Heart-start for regenerative agriculture

Eaters and feeders convene to promote next step farming revolution


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Charlie Arnott, Boorowa with Rhea Abraham, MC and her long-time friend Longreach grazier Jody Brown, Inverell veterinarian Gundi Rhoades with Geoff, Helen and Mike McCosker, Wallangra, at the Byron Bay launch of the National Regenerative Agriculture Day.

Charlie Arnott, Boorowa with Rhea Abraham, MC and her long-time friend Longreach grazier Jody Brown, Inverell veterinarian Gundi Rhoades with Geoff, Helen and Mike McCosker, Wallangra, at the Byron Bay launch of the National Regenerative Agriculture Day.

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Valentine's day has been adopted by the National Regenerative Agriculture movement to make a point of loving your farmer

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There was a little huddle of hope in Byron Bay on Valentine's Day, seated close under a leaky tin roof as rare rain poured from the sky. It was one of the very few places in the state to get any fall from heaven.

Agricultural pioneers from Boorawa to Longreach were there discuss the future of farming in times of climate upheaval and to promote soil carbon as a way forward.

They explained the mental satisfaction of farming in a regenerative way, which adds carbon to the soil so that it can better capture rain, setting an aspirational target of eight per cent using diverse pasture and livestock to do the job.

At the heart of this first National day is the McCosker family from Wallangra north of Inverell, who run Angus on a 3000 acre mixed farming enterprise, combined with biodynamic beef producer Charlie Arnott from Booroowa. These motivating people organised the heart-start of regenerative agriculture with events not only in Byron but also in Tamworth, Bingara and North Star. Many smaller celebrations were carried out across the state.

For a couple weeks a month Mr Arnott borrows an office at The Farm, Ewingsdale so it made sense to hold the main event there, after all it is at "The Farm" where city tourists can interface with producers and fellow foodies to discuss their daily meal.

The Farm is an interesting regeneration project itself, its red basalt soil once gassed with methyl bromide before growing flowers. Today it is a focal point for biological production.

Longreach grazier Jody Brown volunteered to drive 1300km from western Queensland to this most eastern point to talk about how she manages 45,000 hectares of certified organic beef production in an environment of "exquisite harshness".

"It's an ancient land and it is comforting in the sense that it has always been there," she said. "We accept droughts but the game is changing - they last longer and there's less time in between. We're not encouraging resilience as much as we can.

Ms Brown told her family's story of how they moved away from set stocking to cell rotation, as advocated by Rhodesian grassland specialist Allan Savory, and after seven years of drought, during which little progress on regeneration could be made, had been astounded by the results of one event that left 60 to 70mm of rain in its wake.

Learning new ways of doing things started with research and making connections, advocated Ms Brown, citing the leap in technology-assisted learning that made a recent Skype conversation with Mexican arid rangeland grazier hugely inspiring.

It is clear the current drought is proving to be a catalyst for change, in that alternative ways of production - especially those that that might survive a hot summer - are worth trying.

"Just use bits that work for you," said Ms Brown. "The more I learn the more excited I get to try new things. The reward is the small detail like a new plant you've never seen before that makes you fall back in love with why you live on the land."

Helen McCosker, co-founder of this national day of regenerative recognition, told her audience that Australians are good in an emergency like fire or flood but when it came to the slow-burn of drought there was more inspiration required to make change.

"We need foodies to connect with farmers, to know their stories," she said. "Food sustains us and food can change the landscape and heal communities and the planet. Farmers are the solution to climate change."

Fellow organiser Mr Arnott told his audience to change the paddock between their ears first, before making changes on the ground.

"Focus on the things we can control and then use the rain when it does fall," he said.

Mr Arnott said consumers had the power to make change in agriculture and yet how many knew the names of their farmers? They certainly knew who were their doctors and accountants.

"At the end of the day we need outcomes in environmental and human health. Regenerative agriculture delivers food that is nutritionally dense and ethically created but there is a gap between eaters and feeders.

"Food is that link and we need sell the sizzle not just the sausage."

Keen listeners came to The Farm at Byron Bay on Thursday for the launch of the National Regenerative Agriculture Day, where inspiring tales of drought resilience through soil sustainability gave hope to the future of food production.

Keen listeners came to The Farm at Byron Bay on Thursday for the launch of the National Regenerative Agriculture Day, where inspiring tales of drought resilience through soil sustainability gave hope to the future of food production.

Making a plan

Mike McCosker, Wallangra came to "responsible" farming after a brush with chemical poisoning. The family enterprise north of Inverell has lifted soil carbon from 1pc to 2.5pc in five dry years and Mr McCosker said a target of reaching 8pc was achievable by allowing diverse pasture to flourish while providing fodder for livestock. The reward at that point would be incredible rainfall storage, like a sponge, with the first 25mm of a downpour captured in nine seconds while the second 25mm would be absorbed within 15 seconds, according to research carried out by US conservation farmer Gabe Brown. When looked at that way, a two inch event would be ready to grow grass rather than erode a gully.

"Every farmer I know wants to look after the land," he said. "We want to hand it on in better condition.

"For stock farmers the first action is to adopt planned grazing and resting of paddocks," he said. "Next we feed biology to the soil through Microbial inoculants," he said.

US research has shown diverse pasture species work in harmony to lay down as much as one per cent soil carbon a year. 

Mr McCosker said tests with multiple species, including grasses and broad-leafed forbs, had proven this concept with more the merrier - in other words 17 species in a paddock were better than five or six. Going back in history Australian landscapes supported hundred of species, so why not now?

Fallow paddocks with no vegetation may be saving moisture for the next crop but they are not looking after the microbes that could nourish it

Chemical fertilisers burn the roots of plants and diminish their reliance on fixing free nitrogen from the atmosphere whereas a diversity of root architecture supports a range of microbial populations.

"Conventional farming is mining the carbon out of the soil," he said. "If there's a silver lining to this drought it is the focus it is bringing to people's attention about regenerative farming."

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