10 years ago I had a newborn who I pushed around the farm everyday come rain or shine. As I walked I observed the edges and corners of the paddocks that the tractors couldn’t quite get at. These small margins had been left to their own devices over the years to go wild. When the paddocks were used for grazing I noticed that the animals happily munched away at these fringe areas anyway. As my days were spent at home with a baby I had plenty of time to ponder all these musings and pepper my husband with incessant questions.
I observed the farmers around me constantly ‘working’ at the land. Every time something was being done I drove my husband potty trying to get my head around what it was they were doing, why and how much it was costing them. It seemed to me that no sooner had something been grazed/harvested, it was sprayed out and then drilled with something else which then needed fertilising and possibly a treatment of a fungicide or herbicide. If it was cut for hay another application of fertiliser was required to “replace all the nutrients that had been taken away”
I’d often thought as I watched out the window, that it was almost as if the soil was being treated like a dead sponge. An inert medium which ‘holds’ stuff. You choose the seed and shove it in and then an “expert” would tell you what nutrients that seed needed to grow which you’d liberally apply. It just didn’t feel right to me.
At the time my husband was working for a large national fertiliser company (which shall remain nameless).
“How much would that cost?” I’d ask. “Probably about 10k” he’d say
”Where does it come from?” “Overseas somewhere”
“What does it do?” “Makes the grass grow”
“How?” “Gives it nutrients”
“How does the farmer know what to put on?” “Fertiliser rep tells him”
“Who does the rep work for?” “Fertiliser company”
The more I asked, the more questions I had, the answers being handed back felt like stock standard responses and did nothing to quell my insatiable need for understanding.
“This is just how it’s done” is something I’ve come up against again and again in farming and when someone pushes back and asks why (a lot)….it’s quickly shut down.
My mind was (still is) boggled with the costs involved. Fert/spray/seed bills on farms can easily run into $400-$500k annually.
I would keep coming back to my little patches in the corner of the paddocks, where sometimes I could count over 8 species even with my untrained eyes.
“But the animals eat this, what’s the point of doing all that work and spending all that money if what grows on its own feeds them anyway?” “Higher yields and production, they get fatter quicker”
“But they only have to get fatter quicker because all that cash has been spent up front. If you didn’t spend that money and let them eat what came up on its own, surely your profit margin would be higher even if your production wasn’t quite as high?” I felt there was a real chicken/egg situation going on here…….
He would just look at me bemused, I was so wet behind the ears, I just didn’t understand how farming worked.
A few years later when we were looking for an organic advisor for a small project, we called in a soil scientist to talk us through our options. The wonderful Frank Van Steensel arrived and spent a few hours talking us through basic soil health and how we can actually work alongside nature to grow food.
Frank explained that the soil is home to millions of biological organisms which all work in symbiosis with each other and the roots of the plants. The more we spray, drill and fertilise (chemically) the more we inhibit the soil’s natural ability to grow and sustain itself. In a nutshell the soil has the capacity to be self sufficient and knows what it needs and when. Who’d have thought eh?…Mother nature knowing better than us!
Frank calls this eco dynamics. I was blown away. It was a lightbulb moment for me and I had an immediate connection to what he was saying on a really visceral level. It was where I was heading with my thinking….without any actual knowledge.
I was then privileged enough to do a course with Frank which introduced me to the basics of soil science (very basic, there’s only so much my brain can hold at any one time) which started to give me an understanding of what’s going on under the ground and enabled me to observe a lot of things on and off our property with a bit more insight.
So what’s the difference between Organic and eco dynamic or regenerative
There is a huge difference. Organic is using natural (organically certified) Fungicides, Pesticides and Herbicides, essentially farming conventionally but with natural products.
Regenerative uses very little to none of these. Creating a system that supports the naturally occurring biodiversity within nature and trusting these eco systems to prevent unwanted outbreaks and to supply the nutrients the soil needs to thrive. (I will go into this in a bit more detail another time)
It’s working with nature instead of battling against it, trying to control it and bend it to your will. Matriarchal farming instead of Patriarchal farming if you like 🙂
It’s a much more wild and untamed approach to growing which resonated deeply with me (being of the wild and untamable variety myself)
My three regenerative take homes
It’s not a one size fits all
The farmer creates their own system that works for them and is relevant to their land, climate and life. Yes, having time for your family is a huge part. The traditional farming model, for many, has turned into an exhausting battle of constantly “fighting fires” with reps recommending chemical after chemical to deal with disease, pest and yield problems. Many are finding that contrary to advice they have to apply more to maintain not increase yield.
Regenerative farming puts the power back into the hands of the farmer, equipping her with the knowledge she needs to understand how the ground works on her patch of dirt.
Profit not Productivity is the benchmark
Farming can be a bit of a dick comparing competition. Who’s got the fattest cattle, who’s got the tidiest crop, who’s got the biggest yield, who can get there the quickest. When it comes to the debt that sloshing around they then go very quiet.
Farmers that have made the switch have repeatedly found that while yields can reduce and the farm look messier, their profit margin increases as the cost of inputs has dropped.
The soil doesn’t grow the grass the grass grows the soil
Just digest that for a minute. I love this so much as it just turns everything on its head.
There has been an obsession with what things look like above the ground with little to no understanding of what’s going on underneath.
More roots in the ground, going deeper is replenishing the organic matter we have lost.
What’s Not to like?
Seems like a no brainer right? Less inputs, more biodiversity, better animal health, better environmental outcomes, less stress, more family time and most importantly more profit for the farmer. So what’s not to like?
“Regenerative” a dirty word
People have been asking me what I thought of the recent controversial episode of country calendar on Lake Hawea Station. I still haven’t seen it (I know what kind of a farmer doesn’t watch country calendar?!) But I have been following the station for a while, as they are, in my opinion, complete farming rockstars.
I’m not at all surprised by the backlash. While not anywhere near their league, I have experienced first hand and with remarkable regularity the venom and furry that is unleashed when the trigger word “regenerative” is spoken in certain circles.
When I asked Frank what difficulties we might encounter shifting to regenerative practices, he said without hesitation “other people’s opinions”. I shrugged this off and though if that’s the worst thing we’re up against this is going to be easy. How wrong I was. I have been verbally attacked, ridiculed, belittled and very quickly cut down to size. My naive enthusiasm completely knocked out of me.
Some traditional farmers are not just disinterested in regenerative agriculture, it incenses them to boiling point and gets their knickers in a right old knot. For some reason they see it as an affront to everything they hold dear.
Fear not, there are a growing number of farmers who are beginning to build regenerative practices into their farms for a variety of reasons. But interestingly when talking about what they are doing to others, I have noticed they are very careful with the words they choose so as not to trigger anyone.
The biggest thing I have had to overcome in getting a Complete Cow off the ground has been my confidence. My approach in life has always been not to be afraid to make mistakes, it’s how I do my best learning. However, for the last few years I have found myself paralysed; second guessing everything and terrified to make a mistake for fear of being persecuted. I have slowly crept back out of my shell by making connections with other farmers who are at different stages of their regenerative journey and by realising there are other people (like Lake Hawea Station) already successfully doing what I want to do. I am neither mad nor alone.
The loudest voices are often the angriest, but I assure you there is a very quiet growing movement of farmers who are not necessarily “greenies” but sound business people moving away from chemical reliance and working towards supporting the biology in their soil, reversing the damage that’s been done. I feel very privileged to know some of them and they have given me hope that change is afoot. It just might be quietly slipping in the back door.