NOT JUST REGENERATIVE FARMERS

Many ask us if we are Regenerative Farmers. We find this term problematic, and in fact, we find most terminology problematic. We find it problematic because, from experience, when we answer “Yes”, we often get the response, “Oh good”, and that’s the end of the conversation.

Many wait to hear the ‘R-word and then stop listening like that is enough. It’s not enough for us! While it can be helpful when communicating to have one generic term to describe what you do, we find it neither sufficient nor representative of all of what we do and all that drives us – that’s why we tend not to use the ‘R’ word.

Instead of being guided by only Regenerative Farming (whose definition seems very woolly and varies according to who you ask), we feel we are influenced by much more.

INFLUENCES THAT DRIVE WHAT WE DO

In this blog post, we’d like to present the influences that drive what we do. We are going to stay big picture – we won’t provide loads of examples because the word length is going to get out of hand. Instead, we’d like to direct you to other blog posts we’ve made here, particularly:

ACKNOWLEDGING THE SCIENCE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

So, let’s move ahead. Firstly, we acknowledge the science of climate change and, more importantly, we accept our responsibility as landholders to do whatever we can to avert the extinction crisis and lessen our personal and farm produce footprint.

This is an important up-front statement.

We can say whatever we like about how we graze to develop soil carbon or enhance soil health, we can talk all we like about grass species and the shape of the pooh of our cattle (all of which are oft discussed by Regenerative Farmers), but unless you accept your responsibility in doing whatever you can to avert the extinction crisis and lessen your personal and farm product footprint, then the carbon you store in your soil may not be worth the carbon you create downstream or in your personal life.

For instance, you can be Regenerative Farmer and have massive food miles in your farm produce. You can be a Regenerative Farmer and still not have solar panels on your roof as a couple of examples.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS

Secondly, we are informed by the Sustainable Development Goals. We have come upon these only relatively recently, but we think they offer every business, including farm businesses, a fantastic set of internationally-accepted goals to consider.

Not all these goals will easily apply to your endeavours but many will. These 17 goals were developed by the United Nations as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all people and the world by 2030.

The following goals drive our activity:

  • Goal 3 – Good Health and Wellbeing

  • Goal 4 – Quality Education

  • Goal 5 – Gender Equality

  • Goal 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation

  • Goal 7 – Affordable Clean Energy

  • Goal 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities

  • Goal 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production

  • Goal 13 – Climate Action

  • Goal 14 – Life on the Land

  • Goal 16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions

  • Goal 17 – Partnerships for the Goals

ANIMAL WELFARE

In terms of informing our attitudes to animal welfare, we use the five freedoms to help us.

These are freedom from:

  • Hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
  • Freedom to express normal and natural behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress.

The 5 Freedoms have real, practical applications. In our case, they mean we do not dock the tails of our sheep, it means we do not wean our animals, it’s why we use the closest possible abattoir and why, when we take our animals there, we take them ourselves. It means that our chickens lay on straw, not astroturf – so the hen can engage in normal and natural behaviours by fussing over her nest as she prepares to lay.

Sheep being herded into a new paddock

We do not dock our sheep tails

It means we will never load animals into triple-deck transport trucks and ship them halfway across the country or across the planet. It’s why we regularly seek veterinary expertise and why we use pain relief when castrating. Did you know you can be a Regenerative Farmer and not use pain relief, for instance? You can also be a Regenerative Farmer and load your cattle on an export ship.

PERMACULTURE PRINCIPLES FRAMEWORK

We also find the 12 Permaculture Principles a useful framework. There is much written about Permaculture Principles; many readers here will be very familiar with them, so I will not go into detail here. They help us make all sorts of decisions. So too, do the Sustainable Development Goals. In fact, many of the Permaculture principles match quite nicely with the SDGs – just the language used is quite different.

RESEARCH

We find the work of the Fenner School at the Australian National University an under-utilised tool. Their evidence-based research looks at best practices in wildlife-friendly farming and the enhancement of biodiversity on farms. The science behind their recommendations on the spacing of paddock trees, the benefits of fencing off dams and recommended widths for building corridors and shelter belts, as examples, provide reassurance that you are maximizing the biodiversity outcomes of your actions.

As a crude example – it’s not good enough to ‘plant a tree’. Tree species selection and the distance between trees are necessary to consider. Indeed, it is arguable that there may be greater benefit in protecting an already established and hollow-bearing tree than just planting any tree anywhere.

Image of regenerative farming books

Some of our favourite farming reads

We highly recommend these books:

  • David Lindenmayer – What Makes a Good Farm for Wildlife, CSIRO, 2011

  • David Lindenmayer et al – Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes, CSIRO, 2016

  • Phillip Gibbons and David Lindenmayer – Tree Hollows and Wildlife Conservation in Australia, CSIRO, 2002

THE DRIVING FORCE

The distressing extinction crisis is constantly in our minds. According to the Australian Museum, since 1788, 90% of Australia’s temperate woodlands and 99% of Australia’s temperate grasslands have been destroyed or degraded through human intervention.

Highfield Farm and Woodland are 2/3rds temperate woodland (mostly in our conservation area) and 1/3rd temperate grassland (mostly in our grazing paddocks). This crisis drives us to restore and enhance the native grass species on our property. We do this via a range of strategies, including:

  • NOT using super phosphate or lime

  • dividing paddocks so we can control the grazing of our animals

  • knowing the species we have in our paddocks

  • paying attention to when we graze which species.

Since coming to Highfield 9 years ago, we have seen the dramatic expansion of native grasses such as kangaroo grass, weeping grass, wallaby grass and red leg. There are so many benefits to maintaining and restoring native grasses apart from their drought resistance. For instance, thirteen different species of butterfly rely on Kangaroo Grass.

An under-considered part of biodiversity is the micro-biodiversity which relies on fallen branches. Fallen branches or logs are being increasingly recognized for a wide range of ecological roles. These include:

  • storing large amounts of carbon

  • storing large amounts of nutrients which are gradually returned to the soil

  • trapping leaf litter and holding up soil

  • increasing infiltration and retention of water in the soil

  • providing places for plants and fungi to germinate

  • providing foraging, breeding and sheltering spots for many kinds of animals (invertebrates, frogs, reptiles and animals and birds)

  • creating basking sites for reptiles and perching spots for birds

  • providing shelter for livestock, especially lambs

And yet I have visited Regenerative Farms, which have the most immaculate and beautiful paddocks of majestic and ancient paddock trees spaced beautifully – reminiscent of the work of Capability Brown. A perfect ‘English’ park of Australian trees with not one fallen branch on the ground. Micro-biodiversity – the biodiversity of insects and fungi, and worms that rely on and decay fallen logs – is critical to the macro-biodiversity that we can easily see – like birds and reptiles.

HOLISTIC GRAZING MANAGEMENT

We are also, of course, informed by Holistic Grazing and Management, and we use this as a way of reading our grass and reading our grazing animals (see fore mentioned pooh reading!). We use these principles to help us to graze to maintain full cover, restore our native grass pastures, and enhance soil health. But a basic understanding of and interest in botany, plant morphology and species diversity is a valuable additional tool to Holistic Grazing. I have met a number of Holistic Grazers (a term sometimes used interchangeably with Regenerative Farmers) who are nonetheless unable to identify the grass species in their paddocks.

An ancient ring tree on Highfield Farm.

An ancient ring tree on Highfield Farm.

WIRADJURI LAND

And we acknowledge that we live on unceded land, land managed and cared for by generations of First Nations people. We have had a cultural assessment conducted here where local Indigenous experts have identified and catalogued extant cultural heritage.

We are also right at the beginning of learning about First Nations’ land management through the strategic management of vegetation by cool burning. We have had cultural burn conducted here, and we are looking forward to exploring this more,  of course, guided and led by First Nations people. Having completed a cultural assessment on your property is not a factor that determines your status as being ‘regenerative’.

We have so much more to learn and reflect on. Farming of any type is a constant process of observation and interrogation.

JUST THE BEGINNING

Do we do everything ‘right’?

No, but we have a variety of frameworks and principles (not just Regenerative Farming) that invite us to interrogate and reflect on what we are doing. There are no doubt other frameworks out there, beyond those mentioned above, that could be useful to consider – we will probably continue to explore them, but at present, these are the principles that drive our actions.

I think by now, you will see that there is much more that farmers can do beyond the concept of being a Regenerative Farmer. In our opinion, deploying regenerative principles is just the beginning.

There is so much more to achieve. That’s what we are attempting anyway. We will keep working on it.

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