Annual vegetables often require more energy, more inputs and more intensive care than many other plants or animals. This is because they are ‘hungry plants’ and require cultivating and planting every year. In commercial horticulture, this means ploughing the soil each year, intensive weeding regimes (or herbicides), pesticides, fungicides, heavy fertilisation, significant irrigation, and intensive labour to maintain and harvest these crops. For these reasons, annual vegetables sometimes receive a bad rep and are critiqued by scientists, academics, farmers and consumers. This post aims to make the distinction between the above ‘destructive modality’ of growing annual vegetables (akin to the factory farming industry) and a ‘regenerative modality’ of growing a diversity of fresh, healthy crops without costing the earth. However, even with the most regenerative practices and soil care, it is still difficult to justify growing just annual vegetables at any large monocultural scale, and it is therefore necessary to talk about scale, diversity, fertility cycles and integration of perennials. Annual veg can be grown regeneratively, at appropriate scale and with above and below ground diversity. Developing best practice in vegetable production is increasingly important, especially if we are to shift towards more plant-based diets - currently most (but not all) plant-based diets rely on non-sustainable imported plants or pulses/vegetables/grains from intensive industrial agriculture (even if its labelled organic or free trade!). However, it is possible to grow, distribute and provide all of our fresh and healthy food locally from regenerative sources, regardless of diet! We need to support the emergence of these regenerative bioregional food systems, discern what food is real, and align our values to food actions - no easy task ! This post delves into the realistic challenges of conventional vegetable production, and then makes the defence case for annual veg to reclaim its place in the landscape and on our plates!
Firstly, to unpick the problems of annual veg, it is necessary to look at their ‘shadow side’ and the realities of domesticated crops in general. Annual veg has numerous potential problems, summarised below:
Potential problems of annual veg
· High inputs e.g. fertilisation requirements
· Materials input e.g. including for organic production; a lot of plastic mesh, membrane, polytunnels and tarps required
· Challenges of year-round seasonal production in temperate climates
· Perishability and waste potential
· Pests and diseases (& thus toxic chemical use on non-organic farms)
· Monoculture potential e.g. one crop on large field
· Annual planting requiring energy, often tillage, fossil fuels, compaction etc.
· High labour inputs/costs
· Economic challenges
· Social / Cultural lack of demand for fresh food grown locally (currently, but shifting hopefully!)
Many of these problems also apply to some organic and sustainable farms, and there are usually trade-offs and compromised to grow food that need to be understood by producers and consumers. However, there is a vast difference between organic/sustainable horticulture and the emergent regenerative paradigm for food production. The problems and relevant critiques above represent the threads of opportunity for regenerative horticulture to continue solving. Much of this ‘regenerative’ paradigm of food production is rooted in indigenous approaches to soil management, diverse cropping and integration of Perennials (crops that regrow every year without replanting). There is a wealth of exciting research emerging that highlights the life in the soil, and justifies many ancient cropping practices of minimal tillage, appropriate diversity and cyclical fertility loops. Bridging this, ‘modern’ no-dig market gardening, restoration agriculture (see Mark Shephard), Integrated Pest Management, and Agroforestry are all approaches that creatively respond to the above challenges, whilst growing a high yield of diverse food in an economically viable and livelihood positive way. These seeds of hope, backed by a growing number of lived examples of cultivating vegetables regeneratively, provides a good defence of annual veg, summarised below:
In defence of annual veg
· Potential for closed loop systems and thus lower inputs e.g. ramial woodchip from on-farm coppice for fertility
· Annual veg can be part of a successional shift of land from monoculture towards diverse natural farming
· A healthy, diverse farm requires fewer inputs and materials
· Integrated pest management, good soil health and encouraging biodiversity can eliminate need for pesticides or chemicals over time
· Short supply chains and good planning can eliminate waste, & ‘unusable waste’ can be cycled back into farm to feed chickens or worm composting systems.
· Mixed rotation, minimum tillage and use of cover crops can limit adverse effects on soil
· Potential for polycultural and diverse vegetable production in balance with nature
· Integration with perennials, trees, berry bushes and vines can mimic natural system and maximise biodiversity (and economic viability! And fun!)
· Beyond ‘closed loop self-sufficiency’ idealisation; farms can instead embrace ‘community sufficiency’ and cycle waste e.g. compost from their community is processed and applied to grow more/better food for community.
· High labour can be flipped to be a positive, employing more people per land acre and developing the collaborative ‘big team, small farm’ paradigm
· Nutrient-dense, healthy, fresh and feel-good food of place
· Cultural significance of certain plants/veg
· Low hanging fruit in food systems change
· Social and community engagement potential
· And, importantly - Growing veg is really fun! Cultivating a relationship with plants and our food source from seed to harvest is a hugely connecting and life-giving process, and the experience of this for more people would certainly have huge social, mental, therapeutic , educational and cultural regeneration impacts.
Growing veg has been idealised, romanticised and viewed through rose-tinted glasses. Its also been praised and celebrated, on personal, cultural and pragmatic levels, and for good reason. Annual vegetable growing has been problematised and critiqued, also for good reason. I find myself continually reflecting on this, and notice that our farm is a lived exploration of this paradox, as we shift towards ever more natural and regenerative growing - not without challenge or compromise! Due to the challenges of annual veg, and the length of time it takes to restore biodiversity and pioneer regenerative methods, we are not there yet in our methods for regenerative horticulture, and even the best practices across the country have compromises. Many growers, including us, are still grappling with the challenges of annual veg, such as the current requirement for insect mesh to protect crops (e.g. from carrot root fly), using landscape membrane to shift from ‘invasive weeds’ to market garden vegetables, and requiring high compost inputs in these early years to restore organic matter and provide a deep mulch for no-till growing. These are all trade-offs, not perfect, but preferable to deep tillage or the agrochemical approaches (from which most veg you see in a shop is grown!).
The compromises mentioned, prevalent even in organic growing and ‘best practice’, can be seen as bridge technologies, one-off interventions in a transition to more natural farming. They should not be seen as a goal in themselves, but part of the learning towards a deeper horizon of possibility and transformation. These ‘bridge technologies’ and compromises are ways to manage and keep afloat in this economic context when real food is not valued or adequately supported in financial worlds. If farmers had a universal basic income for example, we could afford labour to maintain a healthy area for crops and nature without using plastic, tractors or fossil fuels. We could afford to grow potatoes sustainably, dry beans and store abundant apples over winter. So it’s important to distinguish between ‘inevitable problems of horticulture’ and ‘economically imposed trade-offs that farmers are forced to make.’ And its equally important to bear in mind the potential of regeneration, and that if we collectively set our head, heart and hands to this task then unexpected upward spirals of solutions may unfold. If just 10% of energy and funding from the destructive paradigm (e.g. 10% of £400 billion fossil fuel subsidies; or similar industrial agriculture subsidies) was instead channelled towards this aim, we could not only solve the intersecting crises of our time but also create a more beautiful world than its possible to imagine at the moment.
Although the compromises of organic growing and horticulture within this economic paradigm are perhaps inevitable, it has not stopped some farms and people experimenting and pioneering methods and solutions above and beyond the ‘sustainability’ paradigm, and these are the truly regenerative projects in my view. It requires creativity and gritty optimism to find niches to explore and pioneer these regenerative practices, within this context where the odds are stacked against it, and our political-economic systems are actively discouraging it, often in insidious and hidden ways, whilst empty green rhetoric is used for popularity points. It’s crucial that the edge is valued more – in this case it is those farmers and food system activists that are experimenting, observing and interacting to build new systems in the shell of the decaying old. It is from this place that the truly natural farming and regenerative culture are being birthed, slowly, quietly, until tipping points are reached and the upward spirals begin. It’s a matter of time, but we are in real danger of that time being too late, and the scale of destruction becoming all encompassing. In this sense, any systems that are in the ‘sustainability paradigm’ are providing useful bridges to the real solutions, but if the leaps are not then taken to these new emergent paradigms then it is only the destruction that will be sustained, and leave little possibility for renewal.
Despite the challenges to annual veg, we actually need to grow much more of it, to supply healthier and more climate friendly diets, and reduce reliance on imports and non-sustainable plant-based foods. This proliferation of local growing must be rooted in awareness of the compromises of vegetable production, and transform these into synergies in the shift towards natural farming and restoration agriculture. Whilst growing more fresh food like roots, greens and beans in appropriate diversity, we can also be integrating more perennial crops. Using agroforestry to combine crop cultivation with rows of fruit/nut trees can benefit both the soil and crops. Berries are an effective understory to these fruit trees, and perennial vines can climb amongst these diverse, 3D growing spaces. This can stack functions on one piece of land and provide greater ecological and economic yield. Integrating more perennial vegetables such as artichoke and asparagus can similarly provide many benefits to cropping systems and reduce the need for inputs, cultivation and planting. With pioneering no-till market garden systems, much more vegetables can be grown in a small space whilst regenerating the soil. Crop rotations, green manures, ramial Woodchip and compost teas can similarly boost vegetable production without costing the soil (or the farmers pocket!). And crucially, these farms can be places of reconnection, healing, community engagement and meaningful livelihoods. Growing and eating more delicious vegetables can be a tool to transform self, society & earth, one carrot at a time!