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.
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.
The Parliamentary Friends of Soil group launching in the new year will be a bi-partisan forum for parliamentarians to interact with farmers, scientists, industry groups and policy makers on issues relating to health and maintenance of Australia’s soils.
the Soils For Life newsletter – my first as the new CEO. I am very excited to
have the opportunity to lead Soils For Life and focus on the important work of
supporting farmers in their journey along the various pathways which lead to regenerative
joined the organisation at both a challenging and an exciting time. On one
hand, COVID-19 is still creating massive challenges globally and many
Australians continue to deal with the consequences of drought, fire and now
floods. On the other hand, these crises are fueling the growing awareness of,
and appetite for, regenerative approaches, not just in agriculture, but in many
other fields of resource-based activity where building resilience is crucial.
In light of
this, we (at Soils For Life) are reflecting on our history, evaluating our
impact and thinking hard about our future priorities and strategy, to ensure we
leverage opportunities to deliver on our mandate.
welcome your support and input to this process. There are a number of ways in
which we will invite your input. As a first step, I invite you to participate
in our stakeholder engagement strategy. This is the first of a number of
initiatives we are undertaking to better understand needs and opportunities
from your perspective as our stakeholders. We also welcome your feedback through the feedback form on our website.
Our talented and enthusiastic team are continuing their work on the Soils For Life regenerative agriculture case studies, and at the same time reviewing our approach and refining the ways in which we make this information available to you. We’ve recently conducted training for the team to strengthen the way soils are represented in our case studies. The team are also continuing to work on a suite of information resources around regenerative agriculture topics. This month we’ve published some lessons from our case studies around how to grow soil organic matter.
Again, your feedback is welcome and we look forward to hearing from you.
Strengthening our case studies with soil assessment training
In order to strengthen the quality of the information around soils in our case studies, the Soils For Life team undertook soil assessment training in July, led by our soil scientist Dr Katharine Brown . Katharine is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist (CPSS) with experience in soil survey, land evaluation and land rehabilitation in the ACT, NSW, QLD and WA. Katharine believes that a knowledge of soils and landscapes is fundamental to managing the land within its capability.
The focus for the day was the description of basic soil properties and the procedure Soils For Life will follow as part of its case studies. The members of the Soils For Life team got their hands dirty by taking soil cores and displaying the soil profile for observation. The team discussed the soil horizons and boundaries, the presence of segregations and coarse fragments, soil colour and mottling, soil pH, soil texture and structure, and aggregate stability.
By recording soil information and sampling soils for laboratory analysis of soil physical, chemical and biological properties as part of its case studies, Soils For Life will be able to determine changes in soil properties over time. In addition, Soils For Life will be able to compare the characteristics of the case study soils with similar soils in the region, including soils under different management regimes.
Soils For Life takes an integrated approach to our case studies in regenerative agriculture. Read more about how we bring them together.
This month our scientists have spent time out on regenerative properties in New South Wales and Queensland. In the coming months we will develop these into new case studies. In these new case studies, we will introduce soil testing to our assessments and expect these to add further strength to our comprehensive case study reports. This month we reintroduce you to Rothesay and highlight some exciting work that is occurring in the area.
This week we
held the first of three Australia-China Soil Organic Carbon Measurement
webinars. This is a collaborative
webinar program with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences focused on
the importance of organic carbon for healthy soils and methodologies and
technologies for measuring soil organic carbon across agricultural landscapes. This
webinar program brings together leading Australian and Chinese soil scientists
and associated experts in remote sensing technologies and big data to exchange
knowledge and discuss potential scientific collaboration. We will share
the recordings of these webinars as they become available. If you are
interested in participating in these webinars please register your interest via
Our friends across regen ag have been busy producing some great quality podcasts and webinars, we have collated them for you here. We are also pleased to link you to some important work by the Academy of Science on Soil condition after bushfires, this is part of a series which will also look at wildlife recovery, ecosystems and human health.
would like to welcome Liz Clarke our new CEO on board. Liz starts in August but is already
building relationships with a range of Soils For Life stakeholders.
Soils For Life is delighted to announce the appointment of Dr Elizabeth (Liz) Clarke as our new CEO .
Liz will bring with her considerable skills in leadership and management of projects in Australia and internationally, as well as previous experience in multiple roles as a researcher, educator, policy advisor and mentor. Liz currently holds visiting fellowships at ANU’s Fenner School of Environment and Society and the Institute for Land, Water and Society at CSU as well as being an independent consultant. She also holds a PhD in Human Ecology.
“Liz has wide experience in many different parts of the world,” says Chair of the Soils For Life Board, Alasdair Macleod. “Her strong academic record and her recent experience in project and program management for the Australian government, as well as internationally, make her a great person to lead Soils For Life into our next phase.”
Growing up in a farming family, Liz is a passionate advocate for regenerative agriculture. “I am driven by a deep desire to bring about meaningful change for people, food production systems, and landscapes,” she says. “I have a passionate interest and personal commitment to regenerative agriculture, combined with a lifetime of involvement in various aspects of agriculture, sustainability, and natural resource management.”
Based in Canberra, Liz will start with Soils For Life at the beginning of August. “I’m very excited to be taking on this new and exciting challenge in this important field,” she says.
Message from Alasdair Macleod, Chair of the Soils For Life Board
As Narelle mentioned in her newsletter last month, the Soils For Life team has been busy during lockdown. Of course, it has not been possible to carry out any fieldwork, but that has not stopped the team from working on a number of different fronts.
Firstly, there has been a good deal of ‘back office’ work to bring the operations of Soils For Life up to the standard required to support our activities going forward. This has included the appointment of new management accountants who have already demonstrated their worth by quickly getting on top of the finances.
Secondly, Soils For Life has secured operational funding for the next four years from the Macdoch Foundation. This support will enable the team to continue the case study work , but also look to branch out into other activities in due course.
Thirdly, applications for the vacant role of CEO have been pouring in! I am pleased to say that we have received applications from a wide range of high quality candidates. A sub-committee of the board comprising myself, Charlie Maslin and Eve Crestani will be working through the candidates over the next few weeks and we hope to make an appointment before the end of July.
Lastly, it is clear that interest in regenerative agriculture continues to grow strongly and Soils For Life will be riding this wave of interest in a number of different ways. Of course, the programme of case studies will continue and, now that lockdown is coming to an end, the team will be keen to get back into the field. There is also work being done on an application for project funding to the Commonwealth Government’s Future Drought Fund. This is an excellent initiative, being administered by the Department of Agriculture, which will support activities that build drought resilience. For what is regenerative agriculture about if it is not about drought resilience? We feel that Soils For Life and the consortium of parties that are being assembled alongside us, will deliver a strong proposal which I hope we will be able to tell you more about in due course.
In summary, a great deal has been achieved to strengthen the organisation and equip it to provide even more support to those farmers who are considering some changes to their management practices. In fact this month’s newsletter is full of resources and information from the Soils For Life team including a catch up with Rhonda and Bill Daly around the recent performance of their case study property Milgadara as well as education resources around bird surveying and water management strategies. We are also sharing our submission to the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act review.
Alasdair Macleod, Chair of the Soils For Life Board