a playbook straight out of Orwell's mind. From pumping our skies full of sulphur, to flooding our fields with poisons (what could possibly go wrong...?), every technofix you can imagine, plus many more you cannot begin to, has been proposed. But humans, as we are so adept at doing, have missed a trick.

“Every problem has a solution. Sometimes it just takes a long time to find the solution- even if it's right in front of your nose”

- Lemony Snicket

And there is already a solution to all of these problems, one which relies upon already perfectly honed feats of engineering. But this engineering is not the work of humans, and it doesn’t involve us looking up into the sky- instead, we must look down at what lies beneath our feet.

There is one thing that lies at the crossroads of all of our problems; agriculture. The way we grow our food affects everything: our health, the health of our ecosystems, waters and wildlife, our atmosphere, our access to safe, nutritious food and thriving of our communities.

The way we choose to practise agriculture therefore has a huge impact on our world. Whether this impact is immensely positive or negative is our choice.

With our fondness for vast monocultures of crops, the use of tonnes of synthetic chemical inputs and the routine deep tilling of our soil, we are clearly currently on the negative side of things. So much so, in fact, that is has led the WWF to conclude that unsustainable agricultural practices present the greatest immediate threat to species and ecosystems around the world.

By treating our soils like dirt, we are making our food system - the one we depend upon every day to provide us vital sustenance - incredibly precarious. It has been predicted that with current rates of soil degradation and topsoil loss, there are only a meagre 60 harvests left. Furthermore, agriculture as it’s currently practised is completely dependent on a rapidly dwindling resource; fossil fuels, used for everything from transport to pesticides. This, combined with it’s appetite for deforestation, makes agriculture the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the energy sector.

But what if that impact doesn’t have to be negative? What if instead we could harness the power of agriculture to be a regenerative force instead of a degenerative one? What if there was a way to turn the problem into the solution?

FARMING FOR THE FUTURE

Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that cultures more than just crops, but cultures also soil, biodiversity, a safer environment and a better world.

But, more than that, regenerative agriculture is a big picture, i.e. ‘holistic’, approach to farming which brings together new and old ideas to encourage environmental, social and economic innovation. Each of these three pillars are vital to create a truly sustainable food system able to stand the test of time.

Regeneration in action: before/after sowing cover crops on Mazi Farm

Regeneration in action: before/after sowing cover crops on Mazi Farm

Regenerative agriculture harnesses the intelligence of nature to satisfy our own for our own needs whilst respectfully cohabiting with the life around us. It does this by mimicking nature’s patterns, working with her rather than against. Regenerative agriculture understands that everything in nature has a function in the system and uses this knowledge to design our farms. This means, for example, including a diversity of crops instead of only one, or ensuring the soil is always covered, like in a forest ecosystem. In this way, our food systems can work independently without the need for costly inputs (including not only chemical and physical inputs, but also time and energy - for more information about that, check out our recent blog post on the efficiency of regenerative agriculture), much like a forest manages itself without any human help. In this sense, regenerative farmers become system managers rather than combatants.

In this way, regenerative agriculture works to fix the common underlying theme of many of our problems- the disconnect between humans and nature and the way she works. Instead fighting the way nature has evolved over millennia to manage itself, it puts us on the same team and allows us to go with nature’s flow. The problem is, nature is powerful - much more powerful than we humans like to think- and, regardless of the continual new and innovative repertoire of weapons at our disposal, this is a fight we will ultimately never win.

Regenerative agriculture goes beyond both organic and ‘sustainable’ practices by working to improve our resource base we use and depend upon, instead of merely maintaining it in its current state.  In doing so, it stores carbon in our trees and soils, protects our soils from erosion whilst actively building soil, provides much needed sanctuaries for depleted wildlife such as birds and insects and keeps our waterways and air clean. Regenerative agriculture works to make ecosystems healthy because when they thrive, we thrive.

SO WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE IN PRACTICE?

There are many different ways that regenerative techniques are being applied to create productive systems capable of sustaining our populations both now and in the future. For example, it’s harnessing the power of livestock - the much maligned environmental enemy- for good, asserting animals’ place in the ecosystem as mobile composters through the intelligent use of grazing, championed by the likes of Allan Savory and Joel Salatin.

New Forest Farm, Wisconsin

New Forest Farm, Wisconsin

Ridgedale Permaculture Farm, Sweden

Ridgedale Permaculture Farm, Sweden

Instead of looking to complex carbon sequestering techniques, regenerative agriculture is incorporating fruit and nut bearing trees (i.e. ‘agroforestry’) to act as carbon sponges whilst nourishing both our ecosystems and humans, such as with the farms of Mark Shepherd and Ernst Gostch. It’s focusing on soil building techniques to help water retention in even the driest regions of the world, like at the Singing Frogs Farm in California. It’s using diverse enterprises and borrowing expertise from other sectors to make small farms streamlined and profitable, with the work of farmers like Ben Hartman and Richard Perkins. It’s transforming the idea of what market gardening can be, with the techniques perfected by Jean-Martin Fortier. It’s emphasising the power of microbiology in farming, with the work of Elaine Ingham. Finally, it’s helping to reconnect communities by pulling people from all walks of life, from musicians to professional surfers, back into the agricultural fold, regenerating rural communities such as at Moy Hill Farm and through associations such as the reNature foundation.

So here’s hoping we learn from the lessons of the past, and stop making the same mistakes time and time ‘a-grain’!

Thanks for reading,

Tash


















 

Here’s why industrial agriculture won't feed the world

By 2050, there will be several billion more mouths on our planet to feed. To keep up with the increasing demands of our growing population, we need an innovative and efficient agricultural system that is able to produce more with fewer resources.

When we talk about alternative food production systems, like agroforestry and holistic grazing, the first thing we usually hear is something along the lines of “yes, but that will never be enough to feed the world”. Behind this statement is the implicit idea that that industrialised agriculture, with it’s highly mechanised, large-scale monocultures and intensive use of synthetic chemical inputs, is the ‘most efficient’ way to produce our food. But, when you take a closer look, a very different picture emerges - one of an absurdly inefficient system that is verging on insanity.

What do we mean by ‘efficiency’?

It might be an obvious thing to say, but it’s important to point out firstly that the idea of agricultural ‘efficiency’ relies wholly on our definition of efficiency. ‘Efficiency’ in agriculture is, for the most part, focused almost exclusively on crop yields- but this excessive focus on yields ignores a whole host of other important factors that our crop production relies on.

Imagine, for example, you were only to focus on calorie intake as a measure for nutritional health of a human being. Eating pizza for every meal every day might then seem like a great idea - loads of calories, so this should make you really healthy! Right? Clearly, by eating pizza all the time, you could easily fulfil your caloric intake for the day but measuring health like this misses the bigger picture of nutritional health i.e. that humans also need a diverse variety of food types in their diet with a range of nutrients and vitamins essential for human health.

Similarly, in agriculture, by focussing on only yields as a measure of success, we’re missing the bigger picture of agricultural and ecosystem health. So what happens if we start to look at efficiency from other angles?

Here’s a great diagram that we think demonstrates our point very succinctly- how conventional agriculture is a false economy of efficiency  © The Guardian (2016)

Here’s a great diagram that we think demonstrates our point very succinctly- how conventional agriculture is a false economy of efficiency  © The Guardian (2016)

Calories per hectare

A persistent argument in favour of industrialised agricultural practices is that it produces more food per hectare- but this doesn’t hold true. In fact, smallholder farms produce 70% of the worlds food on less than a quarter of all farmlands. How do they do it? By diversifying. Perhaps industrial farming produces more of one crop per hectare, but it cannot compete with a concentration of different crops on the same parcel of land. Imagine, for instance, you were to plant three crops; say, maize, beans and squash.

Three Sisters: Corn, Beans, Squash

To get three hectares of crops, you have the choice. Either you can mono-crop each crop and have one hectare of each across three hectares. Or, you could plant them all together- the beans climbing up the maize, the squash covering the floor and the maize growing up into the sky. You can therefore produce three hectares of each crop on only one hectare. This creates what is called an overyielding poyculture. This is the classic ‘three sisters’ growing method, but the same model of thought can be applied intelligently to all crops. In an agroforestry system, such as here at Mazi, that means trees combined with other crops underneath and between the tree lines, as well as animals that graze the grass underneath the canopies. In this way, you maximise on space, time (spent walking around checking the crops), calories produced per hectare and photosynthetic efficiency (i.e. maximising light, one of the major factors that plants need to grow the sugars, carbohydrates and other compounds we need for food).

Fossil fuel use

Every facet of industrial agriculture, from the production of the synthetic chemical inputs it relies on, to food processing and transportation, is rooted in cheap access to fossil fuels. As Joel Salatin puts it, we are the first culture in the world that has ever put an average of 1500 miles between producer and consumer. Whereas before, 1 calorie on the table took an average of ¼ of a calorie of energy to get there, today it takes 15 calories to produce 1 calorie of food energy.

This over-reliance on fossil fuels is a false economy, working only by borrowing from the future to produce for today, which makes our food system very unstable. When the day (inevitably) comes that access to fossil fuels is no longer cheap nor readily available, such as during the 1973 oil crisis, our whole agricultural system will be brought to its knees.

Regenerative practices, on the other hand, rely much less on fossil fuels and much more on renewable, non-polluting resources, which makes it both more resilient and more efficient in the long term.

Economic efficiency

When we take a more holistic approach to agricultural costs, it becomes obvious that conventional agriculture costs much more to society than agroecological farming. You actually pay three times for your food- once when you buy the food, once through your taxes which pay the agricultural subsidies needed to sustain this unsustainable type of production, and once to negate all the negative impacts that type of agriculture creates, ranging from the healthcare costs of farm workers exposed to pesticides, to de-polluting the water we drink. In France, for instance, the contribution of the agricultural sector to it's GDP is approximately 32 billion euros per year, whilst the cost of water treatment linked to agricultural pollution is estimated to be around 54 billions euros per year! And that is just for water pollution.

So, ultimately this means that agriculture as we currently do things costs us more as a society than it creates for us, which is economically absurd. We are destroying free processes, such as water and nutrient cycling, given to us by nature and we are instead investing in more and more complex and costly technologies to replace them.

Nutrient use

Here on Mazi, we like to say that we’re not culturing crops or trees, but that we’re culturing soil. Soil microbiology is the basis of the fertility of our ecosystems and therefore of our farms. The organisms in our soil play a vital role in synthesising and making nutrients available to our plants, storing and holding them until the plant needs them and then releasing them in a ready-made soluble form. Nutrients in conventional agriculture, on the other hand, are poured on by the tonne, and excess nutrients wash away, polluting our waterways and killing off marine life.

Microbiology also plays a huge role in disease suppression, irrigation (water movement through mycelial connections drastically increases water uptake in plants) and soil aggregation (meaning less soil erosion). Furthermore, it creates a healthy environment in which plants can pick and choose nutrients as they need, which puts the plants back in control - and who understands plants needs better than plants? This means as farmers we don’t have to waste time and energy micromanaging every need of the plant. So what do we do in conventional agriculture? Pour fungicides and pesticides on our fields to destroy microbial life in the soil. Nice!

And, for the sake of it, let’s actually look at the dominant way efficiency is understood in agriculture...

Yield per hectare

It is often argued that despite the gains in efficiency elsewhere in the system, the fact that organic production produces less is still a barrier in a world where we are told we need to produce more food. But on closer inspection, this gap between crop yields may not be all it seems.

The most extensive meta-analysis studying comparative yields to date did indeed report that, compared to conventional farms, organic production produced on average 20% less yields, echoing the ideas of previous studies. However, the report then goes onto consider this gap in more detail, breaking down the binary categories of conventional vs. organic and instead focusing attention on organic farms that practised cover-cropping, carefully managed rotations of crops and focused on building soil health - i.e. a more regenerative approach to organic farming. When weighing these factors into the equation, that gap of 20% halved to only 10%. The authors concluded that this gap may actually be even smaller due to bias in the data.  

Furthermore, nearly a third of all the food we produce goes straight in the bin. This means that the gap in production yields between conventional agriculture (both industrial and organic) compared with regenerative agriculture is actually less than the amount of food we throw away each year! Which really puts the concerns of yield loss into perspective.

As always, thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more agricultural musings,

Tash



 

To till or not to till?

Why do we till? Tilling for many people is synonymous with the way we practice agriculture nowadays. If I asked you to picture an agricultural scene, chances are you've probably pictured a big tractor hauling something metal and heavy through a field.

soil-386749_1280.jpg

There are countless things we do by rota everyday, without really taking a moment to think about why or how we're doing them, just because everyone else is and it seems like the done thing to do. The question is – could tilling be one of those things? Could something that is so emblematic of farming actually not be the best way of doing things, or – worse- could it even be harmful?

Why till?

Tilling, in one form or another, has been practiced for millennia, with forms of tilling even being documented since ancient Egyptian times.  As with all agricultural practices, tilling has gone through centuries of technological developments, moving from using simple hand-held tools and animals drawn ploughs, to the hefty high tech tractors we see today. These developments have allowed us to work the soil harder, longer, deeper and much more efficiently.

There's many good reasons why tilling at first seems like a great idea, which is why it gained such traction in agriculture in the first place. Initially, it was thought that by grinding up the soil into finer particulates, tilling made nutrients more easily accessible to the plant. And, at first glance, all seems well. Soil after tilling is fluffy and clean, plants are easily planted and seem to thrive in their new homes. But after time and on closer inspection, things aren't all rosy in the gardens after you till...


Why did the fungi leave the soil?

Because there wasn't 'mush-room'!.... Or was it because of tilling?

Tilling is a philosophy grounded predominantly in the idea that soil is mainly just a physical and chemical substrate. However, it does not take into account the biology that underlines the functioning of healthy soil. And the idea of no-till farming is largely due to exactly that biology- namely, an invisible ally called 'fungal mycelium', of which you can find literally miles and miles in just a spoonful of healthy soil.

This mycelium works in a multitude of ways to help plants, and therefore farmers, out. It helps unlock natural nutrients, rebuilds soil structure, aerates the soil and exponentially increases the water retention of the soil. Crucially, certain kinds of beneficial fungi make what is known as 'symbiotic relationships' with plant roots. Through these associations, fungi exchange carbohydrates and minerals for simple sugars produced by the plant and exuded through their root systems. In this way, fungal mycelium help to nourish plants. Mycelium has also been shown to play a crucial role in the transfer of water to plants, as well as other molecules such as enzymes in response to problems. In this way, ferrying nutrients, water and information, mycelium acts as the neural network, or, as Paul Stamets puts it, the 'internet' of the soil. However, tilling breaks up the long strands of fungal filaments, destroying the helpful mycelium and all the benefits along with it.

mushrooms-2451568_1280.jpg

Tilling practices also kill off other kinds of crucial soil microbiology. For example, tilling kills earthworms who play a crucial role in soil health, through aerating the soil with their burrows and digesting soil which creates nutritious humus. 

Furthermore, tilling, by turning and mixing the soil, breaks up all natural layering of the soil pulling finer soils up to the surface of the soil leaving it vulnerable to erosion, which washes away all the crucial nutrients we need for our plants to grow. This also works to compact the soil, which creates the anaerobic conditions in which plant pathogens thrive. The turning and exposing of soil also leaves it vulnerable to water being lost through evaporation which, especially in a Mediterranean context like Greece, is the last thing you want to see with such a scarce and important resource.

The reality of implementing no-till

It's not always easy to put ideology into action. No-till techniques require patience and it's clear that after centuries of working our soils, things won't happen overnight- instead, we have to rely on the old adage that 'good things come to those who wait'! Furthermore, no-till as a technique poses many technical challenges, from designing new affordable technologies such as no-dig seeders to building up biological knowledge of our soils. Clearly a lot of work is required to design new innovative approaches and techniques that allow farms to be run efficiently without the use of tilling.

However, we have taken inspiration from many encouraging studies that have emerged throughout the past few years, showing numerous benefits from practicing no-till agriculture. For instance, researchers from a 21 year study in Germany reported that implementing these practices slashed energy inputs by between half and two-thirds, drastically reduced pesticide and fertiliser inputs, increased biodiversity levels and improved water retention.

To begin our no-till experience, we have been hard at work here at Mazi creating a no-till vegetable garden, through the layering of our soil with manure, cardboard and woodchips, which will be added to year on year. We are also working to extend this philosophy across all of our land, implementing strategies help to rebuild and repair our degraded soils and experimenting techniques to help us run our farm without the help of a plough. We're excited to see how our soil quality will change over time and to share our progress with you as our project develops.

As always, thanks for reading our blog – we really appreciate the 'morel' support!

Tash

Why we think every farmer should have a microscope in their toolkit

At Mazi Farm, we believe that a microscope is perfectly at home on a farm and should become a key part of any farmer’s toolkit.

Measuring and monitoring soil health - why do it and how?

Measuring and monitoring soil health - why do it and how?

'To understand soil is to be aware of how everything affects and is affected by it. We are all part of the soil ecosystem'