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Regen Ag 101

The word regenerative is all about renewal leading to greater health in a system. Regenerative agriculture is an ecological approach and considers one’s context; the environment, climate, individual values, and financial situations. It is better thought of as a long-term journey and framework towards resilience and prosperity for the farmer, the land and the wider community.

It is based on outcomes that we want to see improvement in and let innovative practices and methodology be the tools. It should encourage and inspire people to challenge the status quo and contribute towards supporting a vibrant Planet Earth for our future generations. As the late Chris Reichstein, farmer from Esperance and founder of Mt Burdett Foundation says, “fear of change is the greatest barrier. We must be prepared for innovation.”

Regen 101 principles

“It defines agricultural practices or systems, that lead to outcomes that improve soil health and in turn the water and mineral cycles that are so critical to ecosystem function, but also regenerate the businesses and communities that engage with that land (both economically and socially). We also need to acknowledge that nature tests “all” practices or systems to continue to improve and evolve resilience and ultimate planetary survival. Regenerative Agriculture is a conscious commitment to undertake a journey of continual improvement in restoring natural systems in the production of our food.” Stuart McAlpine, RegenWA Chair

  1. Education and Awareness: Start by educating yourself about regenerative agriculture principles and practices. Understand the importance of soil health, biodiversity, and holistic land management.

  2. Assessment: Evaluate your current farming practices and land conditions. Identify areas where regenerative practices can be implemented and assess the potential challenges and opportunities.

  3. Goal Setting: Set clear goals for your transition to regenerative agriculture. Determine what outcomes you want to achieve, such as improved soil fertility, increased biodiversity, or reduced reliance on external inputs.

  4. Soil Health Improvement: Focus on improving soil health as the foundation of regenerative agriculture. Implement practices like cover cropping, crop rotation, no-till or reduced tillage, and the use of organic amendments to build soil organic matter and microbial diversity.

  5. Biodiversity Enhancement: Promote biodiversity on your farm by incorporating diverse crop rotations, integrating livestock where appropriate, planting hedgerows or windbreaks, and creating habitat for beneficial insects and wildlife.

  6. Water Management: Implement water conservation and management strategies to optimize water use efficiency and mitigate erosion. 

  7. Carbon Sequestration: Explore methods for sequestering carbon in the soil and vegetation. Practices like agroforestry, rotational grazing, and the use of perennial crops can help capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide.

  8. Monitoring and Adaptation: Continuously monitor the results of your regenerative practices and make adjustments as needed. Keep detailed records of soil health indicators, crop yields, biodiversity metrics, and input costs to track progress over time.

  9. Community Engagement: Engage with other farmers, researchers, and community members who are also interested in regenerative agriculture. Share your experiences, learn from others, and collaborate on collective projects or initiatives.

  10. Long-Term Commitment: Understand that transitioning to regenerative agriculture is a long-term process that requires patience, persistence, and dedication. Stay committed to your goals and continue learning and evolving as you work towards a more sustainable and resilient farming system.

Agricultural health = human health

For most farmers, the family’s welfare is at the heart and forefront of what you do and why you do it.

Agriculture is the backbone of not only Australia and its economy, but the global food system. There is a responsibility for farmers to recognise this inherent connection and their contribution to planetary health and human health.

Regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach to land management that focuses on enhancing soil health, ecosystem function, diversity, climate resilience, and socioeconomic outcomes. Holistic management is a decision-making process. Learning to make decisions that align with your goals, influences how you manage your farm and what direction you want to head in. It’s a whole-system management approach. There is a social-wellbeing aspect, economic aspect, and environmental aspect, with each one having an impact, and are just as important as one another. This Regenerative Agriculture Guide from Kiss the Ground provides a good overview of what Regenerative Agriculture is and its core principles and practices. 

Charles Massy highlights the importance of the five main landscape functions in his memoir Call of the Reed Warbler:

  1. Solar-energy cycle
  2. Water cycle
  3. Soil-mineral cycle
  4. Dynamic ecosystems (biodiversity)
  5. Role of human-social factors
 

By working with nature and understanding the 5 key landscape functions, farming regeneratively can help the environment stabilise and thrive, whilst also supporting a productive and profitable farming operation. A farm landscape is a complex adaptive system.

The fifth function of this complex system is not a biogeophysical function (solar, water, soil-mineral and biodiversity) but the human element; how humans view, treat and understand their farming system in conjunction with the ecological functions. We need to nurture the biology in the system to create a functioning, healthy agriculture which in turn results in nutritional produce for humans. The more simplified a system is, e.g. having low numbers in predator insects and plant species, the more vulnerable it is to devastating events like drought, flood, pest invasions, e.g. locusts and plant disease.

The following regenerative agriculture principles have been adapted from the universal soil health principles:

  1. Mindset
  2. Groundcover
  3. Living roots all year round
  4. Diversity
  5. Integration of animals
  6. Minimal soil disturbance
 

See the sections below for more details on the 6 regenerative agriculture principles. 

For newcomers and first-time farmers, this might be easier to acknowledge. For farmers with generational history, being open to learning new things might not come as easily.

Soil is a living thing.

It needs protection from the sun and wind to stay alive. Groundcover provides shade and shelter, much like a roof over our heads and trees for livestock. The soil is full of organisms that require this protection to continue functioning and actively moving nutrients between plant roots and the surrounding soil. Whether its green or brown matter, groundcover can act as a ‘skin‘ and not only protect from weather conditions, but also smother weeds and provide a nice environment for the soil ecology.

The soil also needs groundcover to retain water. Water is one of the most important elements of a healthy, functioning landscape that isn’t talked about enough but is going to be the largest threat to our agricultural sector. Without water, everything fails. With no water, plants die and leave bare soil. This contributes to a rising temperature, and it negatively interferes with the water cycles that regulate the Planet’s climate and cooling potential.

This links to Charles Massy’s solar-energy landscape function.

Living roots means green cover. The process of green plants photosynthesising provides nutrients to the plant to grow and exchange nutrients with the soil microbiology. If you clear land or spray out plants, what you’re doing is releasing a large amount of soil carbon and removing the element of the system that photosynthesises that atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon and food for the plant and the soil biology to bury that carbon.

Weeds can be an issue that require management and control. However, it helps to stop and consider ‘what is this weed telling me about the soil it’s in and the landscape I’m working with?’ Perennial species are key plants that can assist with having living roots all year round.

It is clear that diversity aboveground is directly linked to diversity belowground, and diversity belowground is linked to the health and carbon storage capability of the soil as well as pest and disease resistance of any plants communing with that soil.

Soil microbiome is the makeup of fungi and bacteria. If you look at your plant roots and they look like dreadlocks, that is evidence of fungal hyphae feeding off sugars exuded from plant roots (and fixing nitrogen!)

The diversity of plants growing in the soil is core to improving your fungal pathway as they provide:

  • Soil structure with varying photosynthetic rates and different root systems.
  • Plant microbiomes send out chemical signals to neighbouring microbiomes so soil microbes can be shared for different functions and gene-signaling.
  • With fungal-dominated soils, a higher proportion of carbon is stored in a stable form, which allows for high activity in the fungal energy pathway.

 

There are more microbial cells in plants than there are plant cells, and these microbial cells form the ‘endosphere’, a mix of bacteria, archaea & fungi. This endosphere moves around the plant and is capable of supporting the plant to build pest and disease resistance.

Cover crops or multi-species pastures can be an effective tool when transitioning into or improving a regenerative system, as they contribute the benefits of a diverse groundcover to the soil and increase its buffering capacity. Soil experts such as Ray Archuleta and Dr. Christine Jones suggest having species from the following 4 functional plant groups:

  1.  Grasses e.g. oats
  2. Legumes e.g. serradella 
  3. Broadleaves e.g. plantain
  4. Brassicas e.g. radish 

Useful links/resources:

Planned grazing, cell grazing, holistic rotational management. People use different terms to describe the integration of animals into their farming system, however the principles and purpose remain the same. Animals can bring challenges and benefits to a farming operation, but it’s about how you manage your livestock to maximise their (positive) impact on your land that’s important. These Mobile Link Organisms can add humidity and moisture to a dry, brittle system.

“It’s not livestock that are the problem, but rather, the way we manage them. We should manage to suit the environment rather than the reverse. Livestock can regenerate the landscape if managed by matching the stocking rate to the carrying capacity.” – Tim Wright, farmer from Uralla, NSW

Livestock require a diverse diet, much like humans, so they can maintain a healthy, functional body. They need an array of plants, at different growth stages, that offer essential nutrients (vitamins and minerals), provide fibre, and contribute to the animal’s physical resilience.

Ruminant animals are like walking composts. Their gut microbiome help absorb key nutrients for body function, but then they breakdown anything remaining and turn it into valuable manure. When this manure is decomposing with remaining plant material in the paddock, it’s feeding the soil ecology and building organic matter, which will feed the microorganisms and enhance plant growth.

There is a soil-mineral cycle under our feet that is vital to supporting a healthy farming system.

According to Massy, one of the key soil biological factors in a healthy soil are root fungus and these are called mycorrhizal fungi. There is a symbiotic relationship between the fungus and plant roots where the exchange of micronutrients occurs, feeding the soil and the plant, which in turn provides nutrients to the animals that eat it, or the crop produced for human consumption. If the soil is disturbed via methods such as tilling or overgrazing, the mycorrhizal fungi die and the connection between soil and plant disappears. This leaves a plant with little access to nutrients and so we have to input outsourced minerals to feed the plant. Plants roots, worms and microbes are examples of biological, no-till tools.

It is important to remember that that natural ecosystem is a living, changing system, so we must think holistically when it comes to these principles. Like anything, one practice does not work effectively in isolation so say you’re following a no-till system, consider using a diverse cover crop to compliment your practice as it will prime biology and service your soil microbiome.

When thinking about soil disturbance in terms of chemical inputs, soil expert Joel Williams from Integrated Soils talks about the difference between inorganic nitrogen and organic nitrogen. Plants require nitrogen to be in an organic form so it can create organic molecules that are plant-available, like amino acids and proteins. Inorganic nitrogen is a molecule with no carbon attached to it, therefore if using applications with inorganic nitrogen, the plant has to drain photosynthetic carbon to create organic molecules. By using organic nitrogen (such as biofertilisers or bio-stimulants), you’re helping the plant reduce that energetically expensive process of draining its photosynthetic carbon to convert inorganic to organic, and it can instantly absorb that carbon and direct the photosynthetic carbon into other functions such as root growth and grain production.      

Books 

We’ve compiled a list of our favourite books about regenerative agriculture and related topics. Enjoy!

  • Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making Allan Savory
  • Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy
  • Nourishment – Fred Provenza
  • Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life – David R. Montgomery
  • The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health – David R. Montgomery
  • Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations – David R. Montgomery
  • Soil – Matthew Evans
  • Dirt to Soil – Gabe Brown
  • For the Love of Soil – Nicole Masters
  • The Soil Will Save Us – Kristin Ohlson
  • Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth – Judith D. Schwartz
  • Groundbreaking – Phil Mulvey
  • The Wooleen Way – David Pollock
  • Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
  • The One-Straw Revolution Masanobu Fuoka
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Noah Harari
  • Quality Agriculture: Conversations about Regenerative Agronomy with Innovative Scientists and Growers John Kempf 

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