Falling in love with farming again

Words by Bruce Gatward-Cook
Peter Florence Peter Florence

Farming is the mainstay of our economy and in its various forms, is what puts food on our tables. Lockdown last year helped to highlight this.
Yet farmers have not been feeling the love from some of their urban mates for a while. Effects from some farming approaches are costing us the health of our land, water, animals, and people.

Some say the problem of waterway contamination is the conditioning of New Zealand farmers for decades by fertiliser, herbicide and fungicide companies to use their products – or suffer a drop in productivity.
With high production being a dominant message from Industry
to Farmers, it’s created a reliance on these inputs. 

So the question is, are alternatives to conventional farming practices viable?

The meteoric growth of demand for organic food clearly shows that there is a real commercial benefit to revisiting our use of chemicals on farms. Domestic and global demand for organics saw the sector’s value grow 20 per cent in the three years to 2020, according to Organics Aotearoa New Zealand.

It is now worth an estimated $723 million, up from $600m in 2006, with an average growth rate of 6.4 per cent a year.

Last year organic dairy farmers received a payout of $10.19 per kilogram of milk solids (v $7.19 for non-organic), a market record for New Zealand, according to Organics chief executive Viv Williams.

Additionally, fertiliser prices are soaring and are commanding the highest prices since 2016.

There’s a growing appreciation and understanding for how soil health and a regenerative mindset and principles can move us away from a dependency on synthetic fertilisers, palm kernel, chemical inputs, high use of antibiotics and the like, to a healthier, more resilient, prosperous and responsible way of farming, says Fiona Young, a leading catalyst, advocate and regional coordinator for regenerative farming in Taranaki. 

“To get the overall health of the farm and ecosystem humming, soil biology is a critical component that is often missed and not even talked about,” says Fiona. “Understanding what makes it come alive – and causes it harm – is essential to improve outcomes. Soil Biology, also referred to as the ‘Soil Food Web’ is what helps create the all-important ‘Soil Carbon Sponge’. A healthy soil food web and soil structure effectively supports the health and cycling of water in our environment, as well as increases the cycling of nutrients in our soil and food.”

Regenerative Farming, or Regen Ag as you’ll also hear it called, is described by Fiona as “an integrated whole system approach that takes farming and our care for our natural environments and communities to the next level of health, resilience and prosperity. It relates to the farm as a complex living system, with attention given to soil ecology, biodiversity and a regenerative mindset to help everything hum. It is flexible and adaptive to the farming context and is a journey to support the natural systems to flourish and become more regenerative and self-sufficient.

“Pressure has been on farmers to focus on increasing production and thus grown a reliance on high input systems. Our environment, food quality, farmer and community wellbeing has paid the price. Regenerative Farming is very much about realising the aspirations of optimal health, resilience and prosperity, socially, environmentally, culturally and economically. It’s a whole system approach that is not counter to conventional ag, rather a natural evolution of it.

Reports on local soils indicate that compaction is on the rise under the dominant management – regenerative farming can help reverse this trend.

“There are many farmers out there having aspects of their approach be regenerative, though much more is needed to leave a healthy legacy. This whole system approach helps realise those aspirations. 

Regenerative Farming is grounded in scientific understanding of how nature optimally thrives and how this can be applied to our home gardens and farming systems.”

Fiona points out the holistic nature of Regenerative Agriculture is nothing new for indigenous cultures and the many who recognise the interconnectedness of the world we live in, including many farmers.   

Mātauranga Māori is a comprehensive and complimentary knowledge system, that by nature, is caring for the wellbeing of all. This, alongside farmers’ experience and knowledge, and scientific investigation can all enhance our understanding of regenerative systems. Too much emphasis seems to be on reductionist science to provide the answers, it’s pretty clear that can get us into trouble – though it does have its place.”

Fiona sees there’s a need for scientific investigation and is keen to work in a more collaborative way to track changes over time, and thus evidence and strengthen the feedback loops in regenerative farming trials and transitions.

“Nature thrives with diversity, cooperative and reciprocal relationships. This is what we need to evolve best outcomes socially also. We need to be open to learn and share from one another, to respectfully challenge and compost what isn’t working so we can grow something that’s even healthier, together.” 

TALKING ABOUT REGENERATION

Fiona, who grew up in rural Taranaki on a dairy, sheep and beef farm, has been an advocate for local and healthy food systems near on 20 years, and has been catalysing the conversation and opportunities to learn about Regenerative Farming in Taranaki since 2019. 

This is when she returned home full time from living abroad in Canada. Fiona says it was good timing to arrive home and bring this forth in the Taranaki 2050/Just Transition journey which is where the relationship with Venture Taranaki and many others in our community for this quickly grew.

“That this regen kaupapa addresses so many of the challenges we face was naturally where I chose to dive in to contribute.  It was concerning the amount of blame and shame on our farmers, when the story is much bigger than that. Blame and shame is divisive, and what we need more of is a constructive and collaborative focus on solutions. That is what I’m passionate about – we’re all in this together.”

Fiona points out the benefits of Regen Ag are many, from farmer and animal wellbeing to improving the nutritional quality and health of the food we eat, to stabilising climate and improving the health of our waterways, oceans, bee and insect populations and other natural ecosystems like wetlands and native biodiversity.

Defining the principles of Regen Ag is an evolving discussion as it is an evolving concept in itself. In the recent White Paper on Regenerative Agriculture, commissioned by Our Land & Water and the NEXT Foundation, 11 main principles are proposed, such as, the farm is a living system, make context-specific decisions, question everything and learn together.

The general agreement internationally, is that Regen Ag is proposed as a solution to reverse climate change, biodiversity loss, declining health of people, water quality and freshwater ecosystems, the wellbeing crisis in rural and farming communities and food system dysfunctions. 

Basic principles are very straightforward, and if anything, taking a leaf straight out of Nature’s book on how to run things.

Aspects of Regen Ag include minimising soil disturbance and often employ no-till agriculture techniques and a reduction and ultimate elimination of synthetic and chemical inputs. Disturbance can harm
the natural underground ecosystem of roots, fungi, bacteria and other organisms such as worms.

The preference is to keep green growing cover or utilise mulch or compost as a protection and activator of the soil – and to keep living roots in the soil as much as possible to maintain structure and feed biology.

Another Regen Ag concept is to welcome and encourage pasture and plant diversity. Diversity in rooting depth and type means more diversity in the soil ecology, and the end result of that is more health and resilience above ground too. Multi-species cover crops have been scientifically proven to be three times more water efficient than a mono-culture crop, and they can draw in three times the amount of carbon. They also naturally encourage beneficial insects and reduce or eliminate pests and disease overtime.

Another common regenerative farming practice is to move livestock around more frequently than is currently the norm. 

“Depending on the farm context, animals are mobbed together, much like grassland ruminants would naturally do in the wild and are then moved on after eating the top third to half of the pasture,” explains Fiona.

“Optimal recovery is indicated by the grasses having a pointed tip and a certain number of leaves before animals return. Spring is a prime time for farmers to put this into action to get the most benefit.”

This approach allows pastures to recover more quickly and can effectively deepen roots and feed the soil biology.. By moving in mobs and grazing on the nutrient rich tips of plants rather than razing grass down low, the animals allow plants to develop a deeper root structure, while effectively fertilising the paddocks with their manure and, depending on context, trampled residuals. 

“These residuals aren’t wasteful when done well, they act to protect and feed the soil biology which leads to more productive pastures. Animals are less exposed to facial eczema spores and parasites when grazing height is higher and soil health improved” says Fiona.

Regenerative grazing management allows for a gradual lift in pasture residuals to support rooting depth and helps maximise the many benefits from improved photosynthesis. “Put simply, the more green “solar panels” of plants soaking up the sunlight, the more goodness released into the soil that makes it a good home for biology to thrive!”

REDUCING PESTS, FLOODING and CHEMICALS

“High diversity pastures can be direct drilled, broadcast or encouraged simply through mob grazing. In pastoral systems the focus is on long-standing perennial pastures, and in arable, crop and gardening situations, a high diversity of different annual cover crops can be really effective to condition and care for the soil,” explains Fiona. 

“Farmers using Regen Ag principles are exploring pasture and cover crop mixes between 8 and 30 plus different species. The understanding is diversity above grows diversity below ground and that different plants will grow and be more resilient through different growing conditions, such as colder, hotter, wetter, or dryer conditions. A decline and elimination of pests and disease has also been evidenced here and in long-standing scientific trials overseas. Again, this is a whole system approach. Not one aspect over the other, they all work together to add, compliment and create synergy.”

Apart from the benefits of using less chemicals, Regen Ag strengthens our resilience to drought, flooding, pests, disease and erosion, says Jules Matthews – a Farmer and Regenerative Agriculture Coach and Educator from Integrity Soils. 

Jules has helped farmers grow their understanding to give things a go here in Taranaki and been a featured speaker and educator at numerous Regenerative Farming workshops and events that have been held around the mountain since 2019.

“It is all about treating soil as a living organism. The soil could be thought of as the plant’s gut and – similar to humans – microbial health is vital to its performance,” says Jules.

“Regen Ag is not prescriptive. It is context dependent and needs to be applied in local situations. Based in the understanding of the interconnected relationships of all the parts of a living system, it is by nature adaptive and syntropic. A regenerative approach requires farmers to develop their knowledge, understanding, and observational skills as they seek to close loops in their production systems.”

MAKING REGEN AG OUR OWN

This year, a number of farmer workshops are being supported through “Curious Minds Taranaki”, a Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment initiative coordinated by Venture Taranaki (VT), says Justine Gilliland, Venture Taranaki Chief Executive.

“This project will see more than 30 Taranaki dairy, sheep and beef farmers collaborating and working alongside one another, scientists, and regenerative agriculture specialists to learn about, action, and monitor regenerative farming trials and transitions on their farms,” says Justine of this project that was initiated by Fiona Young, who is the lead facilitator/coordinator.

“Regenerative agriculture presents a significant opportunity for New Zealand exports. It’s a space we can potentially make our own as Aotearoa and bring our version of Regen Ag to the world, supporting the country’s largest export sector – the Food & Fibre sector which is worth triple the size of the tourism sector.”

The Regen Ag movement aligns with the region’s Transition 2050 roadmap vision of sustainable low-emissions food production, within a healthy environment.

Literally at a grassroots level, Waitoriki Dairy farmer Ian Sharpe believes we need Regen Ag because we have lost contact with our ability to understand the soil. 

“My impetus to learn about Regen Ag was in my wondering how to get through the dry periods we experience here without bringing in a lot of supplements – all that was creating work and it didn’t feel right for me,” says Ian who is in his 70s and runs a 72 Hectare farm with 160 cows.

With eight streams on his farm, Ian says improved soil health potentially could store water in the soil which would combat flooding as well as retaining moisture in the soil during dry periods – and of course preventing sediment and chemical run off into his streams. He’s already seen evidence of this on his farm.

“I don’t cultivate anything, so I never turn the soil. I seed drill instead with multi species grasses which perform at different times and diversify pasture growth.”

A team from Massey University are working collaboratively with Fiona, Ian and other farmers trialing Regen Ag practices here in Taranaki, to document and record changes over time with an emphasis on what can be visualised. 

Ian says there are short-term benefits and farmers initially might see an increase in grass growth, but for him Regen Ag is a long-term game because of the variations he sees each year. That is part of why he has started biological testing of his soil.

“We need data from 5 to 10 years to give us a baseline about the importance of improving soil biology,” Ian says.

In a world that wants quick results, 10 years is a long time, yet Fiona says farmers can see significant improvements in the short term too.

“It’s been impressive to hear from farmers some of the benefits they’ve seen in a short period of time. A real stand out is the improved health of their animals. Additional to this, as mentioned in your last LIVE Magazine article, local farmers milk production has actually improved!” comments Fiona.

Ecological Landscape Designer & Engineer Kama Burwell says she’s heard of farmers getting a dramatic result and improvements within three months.

“Every farm and environment is different,” says Kama who works for Greenbridge – a company specialising in the design and build of regenerative landscapes and healthy homes.

“For others the transition takes more time, as they identify the barriers and trial strategies and management that will get their soils working well. When farmers make the shift to regenerative farming, the cost of production usually reduces considerably, so they make the same or more money, while their soil health increases, their animal health increases, and their resilience through drought increases.”

Regen Ag as an improved way to farm is recognised by the Ministry of Primary Industry as part of its “Fit for a Better World” strategy. This strategy recognises the importance of Taiao Ora (the health and wellbeing of our natural world). It acknowledges the role regenerative systems play in transitioning to a more sustainable future for our food and fibre sector.

This resonates well with the MPI-funded Maori Agribusiness Extension’s Whenua Ora Project, says its spokesperson, Turake Manuirirangi.

Whenua Ora is a national engagement programme designed to promote land-based primary industry career pathways.

“The driving influence for groups involved is to progress a regenerative mindset by incorporating Mātauranga (ancestral knowledge) and Kaitiakitanga (guardianship) in planning and delivering on-farm practices, that can then lead to better outcomes for their whenua,” says Turake.

“Maori landowners representing around 9000ha of collective land holdings from Mokau to Whanganui are looking at ways to meet current and future regulatory pressures as well as international market trends, by investigating how best to recognise traditional practices and knowledge that truly embody the intention of Whenua Ora. By revitalizing Papatuanuku (Earth mother) we’re ensuring the food and fibre products we produce are healthier and safer, and in turn we’re improving the health and wellbeing of our people.”

NEW CROPS FOR TARANAKI

Moving towards our prosperous and healthy future as food and fibre producers, Venture Taranaki has released a report on Taranaki’s land and climate, which provides an insight into our region’s growing capability, and the opportunity it might provide to help meet long-term regional goals of building diversity, value, sustainability, and market and supply-chain resilience.

The key finding in the Taranaki Land and Climate Assessment report released on the Venture Taranaki website is that there are around 207,000 hectares of land potentially suitable for generic horticulture within the boundaries of the Taranaki Regional Council. The eight mainstream crops covered in the report include apples, kiwifruit, avocados, blueberries, hops, hemp and CBD cannabis, hazelnuts and walnuts, potatoes, and wine grapes.

Plant & Food Research was commissioned to undertake the assessment as part of Venture Taranaki’s Branching Out initiative. Branching Out is a collaborative exercise to investigate, explore, package, and potentially pilot new commercial opportunities that could add wealth for Taranaki’s economy, further explains Justine Gilliland.

“This assessment will be of interest to those considering opportunities to foster diverse, complementary food and fibre value chains within Taranaki. As the report indicates, there is plenty of potential in Taranaki to increase the share of horticulture for the region’s future prosperity and resilience,”
says Justine.

GETTING INVOLVED WITH REGEN AG

“Regenerative Agriculture is relevant and applicable to all land-based food and fibre production, from our home gardens and orchards to larger crops and pastoral farming. It’s flexible, adaptive and context specific,” says Fiona.

Add that to reducing the need for fertiliser and pesticide use, improving water retention in the soil which helps mitigate dry conditions or floods and run off into streams, and Regenerative Agriculture can help farmers’ real sense of wellbeing about their food production.

There is agreement for this across the board.

“Practising Regenerative Agriculture gives me a sense of wellbeing,” says Ian.

For people who’d like to learn more, be involved, access regeneratively grown food or attend events and field days, contact Fiona Young from Taranaki Regenerative Agriculture (and ReGen Solutions) at TaranakiRegenAg@gmail.com or via the Facebook page, Taranaki Regenerative Agriculture.

“Regenerative farming is a win, win, win for farmers, the environment, and for the people who eat food,” says Kama. “Farmers say they’re falling in love with farming again.”

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