It is a great honour to take the place of Michael Jeffery as
Chairman of Soils For Life. Michael has been a tireless and visionary Chairman
of the organisation since he founded it in 2011.
Back then, not many people had heard of Regenerative Agriculture
and even fewer could explain what it meant. The early years of Soils For Life
were spent helping to promote the early pioneers of Regenerative Agriculture
and build the foundations for a movement which continues to gather momentum.
More recently, Michael has concentrated his activities on
promoting his vision for how farmers can repair the Australian landscape with
policy makers and those activities have now been rewarded by the Prime Minister
agreeing to properly resource the office of the National Soil Advocate which
Michael will lead.
These developments have been taking place at a time when Australian
farmers have been struggling with some of the worst seasonal conditions in
recent memory. Recent rains give hope that this long drought is at last coming
to an end.
Soils For Life will be at the forefront of providing support
and guidance for farmers who wish to learn more about regenerative solutions to
managing their land. Now, more than ever, it is important that land managers
give thought to how they might adjust their management practices to ensure they
are better prepared for the next drought which will inevitably come.
The Soils For Life case study programme is just one tool
that we will use to provide guidance for farmers who wish to make such
adjustments, but we intend to build a much more extensive programme of support
to ensure that farmers have access to a wide array of information and experts
who will help them on their journey.
I look forward to working with the Soils For Life Board and Executive Team to build this programme over the coming months.
“Olsen’s – First farm in Australia to receive Carbon credit units under the Emissions Reduction Fund.” The full case study for the Olsen’s Farm will be launched in the March edition of Down to Earth. A preview is available with this video summary of family members and their contribution to the principles and practice of sequestering carbon on Olsen’s Farm.
Before I commenced
working in agriculture the sub and super story was a common topic of
conversation. The relationship between phosphate and pasture production had
been established before the 1900s but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the
widespread use of superphosphate and sowing sub clover took off. Soon after rotational grazing became the buzz
word as graziers moved to higher stocking rates. Then widespread drought in the mid to late
1960s caused a rethink. When the drought
broke in 1968 pasture improvement again became the order of the day until the
removal of the super bounty and the cattle crash of 1974 which both coincided
with low wool prices. During the 1980s
when we were buying our own wool and stockpiling it there was little time for
anything else! Many farmers ran at
higher stocking rates without replacing exported nutrients.
Sometime in the
nineties the discussion swung to sustainability and some hardened grazier
claimed that it was hard to be green when you are in the red. A balance was required between environmental
and economic sustainability.
Today it seems almost
mandatory to have the prefix ‘regenerative’ in front of the word
agriculture. It seems incredible that
something which is so much discussed is apparently lacking in a tight
definition The word regenerate means (amongst other things) to re-create, to
re-constitute, or make over, especially in a better form of condition. Most farmers will claim that they want to
leave the farm in better condition than when they took it over so, if they
achieve that will they have been practicing regenerative farming?
It seems that this depends
on what is meant by better condition. It
is generally accepted, by thinking agriculturalists, that to be regenerative
the agricultural system needs to retain top soil, increase bio–diversity,
improve the water cycle, enhance eco-systems and support carbon sequestration. That is a comprehensive must do list which
while admirable may be difficult to achieve in its entirety if the business
needs to pay its way. Notwithstanding
that difficulty most farmers I know are making a real effort to achieve those
A regenerative system,
because it is so ill defined, may be achieved through conventional management,
high input, rotational grazing, natural farming and other methods or any
combination of the above. As long as the
system is resilient, addressing issues related to climate change, creating
healthy soils and reducing waste on the farm it is attempting to be
regenerative. The difficulty is that
terms such as resilience, and strengthening the health and vitality of
farm soils are also ill-defined.
With this background
of lack of clarity it is un-surprising that Soils For Life has received such a
wide range of posts on its website. Most
of the posts claim that the opposing view is biased. Some examples of
It wouldn’t surprise me
because profit often isn’t the primary outcome of those who implement RA. Reinvestment
of earning may look very different in RA and therefore may not have been calculated
as fertiliser or similar would have/has been in the conventional system. It seems quite biased – they mentioned RA
doesn’t work to increase soil fertility (but conventional does with fertiliser)
yet this is one of the core principals of RA – to increase fertility through
diversity and by protecting and enhancing microbe populations
Profit is not a measure of
efficiency – profitability is.
Not everything good for
our planet can initially be measured in gross dollar profit… give it time.
If farmers using
regenerative methods have not learnt to analyse profit then now is the time to
re-design their business.
The same level of profit
per DSE between businesses can deliver very different levels of whole farm
profit and profitability due largely to differences in production per hectare.
comparison of “pile it high, sell it cheap” says it all. They can’t move away from volume production
and are happy that their inputs are only marginally behind their selling price.
REGENERATIVE AG. is restoring what is lost. Almost all life is carbon dependent including
soil life. We’ve spent decades short
circuiting the system and have lost natures natural sequence, resulting in ever
We’re allowing our soils
to be blown or washed away eventually into the sea. The conventional boys now
say harvest seaweed and feed it to livestock to reduce methane emissions the Regenerative
guys say put life back into the soil, stop leaching nutrients rather than
collect them as seaweed just to return them from where they came from to start
It is easy to see how
opposing sides can become increasingly shrill and lose focus on the main
aim. But there isn’t a common main
aim. Some farmers are desperately trying
to hang on in the face of severe drought.
Some are trying to educate children.
Some are working to build the business to enable succession. Some see increased bio-diversity as the key
to their future. Some have done
incredible restoration work on their farms to repair damage done by rabbits,
insensitive clearing and the resultant soil erosion.
Individual landowners have
different priorities and will employ different systems to achieve them. Generally if the aim is to maintain ground
cover, improve the water cycle, increase soil carbon and whole of farm
bio-diversity then the farmer is well on the way to being regenerative. Until
there are agreed definitions and metrics for the issues that need to be
addressed, and the empirical evidence that allows the setting of agreed
targets, and monitoring progress in line with the targets, no system is in the
position to claim the high moral ground.
In the meantime any individual may
choose to achieve those ends without the use of any fertilizer or chemical or
may choose to use both. Surely the end
point of a healthy landscape with healthy people and a healthy business can be
achieved through many paths. Those paths
require agreed measures.
Concentrating on profit or profitability
without thinking about the landscape may lead to environmental disaster.
Concentrating on the landscape without keeping an eye on profitability may lead
to bankruptcy. Neither state seems desirable.
The move to regenerative agriculture is gaining momentum in the WA agricultural sector. Farmers are gaining global recognition for their innovative efforts and the results they’re achieving. The RegenWA programme was launched by the West Australian Minister for Regional Development, Agriculture and Food, The Honourable Alannah MacTiernan MLC, (pictured below) in August 2018.
Recent research from Australia’s National University (ANU) has looked at whether regenerative certification schemes could change the behaviour of Australia’s food system for the better. Isabella Zohrab surveyed Australian regenerative farmers to understand their perspectives regarding farming and certification. Listen to Isabella share some of the key findings from her work (view video here) and read a summary of the results (view the report here).
Through the Fenner School of Environment
and Society at ANU, Isabella’s research aimed to understand whether
regenerative certification schemes could change the behaviour of Australia’s
food system for the better. Emerging evidence suggests that food from
regenerative farms could be more nutrient-dense. A scheme that allows consumers
to identify more nutrient-dense food that is also environmentally beneficial
could provide more motivation for all farmers to focus on environmental and
food quality outcomes, rather than primarily on yields.
The research included understanding the
range of definitions of regenerative farming, motivations for farming
regeneratively, beliefs about why consumers choose food from regenerative
farms, and incentives and barriers to joining a certification scheme.
Survey responses indicate that farmers are
motivated to farm regeneratively for environmental and lifestyle reasons. They
were all full-time farmers and thought that regenerative farming is more
profitable. Nevertheless, financial motivations were considered less important.
Consumers of regenerative food are also believed to care more about social,
environmental, and food quality motivations than price.
Most respondents were optimistic about the potential of regenerative certification schemes to improve Australia’s food system. Again, financial motivations such as gaining access to a price premium were less important than environmental and social motivations. Despite the general optimism towards certification, many respondents still had concerns. The most important concerns were to do with government involvement and how to define “regenerative.” More details on the questionnaire design and results can be found in this report (view the report here).
Further research would be useful to build
on this initial study. A survey of consumers to improve our understanding of
their motivations to choose regenerative food would be beneficial. In the
meantime, these results provide some preliminary insights into the
opportunities and challenges ahead for regenerative certification.
Recent fires have severely damaged millions of hectares of land and soil. Intense bushfires can have major deleterious effects on soil including loss of organic carbon and nutrients, increased erosion, and water repellency. Effects may last for decades or more post-fire. Wind and water erosion post-fires also can create major impacts on water supplies and ecosystems.
Soil Science Australia prepared this fact sheet to assist recovery efforts.