Marie Ekhator: Austrian helping Jos farmers regenerate soil
Getting crops to do well is often seen as something agrochemicals can fix; either fertilizer when it strictly yields or herbicides when there are weeds. However, as most farmers are more concerned about yield, regenerating the soil and ensuring its ability to support healthy plants has often been overlooked. This is where regenerative agriculture (RegenAg) comes in.
“The Regenerative Agriculture movement is big and fast evolving. It goes beyond sustainable farming because conventional agriculture has depleted the agricultural landscape, hence the need for regeneration. Nigeria, though acknowledges this need, is somewhat lagging behind,” says Marie Ekhator, CEO, Mama-Itohan RegenSoil, an Austrian this reporter met on a trip to Jos. No less by sheer coincidence in a place she had been experimenting foreign varieties to see those that would do well in Nigeria, Jos in particular.
“The bottom line is doing agriculture in such a way it improves the environment, which will always come back to improve agriculture, and then your income. The basis of regenerative agriculture is the soil,” she said. “As a farmer, you should be aware the soil is where everything comes from; since life generates life.”
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Ekhator would later explain in an email, that the bottom line of RegenAg is regeneration of soil. Every farmer will agree that the soil is of apex importance. Today we understand more about the soil as a habitat of microorganisms, plant roots and their intriguing communication and interaction. This opens a completely new approach to agricultural operations, moving away from Darwin’s model of “Survival of the fittest” to “Survival of the best team workers”.
RegenAg has been and is developed by farmers all around the world; it has not been mapped out by scholars on desks, she says. Nevertheless, it is sidelined by research today. Soil regeneration leads to landscape, as improved soil has a higher water retention capacity, and grows consecutively more biomass, more diversity and abundance thus leading to landscape and even community regeneration, since farmers and consumers are encouraged to create new ties of interaction through direct marketing. Nigerians are well aware of the health benefits of healthy and nutrient-dense food and the reverse. Facing a medical system that is not accessible for everybody, food becomes everybody’s medicine.
RegenAg is a method of pesticide and herbicide-free food production. It has the potential to support farmers to meet their targets and cut input costs considerably when it comes to agrochemicals and irrigation. Many farmers are not aware of the health hazards they are facing when applying chemicals without safety measurements. There are no sufficient regulations concerning agrochemicals import, distribution and application as a publication of the Heinrich-Boell-Foundation has brought to the notice of the public recently, she says.
RegenAg helps farmers to make their operations climate change resilient as climate change is a systemic business threat.
With regenerative agriculture, “we are improving soil conditions which automatically improve what every farmer knows they want to improve themselves. This means you loosen the soil, especially in Plateau where it is so compacted and the roots hardly penetrate, leading to back-breaking work,” she stressed when interviewed.
If you improve the soil and help the microorganisms do their job, the soil will become loose, the water penetration and retention also becomes better and every farmer knows what that means; better outcomes of the farms.
If farmers want to improve the soil, she says they have to start with composting, a special kind though. They can do it with farm available things and does not need to be highbrow, no big technology, but with the right knowledge, observation, and efforts but not for lazy people, she says, while laughing because of the ‘laziness’ emphasis.
“It is more economical when it comes to inputs as agrochemicals and general work will come down,” she says of expected outcomes.
Apart from the gospel of RegenAg, Ekhator has also been bringing seeds from Austria to try in Jos, as a way of introducing otherwise foreign crops in an environment the weather could favour them.
“The climate in Jos is a bit comparable to a temperate climate. That is why I decided to try seeds from my own climate,” she says. She brings different varieties to find out which one is doing well and she identifies any of such, brings more so as to go into proper propagation with a big quantity of seeds.