To combat wildfire outbreaks, Greek farmers and outreach programs are working to demonstrate that regenerative agricultural practices offer a solution by improving soil health and increasing water retention.
In 2021 wildfires in Greece burned five times more land than the yearly average between 2008 and 2020, according to recent data from the European Forest Information System. While estimates of regenerative practices vary, just 10 percent of Greek agricultural land utilizes organic practices, data from EuroStat show. But according to a report published in Soil and Tillage Research, plots that used regenerative techniques such as no-till farming had “significantly higher water retention” compared to conventional plots. And a study in Agroecosystem Diversity finds that another practice, cover cropping, has the potential to reduce water evaporation and run-off, while improving soil water storage capacity.
Recognizing the benefits of regenerative farming, the Greek nonprofit Southern Lights supports is helping food producers interested in transitioning to these more sustainable practices. They launched their Regenerative Farming Support Program in 2021 at a time when “the smell of fire was in the air,” Sheila Darmos, Founder of Southern Lights, tells Food Tank.
Southern Light offers a knowledge-sharing platform to six pilot farms through their Support Program. In coordination with the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania, Southern Lights will share their findings with other Greek farmers to expand regenerative agriculture nationwide.
“Some of the aims of a regenerative farming operation are to increase the water storage capacity and create a microclimate on the farm that causes a decreased fluctuation in temperature and humidity while hedges are used to minimize the exposure to wind,” Darmos tells Food Tank.
Southern Lights promotes wildfire resilience through regenerative practices that keep water in the soil, such as abundant cover crops and fire-proof fencing along property lines.
At the Market Garden Pilot Farm, traditional almond tree monocultures were intercropped with pecans, elderberry, and poplar trees to boost water retention and offer more vegetation for additional produce, timber, organic matter, and overall water retention. Meanwhile at the Pomegranate Pilot Farm, existing tree lines were interplanted with figs and Eucalyptus trees, among other crops, for similar reasons.
The project launched with six pilot sites across mainland Greece to represent highly consumed and representative Greek food items. These include almonds, grains, grapes, olives, and pomegranates. In the future, they plan to expand to more crops and sites to encourage peer-to-peer education for farmers and public officials alike.
“A farmer who transitions to a farming model where their goal goes way beyond growing a crop for an economic yield,” Darmos tells Food Tank. “One has to find the selling channels that will encourage, support and pay for this ecosystem service the farmer is providing through his agricultural activity.”
And Livada Natural Farm, operating on Andros, an island in the Cyclades chain just southeast of the mainland in the Aegean Sea offers another example of success built on regenerative farming. Alexandros Kostis, lead farmer of Livada, moved back to Andros after years of studying permaculture and the relationship between ecological processes and agriculture.
The Farm recently received grant funding to support the farm from the Market Gardner Institute. But their success has also grown through strong relationships with the local community. “With this professional engagement that brings social engagement, we build trust with people,” Kostis tells Food Tank.
Kostis studied various topics in Athens to support the development of this farm. Some of his fields of study include social entrepreneurship, social permaculture, and participatory leadership. On land that is traditionally clay-like, engaging in practices such as no-till was a game changer for Livada. “We are able to mimic nature in this annual system.”
Although the practices promoted by Livada and Southern Lights have yet to become more widespread, Darmos believes that young farmers are rapidly realizing the benefits of regenerative farming.
“The great shift happens when we realize our responsibility and possibility to play a key role in regenerating our ecosystems,” Darmos tells Food Tank, “but also build businesses that are regenerative to the people involved.”
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Photo courtesy of Max Sano