To quote from the article reposted below:
Agriculture is said to be one of the single biggest contributors to the destruction of the environment and rising CO2 emissions,” so as regenerative or restorative agriculture, “it is the single most powerful thing we can change to mitigate climate change.
Soil biology is this perfect little symbiotic relationship, that we can embrace and work with, or we can come in and cultivate, spray herbicides and disrupt that system and that cycle.
We bought a farm to have more family time. We’re risking it all to join a natural farming revolution
My partner and I, two young farmers, learned we could rehabilitate the natural environment by the way we farm.
But the stakes were high — making the switch from conventional to conservation farming could send us broke.
So we set out to meet a network of regenerative farmers who are working with nature to eliminate the use of chemicals, revegetate their land, reduce carbon emissions and encourage the return of native plant and animal species.
The lure of a new approach
Our property, on the outskirts of Narrabri in north-west New South Wales, is about 130 acres of mostly farmed-up country.
There are very few trees but we have beautiful black soil and a stunning view of the mountain range to our east.
We bought it because we want to spend our days outside and together as a family.
We got the dairy cows from Ralph and Jo Waters, a hobby farming couple in Bingara, about an hour away.
They are completely self-sufficient, off the grid and chemical free, and have been farming in a more natural way.
They have transformed an old clay tennis court into a food forest by planting successive crops of faba beans.
They use their chooks to naturally fertilise their garden beds and sow native grass seeds into pasture to improve diversity.
We’d never heard anything like it. Not worming seemed irresponsible, and we thought they were a bit whacky.
But they also handed us a book on natural farming, and it got us thinking: could we implement these techniques on our own farm?
Considering we’re in the grip of one of the worst droughts on record, it may not seem like a such a bright idea to go out on a limb, but we figured it had to start raining again at some point.
And we found the idea of revegetating the landscape, eliminating chemical use and working with nature to produce healthy food really appealing.
We knew we had to try.
A dramatic transformation
Our first stop was Colin Seis, a farmer near Gulgong in Central West NSW who has come up with an innovative way of growing crops called pasture cropping.
Normally farmers plant into a pretty bare paddock, but Colin plants a crop directly into existing pasture. This means he doesn’t have to spray out or plough out the previous crop.
(Supplied: Virginia Tapscott)
I was surprised to learn his initial motivation to start pasture cropping was purely financial.
“We had a major bushfire in 1979 which destroyed everything,” Colin explained.
“We lost most of our sheep, 3,000 sheep out of 4,000, all the buildings, houses, fencing.
“So I had to develop a form of agriculture where I didn’t spend any money at all really, because we couldn’t afford anything.”
Overnight he stopped fertilizing, and stopped resowing introduced pasture species.
He used his sheep to mulch and fertilize a paddock prior to planting a cereal crop for harvest, and then let that crop return to native pastures for the summer, to repeat the process the following year.
Keeping the soil permanently covered with plant matter and using animals to naturally fertilize the paddocks allowed Colin to largely eliminate chemical use.
It led to a dramatic transformation on Colin’s property over the next 20 years — native grass varieties flourished, and so did the diversity.
He now has predatory insects in large enough populations that they actually control the insects that can cause crop damage, so he no longer has to spray pesticides.
“By restoring the grasslands the whole soil ecosystem has changed,” Colin said.
Colin has also tripled the amount of carbon stored in his soil, which means he increased the soil’s ability to sequester carbon dioxide in the air as well as its ability to absorb water.
This increased his resilience to drought.
“If we mimic Mother Nature, it can’t not work,” Colin said.
“It’s worked for millions of years. All we need to do is mimic that a lot closer.”
The roly poly theory
Next we visited the property of Derek and Kirrily Blomfield, who won the prestigious NSW Farmer of the Year award in 2014.
They’ve returned all their farming country — 2,500 acres on the black soil Liverpool Plains — to grazing and completely eliminated chemicals.
In a good year they run around 200 head of cows and calves to produce grass-fed beef, which they sell directly to the public.
They move their cattle around the property in a way that mimics how herd animals naturally move on grasslands, intensively grazing an area for a short period and then moving on.
I was surprised to learn about Derek’s approach to roly poly, a large prickly weed also known as tumbleweed.
He isn’t spraying it or ploughing it out because he’s found it actually helps revegetate his paddocks.
“Wherever there was roly poly plant, in underneath it, the rye grass was thick and green and ended up growing up through the roly poly,” Derek explained.
“And everywhere out in the spaces where the roly poly wasn’t, the rye grass was not half the plant.
“It just really showed us the importance of plants helping plants.”
Back home I checked his roly poly theory and sure enough, the best grass was growing in its shelter.
We have so much roly poly on our land, so we could perhaps use it to help restore the health of our soil.
“Soil biology is this perfect little symbiotic relationship, that we can embrace and work with, or we can come in and cultivate, we can come in and spray herbicides and disrupt that system and that cycle,” Derek said.
“You’re in a vortex then. Which has been really effective for some decades but is completely unsustainable.”
Derek’s ecosystems were also falling into place in the absence of chemicals.
An insect called cochineal had all but obliterated a population of Tiger Pear, a particularly nasty, prickly weed that he had previously been concerned about.
Time the most precious commodity
There are a few reasons we think chemical farming is unsustainable.
For one, weeds are becoming resistant to herbicides, in the same way that bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics.
So herbicides are actually making the problem worse, instead of addressing the underlying issues of the disturbed ecosystems and poor soil ecology, conditions in which weeds proliferate.
(Supplied: Virginia Tapscott)
We also think continually stripping out the nutrients in the soil and then trying to replace them by adding nitrogen, a common fertiliser used in intensive cropping, is a band-aid solution to the underlying problem of soil degradation.
Nitrogen improves yields synthetically, as opposed to using natural nutrient cycling of plant and animal matter.
Synthetic fertiliser disrupts soil biology and damages the soil so that it requires increasing amounts of nitrogen.
So if there are natural systems that can do the farming work for us and replace chemical use in the long-term, while at the same time rehabilitating the environment, it seems pointless to spend time and money fighting against nature.
“The most precious commodity there actually is, is time,” Ralph said.
“If you don’t have time to enjoy your family you don’t really have a life, you might think you do, but you’re not really enjoying life itself.
“What we do is geared around making for us a richness of life. We enjoy a much higher standard of living and it’s not measured in dollars.”
A complicated problem
We may not need dollars to be happy, but we do need them to keep our farm alive.
We asked our agronomist, Drew Penberthy, how much money we could make if we straight up farmed the place using chemicals.
“My advice for the biggest cash crop you could do in the quickest amount of time would be put a cereal crop into that country,” he explained.
“You’d get really good ground cover, which would start all your regenerative systems and get more moisture into the soil, but also you’re probably going to have the quickest return on that investment.”
Drew also said we’d need to apply chemicals and minerals, but we’d still end up with a $600 to $700 profit per hectare — that’s about a $20,000 profit in our first year.
There is no way we’ll make that using regenerative practices.
And therein lies a complicated problem.
The restoration of agricultural land relies on farmers like us choosing long-term solutions that may not make the most money initially.
Drew says economies of scale are going to make it difficult for agriculture to change.
“[As] farmers have gotten bigger they’ve expanded and the cost of farming now is a lot higher than it ever used to be, so if you miss a season now it really hits the bottom line,” he said.
“And that’s why it’s so critical to make a profit every year but still trying to make it sustainable.
“It’s a pretty hard thing to try and get right.”
Changing for a better future
We understand the pressures larger farmers face in trying to balance sustainability and profitability, but being a smaller operation we felt like the risks were probably a little more manageable for us.
So two weeks ago we trucked the remaining cattle off our place.
When it starts raining again we’ll plant crops to feed our cattle, and as our cattle mulch and fertilise the soil we’re confident native grasses will reappear.
Down the track this should mean we don’t rely as much on planting crops for fodder, and instead we might harvest the native grass seed that grows naturally.
We’ve already planted around 100 trees, but I’m aiming for a lot more.
The place is too quiet. We need the birds to come back.
Agriculture is said to be one of the single biggest contributors to the destruction of the environment and rising CO2 emissions, so it’s also the single most powerful thing we can change to mitigate climate change.
And we want to be part of that.