When Vinicius Biagi Antonelli, a third generation in the sugarcane business, first learned about regenerative agriculture, he knew this was the way forward for his land in the Ribeirão Preto region.
Conventional sugarcane producers use intensive monoculture farming practices – not what Vinicius wanted to follow. Excited about the holistic methods of regenerative agriculture that goes beyond organic farming standards, Vinicius started Sitião Agroflorestal around four years ago.
“We began the conversion of a conventional cultivation system of mainly sugar cane to one where we are 100 percent committed to an eco-social regenerative impact,” he said.
Regenerative agriculture can have many benefits, including bringing back biodiversity and improving water table levels. It’s about working with nature, not against it, and learning about the role of native species and the ecosystem, building healthy soil and supporting the community.
With other regenerative farming enthusiasts, Vinicius has started pilot plots around the Ribeirão Preto region, considered the agribusiness capital of Brazil.
He still grows sugarcane – a vital crop for synergies and soil fertility – but now Sitião Agroflorestal is also harvesting turmeric, moringa, ginseng, and other nutritious foods without adding any toxic and synthetic chemicals to the land.
“We are observing the reaction and performance of dozens of different seeds we have put in the ground,” he said. The benefits of agroforestry are countless. A sustainable and integrated agroforest system has the power to enhance water availability in the region. The project is not only regenerating the soil to develop healthy crops but planting water as a byproduct.
Sitião Agroflorestal’s current 150 hectares of high-value land near the city will help leverage a productive green belt in the region that hosts one of the most prolific and expensive farm locations in the world. It also features a hands-on school that welcomes groups for technical visits, internships, workshops, and other educational activities. “We keep pretty busy exchanging experiences with the most people we can,” said Vinicius.
The plan is to build a Center for Research and Development of Syntropic Farming and Agroforestry, which would connect various farming groups and partnerships across the country’s distinct biomes and ecosystems, including the Amazon, Caatinga, and Mata Atlantica.
As soon as Ricardo Pavan of Labra Connecting the World visited Sitião Agroflorestal last year, he immediately knew that it was a perfect partner to join the sustainable supply chain for the baru and other superfoods Ricardo and his firm are committed to sharing with the international market. Labra, a California-based global trading company, has introduced top organic brands such as Nutiva and Bob Red Mill to Brazil and has been working to bring baru, Brazil’s next hot superfood, to the world.
Baru is a fruit from the Baruzeiro, a large tree that has deep roots and an excellent ability to protect the valuable aquifers in the Cerrado biome. Unfortunately, the massive expansion of intensive soy farming and cattle operations in the area have affected the baruzeiro and its ecosystem.
The baru nut is virtually unknown outside its native region of Cerrado Savanna in Brazil, but it’s a superfood staple in local diets. It contains 24 percent of its weight of digestible protein as well as essential fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and fiber.
By partnering with Sitião Agroflorestal, Pavan aims to create a sustainable and locally beneficial supply chain from the outset, so that high demand doesn’t come at the expense of other ecosystems and native plants. “We need to be careful and not partner with people just looking for a quick sale,” said Pavan. The goal is to develop a holistic, dynamic system and business model where Labra in coordination with Sitião Agroflorestal and other partners including several cooperatives of small producers and collectors can supply customers in other countries organic and fair-trade foods from across Brazil that meet all technical, social and environmental specifications.
The key for regenerative agriculture to succeed in Brazil (and elsewhere) will be a mindset shift. It will be showing landowners that it is possible to run productive projects not only using organic farming methods that replace synthetic fertilizers and pesticides with non-toxic inputs but embracing bio-diversity and avoiding monocultures, nurturing the soil. “It also means moving to a more holistic approach to farming supporting micro-farmers and small rural communities.
Ribeirão Preto is a transition land where the Atlantic Forest meets the Brazilian Savannah. It used to be the most bio-diverse area on Earth and the baru used to grow there before the time of sugar cane and other monocultures.
As part of this initiative, 5,000 baru nut seedlings have been planted under regenerative farming methods for the crop to boost the supply chain for the potentially lucrative fruit.
Vinicius calls the baru nut a “conciliator” crop in the fight against expanding monoculture farming because it has enough economic potential to convince local farmers to switch to growing sustainable, native baru nuts instead of conventional corn and soy.
“If everyone could have access to accurate data of our landscape, I am sure we could use our conciliator plants to bring up production on eroded, underutilized and protected areas,” he said.
“Brazil has many native species that could contribute nutrients and medicinal applications to both, humans and animals. More native trees and other plants are still unknown to the general public. The transition to regenerative farming projects comes with many challenges, but Vinicius and Ricardo know that besides organic, fair-trade and regenerative certifications, an open communication structure, horizontal management, and farming cooperatives are essential players to building new business models to benefit everyone along the supply chain, including the environment.