Amid growing evidence and awareness of the impact of industrial agriculture on the environment, climate, public health, farming communities and local economies, an “underground insurgency” as Charles Massy calls it, is transforming the practice and culture of agriculture. This is being achieved through the work of dedicated groups and individuals for whom an alternative vision of agriculture is essential to healing the planet and human health. Massy, an Australian sheep grazier and author of Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth has been an influential force in the efflorescence of regenerative agriculture.
More than a set of alternative farming practices, regenerative agriculture encourages an interdependent relationship between humans and the land, aiming to renew the health of ecosystems, the nutritional integrity of the food supply and the vitality of communities. In a continent known for relentless droughts and flooding rains, the philosophy and practice of regenerative agriculture is beginning to permeate farming and rural communities across Australia.
Massy’s Call of the Reed Warbler is a regenerative farmers’ tome that carefully and provocatively considers a new perspective on the human relationship to landscape. Grounded within the unique and diverse Australian landscape and the history of Australian agriculture, the book explores the emergence of a “regenerative era” where humans develop an “ecological literacy” which allows them to read, work and learn from the land. Massy argues that we need to shift from a “mechanical mindset”, where nature is devalued, and “manipulatable property” from which to extract profit, to an “emergent mindset”, where humans develop a relational approach to the earth that draws on indigenous knowledge, the best of modern science and open-ended creativity in response to the increasingly unpredictable forces of nature. Since the release of his book, Massy has been participating in ongoing farmer workshops, public presentations and conferences to stimulate a global conversation and enhance the practice of regenerative agriculture across Australia.
Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seek to mimic nature, for example, through encouraging polycultures of different plant and life forms or grazing animals in ways that mimic their typical or historic movements in their natural setting, gradually improving and revitalising soil, water, vegetation, biodiversity and animal systems. Instead of using synthetic inputs like chemical pesticides and fertilisers to push the limits of production, regenerative agriculture uses a set of farming practices not just to grow food but to progressively improve the ecosystem in which that food is grown. The system draws from decades of scientific and applied research on agroecology, agroforestry, holistic management, organic and natural sequence farming and permaculture across global farming and research communities. It includes practices such as conservation tillage, no-till farming and pasture-cropping, crop rotation, water harvesting and well-managed grazing, among others. Increasing attention has been drawn to regenerative agriculture as a way to mitigate and build resilience to climate change due to its ability to sequester carbon and rebuild organic matter in soils while also increasing crop yields and boosting farm profitability.
“Regenerative agriculture to me is open-ended, which is what nature is,” says Massy. “There’s no limit to where she might go in regenerating health and you don’t know which direction it’s going to take. That’s what makes it exciting.”
The need for “a new agriculture” is apparent across Australia’s complex and fragile landscapes. Soils are typically older, more deeply weathered and nutrient deficient when compared to those of North America or Europe. The continent is also prone to extreme climatic events, such as recurring prolonged droughts, intense flooding, bushfires and heatwaves, putting farmers and farming communities at risk of crop failure, livestock death, insect plagues, financial hardship and damage to mental health. The introduction of a distinctly European agriculture in 1788 had a vast and extreme impact on the flora and fauna of Australia, with land-clearing, invasive species and foreign crop and livestock breeds degrading soil, water and vital ecosystem functions. Decades of continued land clearing and overgrazing coupled with industrialised farming methods have culminated into considerable challenges for the future of Australia’s agriculture sector.
Regenerative agriculture, however, is opening up new spaces for innovation and opportunity for Australian farmers and rural communities, with mounting farmer case studies and research highlighting its multiple positive impacts. A recent study commissioned by the Australian Federal Department of Environment found that the average profit levels of regenerative graziers were consistently higher than comparable farms (particularly in years where there was low rainfall) and that they reported significantly higher levels of wellbeing and greater confidence in their ability to achieve farming goals.
New programmes, educational courses and farmer networks have recently emerged to pursue and advance the ideals of regenerative farming. These range from on-farm consulting and extension service groups such as RegenAg and Regenerative Australian Farmers, to research and training programmes such as Soils For Life, the Savory Institute’s Holistic Management and RCS Australia, to Landcare Australia, a national not-for-profit providing funding and capacity building opportunities for integrated land management and natural habitat restoration. The slow, but steady growth of regenerative farmer networks and cross-sectoral alliances are taking root across the country, while exciting educational developments are expanding beyond the agriculture sector, with an Australian-first school curriculum that explores regenerative agricultural principles and practices for students from Grades 3 to 10.
On a policy level, the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, a collaboration of experts from Australia and across the globe led by Southern Cross University, have created a list of policy recommendations and actions to present to the new federal government. These include free education programmes for farmers targeting drought resilience, business models and supply chain management, and funds to assist research and development.
Beyond the farm, regenerative agriculture opens up a dialogue about the interdependence of living systems. Like Massy, regenerative farmers Helen and Michael McCosker believe that authentic regenerative agriculture can exist only if it is completely interwoven into a thriving regenerative culture. ‘Regeneration’ in this sense, requires a reshaping of the human journey, one that cultivates the values of stewardship and solidarity with an ethics of care in response to the challenges of our time. These values are what underlie the McCosker’s and graphic designer Kelly Jones’s initiative, National Regenerative Agriculture Day, a movement, they affirm, to “heal the heart of our food chain.” Part of this movement requires a conscious shift in the language, imagery and paradigms used to understand and communicate agriculture to a broader, mainstream audience as well as communicating the relationships between humans and the environment across the food chain. Jones works alongside McCosker to translate regenerative concepts such as increasing soil matter and other practices into a visually attractive and comprehensible forms for farmers and non-farmers alike.
What Massy, McCosker and Jones, and an increasing number of food systems experts are drawing attention to, is the need for a paradigm shift from mechanistic or industrial modes of agriculture predicated on chemicals, reductionism and the domination of nature, to a holistic and diversified approach that seeks to mimic the natural, self-organising properties of a healthy dynamic ecosystem. As Massy explains in Call of the Reed Warbler, “entirely new and transformative solutions to addressing the unsustainable practices of industrial agriculture won’t come from within the same box.” Regenerating soils, landscapes, life and human health will require mutual learning relationships between humans and landscapes that draw on the collective knowledge and experience of all those with an interest in human and planetary health.
Growing out of the groundswell of awareness that the industrial food system is both dysfunctional and harmful, the regenerative agriculture movement is gaining mass grassroots support in Australia and across the globe. Driven by creative energy, community solidarity and an urgent sense of pragmatism, it has the ability to bring together an invaluable network of agricultural, health, policy, indigenous, academic and research practitioners seeking solutions to some of the most complex issues surrounding climate change, environmental degradation and human health.
Charles Massy will be speaking as part of the Sustainable Food Trust’s upcoming conference Farming and Climate Change: Towards Net Zero Carbon Emissions. You can buy your tickets here.
You can read an excerpt from Call of the Reed Warbler here.
Photograph: Duncan Rawlinson