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A regenerative experiment on a Northland dairy farm (supplied)
A regenerative experiment on a Northland dairy farm (supplied)

BusinessNovember 4, 2019

With the walls closing in, regenerative farming is a way forward for agriculture

A regenerative experiment on a Northland dairy farm (supplied)
A regenerative experiment on a Northland dairy farm (supplied)

A quiet revolution is growing on New Zealand farms. As debates on water and emissions grind on, a new group of farmers are showing us the way forward – regenerating the land, and themselves, writes Daniel Eb.  

Mum has a saying: when you’re boxed into a corner, move the walls. It’s a reference to the two-sided nature of crisis – that in difficulty lies opportunity.

New Zealand agriculture is not in a crisis, but we all feel the tension rising. They’re a tough bunch, our farmers, but this wave of anger and pain in response to new freshwater and emissions proposals is a clear indication that they’re hurting. A recent morning radio show turned into a public, cathartic release for many Kiwi farmers who just wanted to be heard.

There’s a pervading sense that farming as we know it is under threat – that the walls are closing in. This is a global issue. Australian farmers are losing the fight against historic drought. American farmers are struggling, battling record flooding, reckless trade policy and the breakdown of the family farm way of life. Dutch farmers recently blocked motorways in protest against environmental reforms; some Kiwi farmers have called for the same.

But if Mum’s right, and opportunity really does lie in the middle of difficulty, where does the agricultural community go from here? As we brace ourselves for oncoming crises – rural mental health, social license and policy, labour shortages, the new look Fonterra – what are our new ideas to hold onto amid the pain?

In my work advocating for transformation in our food system, I see a new group of farmers who are breaking the norms of farming in NZ. These people give me hope. They’re pioneering the quiet revolution that is regenerative agriculture.

On the surface, regenerative agriculture is about going back to farming basics. It’s using diversity (crops, pastures and animals) in combination to enrich the soil. It’s about building more resilient, circular farming systems that minimise off-farm inputs like imported feed or energy intensive fertiliser. It’s about building (aka sequestering) carbon in the soil, integrating farming and forestry and rebuilding local communities with smaller, family run farms. You can find a better overview right here.

The core principles of regenerative agriculture. Image: General Mills

But it’s not just the practices that make regenerative agriculture a source of hope. It’s the people. These are dyed in the wool Kiwi farmers who have conversations from a place of vulnerability and humility. They talk honestly about pain – the prospect of losing the farm, the strain of just keeping pace with rising costs and falling prices or the legacy they’re leaving behind.

Grief is often the start of the regenerative journey. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these farmers often experience some personal trauma or crisis that inspires a deep re-evaluation of the things that matter – their purpose, impact and relationships.

What follows, though, is enthusiasm and action. In fields and Facebook groups around the country, they meet, share notes and move forward together. They aren’t waiting for industry or government, they’re doing the best they can, with what they have, on the land they love.

Take Hawke’s Bay farmers Greg and Rachel Hart for example. They use their farm, Mangarara Station, as a canvas for regenerative experiments. A mobile chicken coop follows stock to better fertiliser pastures, a small dairy herd feeds the Berkshire pigs, holistic grazing increases soil carbon to build drought resilience and soil fertility. The Harts and their partners have planted more than 100,000 native trees and are building a tight-knit community centred on their eco-lodge. Their final product, prime Angus beef, sells for a premium in Auckland butcheries. Their passion, energy and optimism shone through in their Country Calendar and On Farm Story episodes.

Recently I visited a Northland dairy farmer just starting his regenerative journey. His ‘way in’ was a combination of nearing burn-out and the birth of his son. He realised that the legacy he was leaving for his son just didn’t sit right. Wading through his chest high, 12 species forage grass and legume mix experiment, he dug his hands into the soil and pulled up a root-filled, dark brown mix crawling with earthworms. “This was my worst paddock” he said, “this is year one, imagine this place decades from now”.

A regenerative workshop on Mangarara Farm, Hawke’s Bay (photo: supplied)

Most Kiwi farms don’t look like Mangarara Station. Most Kiwi farmers don’t talk like my Northland dairy farmer friend.

Compared to the pace, inclusiveness, adaptability and optimism of the regenerators, conventional farming feels mired in confrontation. We’re arguing about 5% inclusion in the emissions trading scheme by 2025 and definitions of swimmable vs wadeable rivers. Farmers feel ignored, unheard and under-valued. Despite good prices, confidence is low. The dividing lines are becoming entrenched – farmers vs government, rural vs urban, farmers vs farmers.

This all gets dressed up as things that just aren’t true, but get clicked on. That townies don’t like farmers (they love them), farmers don’t care about water (they do) or that we should phase out animal farming (we shouldn’t).

But let’s put the bullshit aside and be honest. This pain we feel is real and it’s bigger than any one issue. It’s the pressure of the conventional model hitting its social, political, economic and environmental limits.

It doesn’t matter anymore how we got here or who’s to blame. All that matters now is how we move forward and gear up for the challenges heading our way. Farmers, regenerative or not, will be on the frontlines of change and are our single best asset in the fight.

I’ll be the first to admit that there are gaps in the regenerative framework – a desperate need for more research, actionable first-steps and, critically, a channel to earn price premiums and buy in from customers.

But for an increasing number of Australian and American farmers in crisis, the luxury of wait and see isn’t an option. These are the markets that are leading regenerative agriculture and earning first-mover advantage by building the wider food system apparatus – the brands and labels – to support it.

Marketing regenerative agriculture has already started in the US.

Beyond the farm, regeneration is a call to action for all of us. It connects with people, because it’s a response to the things we lose in our modern way of life – the fracturing of communities, environmental degradation, human health and wellbeing.

Regeneration frames us as active participants and Kaitiaki (guardians) of the land and people that give our lives meaning. It empowers us with the responsibility, not just to maintain these things, but to nurture, grow and where necessary rebuild them. It’s a powerful story to tell, and it’s our story to tell. NZ Story have already started with their gripping ‘powered by place’ campaign.

In marketing speak, regenerative agriculture will elevate our food and fibre from commodities bought without thought, to belief-driven products that global customers choose because we stand for something they want to believe in.

If we want to achieve incredible results, we have to do incredible things. That’s why we have a Primary Sector Council building a new vision and pathway to change. I have every confidence that the values and tenacity of the Kiwi farmer will see us through. But we need to look at ourselves honestly and admit that the pain we feel is our model getting boxed in.

Let’s not wait for crisis. Now is the time for courage and new ideas. Let’s move the walls.

Keep going!