The concept of regenerative agriculture remains contentious - but a 're-gen' future beckons.
Adapted from Bec Whetham's article on abc.net.au
Say "regenerative agriculture" to a room full of farmers and you are bound to get an array of responses, often emotionally charged. For some, regenerative practices are synonymous with good farming, the way it has always been done. For others, it is a new concept, an exciting brand of farming seen as a way out in a time of hardship and uncertainty.
It is this ideology that has some experts seriously concerned.
What can be so upsetting about the words "regen ag", and does it bring anything new to the table? Professor Nick Gill has spent a career assessing the term and its movement in Australia.
"[It's a] form of agriculture in which farmers go beyond seeking to be sustainable to regenerate agriculture ecosystems that have been adversely affected by agriculture in countries like Australia over long periods of time," Dr Gill said.
He said 200 years of clearing and mechanisation has had a serious impact on Australia's agricultural land.
"Regenerative agriculture practitioners seek to repair that through agricultural practices," Dr Gill said.
While old news for some, Dr Gill said the words are a major game changer for those choosing to adopt them, for the first time or otherwise. "They think about [farming] ecologically," he said. "Not as some sort of greenie-hippy thing — it's about how it functions as a system. "They're learning to know their land anew and see it in a new way."
Victorian red meat producer Georgina Gubbins is in the camp that believes its simply synonymous with good farming. "It's a bit of a worry because good farmers, best practice farmers, are doing it anyway," Ms Gubbins said.
The former president of the Grasslands Society of Southern Australia said she believed all farmers should understand their farm's ecology and be intentional in keeping all aspects healthy, the soil especially.
"We're all custodians, or should be, custodians of the land," she said.
What Ms Gubbins is concerned about is the way the holistic approach is being branded for a new audience, an audience she believes is not coming from best practice. "It's become a label for something that's always been done. That's probably why a lot of people look down on it," Ms Gubbins said.
Ms Gubbins warns that people issuing products like common organic fertilisers and programs under the term "regen ag" are not always doing so with the best of intentions. "When people are vulnerable there are people trying to make a profit on the way through," she said. "They've got no scientific measures to prove that they're improving things — it's very subjective."
While reports on the benefit of regenerative management — such as a recent study commissioned by the Federal Department of Environment — do exist, they often only include a handful of responding farms. "That really showed that people adopting regenerative type practices are, generally speaking, doing better than their peers financially," Dr Gill said.
While personal testimonies may be enough to inspire some producers, Ms Gubbins is not convinced."How do you know there's been a response if you don't measure it?" she said. She believes many of the consumers are farmers in crisis looking for a way out, something Dr Gill found repeatedly in his interviews, mostly with graziers.
"They just really hit a wall saying 'look, what we're doing is not working. It's not resilient, we're not riding out the tough times very well, and we're having to work really hard to get nowhere,'" Dr Gill said.
Some farmers just want to look after the land, like the Brokenshas.
Sarah Brokensha grew up watching her father farm the land she now manages with her husband, Liam. They farm in the same regenerative way her father did before he passed away last year. While Ms Brokensha did not understand much about regenerative practice then, she does now. "As I grew up I could see what he was doing on the farm, the changes he was making, the trees that were being planted, and the way he was changing things," she said.
He would form native corridors and investigate the ways moving stock around the property could regenerate the soil. "It was very inspiring," Ms Brokensha said. "I feel pretty lucky to be continuing on [my father's] legacy."
Liam got to witness his father-in-law's philosophy as they initiated the next phase of regenerative efforts on the farm — chicken caravans.
"Now we're working on a different principle of farming where we're not having to cut the hay. We're not having to feed out," Mr Brokensha said. "We're able to run the same amount of animals on the property and we're able to allow each parcel of land to have more time to rest, to regenerate by itself."
New ideas or old ideas, Dr Gill said a change in farming practice always posed a risk.
"Regenerative agriculture really flips what [some] farmers think about their land," he said. "You might be going against what your family's been doing for years. You might be going against what your peers think about how farming should be done."
In his research, Dr Gill said it was common for farmers to feel a "sense of alienation" in engaging with regen ag. Some farmers described responses from others in the community as "angry" and even "aggressive".
"They're saying what a lot of other people are doing is actually not looking after the land in the way that many farmers would claim. So that's not surprising they get that kind of response," he said.
Dr Gill said the farmers he interviewed do not regret their decision. "A lot of them will say 'we're doing well out of this, we can see the results' — both in terms of the health of their land and [their] bottom line."
Like Ms Gubbins, Dr Gill recognised the scientific evidence that may be missing for some farmers.
"Rangeland scientists have struggled to clearly identify the outcomes in terms of biophysical outcomes, land health indicators, and so on," he said. Regardless of its merits, he said he hoped the support of regenerative agriculture circles would transcend to the wider farming community. "[An] environment where you can admit you don't know things is key to this transition, and sticking with it," Dr Gill said.
Ms Gubbins will not say regenerative agriculture is not the answer.
"If it creates practice change for people who haven't been doing best practice, that's a good thing," she said.
"It's all about handing it over to the next generation, or the next management, in a state that they can continue farming as well — if not better — than you have.
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