September has seen a steep rise in the profile of regenerative agriculture as the stories of some pioneering farmers have been told in the mainstream media. Australian Story featuring Charles Massy and his regenerative journey aired this week (available for viewing on ABC iView) and a documentary highlighting the importance of soils and regenerative agriculture “Kiss the Ground” was recently released on Netflix. Not only this, the Tony Coote Memorial Lecture was delivered by Alan Savory and is now online for those who missed it.
In addition, portraits of two Soils For Life case study farmers were entered into the Archibald prize this year: Sacha Pola’s portrait of Martin Royds titled “The Regenerator” and Lucy Culliton’s oil on canvas portrait of Charlie Maslin titled “Soils For Life”. Congratulations to Lucy (and Charlie!) for being selected as finalists.
A little removed from the media spotlight, the Hon. Penny Wensley was appointed as the new National Soil Advocate this month. She will continue the work done by the Hon Major General Michael Jeffery advocating for the health of Australia’s agricultural landscapes and soils.
On a different note, thank you to everyone who participated in our communications and engagement survey this month. You provided us with such valuable insights that will help us strengthen our work to keep regenerative agriculture in the spotlight well into the future.
Agroecology is a unique and valuable lens through which to view the landscape. Inspired by a deep commitment to landscapes and communities, Kirsty Yeates is a passionate agroecologist working towards widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture at Soils For Life. She bridges together research communities, government organisations, not-for-profits and the landholder to improve regenerative approaches and support people in transition.
What exactly is agroecology? Is it different from regenerative agriculture?
Agroecology for me is the ‘science’ behind regen ag. It’s about bringing ecological or systems thinking into agriculture. It’s about the science of complex, self-organising systems.
It’s about understanding how the natural ecosystems work and then thinking how we incorporate those natural processes and functions into a farming production system. It recognises that a farm system is a complex adaptive system. It has its own iterative processes that it responds to, as well as environment and climate.
Often it is not recognised that agroecology in regenerative agriculture draws quite heavily on ecological and environmental sciences. It’s about what we are and how we relate to the land and drawing on these perspectives to think much more holistically about the whole farm system.
What drew you to agroecology?
I have always been interested in our food systems and social structures. I come from a political social science background, but I was thinking much more about our food systems and our landscapes. I was very attracted to the Bachelor of Ecological Agriculture Systems at CSU.
The more I studied, the more I engaged with the regen ag community and farmers more broadly, and the more excited I got about the work that’s happening out there and the opportunity to work with this group of amazing people. I love the complexity that comes from farm systems and how you integrate more effectively natural ecosystem processes and functions. I think it’s a really exciting space and its one that’s got a lot of challenges into the future.
How does an agroecological farm system design work?
Agroecological farm system design is about trying to take a little bit more of a structured approach about how you do things within your farm system to improve ecological functions. It’s really about thinking in systems. Like how energy is captured and flows through the system; photosynthesis, organism growth or how nutrients cycle and water flows.
Then we consider how farmers support and work with those systems to enhance the beneficial relationships within it. Farmers already have so much knowledge about their landscape, so they’re really well placed to understand and think about what is happening. Agroecological farm design works with farmers to try and put in place some of those frameworks and structures, and design a system that works for them and helps to improve the condition and productivity of their system over time.
Where does soil fit into this system?
I think increasingly we are coming to recognise that plants push energy into the soil system. The more biodiverse range of organisms we have, the more opportunity there is to improve soil structure.
For me that incredible life within the soil has many benefits for increasing the resilience for systems around water, like increasing the amount of water that can be stored. The more nutrients and water available encourages growth which gives more energy to everyone. It is also important for carbon sequestration and co-benefits of fertility and health. We know a lot about these processes, but we could be better at quantifying these benefits.
You recently completed work out at Katalpa station. What did you see?
Soils For Life has quite a few case studies in the rangeland environment. The rangelands are a really surprisingly complex ecosystem and it’s a really important part of the agricultural industry. These are environments so remote the farmers have to be really resilient in working with these incredibly harsh but also beautiful landscape.
I visited with a NSW DPI team working on a project called Selecting for Carbon. This is a project about understanding how targeted approaches to grazing and water management can increase soil carbon and ground cover.
At Katalpa, Luke and Sarah Mashford are focused on rangelands rehydration . They combine both grazing management practices with this rehydration technique. It was an exciting opportunity to see these farms firsthand and see how the soil teams are sampling and designing their research to take into account what the farmers think are important. It’s also incredibly exciting to see that science coming together. We’ve got lots more planned for the Rangelands so we’ll be sharing more about that soon.
Do you think the paradigm of agricultural land management is shifting towards regenerative agriculture?
There is a lot more curiosity about regenerative systems at the moment, and I guess agroecology is just one approach to that. I am seeing lots of interest from the work I do with the research and extension community and I think people are wanting to know more about it. There is an opportunity to take a closer look and to understand how some of these processes work and to continue to improve the way that we are farming in this more ecologically-oriented approach.
At the end of the day, climate change and our broader economic system means that farming is a really difficult business, but also so fundamentally important. One of the really important things that regenerative agriculture offers is helping farmers to find a broader range of tools and options, and different ways of thinking about how to farm. The better the range of tools available, the more likely they are to be successful. And there are many farmers doing incredible work.
So there are more people around Australia that are trying these things, there is certainly more interest and demand. Is it a paradigm shift yet? I’d like to think so, I’m not sure its hard to see that until after the fact.
Finally, what advice would you give to a landholder just starting their Regenerative Agriculture journey? How do you interweave your knowledge of your own land with the other regenerative agriculture knowledge that’s out there?
1. Connect with other farmers. I think farmers just have this knack for talking to each other about what is going on in their systems and questioning and supporting one another. Connect with farmers that are doing things you’re interested in, and there are so many farmers in the regen ag community who are willing to engage and work with others.
2. Get to know your land. Farmers already have a great understanding of their land and a process of observation. That is, seeing how the land is changing over time (whether as a result of rain or drought, fire or flood), but also how it responds to what you do. That watching and observing can highlight patterns.
3. Start! Try something new, whether that’s adding an extra plant into your pasture species mix. If you’re not sure whether somethings worked, run a bit of a trial. If you’re changing practices and want to know how rests work, just exclude cattle from a small part of a paddock and see what happens.
Soils For Life is happy to welcome the Honourable Penelope Wensley AC to the role of National Soils Advocate. She will continue the work started by our founder and patron Major General Michael Jeffery after he stepped aside from this work due to illness.
Ms Wensley is a former Governor of Queensland and has been the patron of Soil Science Australia since 2010. She has achieved national and international recognition for her contribution to environmental policy development and for promoting environmental knowledge and awareness, including as State Governor for Queensland and Australia’s Ambassador for the Environment.
Her assumption of this role comes as the government is striving to develop a National Soils Strategy to conserve and improve Australia’s soils.
“I’m very much looking forward to taking up the challenge of the role to raise awareness of the critical role of soils, to promote sustainable land management and make a tangible difference to Australian agricultural landscape conditions,” Ms Wensley said at her recent appointment.
“As an independent voice for soil health I will be engaging with stakeholders, listening to a variety of views across Australia and contributing to the National Soils Strategy, which aims to set out the government’s priorities for conserving and improving Australia’s soils.”
Soils For Life looks forward to working with Ms Wensley as she does this.
There are many program available to you, so it’s important to choose the right program to suit you and your landscape. We have compiled a list of government, NGO and charity programs both nationally and at a state level to help you find the program you need. Click the tiles to learn more about the programs.
Why revegetation is important in agricultural landscapes
Without vegetation, life would be impossible. Vegetation plays a critical role in supporting life on the planet by providing habitat and food, producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. It also moves water from the soil to the atmosphere through the process of transpiration and ensures rainfall is absorbed into the soil where it falls.
Why think about revegetation?
Extensive clearing of vegetation to create cities and towns for human habitation (and agricultural land to feed them) occurs worldwide. This ultimately results in species extinctions. The effects of vegetation clearing are particularly evident in south-east Australia where it is estimated that only 5% of the ecological community of White Box-Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Woodland remains from its pre 1788 state. A decline in native fauna species, such as the Superb Parrot, is an example of the ramifications of a decrease in vegetation in this area. Significant erosion damage has also occurred in agricultural landscapes within Australia, partly due to vegetation clearing.
The importance of woody vegetation within the Australian landscape was recognised at a Government level in 1989 with the formation of Landcare Australia. With the assistance of Landcare, many Australian land owners undertook tree plantings on their properties. The image of a few lonely paddock trees, however, is still a common sight across much of south-east Australia.
This raises the question, ‘what happens when those trees die’? The species which are reliant on tree hollows only found within mature trees may disappear from the landscape. The ramifications of past land clearing will continue to be felt as long as inaction occurs today.
Revegetation in action
Fairhalt is a property that straddles the Great Dividing Range just south of Crookwell. Fairhalt is owned and managed by Garry Kadwell, a regenerative potato and lamb farmer who has featured as a Soils For Life case study. A major component of Garry Kadwell’s regenerative land management is his approach to native vegetation on Fairhalt. During his youth Garry was taught by his grandfather and father to value vegetation and grew up planting trees alongside them with an eye for the future. Over the years Garry has fenced off areas of remnant vegetation from livestock and allowed natural revegetation to occur unimpeded by livestock grazing. Garry has also planted habitat corridors across Fairhalt to link the areas of remnant vegetation and allow fauna to move through the landscape. Currently 30% of Fairhalt is covered in native vegetation reserved for conservation purposes.
Revegetation at Illawong
Bryan Ward has transformed his property Illawong, located in the hills north of Albury, from a highly deforested landscape into a mosaic landscape covered with patches of native vegetation. When Bryan was conducting the revegetation work on Illawong he specifically targeted problem areas of the property such as hill tops, eroded areas, gullies above dams and around lone paddock trees. By doing so, Bryan has repaired much of the past erosion damage and ensured minimal erosion can occur into the future.
Direct seeding methods were used to conduct revegetation work on the property. Bryan reserved specific conservation areas by fencing them off from livestock. He used a rock hopper machine to navigate the steep rocky country and spread seeds within them.
The benefits of revegetation
The benefits of the revegetation projects on Fairhalt and Illawong are not limited to the landscape. Garry Kadwell and Bryan Ward both gain an immense amount of satisfaction from the revegetation work that they have completed on their properties. The feeling that they are leaving the landscape in a better state than what they found it is a legacy which can be handed on to the next generation.
The benefits of conducting revegetation projects are not limited to environmental and social factors. On farm productivity can also be influenced by revegetation projects. Revegetation in the form of shelter belts for livestock have been found to halve lambing mortality rates in areas with cold, wet and windy weather conditions. In hot conditions, trees also provide shelter for livestock which can reduce stock losses caused by heat stress. (Heat stress has also been found to reduce fertility rates in cattle and sheep).
The first step of conducting a revegetation project is to map the property with enterprise and landscape features to identify suitable areas for vegetation. Following this, an appropriate method of revegetation must be selected. Regional organisations, such as Greening Australia, Landcare Australia and state government agencies such as Local Land Services NSW provide revegetation information including the correct species to plant and where to purchase seeds and seedlings. These organisations may also provide funding assistance. For example, the Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation project offered by Greening Australia pays land owners to conduct revegetation projects in degraded treeless paddocks.
Methods of revegetation
Methods utilised to conduct revegetation projects include
tube stock planting
Typically tube stock plantings are the most expensive followed by direct seeding and natural regeneration respectively. Seek expert local advice when deciding which method of revegetation to undertake.
Prior to direct seeding or tube stock planting the ground is often prepared by ripping along contour lines to create disturbance in the soil and a place for the seeds or seedlings to grow. Read about how this was done at Illawong. Tree guards are often used when planting tube stock to offer protection from grazing and the elements whilst the plant matures.
Natural regeneration is more likely to occur in areas which have been recently excluded from heavy livestock grazing and where mature plants are present in the landscape.
Thinking for the future
Revegetation is a process that requires time, patience and a forward-thinking mindset. Though its benefits may not be observed for many years, current generations must adopt this mindset and act to rectify the land clearing of the past.
Our five favourite books on regen ag- and how you can win them all!
Want to read up on regenerative agriculture? In recent years, so many excellent books by both Australian and international experts have been published across a broad range of topics. We have assembled our five favourites in a book pack as a prize for members of the Soils For Life community who fill out our communications and engagement survey.
This prize worth almost $150 and you can go into the draw to win this book by filling out the survey here. You’ll also help us on our mission to support Australian farmers on their journey towards regenerative agriculture.
Here are our five favourite books about regenerative agriculture
1. Call of the Reed Warbler, Charles Massey
Call of the Reed Warbler is considered a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the way forward for improved landscape management. Charles Massey uses his own experience transitioning from conventional farming practices to an innovative and regenerative farming approach, highlighting the power regen ag has in building healthy soil, people and communities. Call of the Reed Warbler is a powerful story of transformative change in agriculture which improves our landscapes and our society.
2. Dirt to Soil, Gabe Brown
Gabe Brown is a rancher from North Dakota who shifted to regenerative agriculture after a series of ruined crops and financial struggles. Through twenty years of innovation with a focus on improving soil biology, Brown was able to turn his degraded landscape into a healthy and profitable ecosystem. In Dirt to Soil, Brown recognises that the biggest challenge to implementing regenerative practices is a change in mindset.
“In this dangerous time, Gabe Brown’s book comes as a breath of fresh air, showing by example what any farmer who cares enough about the future can do by following sound ecological principles and using common sense and imagination.”-Allan Savory, President of the Savory Institute
3. For the Love of Soil, Nicole Masters
Nicole Masters is a renowned agroecologist and communicates her technical knowledge and comprehensive experiences in For the Love of Soil. Through case studies in Australasia and North America, Masters explores important principles and tools to help land managers shift their thinking and practices. Despite human and ecological challenges, Masters’ offers inspiration and hope for degraded landscapes by showcasing the power of mimicking natural systems and prioritising soil.
4. Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe
Dark Emu examines the unjust labelling of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as hunter gatherers, and instead provides compelling evidence of pre-colonial agricultural and land management systems. Pascoe is an influential indigenous historian and argues that Aboriginal people had sophisticated food production systems through sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing food. Pascoe’s Dark Emu is important in Australia’s regenerative agriculture literature as it demonstrates sustainable food production relationships throughout the whole history of this ancient land and holds valuable insights from times before European settlement.
5. Thinking in systems, Donella H. Meadows
In an increasingly complex world, Thinking in Systems is an insightful introduction into a systems approach. Meadows highlights that problems, whether personal or global, cannot be fixed in isolation because they exist in systems. Some of the world’s biggest challenges like war, poverty and landscape degradation are systemic failures, and through her writing Meadows provides conceptual tools and methods of system-thinking to provide positive and effective solutions. These tangible system-thinking skills are invaluable and critical when facing the complex issues involved in shifting to regenerative agriculture.
Wanting to get your hands on these amazing reads? Don’t forget to fill out the Soils For Life Survey! It takes less than five minutes of time, and your input will help us improve our support for Australian farmers on their journey towards regenerative agriculture.