A situation to avoid… Mike Stephens writes on Regenerative Agriculture. 

A situation to avoid.

Regenerative Agriculture

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. 

Drought

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 aforesaid aims.

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 quotes:

  • 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.
  • This supermarket 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 increasing costs.
  • 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 with…
A difference a fence makes.

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.

Mike Stephens

Consultant,

Meridian Agriculture

One Reply to “A situation to avoid… Mike Stephens writes on Regenerative Agriculture. ”

  1. Well said Mike. The sooner we all accept that each farmer farms for his or her own reasons the closer we are to ending the divisive debate. There are just too many terms being used that have become embedded in certain value positions- regenerative agriculture is one but so is evidence based decision making.

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