Almost Heaven Farms runs three farms on sixty-two ropanis and four bighas of land that grow rice and hundreds of different kinds of crops regeneratively. It has been engaged in regenerative agriculture for the last twelve years and its market demand for the products is overwhelming. Saurav Dhakal, one of the founders of green growth (online platform for organic food), has been practicing permaculture farming for about a year on fifty ropanis of land and is confident that an economic rebound is on its way. Almost Heaven Farms and Dhakal’s farming techniques are instances of sustainable farming techniques which put nature at its centre, working in harmony with the environment.
Regenerative and Permaculture farming approaches are alternative farming techniques that prioritise environment sustainability, ecological diversity, soil health along with productivity growth. It is not entirely a novel concept. Not long ago, our previous generations practiced this method of farming which was then ignored following the rise of commercial farming and easy availability of chemical fertilizers.
Govinda Sharma, founder of HASERA Agriculture Research and Training Center located in Patalekhet, Dhulikhel states Nepal is enriched with natural resources and biodiversity. This diversity should go hand in hand with development. To work and coexist with nature, permaculture should be followed. Dhakal, who was previously following organic methods of farming, realised how both nature and people’s livelihoods could benefit from sustainable farming and converted his existing organic farm into a permaculture one.
Zachary Barton, owner of Almost Heaven Farms based in Illam says regenerative agriculture is based on the principles of ecology which impacts the environment positively as opposed to exploiting it like industrial agriculture does. This innovative farming technique has its essence on rotational crop farming, diverse farming, livestock integration, minimal to no use of fertilizers and pesticides and less tilling to maintain fertility.
Farms that have been employing regenerative farming state cultivating diverse crops and rotating crops reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Cultivating multiple crops jointly increases soil fertility and the volume of worms, fungi and other microorganisms. Microorganisms protect crops from the risk of pests and diseases.
Transition to Alternative Farming
Meanwhile, the transition to regenerative/permaculture farming is not smooth. The current farming approach has made soil addicted to chemicals. According to Barton, reducing the amount of chemicals needs to go slowly increasing the use of composts, biofertilizers and cover crops which takes time but once the soil embraces the regenerative approach it starts to give results.
Sharma advises that farms should prepare at least a five -year plan to reap the full benefits from permaculture farming. He says the first year is labour and resource intensive in terms of designing and setting up the land, establishing a water supply, planting trees among others. Profit doesn’t come overnight like in conventional farming. But when the system is set, it provides high output with less input within three to five years of implementation.
Over time these sustainable farming practices will require fewer inputs in terms of labour, fertilizer, enhancing soil in nutrients and producing multiple higher value crops from a single field. HASERA Agriculture Research, which has been following permaculture farming over 16 ropanis of land for the last 29 years, produces eighty crops and houses more than 300 fruits, herbs and medicinal plants. Almost Heaven Farms also grows over a hundred different kinds of crops including fruits, nuts, herbal medicines and vegetables which helps to diversify the income stream.
The current practice of commercial farming is monoculture in nature, growing a single crop within a specific area. Sustainable farming employs intercropping, growing two crops jointly, in close proximity in a beneficial manner. This method improves soil fertility controlling weeds, plant diseases and increases the source of income from the final produce. "Permaculture is a bigger concept when implemented in farming, conserving soil, water and the surroundings. “It ultimately pays back on production costs. It is a design science which gives economic return over a long-term period,” Dhakal says.
In terms of consumer price, the produce from these farming approaches is slightly higher than the other vegetables available in the market. Sharma opposes the idea that organic foods should come at the cost of the price. The farms are committed to fair trade, setting a moderate profit margin, he shares.
Sustainability at its Core
Permaculture and Regenerative farming approaches are also important from the perspective of the Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS 2015-2030). A twenty-year national strategy to create a sustainable agriculture sector and drive economic growth with agriculture production, ADS aims to address climate change with a huge focus on environment sustainability. It has raised issues like intercropping system, conservation tillage, agroforestry, soil nutrient retention to address sustainability. Among the seven indicators listed by the plan, sustainability is one of them.
Pradyumna Raj Pandey, Senior Agricultural Economist at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MoALD) informed that the performance of the seven indicators, while a little behind in its sustainability target, so far has been good in order to achieve the set short term target of five years. He said the country has succeeded in achieving a two percent target of soil organic matter, increasing the forest cover to 44.8% and 30% of year-round irrigation.
Fights Climate Change
According to Our World in Data, agriculture, forestry and land use jointly emanated 18.4% of global greenhouse gases in 2020. Industrial farming, deforestation, excessive use of fertilizers has degraded the quality of the soil. The unhealthy soil loses its capacity to capture carbon. Barton states that healthy soil produces healthy plants which capture carbon from the atmosphere sequestering it in the soil. It also holds water providing a cooling effect to the atmosphere. Permaculture farming and regenerative techniques have the potential to combat climate change.
Sharma says, “We need to get the message across that healthier the soil, the healthier the crops. Healthier crops can compete well in the market. Meanwhile degrading the soil would make both land and crop management dearer and less competitive in the market.” Dhakal suggests that permaculture needs to be introduced in farms run by communities and cooperatives for its wide exposure. Likewise, the government should forgo its dual policy of promoting both commercial and organic farming and that if it prioritises organic farming, it will get exposure.