*Saltbush seedlings (Photo: Madeleine Achenza)
As part of the Regional Reporting Project, Central News travelled to Dubbo in the NSW Central West where Matthew Kruzmetra explored the role of regenerative agriculture – and discovered the importance of soil.
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The top metre of the Earth’s soil contains roughly three times as much carbon as the atmosphere.
Soil is the start and end point for all terrestrial life. We rely upon the health of our soil just as heavily as we rely upon clean water and air, and yet we rarely hear of campaigns for clean soil.
Existing largely out of the public’s eye, one scattered group of farmers may have come up with a solution to our global climate emergency. Emerging under the name Regenerative Agriculture in the early 1980s, they follow a practice that places an emphasis on the health of the soil and the biodiversity of the land. Some of these farmers can be found near Dubbo, in the heart of the NSW Central West and Orana regions.
Dubbo is built upon sweeping plains, with the tablelands of the Great Dividing Range to the east and the Darling Plains to the west. It is a city and region proud of its farmers and graziers. But recently, Dubbo has attracted attention for its long standing drought; record low dam levels; fish kills; and dust storms.
Driving into the city, the wind kicks up bare fields of dry soil, which floats across the sky in an orange haze. The loss of this topsoil, and the knock-on effect on future land use, water cycles and the atmosphere, is what regenerative agriculture aims to remedy.
Plants grow by pulling carbon from the air. When plants respire, excess carbon is drawn down and deposited in the soil, where it is fed upon by the microbial life underground. Just as our gut requires a diverse range of microbes to properly digest our food, so does our soil need a diverse range of microbes to properly sequester carbon.
The ability to do this is directly influenced by the extent to which the soil is disturbed. Half of all the land available to support life on Earth is now used for agricultural production, leading to a total loss of 50 to 70 per cent of the carbon it once held. Globally, the human impact on soil health is responsible for one third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere since industrialisation.
*(Photo: Matthew Kruzmetra)
Fourth-generation farmer Bruce Maynard is well-known within the world of regenerative agriculture. He lives on 1400 hectares halfway between Narromine and Trangie. His forebears were the first to grow wheat west of Dubbo, and both his grandfather and father were award-winning growers on the international market.
Mr Maynard is known as the “King of No Kill Cropping”, a method of growing commercial crops and fodder that maintains biodiversity and soil health by expunging the plough and limiting soil disturbances.
He believes the devil of climate change is the increased specialisation of agricultural production, and he speaks with light-hearted melancholia for the mixed farming of his predecessors who he says would have kept “a fair menagerie of not only sheep and cattle, but pigs and poultry and those sorts of things – when farms were more self-sustaining.”
DIVERSITY OF LIVING INTERACTIONS
Regenerative agriculture is about the diversification of living interactions. Rather than the land being used to grow singular, homogenous crops, and then left fallow and bare when not in use, a variety of plants and organisms are introduced. While they may not have a market value, they produce living biota that improve the health of the topsoil.
Mr Maynard points out that the continued process of mechanisation and specialisation within agriculture not only affects the land, but the communities it supports. Bigger producers are optimising their crops for a market that rewards bulk production, which means smaller producers are being bought out.
“The school bus doesn’t run; the football team is just a distant memory, and the last shops are closing… because there’s only a few large farms left.
“In the next five to ten years, in areas that are flat and suitable for cropping, watch the robots get adopted really, really fast.”
“Then that will drive the next… reduction of people. When you look out behind me there’s the occasional scattered paddock tree and that sort of thing… those items in the landscape become quite the enemy of even automated agriculture – [because they] want everything flat, barren, and monocultural.
“If we continue down this line of simplification, this will only hasten the mass extinction event that we’re already in amongst. [This is seen in] the large reduction in insect numbers.”
“No Kill Cropping’ came out of Mr Maynard’s experiments in the 90’s with livestock grazing regimes that encouraged biodiversity. To maintain this diversity of life within his paddocks, he developed a method of sowing crops into existing grasslands with minimal disturbance to the soil and surrounding biota.
“What we’re actually adding is just an annual plant into a complex functioning grassland, so when the conditions are right, bang, it goes fast.”
Because the farmer is not specialising in any one particular crop, the yields will be lower, but so are the investment costs: “in the order of less than 10 per cent of a conventional crop investment. So, if the year is poor, or below average, you’ve still got all the plant growth for livestock to go through.
“If you like, you might envisage that we keep putting cream on top of the cake, and don’t take the cake away. Whereas, conventional [practice] takes away… the cake and [you then] grow a hell of a lot of cream.”
When asked why regenerative agriculture is not spoken about more widely considering it has existed as a practice for over 30 years, he adds: “the hardest six inches to operate are between the temples”.
*(Photo: Matthew Kruzmetra)
Ben Sippel lives on his family’s 32-hectare farm, 20 minutes from Narromine.
His father Andrew, started growing saltbush, a shrub native to Western Australia, in 1987 – after hearing of its use in South Africa as a drought tolerant grazing plant. Together they grow Old Man Saltbush, a slow growing variety with small round velvety leaves that taste like sage with a salty tang.
The elder Sippel worked as an agronomist for Yates Seeds and helped with the initial research and cultivation of Old Man Saltbush as a commercial crop. Although the shrub stands only a little more than one metre or so high, its roots penetrate up to six metres into the ground. They act as moisture regulators, either pushing water downwards to be stored deep below the heat of the surface, or pulling water up and into its leaves.
“The block behind us here, it hasn’t had decent rain on it in for about three years,” Ben Sippel says. “But it’s still just ticking over and holding on. So when we do get back to the normal rain pattern, this block will recover in 90 per cent of the time, compared to an absolute bare dirt [paddock]. And it’s also holding that soil together at the moment.”
“We’re getting dust storms every week here, which is just insane.”
He refers to himself as a “lazy farmer” because when everything functions properly, there’s not really that much for him to do. This is one of the goals of regenerative agriculture: to maximise the land’s ability to regenerate without intervention.
Walking through the property, it is hard not to notice the stark contrast to the dry, fallow fields of its neighbours. Ben Sippel shrugs when asked what people think of his saltbush:
“Some people are starting to pay attention and going, ‘yeah I think that’s got merit’. I was like, ‘well, I bloody hope so’. But [it’s] just that [the] barrier to entry for them, is so hard”.
A lot of farmers, he says, are looking for quick turnarounds. A regenerative system takes a lot longer to establish than a conventional crop that is cultivated for intensive production and quick lead times. Old Man Saltbush takes about four years to get fully established and does not reproduce from seed easily, meaning it can be labour intensive. Plants need to be grown from seed in a nursery before being transplanted into paddocks.
It is double the cost of wheat to establish, but with a lifespan of more than 100 years, the returns are constant.
“We’re not betting on the weather anymore. We know in 14 months… that we’re going to have food here for our animals. Whereas with a wheat crop, you don’t know when the rain is going to come.”
One of the limitations with saltbush, is that unlike grass, which can be bailed up and transported as hay, it is not easy to harvest and package in large commercial quantities. So, the Sippels rent out their paddocks to local farmers to use as grazing land for their lambs. After the lambs have reached market size the farmers take them away to be slaughtered and processed. The Sippels then buy a portion of that meat and sell it commercially under their Drover’s Choice brand.
This process is not unlike the diversity of interactions that Bruce Maynard refers to when explaining regenerative agriculture. The saltbush provides feed for the lambs, their dung fertilisers the soil and allows native grasses and shrubs to grow, that provides more feed and stops the soil being disturbed by the wind and rain while also encouraging insect populations that in turn pollinate the plants.
According to Ben Sippel, a properly functioning, profitable farm based on regenerative agriculture, can not only be carbon neutral—but carbon positive.
“Look, every day of the year, this paddock is active and harvesting sunlight. And that’s a key benefit in agriculture. If you’ve got bare dirt, you’re not harvesting sunlight at all. Conventionally, if you have a bare dirt paddock ready to plant a crop into, it’s being wasted. Whereas here, we’ve got plants on the ground 365 days a year growing and harvesting that sunlight for us.”
Both Bruce Maynard and Ben Sippel speak about the importance of livestock to regenerative agriculture. “We’re helping to build good soil carbon as well, by having the organic matter of this plant digested by an animal and deposited back onto the ground… [as] nutrients to increase our plant growth,” Mr Sippel explains.
Bruce Maynard however warns against placing too much emphasis upon any one particular crop. He believes saltbush is just one of the many shrubs that can be utilised in the highly important mid layer of vegetation. It is often overlooked by graziers but plays a vital role in the connections and interactions between the upper and lower levels of the environment’s biota.
Both agree that the problem convincing farmers to take up regenerative agriculture on a commercial scale, is societal and attitudinal more than anything else. The technical aspects aren’t difficult, they say. The Sippels for instance don’t need to own a tractor.
But problems come when you start telling farmers that the way they and their predecessors farmed is not only wrong, but actively destructive to the environment.
“The over-the-fence conversations that happen are really hard for guys to get their heads around and justify to their closest friends why they’re doing something different. They don’t want to be that tall poppy that stands out,” Mr Sippel says.
Mr Maynard looks at the lack of interest in regenerative agriculture as being simple economics and risk aversion, due to the long lead times before regenerative systems become profitable. It takes many years to build up the biodiversity required to make a functional regenerative farm.
“If you were choosing to grow a citrus orchard, it’s seven years before the first major crop,” he says. “Well, obviously you’ve got a lot of time and investment and it’s got plenty of chances to fail before you get your first pay-off… with changing your farming system, that’s taking a long term and different view.”
*(Photo: Bevin Liu)
David Towney grew up in and around Peak Hill, a suburb on the outskirts of Dubbo. This is the land of the Wiradjuri Nation, a place that his ancestors have occupied for tens of thousands of years. For him, soil is more than just a place to grow crops and raise livestock. Here, the soil is a living part of his people’s culture.
He describes how the Wiradjuri maintained the land through their interactions with it. Such as knowing which animals to hunt and which animals to protect and using fire in a way that encouraged changes in the flora and fauna in a way that benefitted the Wiradjuri, while also sustaining natural cycles.
Mr Towney sees regenerative farming as beneficial to both land and culture. But the loss of access to traditional lands has left the Wiradjuri community unable to maintain that integration: “that was our economy, that was our life; that was all taken from us and as a result we’re the poorer”.
Restoring that balance of land and culture requires interaction between the Wiradjuri and the agricultural community. “The farmers could do a lot better than what they’ve done in the past, and they recognise that.”
“They want to care for their land as well to make sure that it’s there for the future. So they need to keep re-learning stuff and not clear it—not plough it all up in the summer and let [it] blow away in the dust storms.”
To this end, a group of Wiradjuri are attempting to facilitate greater communication and skill-sharing between the two communities, and in doing so, achieve a regeneration of the culture surrounding land management.
“You look around and they’re all using these really fragile European crops and of course they’re going to struggle in these conditions. A lot of farmers are just waking up to the fact that they need to use new techniques, old techniques, and stuff that’s been here for centuries. A lot of people think that Aboriginal culture, or the knowledge, has gone. It hasn’t gone, it’s just lain dormant.”
David Towney would like to see greater progress towards an integrated culture of land management. “A lot of farmers have their field days, and they share information. There are no such field days that are open for Aboriginal people to meet with farmers and to try and change techniques, or to learn different techniques.”
*(Photo: Henry McGilchrist)
Driving around Narromine and Dubbo, the countryside is orange and dry, with huge pockets of land left empty and devoid of life – the ploughed soil left exposed, baking in the sun and turning to dust.
About 30-minutes drive north of Bruce Maynard’s property, Jon Elder manages the family farm on which he was born and raised.
During summer, he had cotton growing across 470 hectares, with another 1000 hectares or so put aside for wheat.
For Jon Elder, the most important aspect of his operation is not soil, but water. He is one of the largest irrigators in the region, using roughly 3500 mega-litres of water a year. As far as he is concerned, “water is the limiting factor of everything we do”.
If the crop in one of his paddocks is underperforming, the soil is tested and adjusted accordingly – generally with additives, fertilisers, and time spent fallow.
Crop rotation maintains the integrity of the soil. Ideally, over a two year period, any given field would rotate between cotton, then wheat, then it would be left fallow for a period of time to allow the soil to recover. While the cotton is intensely irrigated, the wheat is grown as a dry crop, relying on only the residual moisture in the soil, and whatever calls from the sky.
The prolonged drought has meant Mr Elder has struggled with his wheat, but due to the high price of cotton on the international market, his farm remains profitable.
Like many in the area, some fields have been left fallow until conditions improve.
Charming and affable, Mr Elder is anything but the image of the greedy cotton farmer stealing all the water like the frog Tiddalik from Aboriginal mythology.
He says he grows cotton because it is a profitable crop, and if he couldn’t grow cotton he would grow the next most profitable crop. He buys goods and services within the greater community and the water he uses is groundwater, pumped from 80 metres below the surface. The rest he says is out of his control.
Although he has heard of regenerative agriculture, Mr Elder thinks of its value in relation to water, rather than its focus on soil health.
“My understanding is that ‘regenerative guys’, they’ll be typically focused on dry land farming. So, it will be less irrigation and more of just, you know, managing their paddocks with what comes from the sky and how they rotate their crops”.
Richard Mutton, a presenter for Dubbo radio station FM 88.9, was once the city’s Assistant Mayor and know the stress farmers are under in the face of drier weather conditions and mounting costs.
He says: “I’ve got a relation in Condobolin. He owns 15,000 hectares – sounds a lot. He also leases about the same. He has got something like $3m worth of farming machinery lined up, which is leased. He has to keep paying that lease – he hasn’t had a decent crop now for three years. How much longer can he last?”
Under these conditions, it’s understandable that farmers would be looking to the most profitable crops and highest yielding harvests – even if it comes at a cost to the surrounding environment. Even when it rains, if the soil has dried to the point of dust, the water isn’t absorbed.
Mel Gray is a conveyer at Healthy Rivers Dubbo, a community group that promotes the healthy management of the area’s river systems. Just before meeting her at a pub in Dubbo, a downpour had washed tonnes of soil into the Bell River, killing hundreds of fish. Ms Gray explains there was a lack of ground-cover protecting the area around the river systems, “so the water picked up a heap of soil and debris and washed it into the Little and Bells [rivers]… and there was so much dirt in the water that the fish suffocated”.
To repair the atmosphere, we first need to repair the damage to our soil and its original custodians.
For most Australians living in urban areas far removed from the rural communities providing the food they rely upon, conversations around climate change and the environmental impact of industrial agriculture tend to be rather abstract. Everyone has heard vegans argue that it’s our reliance upon animal products that causes the greatest amount of damage to our environment. Yet, this tends to overlook the sheer complexity of the issue.
In the same way that a diverse and complex series of interactions within our soil leads to changes in our upper atmosphere, the problems that exist within agricultural production are not singular. Nor can one part of the agricultural process change, without impacting another.
“Some farmers are better than other farmers [just] as some businessmen are better than other businessmen,” David Towney says. “And some farms, just need to be a little bit more open to re-education. A lot [will say they] ‘learnt from their father’ and that sort of story… [but] it is a bit sad that those techniques might’ve worked when they first arrived, but the soil is not the same [now].”
To tackle climate change head on, discussions need to be about more than just fossil fuels and energy production. They need to address the relationship between the environment and the land.
“I just think it’s about time that we started talking about these things. I think if we wait another, maybe 10 years to 20 years, things are just going to get worse.”
To repair the damage to the atmosphere, we might first need to repair the damage to our soil and its original custodians. And finding a way to achieve that, requires a regeneration of culture.