Located around the Eastern Riverina in NSW, the ‘8 families’ group first formed in 2008 after they attended the same Holistic Management course and became friends. They decided that they wanted to turn their friendship group into something much more.

Over the last decade, the 8 families have become a strong community of practice for regenerative farming, and continue to help each other make major changes in how they manage their landscapes, do business and build a thriving community. They’ve developed a high level of trust and communication, strong peer to peer learning, and importantly a network that is encouraging yet able to help each other be accountable to their holistic visions. Many of them have sought to share with and mentor others, and their impact now reaches far beyond the group. Looking forward, they are excited to see the 2nd generation of 8 families stepping into a much healthier and profitable landscape.

Their story demonstrates what is possible when regenerative farmers sharing the same landscape come together to support one another.

The story of the 8 families group

Use the interactive timeline below to find out more about how the group came together and stayed together through four phases: farming as individuals, forming the group, working together as a group, and future aspirations.

Farming Individually

Seeking a different way

Before coming together, many members of the ‘8 families’ felt a deep sense of ‘belonging to the land’ and a ‘sense of responsibility’ for the future of the landscape, livestock and families. Influenced by leaders such as Allan Savory, Peter Andrews, Stan Parsons, and Terry McCosker, the group is committed to leaving a positive legacy and felt inspired by the idea that agriculture had the potential to make a positive impact on the world. 

Before joining the group, one farmer, coming from an engineering background, described his worldview as mechanistic. He focused on controlling processes on his land, until he realised that he was ‘on a treadmill’ of constant work in order to do this. Another group member described his paddocks as “blowing away”, and having no time for thinking through decisions or enjoying time with his family. For others, the failure of their high input/ output family farm during the drought and subsequent land degradation and increasing debt drove them to look for other ways of farming. All families wanted to avoid the worst impacts of drought: including soil loss, water shortage and the financial burden of buying feed to keep animals alive. 

For all of these reasons, each of the families were seeking an alternative framework to conventional farming, leading them to enrol in Holistic Management (HM) courses. 

Forming a Group

Shared commitment and accountability

In 2008, many of the future members of ‘8 families’ enrolled in the same Holistic Management course or shared a mentor in the convenor and educator Bruce Ward from the 1990’s

Part of the Holistic Management training involves creating a Holistic Context – a guide for families and businesses which defines their social, environmental and economic purpose, vision and aspirations, looking many years ahead. 

The Holistic Management training also emphasised the  importance of peer support in realise the visions: ‘If you want to succeed in doing this, you need support’. As one of the members of 8 families now reflects, ‘Holistic Management is predicated on being part of a group – the broader ecological improvements will only work if the social connections are there as well’.

Peer support is a vital ingredient for the 8 families. In rural communities there can be a sense of isolation, and support groups create a ‘safe space’ of like-minded individuals to work through challenges and ideas. Some members had been part of peer support groups in the past, and found that a key ingredient for success is shared commitment with people in the same geographic area. 

As the group developed, they began to want a greater level of accountability from each other. So, after a number of property visits and a Holistic Management conference and workshop, six of the families met at a local café in Holbrook and committed to starting a more formal peer support group. Three families, eager to connect with other Holistic Management operators, joined the group in the following year. 

After a few years a project was developed to research a shared marketing plan for beef. To begin, a Holistic Context was developed with a shared vision, to complement their individual Holistic Contexts. Trials were undertaken, from processing animals through to packaged beef. The pitfalls of paddock to plate and the scale cost involved resulted in the project not processing past this stage, but the process proved invaluable and laid the foundations for the group going forward.

While there was huge value in their business-focussed meetings, the group never forgot to socialise. The annual Christmas party – the best party of the year – came to be a major event of importance to the group, where partners and extended families join. They try not to talk about grass or the weather, but just have a lot of fun!

Working Together

What sets the 8 Families apart is that it is both a community of practice and a community of place. Having like-minded people close by makes many more interactions possible. The longevity of the group has meant that as trust has grown, their interactions have evolved from increased from mutual moral support, to include intentionally creating learning experiences and sharing of resources.

A brains trust for decision making

One thing that sets the 8 families apart is that it is both a community of practice and a community of place. Having like-minded people close by makes more interactions possible. The longevity of the group has created trust in all interactions. This includes providing moral support, consulting one another on decision making, intentionally creating learning experiences, and now sharing of resources (including grass).

At the outset, meetings were mainly for mutual support. The families are deeply appreciative of the safe environment of group meetings and constructive conversations. Regular 6 weekly catch-ups mean a shared understanding of where each family and business is at. There are shared experiences and values, respect for others’ opinions and journey, and a feeling of freedom to talk about anything – personal, business, family, national, global.

Encouragement from the group was important for all members in making key decisions. The group helps members to have the courage and self-belief to follow their convictions in the face of scepticism and local traditions and even opposition from family or neighbours. Several made really big decisions informed by group discussions, such as selling breeding stock and buying or selling properties. Group support was also instrumental when trying new practices that may initially have failed. Being ostracised locally for unusual practices is a common experience, and connections with like-minded people are very helpful in persisting with a desire to be innovative ecologically.

By working in a group, the families have access to a ‘brains trust’ of like-minded people with a shared decision-making framework with different perspectives and experiences. All 8 families members value and trust the information from the group conversations and field visits. They collectively assess and comment on a member’s management at the on farm visits. On the farm visits the group view and support grazing planning, projects and grass monitoring. Together, they learn new approaches and troubleshoot designs and decisions around starting new enterprises.

Evolving and adapting

The tight knit nature of the 8 families helps them to quickly notice potential concerns. One group member was concerned when the time spent socialising began to creep up and sessions were having limited actual value. They addressed this by setting a clear agenda and introduced the idea of a 2 minute quick sharing at the beginning of a meeting, affectionately known in the group as having a WIFLE (What I Feel Like Expressing) not a waffle. Another concern was the limited relevance of discussions of cattle grazing for those farmers focused on eggs. The group agreed that meetings have to be meaningful, relevant, structured and revised regularly, and that anyone should feel free to speak up when a meeting isn’t relevant.

The families collaboratively developed a six-weekly roster of meeting hosts. Each host sets the agenda for that meeting in consultation with the group. The agenda ensures the meetings are relevant to their visions. A series of shared decision-making frameworks are also used to ensure relevance and practicality in meetings (Monitor, 7 test, Feed Anlayse DSE/ Animal) (Hm Learning Model decision-Making) including 7 testing questions (Grazingmgt, decision making, a planned future, Rest (landscape, people and soil/plants), Increased ground cover, change in plant species).

The 8 families invites guest experts, such as HM educator, Brian Wehlberg, to help them refresh as a group, and sharpen their focus.

Apart from guest speakers, the 8 families organise annual field trips across Australia and to the US to continue exploring new ideas and approaches. Every year, they try to do a trip together to visit a new place. These trips are not all about work and learning, but the group enjoys the new experience, interactions and companionships of these trips. 

Many of the trips led to ‘lightbulb moments’ for the group. The field trips and guest speakers introduced the group to a wide range of different techniques such as Natural Sequence Farming, RCS, Provenir on farm meat processing, Holistic Mobbing Moving, compost and biodynamics. The group took an adaptive management approach to trialling the new ideas and found that many fit well in the Holistic Context. To the 8 families, Holistic Management is the philosophy, not the method of farming, but a way of thinking and deciding that is not prescriptive. 

The group’s interactions have developed into increased collective marketing of produce and sharing of resources. The group is now sharing resources such as contractors, bulls, agistment, and machinery. Neighbouring members of the group are actively considering combining herds to collectively farm and others are considering creating products together.

Reaping the rewards

Over the past decade, the 8 families have seen a lot of changes within members’ businesses. Their shared journey has seen an improvement in profitability, animal health, and the environment. Members of the 8 families noted improvements in their social wellbeing, including improved sense of achievement, feeling part of a community and life satisfaction, over the last decade. 

The 8 families farmers have also seen evidence of regeneration of their landscapes (read Soils for Life’s analysis). Across the farms, there have been observed improvements through the rebuilding of soils, improved soil sponginess, decrease in damaging runoff and increase in clear water runoff, reduced gully erosion, more worms, and progressive increase in ground cover. Analysis of groundcover also suggests that group properties were generally performing better than 5km areas around them. Their next goal as a group is to find ways to develop rigorous soil testing to compare with their own observations.

There has been a change of mindset towards agriculture  amongst group members. Acting as long-term stewards, rather than extractive owners, they take responsibility for the landscape, livestock and family legacies while at the same time ‘let nature take control’. As one member said, ‘once you understand the complexity you are embedded in, you lose the arrogance and stop trying to push and pull’. Part of HM training is to assume you are wrong, to counteract the theory you plan, monitor, replan, and trust in the process. These actions and decisions are considered in terms of likely impacts over lengthy periods of 20, 50 or up to 100 years, beyond the current management cycle.  The group believes that it is this change of attitude  and their strong friendship has led to the ecological, economic and social improvements.

I never go to a meeting without an ‘Aha!’ moment – 8 families member

Looking Forward

Beyond the boundary fence, advocating for change and supporting others

The group now comprises nine families with a range of products and enterprises – including beef, lamb, stud cattle, eggs, agistment, training and agri-tourism – all taking a ‘regenerative’ management approach that aims to restore soil and landscape function.  The 8+ families are excited to see the effects of their actions over the coming years. 

To quantify and gain value from the changes they’ve made and continue to make, the group is looking at how they can collaborate to provide evidence of their collective environmental stewardship, ‘beyond the boundary fence’. This sort of cross-property planning is relatively rare but has the potential to create landscape-scale improvement in connectivity of the type needed to address species loss in production landscapes. They are investigating ways to be rewarded for the improvements they’ve seen and expect to see in the future, including for soil carbon, organic matter and biodiversity, and want to what they learn to help other producers make the most of land stewardship programs and opportunities. 

As a collective, they recognise their voice is bigger, and they would like to use their collective voice to change things for the better, for example by advocating for incentive schemes to recognise the benefits of holistic stewardship. A holistic approach which seeks to concurrently improve biodiversity, soil carbon, ecological health, wealth and personal development can be hard to fit within the more siloed context of current government incentives. The 8 families are ‘all interested in the future of land stewardship and how this will add another enterprise to our business now and into the future’.

To support progress and change, the group, with the help of Soils For Life, recently ran a collective workshop exploring how to access rebates and rewards for more holistic approaches. Group members agreed that they want to encourage premiums for produce of provenance that has been produced regeneratively. 

The group believes that ‘the pendulum is swinging’ on regenerative agriculture. Previously, the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ was ‘almost a swear word’, but now it is a subject that can be discussed at the pub. The 8 families find that people who once would not be interested in visiting properties and field days and talking about regenerative agriculture are seeking them out to find out more. The group will also continue to support other people to get involved in regenerative agriculture, including through Local Land Services, Farm Owners Academy, Earth Canvas, Landcare, RCS and others.

This project is supported by the Department of Water, Agriculture and the Environment, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.
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