A STARTING POINT TO BECOMING REGENERATIVE

In recent months regenerative agriculture has come into the public focus, the Prime Minister appointed a National Soils Advocate and and leading media organisations are regularly publishing articles about regenerative agriculture. Much of the eastern half of Australia is experiencing severe drought conditions. Regenerative agriculture could be the answer to Australia’s drought problem. Practitioners of regenerative agriculture improve the quality of their soil through various methods, which can result in improved water holding capacity within soil. Improving the water holding capacity of soil ensures that moisture is available for plants to utilise long after rainfall. Retaining soil moisture is one way to limit the effect of prolonged drought periods.

  Landholders are now asking the question:

How do I make my property regenerative?

This article outlines three steps.

Step 1

The first step to becoming regenerative is to understand the different aspects of a property and how the management practices of the property affect the landscape. Points of interest are soil type, vegetation type, water supply, and topography. Understanding how management practices affect the different aspects of a property is a critical component in becoming regenerative. A cattle grazier in the Albury area would implement management steps to become regenerative. A sugarcane farmer from Murwillumbah would take different actions. A land manager who understands the relationship between their management practices and the landscape is prepared and ready to implement strategic changes on their property. An example of this is Soils for Life case study farm, Future Farming Landscapes (FFL) Winlaton. FFL Winlaton purchased land in the Swan Hill region of Victoria and set about understanding the different aspects of the landscape before they transitioned to a regenerative management system.

Step 2

The second step is to seek knowledge from regenerative land managers. The best advice is available from those farmers who operate a similar enterprise in the same landscape. Soils for Life has published numerous case studies about regenerative land managers throughout Australia. Further advice is available from regenerative agriculture consultants in diverse regional areas. The information and knowledge gained from communicating with regenerative land managers and consultants can be used to decide what strategic changes to make to the management practices of the property. Developing a plan which outlines the changes and the desired impact of those changes will provide a clear goal in the process of becoming regenerative.

Step 3

The third step is to stick to the plan. Set small manageable goals that can be achieved. Small goals are stepping stones on the path to becoming regenerative. Achieving small goals encourage us to continue and help to increase the resilience of the enterprise. Robert Quirk from Stotts Creek NSW is a Soils for Life case study farmer. The Stotts Creek case study is due to be published in the next few weeks. Robert provides an example of a land manager setting small goals to achieve the overarching goal of improving landscape function and health on his property.

Following these three steps won’t guarantee that a property will become regenerative. However, it will help the land manager to understand the impact that their management decisions have on the landscape they operate within.

Article by Greg Hosking. Greg Hosking is a member of the Soils for Life team. Greg is an ecologist with an interest in understanding how and why agricultural landscapes change over time.

THE LANDLINE EFFECT

On 8 September 2019, ABC Landline with Pip Courtney broadcast ‘Future Soil: Excess carbon regenerating soils’. We are thrilled with the story, another example of mainstream media covering regenerative agriculture.

The response to this story, the so-called ‘Landline effect’, proves that the Australian public is interested in soil and what it means for sustainable food production. The story has been viewed at least 140,000 times and we witnessed visitor spikes on our website and Youtube channel.

The National Soils Advocate, Michael Jeffery is interviewed alongside our case study farmers, Diane and Ian Haggerty from Western Australia. If the story leaves you hungry for more news from regenerative farmers across Australia, read on.

A CLASH OF CULTURES: WHY ARE SOIL SCIENTISTS GIVEN A BAD RAP BY SOME REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURISTS?

Emeritus Professor Robert White, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, The University of Melbourne. robertew@unimelb.edu.au

In the 2006 book ‘Back from the Brink’, farmer Peter Andrews says, ‘we need the scientific community to accept that the approach it has adopted to Australia’s landscape problems so far have been wrong’ (p.7) and that ‘we certainly have to abandon the idea that scientists can provide a solution to our landscape’s problems’ (p.13).

In short, forget about the decades of scientific research into land management if you want to rehabilitate the land.

In 2017, Charles Massy published ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’, which deplores modern industrial farming and asks a rhetorical question about ‘established sources of knowledge—department of agriculture people and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO)’, claiming that ‘they’re just so far behind’ (p.179).

No soil scientist wants to see land degradation, and Australia has decades of research into land and farm management, which has had positive outcomes. So why is there a clash of cultures when both parties want the same thing?

1. Poor soil science communication

Soil science has not been well communicated, with the majority of research results staying in journal papers. A farmer would need to pay for access, then try and wade through the academic language, and then try to work out how the research applies to their situation. Accessing soil science findings is certainly not frictionless. Formerly, extension officers bridged the gap between the field and the lab, but funding cuts have removed most of these.

2. Resulting dismissal of soil science research

Perhaps because it is difficult to access, interpret, and use existing research, this research is ignored or dismissed. This is a shame because Australia has a wealth of research into interactions among soils, crops, pastures and animals.

Different systems have been studied for many years using a range of biophysical and chemical methods and modelling. For example, Marston and co-workers first unravelled the role of cobalt and copper in ‘bush sickness’ of ruminants, Prescott mapped the extensive distribution of Australian soils, Norrish elucidated the behaviour of soil clays, Rovira explored the management of soil-borne diseases, Lee and Foster showed how soil fauna affected soil structure, and Baldock and co-workers described the dynamics of soil organic carbon and its measurement.

Ignoring this work perpetuates the view that the science underpinning landscape management has not progressed since the early 1800s, a view not borne out by the evidence of many studies.

3. Limited research and claims about regenerative agriculture

Australia’s National Advocate for Soil Health admits in a letter to the Prime Minister that ‘the reasons why the innovative methods developed by Soils for Life and other farmers are working so well are generally not well understood by science. More research is needed into the microbiological processes in the plant and soil biomes thought to be responsible for the success of various regenerative farming practices.’

Additionally, some examples of success within regenerative agriculture contain dubious claims that sound warning bells for soil scientists. For example, in Call of the Reed Warbler, Massy (p.201) cites a case study where ‘despite no superphosphate for over 35 years, phosphorus and other trace element and mineral levels have risen substantially, soil pH having jumped from high acidity levels to nearly neutral’. Bearing in mind the law of conservation of matter, how can these increases have occurred in a production system unless there were substantial inputs of materials from off-site during the 35 years?

In another example, Massy (p.140) states that a 1% increase in soil carbon (C) allows 144,000 litres of extra water to be stored per ha to 0.3 m depth. This corresponds to an increase in the amount of stored water to 0.3 m depth of 14.4 mm. Here, ‘traditional’ soil scientists start to ask questions as no information is given about the soil type for this claim. We know that the effect of organic matter in increasing soil water storage is more important in sandy than clay soils. However, in France Morlat and Chaussod looked at soil carbon after applications of compost and manure on a sandy soil (86% sand). Compared to the control soil, organic C approximately doubled from 0.63 to 1.21% for soil treated with 20 t/ha of fresh cow manure each year for 28 years. But the increase in available water in the top 0.3 m was only 7.5 mm after 28 years, which is a much smaller response than that claimed by Massy. Knowing the soil and treatment conditions under which Massy’s result occurred would be enormously helpful so that it could be implemented elsewhere. But these details were not supplied.

4. Resulting caution from soil scientists

As with enthusiastic farmers who have tried new methods and had success, soil scientists too are excited by unusual or extreme behaviour in soil-plant-animal systems. However, they need information about the conditions under which unusual results are obtained.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a soil scientist in 2019 willing to roll out a new land management practice using data from one trial at one site. If something works, we need to determine whether it can work in other climates, soil conditions and production systems. We also need to be careful about unintended consequences.

Sub clover is a case in point of the latter. The widespread adoption in southern Australia of pastures based on sub clover (Trifolium subterraneum) previously led to accelerated acidification in soils that were poorly buffered. However, field research has evolved from relatively simple plot-based experiments to large-scale ecosystems studies. This progression demonstrates that soil scientists have not been static in their thinking. The science has evolved and continues to do so. Some regenerative agriculture practices could well be the next sub clover example, that looks good to start with until you realize on a wider scale that you should have done more research.

Next steps

First, we need to get over this ‘clash of cultures’ and collaborate. Australia’s soil advocate calls for ‘collaboration between scientists and successful farmers to build knowledge, collate the evidence to support successes and improvements and promote the wider use of regenerative farming techniques’. Let’s work together to understand how and where regenerative agriculture works, identify possible problems, and work out the economic benefits. Farming is a business. If a practice is not economic for the farmer, it won’t happen.

Second, soil scientists need to communicate in a language that farmers and their champions in the media understand. This does not mean dumbing down the science, but it does mean scientists must challenge unorthodox views and seek explanations using language that an intelligent layperson can understand.

Third, we need true engagement from the lab to the field: that is, farmers, community groups and scientists working together to devise farming systems that halt degradation, improve soil quality and are economically viable. We have had such programs in the past. For example, the Sustainable Grazing Systems program, led by Meat and Livestock Australia in conjunction with other funding partners, was a 6-year program of collaboration between farmers and researchers with many insights gained from working on farmers’ properties. Let’s not ignore the good work such programs have done.

Working together we can understand how best to manage our land, providing substantial benefits to Australian farmers, international science and the Australian economy.

This article was originally published as a journal paper. Alisa Bryce collaborated with the author to convert the paper into this article for wider distribution in the media.

References

  1. Andrews, P. Back from the Brink; ABC Books: Sydney, Australia, 2006.
  2. Massy, C. Call of the Reed Warbler; University of Queensland Press: Brisbane, Australia, 2017.
  3. Marston, H.R.; Lines, E.W.; Thomas, R.G.; McDonald, I.W. Copper and cobalt in ruminant animals. Nature 1938, 141, 398–400. https://www.nature.com/articles/141398a0
  4. Prescott, J.A. A climatic index for the leaching factor in soil formation. J. Soil Sci. 1950, 1, 9–19. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2389.1950.tb00714.x
  5. Norrish, K. The swelling of montmorillonite. Discuss. Faraday Soc. 1954, 18, 120–134. https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/1954/DF/df9541800120#!divAbstract
  6. Rovira, A. The impact of soil and crop management practices on soil-borne root diseases and wheat yields. Soil Use Manag. 1990, 6, 195–200. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1475-2743.1990.tb00835.x
  7. Lee, K.E.; Foster, R.C. Soil fauna and soil structure. Aust. J. Soil Res. 1991, 29, 745–775. http://www.publish.csiro.au/sr/SR9910745
  8. Luo, Z.; Wang, E.; Baldock, J.; Xing, H. Potential soil organic carbon stock and its uncertainty under various cropping systems in Australian cropland. Soil Res. 2014, 52, 463–475. http://www.publish.csiro.au/sr/SR13294
  9. Soils for Life. Available online: www.soilsforlife.org.au (accessed on 11 February 2019). http://www.agriculture.gov.au/SiteCollectionDocuments/ag-food/publications/restore-soil-prosper.pdf
  10. Bauer, A.; Black, A.L. Organic carbon effects on available water capacity of three soil textural groups. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 1992, 56, 248. https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/sssaj/abstracts/56/1/SS0560010248
  11. Morlat, R.; Chaussod, R. Long-term additions of organic amendments in a Loire Valley vineyard. I. Effects on properties of a calcareous sandy soil. Am. J. Enol. Vitic. 2008, 59, 353–363. https://www.ajevonline.org/content/59/4/353
  12. Williams, C. Soil acidification under clover pasture. Aust. J. Exp. Agric. 1980, 20, 561–567. http://www.publish.csiro.au/an/EA9800561
  13. Mason, W.K.; Lodge, G.M.; Allan, C.J.; Andrew, M.H.; Johnson, T.; Russell, B.; Simpson, I. An appraisal of Sustainable Grazing Systems: The program, the triple bottom line impacts and the sustainability of grazing systems. Aust. J. Exp. Agric. 2003, 43, 1061–1082. http://www.publish.csiro.au/an/EA03043
  14. White, R. E.; Andrew M. Orthodox soil science versus alternative philosophies: A clash of cultures in a modern context. Sustainability2019, 11, 2919; doi:10.3390/su11102919

Emeritus Professor Robert White

Author of ‘Principles and Practice of Soil Science’ 4e, ‘Understanding Vineyard Soils’ 2e, and ‘Soils for Fine Wines’

Consultant in soils to the wine industry; Honorary life member Soil Science Australia

Honorary member International Union of Soil Sciences

OCTOBER MESSAGE FROM THE CHAIR

Regenerative agriculture helps to provide a climate solution in Australia. Changing farming practices to include carbon in our precious national asset, the soil, is beneficial to all farmers.

The Prime Minister recently announced the re-appointment of the National Soils Advocate. The Advocate will increase awareness of the importance of conserving agricultural soil and landscape conditions for a range of benefits. These include benefiting the environment, enhancing agricultural productivity, realising continual economic benefits, and securing sustainable food production systems. A team in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet supports the Advocate.

Soils for Life case studies demonstrate that groundcover and sequestration occur through higher photosynthesis. More ways to build soil carbon include the application of recycled organics and cover cropping with multi-species plantings, which improve biological activity in the soil. Regenerative agricultural practices can improve soil structure, water retention, and boost fodder or crop production. The same practices can lead to more plants and profitability, increased growth, and root turnover that builds organic matter and soil organic carbon. One tonne of carbon is equal to 3.67 tCO2e carbon credits. Multi-species pasture cropping can build soil carbon at rates that are equivalent to tree planting.

Soil carbon benefits include resilience and food security, plant nutritional quality, improved water filtration, and reduced erosion and nutrient runoff.

Soil organic carbon is a water management story. There are 470 million hectares of agricultural landscapes in Australia. If we can support farmers to sequester soil carbon, there will be benefits to the farmer and the environment.

Congratulations to the Government for the carbon farming initiative process of paying landholders to sequester carbon through the Emissions Reduction Fund. At Soils for Life, we work towards simplifying the process. If payments flow more smoothly, then it is easier to qualify as a farmer seeking to rehabilitate our prime national asset.

Soils for Life brings scientists, farmers, urban gardeners, and policymakers together to contribute to and implement a national policy that will support farmers to benefit all Australians over future decades and generations. We can all work together. Let’s do it.

OCTOBER MESSAGE FROM THE CEO

We’ve had another busy month centred around soil carbon: how to build it, the benefits and dividends of carbon rich and healthy soils, and how to measure carbon content. I attended a field day near Cudgewa Vic which promoted one effective method of building carbon in soils. The CSIRO based in both Adelaide and Canberra have helped in raising awareness and improving our understanding of healthy soils.

On the important matter of measuring soil carbon, we’ve commenced planning a workshop for next March with the University of Tasmania and the Chinese Agricultural Academy on measuring economically and at scale, carbon in soils which is quite a technical challenge.

Good to see the Federal Member for Indi, the Independent Helen Haines MP last week at the farm of Paul and Faye Land where Steve Whitsed, Agriprove and Global Soil Regeneration put on a cracker of a demonstration of the SoilKee renovator method of building carbon in suitable soils. Notable was Keenan Whitsed demonstrating considerable foresight as a young man advocating for regenerative farming methods in the interests of sustainability and genuine care for the future of our soils, landscapes and indeed the planet. And Dr Maarten Stapper delivered a comprehensive lecture on soil science and carbon. Next week is CSIRO’s 2019 conference in Adelaide on Soil Organic Matters, another important event.

NOTE FROM TERRY HARKNESS

Introducing Terry Harkness, a valued member of the Soils for Life team. As the Project Manager, Terry organises case studies and land-holder engagement.

Terry is an accountant (CPA) with 30 years’ experience working in various industry sectors including manufacturing, waste recycling, mining and mining services, retail and hospitality.

With an interest in landscape management Terry is a committee member of Landcare Illawarra acts as an honorary Treasurer for community organisations.

Terry likes rugby league, touch football, bike riding, paddling on Lake Illawarra and seed collecting. He reads natural history, botany, colonial history and Aboriginal culture.

Terry’s next project is to support sea bird colonies off the five islands near Port Kembla.

Terry enjoys working with and talking to regenerative farmers and looks forward to advancing the cause of regenerative agriculture.

The Illawong story in less than 1 minute

Bryan Ward’s property, Illawong, comprises 160 hectares and carries up to 140 beef cattle at any one time. Bryan’s achievements over 24 years of managing Illawong provide valuable lessons for producers seeking to maintain production while also regenerating and improving the condition of the land.

Watch this 1-minute summary of some of Bryan’s regenerative practices and achievements.

More information about this regenerative agriculture story can be found in the full case study here.

GLOBAL TABLE CONFERENCE IN MELBOURNE

At a recent Melbourne food industry conference, the question was asked, ‘How do we feed billions more people and sustain our environment?’ Technology and innovation are key solutions. Where does soil health fit into the five topics: new foods, agtech, food waste, alternate proteins and the human microbiome? Is the soil microbiome the answer to many of our problems? Yes, says Soils for Life.

Read more about the conference here.