Agroecology and what it can do for you!
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.
Read more about the Soils For Life team and the work we do in our case study program.
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).
Productivity benefits of revegetation are not just relevant to livestock enterprises. Vegetation windbreaks have been found to improve crop productivity by up to 25%. However, if a crop is planted in close proximity to vegetation it will have a negative effect on the growth of the crop.
How to start the revegetation process
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
- direct seeding,
- tube stock planting
- natural regeneration.
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.
Find a revegetation program to suit your property using our state by state index.
The Soils For Life team provides professional assessment of properties that are using regenerative landscape management practices. Our case study program considers the quadruple bottom line of each property by looking at the effects of regenerative agriculture practices on a farm’s production, economics and ecology as well as the social implications of these practices.
As well as conducting extensive desktop research, our ecologists conduct field trips to assess first hand the impacts of regenerative agriculture on the ecology of the farm. They chose ten criteria to represent the regenerative and productive capacity of each major land type on a farm.
Here are the ten things that they are looking at when they visit a farm:
1 – Resilience to major natural disturbances
Resilience to major disturbances includes the following factors depending on the agro-climatic region (wildfire, drought, cyclone, dust storm, flood, frost). A major natural disaster or natural disturbance event can occur at any time. Some disturbances give a warning, such as a windstorm or electrical storm preceding a wildfire or a flood. Once a disaster happens, the time to prepare is gone. Lack of preparation can have enormous consequences on farm life including social, ecological, economics and production.
2 – Soil nutrients including soil carbon
Soil organic matter (SOM) plays a vital role in influencing available soil nutrients. Generally for every tonne of carbon in SOM 15 kg of phosphorus, 15 kg of sulphur and about 100 kilograms (kg) of nitrogen become available to plants as the organic matter is broken down. It is vital to know how much carbon we have in soil so that we can roughly estimate the potential supply of nutrients. SOM releases nutrients for plant growth, promotes the structure, biological and physical health of soil, and is a buffer against harmful substances.
3 – Soil surface water infiltration
Soil texture and structure greatly influence water infiltration, permeability and water-holding capacity. Of the water entering a soil profile, some will be stored within the root zone for plant use, some will evaporate, and some will drain away. In agro-ecological settings, by increasing water infiltration, permeability and water-holding capacity this will usually act as a stimulus to improve ecological function. Management regimes that promote the capture and utilisation of rainfall where it falls generally enhances ecological function.
4 – Biological activity in the soil
Soil biology affects plant and animal production by modifying the soil physical, chemical and biological environment within which plants grow and persist. The ratio of fungi to bacteria is important for land managers to understand – too many bacteria can indicate an unhealthy and unproductive soil.
In healthy soils, there is a good balance between fungi and bacteria; invertebrates including arthropods and worms are usually present. Collectively these form a vital part of a plant nutrient supply web.
5 – The physical properties of the soil
Soil is a medium for plant growth, given the right environmental conditions. In some agroclimatic regions, the naturally occurring surface layers (A horizon) have historically been adversely impacted by inappropriate land management regimes. Major and moderate loss of the A horizon either through water or wind erosion may have diminished the ecological function of the soil as a medium for optimal plant growth.
6 – Changes and trends in the reproductive potential of plants
Grazing production systems rely on an ecosystem’s inherent capacity to bounce back after grazing and natural climate events (e.g. wildfire and drought). Where regenerative land management regimes have been implemented to build or rebuild the reproductive potential of plants and pastures, we look at the observed outcomes on plant/pasture reproduction, germination, establishment, development and maintenance.
7 – The extent of tree cover
Tree cover in agricultural landscapes provides important ecosystem benefits, including mitigation of soil erosion; shelter for pastures and crops; improved animal welfare; enabling added revenue from stacked (multiple) enterprises; habitat and breeding sites for pollinators and predatory insects birds and animals; improved salinity management; improved interception of rainfall; and improved aquifer recharge.
8 – Status of ground cover
Ground cover in agricultural landscapes provides important ecosystem benefits. The quality of ground cover provides essential protection to keep the soil cool against direct, searing summer heat by reducing evaporation and protecting bare soil against raindrop splash and wind erosion. A dense, matted ground layer of pasture grasses slows overland flows during the intense rainfall events and assists with infiltration of rainfall, thus mitigating soil erosion and replenishing soil moisture. Ground cover also provides essential habitat and breeding sites for pollinators and insects and birds and other biodiversity. Land management regimes that promote higher levels of ground cover and biomass in critical growing seasons generally enhances ecological function.
9 – The diversity of tree and shrub species
Intensively managed agricultural landscapes typically adopt management regimes that simplify the diversity and number of species of trees and shrubs for pasture and crop production. Where regenerative land management regimes have been implemented there has been an observed increase in the number of tree and shrub species.
10 – The diversity of grass species
In many grazing production systems, the implementation of regenerative land management regimes can improve the variety of pasture plants (annuals and perennials). In turn this can improve pasture production, animal nutrition, protect natural resources (soil and water) and build the capacity of farming systems to adapt to future production and environmental challenges. The intensity of the grazing management system will determine the health and vitality of pastures and their longevity.
The management and selection of the perennial pasture species for a grazing production system should be based on considerations of climate, soil conditions and performance of pasture species under different management regimes.
Are you farming using regenerative agriculture practices? Why not consider applying to be a case study.
Katharine Brown recently joined the Soils For Life project team, bringing with her a wealth of knowledge and curiosity about soils. We asked her what she finds most fascinating about soil in this Q and A.
Q: What do you find so fascinating about soil?
A: There are an infinite number of fascinating facts about soil! If I were to choose one, it would be that “each soil has had its own history. Like a river, a mountain, a forest, or any natural thing, its present condition is due to the influences of many things and events of the past.” That’s a quote by soil scientist Dr Charles E. Kellogg from 1938. When you observe a soil, you gain an understanding of its past (how it formed), its present (how it functions), and its future (how it responds).
Q: You’ve been a soil scientist for 20 years now. What has been the most exciting thing/change you’ve seen in your career?
A: I am encouraged by the growing consensus on the significance of soils and the value of soil information. In particular, the recognition that soil is a finite natural resource and that soil condition will determine the extent society, the nation and the planet will benefit from ecosystem services. I am equally encouraged by the increase in the number of women soil scientists in what continues to be a male-dominated profession.
Q: What’s your new role with SFL and what will you be doing?
A: As a Soils For Life Project Team Member, I will be researching the benefits of regenerative agriculture on the soil, encouraging the adoption of land management practices to improve soil condition, sharing soil science knowledge with my colleagues, community and regenerative farmers, and increasing my understanding of regenerative agriculture practices.
Q: What’s one myth about soils you’d like to see busted?
A: That the “magic” happens in the topsoil. To understand the past, present, and future of a soil, we need to dig deeper!
Q: If you could change one thing about how people think about soil what would it be?
A: I would like to dispel two common thoughts:
1. That we can take from the soil without giving back.
2. That soil is dirt. Dirt is inert. Soil is alive.
Read more about the expertise on the Soils For Life team here.
By Julian Cribb FRSA FTSE
As the world reels under corona virus and the resulting economic meltdown, another crisis – far more serious – appears to be building: the potential collapse of global food supply chains.
For those who cry “We don’t want any more bad news”, the fact of the matter is we have landed in our present mess – climate, disease, extinction, pollution, WMD – because we steadfastly ignored previous warnings.
The first warning of a corona pandemic was issued in a scientific paper in 2007 and was blithely ignored for thirteen years. In it, the scientists explicitly stated “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the re-emergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored.” [i]
Similarly, in 1979, the World Meteorological Organisation warned “… the probability of a man-induced future global warming is much greater and increases with time. Soon after the turn of the century a level may possibly be reached that is exceeds all warm periods of the last 1000-2000 years.” [ii] And climate warnings have been coming thick and fast ever since, to scant avail.
Now we have a new warning from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, a cautious body if ever there was one, that states “We risk a looming food crisis unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system.” [iii]
Border closures, quarantines and market, supply chain and trade disruptions are listed as the chief reasons for concern. However, like many national governments, FAO insists “there is no need to panic” as world food production remains ample.
This, however, depends on fragile assumptions. It assumes that farmers and their families do not get sick. It assumes they will always be able to access the fuel, fertiliser, seed and other inputs they need when supply chains disintegrate. It assumes the truck drivers who transport food to the cities do not get sick, that markets, cool stores and food processing plants are not closed to protect their workers. That supermarkets continue to function, even when their shelves are stripped bare. All of which is starting to appear tenuous.
There is never a ‘need to panic’ as it does not help in resolving difficult situations. But there is definitely a need to take well-planned precautions – as we have failed to do in the cases of climate and corona virus.
The looming food crisis starts from three primary causes:
- The global ‘just-in-time’ industrial food and supermarket system is not fit for purpose in guaranteeing food security. It is all about money, and not about human safety or nutrition. Its links are fragile and any of them can break, precipitating chaos – especially in big cities.
- The agricultural system we know and love is becoming increasingly unreliable owing to climate change, catastrophic loss of soils worldwide, shortages of water and narrowing of its genetic base. Farmers are struggling with their own pandemics in the form of swine fever, army worms and locusts. This unreliability will become increasingly critical from the 2020s to the mid-century.
- The predatory world economic system now punishes farmers by paying them less and less for their produce, driving them off their farms and increasingly forcing those who remain to use unsustainable methods of food production. This is causing a worldwide loss of farmers and their skills and destruction of the agricultural resource base and ecosystem at a time of rising food instability.[iv]
The reason that a food crisis is far more serious than either the corona virus or its economic meltdown, is that the death toll is generally far larger. More than 200 million people have died in various famines over the last century and a half, and many of those famines led to civil wars, international wars and governmental collapses. That is why we need to pay attention now – before a new global food crisis arises. Not brush it aside, as so many inept world leaders have done with the virus.
The Spanish have a well-learned saying that “Lo que separa la civilización de la anarquía son solo siete comidas.” [v] The French and Russian Revolutions both arose out of famines. WWII arose partly out of Hitler’s desire to capture Soviet farmlands in order to avoid another WW1 famine in Germany. Many modern African wars are over food or the means to produce it. The Syrian civil war began with a climate-driven food crisis. Indeed, there is growing evidence that lack of food plays a catalytic role in around two thirds of contemporary armed conflicts. As US former president Jimmy Carter has observed “Hungry people are not peaceful people.” [vi]
Food failures bring down governments and cause states to fail. In 2012 a drought in Russia and the Ukraine forced them to cut grain supplies to Egypt and Libya – where governments promptly fell to popular revolutions. It was a strange echo of history: in the third century a combination of climate change and a pandemic caused a failure in grain supplies from North Africa, an economic crash and, ultimately, the end of the Roman Empire.
While there is ‘no need to panic’ over food, there is a very clear and urgent need for plans to forestall major shortages around the world. Yet, there is very little evidence that governments worldwide are preparing to head off a food crisis, other than to reassure their citizens, Trumplike, that there isn’t a problem. However, lack of trust by citizens in their governments has already prompted a global rush to stock up on staple foods which has ‘upended’ the vulnerable ‘just-in-time’ food delivery system in many countries.[vii]
Over four billion people now inhabit the world’s great cities – and not one of those cities can feed itself. Not even close. None of them are prepared for catastrophic failure in fragile modern food chains, on which they are totally reliant. It would appear almost nobody has even dreamed of such a thing. We are sleepwalking into something far larger and far more deadly than corona virus. The delicate web of modern civilization is fraying.
What is to be done? The short answers are:
- Introduce emergency urban food stocks
- Compulsory reduction of food waste at all points
- Prepare for WWII-style rationing if needed
- Pay farmers a fair return
- Increase school meals programs and food aid to the poor
- Encourage local food production and urban food gardens
- Develop a global emergency food aid network as a priority
- Reinvent food on a three-tier global model encompassing: regenerative farming, urban food production (and recycling), accelerated deep ocean aquaculture and algae culture.
There are few crises that cannot be avoided with careful forward planning, including the ten catastrophic risks now facing humanity as a whole. [viii]
It is time we, as a species, learned to think ahead better than we do, and not listen to those who cry “no more bad news, please”. They only lead us into further crisis.
*Julian Cribb is an Australian science author. His book Food or War describes what must be done to secure the world’s food supply.
[i] Cheung VCC et al., Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection. Clinical Microbiology Reviews Oct 2007, 20 (4) 660-694; DOI: 10.1128/CMR.00023-07
[ii] World Climate Conference 1979, http://wmconnolley.org.uk/sci/iceage/wcc-1979.html#flohn
[iv] These issues are extensively analysed in my recent book Food or War, Cambridge University Press, 2019. https://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/food-or-war
[v] Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart.
[vi] Carter J., First Step to Peace is Eradicating Hunger. International Herald Tribune, June 17, 1999.
[vii] Lee A, How the UK’s just-in-time delivery model crumbled under coronavirus. Wired, 30 March 2020.
[viii] Cribb JHJ, “Surviving the 21st Century”. Springer 2017. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-41270-2
An ecological report is produced for each case study in the Soils for Life program. To produce an ecological report the Soils for Life team follows a robust formula developed and tested by Richard Thackway, Honorary Associate Professor at The Australian National University and long-term member of the Soils for Life team.
Land managers typically keep production and financial records over time and have no written record of the regenerative management of their farm and outcomes of regenerative practices applied to their farm. Soils For Life ecological assessors use a handbook for preparing ecological reports. An assessment on “Pallerang”, a farm in the Mulloon Creek Catchment, is an example of the approach detailed in the handbook.
The ecological report quantifies what has happened ecologically on a farm over decades. A detailed ecological report consists of 20 to 30 pages.
The Soils for Life ecological assessor supports the land holder to develop a chronology of the production systems for the main land types their land. Production systems include time based paddock grazing, no-till cropping, minimum use and biodiversity protection, revegetation, controlling wildfire, controlling feral animals and weeds, and fencing water points and creek to exclude stock. The ecological assessor can liaise with the farmer remotely via telephone and email.
The land holder completes a graphic response to ten ecological assessment criteria which is the land holder’s interpretation of what has occurred ecologically on the property during their management.
The land manager provides reports, photographs and results of soil tests, and water and biodiversity surveys.
The chronology of production systems and the farmer’s graphic responses indicate the impacts of the land holder’s management decisions on the ecological health of the land.
Satellite imagery verifies the ecological transformation and health of the agricultural landscape. Ground cover and actively photosynthesising vegetation are analysed using satellite imagery. Ground cover on the property is compared to the surrounding district which provides an independent verification of the regenerative capacity of the land.
A three to five-page summary ecological report is produced by the Soils for Life team and included in the case study, promoted on the website and on the social media platforms.
Greg Hosking is an ecologist. Honorary Associate Professor Richard Thackway is a Research Scientist. Both Greg and Richard are members of the Soils for Life team.
In the October edition of Down To Earth, we published, “A clash of cultures: why are soil scientists given a bad rap by some regenerative agriculturists?” by Prof. Robert White.
Building bridges between stakeholders with different perspectives helps to advance regenerative agriculture practice. One way of addressing contested issues is to provide opportunities to share and respect different opinions and understandings.
A lively discussion in the Soils for Life Facebook Group followed the publication of Prof. White’s article. We welcome all thoughtful comments; we’ve attempted to do them justice selecting two constructive threads from the comments.
A homogenous group of soil scientists does not exist. Several readers referred to Nicole Masters and Christine Jones as two soil scientists who identify as both soil scientists and as regenerative agriculturalists. There are many examples where soil scientists participate in mainstream academia and collaborate with farmers who are implementing regenerative principles such as integrating crops and livestock, increasing biodiversity, and enriching soil carbon. Soils For Life is a member of the Soils CRC (Cooperative Research Centre), a program supporting such collaborations.
One major project within the Soils CRC is a collaboration between scientists and a group of ten leading regenerative farmers to design and implement a research project.
We’re looking forward to sharing the results of this innovative project.
Do these examples negate the “clash”? Probably not. They are helping to share knowledge and build a universal understanding.
The community of regenerative agriculturalists is equally as diverse as that of the soil scientists. There is no one view on whether it is necessary, or even appropriate, to use scientific data to prove the benefits of regenerative agriculture. On the one hand, those with a holistic emphasis on the physical, spiritual, and emotional elements of regenerative agriculture argue that reductionist approaches to science are unable to account for the systems perspective and do justice to the self- organising complex adaptive system. We may not yet have the tools to account for more holistic perspectives and the ecological basis of many regenerative practices. On the other hand, there are those who need proof to influence policymakers, neighbouring farmers, investors, and consumers. Both perspectives are valued and valid.
One thread of the discussion concerns the rate of soil formation. The comments in the Facebook discussion group illustrate how semantics can fuel the disconnect between soil scientists and regenerative agriculturalists. In this example, ‘soil formation’ is interpreted in two distinct ways and results in discord between some soil scientists and regenerative agriculturalists.
When referring to ‘regenerating topsoil,’ the rate of soil formation is orders of magnitude greater than if you are referring to ‘rock weathering into soil minerals.’ Identifying such distinctions can reduce conflict.
With a common focus on the role of carbon and soil biota in healthy soils, the overlap between the diverse soil science and regenerative agriculture communities is increasing. A variety of perspectives, be they grounded in science or lived experience, are useful when it comes to regenerating land. Respectful communication amongst all those with a stake in the future of our food and farming systems will enable progress in the quest for healthy soils, food, water and animals.
The Soils for Life comms team thanks all participants for your contribution to the Facebook discussion group. We encourage all stakeholders to stay engaged.
Biodiversity is a term used to refer to the amount of living organisms found in any given area. Higher numbers of living organisms (types and abundances) indicate a healthier landscape. But this can often be challenging to measure.
However, unlike most other living organisms, the richness (that is, different types of species) and abundance of bird species can be observed and measured by most people with some small degree of skill. Different birds occupy different habitats in different seasons and different times of the diurnal cycle. Birds are typically easy to observe with a pair of binoculars and a field guide to the local bird species. Birdwatchers with a high degree of skill or “twitchers” are often able to identify and count birds by their calls.
Birds are a practical indicator of biodiversity
In healthy landscapes, seed eater, foliage grazer, insectivore, nectivore, omnivore, and carnivore birds can represent the full range of trophic levels. Changes in land use and management affect shelter, food, and habitat resources available to birds. Collectively, these characteristics make birds an excellent practical indicator to monitor and report the health of biodiversity on the property.
Biodiversity plays a vital role in helping decision-makers to understand the ecological function, structure, and composition of ecosystems of land use types, including regenerative agriculture. Regenerative land managers often use birds as an indicator of ecosystem condition to assess the effects of land management practices on agricultural landscapes. Being able to observe changes in biodiversity, before and after adopting regenerative land management practices, can provide land managers with support and validation of whether what they are doing is working.
Bird surveys at Allendale
The Marsh family are leading figures in Australian regenerative agriculture. Since 2000 the family has supported ongoing bird surveys on their property near Boorowa NSW. Researchers from Greening Australia conducted the studies. Richard Thackway compiled and analysed the data. In 1980, 3% (20.6 ha) of the Marsh’s property was covered by native vegetation trees and shrubs. In 2012 that coverage had increased to 20% (82.4 ha) of the property. The progressive increases in the extent of trees and shrubs occurred because of the Marsh’s investment in revegetation on the property.
Greening Australia conducted the bird surveys at three sites, two located within revegetated areas and one location in a grazing paddock without revegetation. In 2000, an average of seven species of birds were observed in the revegetated places, and by 2017 this number had increased to 19 (Figure 1).
The increase in bird species observed on the Marsh’s property coincided with the expansion and development of the revegetated areas. As the revegetation aged, these areas provided resources for different bird species, including; shelter, habitat, nest sites and food. If these resources are not present in the landscape, selected species will not occur in an area, for example, the Superb Fairy Wren (Malurus cyaneus) requires a habitat of dense cover and low shrubs.
Birds at Illawong
Bryan Ward is a Soils For Life case-study land manager. Bryan utilises birds as an indicator of biodiversity and landscape health. Investing in direct-drill seeding of native plant trees and shrubs species across much of his property resulted in improved habitat and resources for birds on his farm near Albury, NSW. Local ecologist Ian Davidson conducted a survey of birds in 2018. Ian found that the number of bird species on Illawong greatly exceeded the numbers found on nearby properties. Neighbouring farms had not invested in revegetation activities.
Both the Marsh family and Bryan Ward manage their rural properties primarily for beef cattle production. The improvements in biodiversity observed on the Marsh and Ward properties are the results of their regenerative landscape management activities in an agricultural setting. By improving the extent and condition of native vegetation, both land managers improved the health of their landscapes.
Both landholders have gained significant personal satisfaction by improving the biodiversity on their farms. Land managers who enable and promote enhancements in biodiversity can receive multiple benefits:
- Enabling researchers to conduct standardised bird surveys in space and time on their properties can lead to a sense of achievement for land managers.
- The aesthetics of a visually appealing landscape are a boon to farm managers and visitors alike.
- Farming families can enjoy the seasonal and annual cycles that result from enhancing the local biodiversity.
Biodiversity also brings improved social health and wellbeing and contributes to the health of the local and regional landscapes.
Greg Hosking is an ecologist. Honorary Associate Professor Richard Thackway is a Research Scientist. Both Greg and Richard are members of the Soils for Life team.
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.
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.
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.
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.