Experiences, thoughts and words of wisdom from the ARLASH community.
Researching Wellbeing of Regenerative Farmers
Kimberly Brown is in the second year of her PhD research project at the Health Research Institute, University of Canberra. She is a member of Associate Professor Jacki Schirmer’s Regional Wellbeing Survey Team. Jacki is her primary PhD supervisor and mentor. The title of Kimberly’s PhD is Exploring Associations between Wellbeing and Regenerative Farming. Her aim is to better understand the “wellbeing pathways” associated with regenerative farming, especially under difficult farming conditions such as drought.
Kimberly studied health promotion at Central Queensland University and completed a Master’s in Public Health at University of NSW. She went on to work implementing the Rural Adversity Mental Health Project in South East NSW. Under this project Kimberly worked closely with drought affected communities to implement strategies to promote mental health and wellbeing among farmers. She worked with many farmers and families who were distressed but also noticed that there were certain farmers who were coping much better than others. Wanting to know why this was so was the spark to her becoming a social researcher, saying, “I realised then that I had always wanted to do research”. Kimberly wanted to know what could be done to promote the mental health and wellbeing of farmers outside the formal health settings where she worked.
Kimberly’s PhD research project focuses on farmers, farmers’ households and farm management associated with the delivery of natural resource management innovations on their farmlands. “I see the crux of my research as finding out how we can deliver natural resource management (NRM) outcomes that improve the wellbeing of farmers as well as the land. The process of changing is stressful and I want to know whether there are certain ways of delivering NRM programs for land management outcomes which, at the same time, achieve positive outcomes for the wellbeing of farmers”.
Following a review of the literature, Kimberly found there were some claims in the grey literature (unpublished, non-commercial, think tanks, etc.) about the wellbeing benefits associated with ‘regenerative farming’. Despite these claims in the grey literature very little research existed on the potential association between regenerative farming and wellbeing. Kimberly’s research will seek to test the association between regenerative farming and wellbeing using quantitative data drawn from the Regional Wellbeing Survey.
To help inform the quantitative arm of her research, Kimberly interviewed eight farmers who had displayed regenerative farming practices and characteristics to gain insight into potential wellbeing benefits associated with regenerative farming. Kimberly asked each regenerative farmer about their approach to land management saying “I wanted to find out what it is about regenerative farming practices that promotes these farmers’ wellbeing and their ability to cope with drought, and other changes that are occurring to rural communities”. During the interviews, many farmers emphasised the importance they placed on a whole of landscape approach to farm management, such as practices that maintained ground cover, increased the organic matter of soil; along with matching soil productivity with pasture capacity to maximise farm profitability and minimise farm inputs. Kimberly asked farmers if and how they thought these practices influenced their personal wellbeing.
Preliminary results from the interviews also highlighted possible values that may shape regenerative farm management. The eight farmers who were interviewed expressed a strong sense of stewardship. They aspired to learn about regenerative processes that could lead to ecosystems able to renew themselves as well as deriving a living from a productive landscape/farm ecosystem that is increasing in biodiversity and resilience. They are not out to just make money. Many of the farmers interviewed also held a positive outlook on farming – they were generally optimistic and spoke about the enjoyment they got from their landscape and farming.
Kimberly is currently embarking on the next phase of her research which will draw data from the 2015 and 2016 Regional Wellbeing Survey to help answer questions relating to possible associations between regenerative farming and wellbeing.
If you would like to learn more about Kimberly’s research, or keep to up to date on research outcomes contact Kimberly on Kimberly.firstname.lastname@example.org .
Summary of interview with Kimberley Brown, ACT, 31.1.17
From Productivity to Profitability
Thank you Dave for asking me to come and do a quick chat, I think it’s a great little thing that you’re doing, I think it’s terrific. We’re all, sort of, little spokes in a big wheel I suppose is a good way of putting it. I think everybody is trying to achieve a lot of things and, we’re trying to do that where I’m from in Canowindra as well; and mid-Lachlan Landcare. I thought I’d just give a little bit of background about who I am and what I do.
I’m a farmer at Canowindra, which is about 30km north of Cowra. I’ve been there 28 years, 723 hectares there, which I farm with my wife and three beautiful kids. We’ve had an interesting journey along the way. I’ve been on the land my whole life. I went to boarding school in Armidale, but when I finished there I was a bit worried about whether I was going to be able to continue on the land. I did a trade for five years, which basically was to play football I think really for five years.
So I ended up back on the land, which was nice, and bought into the family business at Canowindra. Been there, as I say, 28 years, and we started off pretty well in that area as a mixed farming family. Along the lines of pretty high input farming, and, that’s been interesting to come along to where we are now. We were good at what we did, but high input I must admit. We grew probably 300 hectares of crop each year, with a lot of inputs of super and chemicals and all that sort of thing. And had a meat-sheep enterprise with a few cattle as well. We were good at what we did. We were early innovators of minimum till farming in our area. We went down the line of chemical use obviously, but we were using knife-points and press wheels and things like that. In 2001 we won the wheat and canola competition in Canowindra, the first time it had ever been done in our area, so we were good at what we did.
But as, what usually happens for us, we hit a bit of a crisis point. And, with my line of work with Landcare, which I’ll talk about in a little while – I’m trying to stop people getting to that what we hit, but a lot of times you’ve got to get into that sort of a bit of a crisis point hit before you actually start to question what you are doing.
2005 we had a hailstorm, which cut our crop in half and, being high input, that started to really sort of impact the way I was feeling, definitely, and our financial side as well. Let alone what we were doing to our farm as well. 2006 we had one of the worst droughts we’ve ever had at Canowindra. We’re about 600mls rainfall a year, average. That year we had 246 mm. I attempted to feed 2000 sheep during that time and still sow my crop. And, subsequently, had to put someone on to help me feed while I sowed my crop. At the end of the year I basically sold lambs for nothing, spent a lot of money on grain, a huge amount of money on grain.
I know that when I do a talk now, I put up a photo of 2006, which I don’t have many of, of my son, standing at a specific point that I can find. It looks like a moonscape, the whole background of the land. And I put one up as to what it looks about two years ago or a year ago. And, the big difference was, people would sometimes say, ‘oh, the young fella’s grown up a bit, he’s moved from a horse to a bike’ But you look at the background and it’s actually quite amazing the change in the landscape. And I think at that time I was so busy doing other things, like surviving, and running from one thing to the other, I couldn’t see what was happening in the landscape, and the environment. So that was a very tiring and testing time in my life and definitely in my family’s life.
2007, yep, thought, beauty, let’s get into it again. Copped another hailstorm. This time it wiped us out. We had two laps of the header in the paddock and we got wiped out. So that put us under real financial pressure. Okay.
So it was about then that a friend of my talked me in to doing a GFP course, Grazing for Profit course. I had some experience at what that was. My brother’s an early adopter, I wish he was here to talk about what he’s been up to, he’s practised Holistic Management about 20 years. I spent a lot of time looking at what he was doing, I was supplying him sheep and that sort of thing saying to him ‘it’ll never work, you’re gonna end up with rye grass, Patterson’s curse and it just won’t work’. Well every time I go to his farm now I have to eat my words, which is usually a great group of people with me. So I had a bit insight as to what he was doing, and I still wasn’t ready for that. I had a little dabble in one of the courses, it takes a fair while find your educator who you want to help you make change. And that’s where I met Terry McCosker. A mate of mine talked me into going to it. And, I think I stood up about 20 minutes in and said ‘Terry, where the hell have you been my whole life?’ because it was such a moving thing.
It started to put a bit of perspective in what the hell I was doing at home. So, because we were high-input people we had some big decisions to make about what we were doing. Part of it was destocking, because we were overstocked, and the other big step we had was how we were going to get off this high circle of fertiliser use. We were using atrazine, Glean, Logran, we used nothing under 120kg of starter fertiliser we also used anhydrous ammonia, urea the whole works. It was pretty big gear.
So, we went down the line of pasture cropping for about 3 years to try and wean ourselves off high input fertiliser. And the first couple of big changes, I’ll be honest to say, people often asked ‘what was the first big steps you did?’. Well okay, we had to get a bit of a goal together, about why the hell we were there and what the hell we were doing and the purpose of our life on our land and what we want for future generations. So that was pretty strong. So that was obviously socially.
We had to make sure we were going to be… I had to change my mind a bit from productivity to profitability. That’s been a big change in our outlook on what we do as well. Just because I run more numbers of stock doesn’t mean I’m any more profitable, so that was a big paradigm shift I had to make. And ecology. There was a couple of things there. Probably the biggest one for us was accepting the fact that we could put all our mobs in one mob or two mobs to create recovery and have plan to do that. So, using grazing charts and matching stocking rates to carrying capacity ended up being really critical for us. So that was a really big step. And what our perception of what a weed was. Coming from high input farming. My perception now, is if a sheep eats it, I’m very happy that it’s there. And if it’s providing ground cover and biodiversity I’m even happier it’s there. So if it’s improving my soil health and things like that, I’m really, really happy it’s there.
So I have some really simple goals, I also have some mission statements, obviously, which are really important. Simple goals can be just as easy as 100% groundcover 100% of the time; having healthy, active, great-smelling soil and things like that are mine. I have some really big family ones as well, I’m a pretty hands-on dad.
The other thing the courses did was also give you a perspective of what your weaknesses and strengths are. That came out pretty heavily straight up. I’m a pretty practical sort of person, probably like David in some ways. My financial sides aren’t that great but my ecology is moving along fairly well. And obviously with my Landcare stuff, that came out a little bit as well, and it seemed to come out about my ability to talk to people and engage people, so. If you’d asked me that 8 years ago I would have said, ‘yeah, forget it, no way in the world’, but it comes out pretty strongly that I can do that. So that’s been a really interesting thing that’s actually happened as well.
I’d probably, the other one is to, is during several courses, I went through the list of courses that I’ve done: GFP a couple of times, I’ve done Holistic Management, I did a Holistic Management Diploma, I didn’t actually complete the diploma course, but I, like as in the study and get my paper, but I actually sat through all the classes, but it was sort of taking me the wrong direction, so I just made a lot of contacts and had a lot of learning through that. Obviously Grazing for Profit, nutrition courses.
So part of my goals is that I want to keep myself educated and keep learning and reading and that sort of thing, But the most important thing that’s come out of all that is having mentors and people that you admire, and people that you can ask questions to. My brother was very important to me during that time. But just that whole networking of other people that if something popped up was huge, obviously Dave Marsh is one of them as well. I’ve got several that I don’t mind ringing and asking a question. But that takes a bit of learning for people, especially farmers, we’re very, we can be very enclosed in what we do and what we think and not a lot of them want to ask a question. So getting people to actually open up and ask a bit of a question and get a bit of help, it’s an interesting process for people to go through, but it’s very important, because there’s no way in the world that you can learn everything from just one course or two courses, It’s a pretty important step.
So now we run a prime lamb operation, pretty well. We don’t run as many sheep as what we used to but we’re more profitable, we might have to pay tax this year which will be a change, which is really good. We run a backgrounding cattle operation as well, we trade a few cattle, and we’ve progressed from pasture cropping to zero-kill cropping now, so, but that’s pretty limited. We don’t rely on that. That’s more for me for ecology change rather than profitability or financial gain. So that’s one that I continue on with. And obviously I work for Landcare on a small basis as well.
[David:] There might be people here who aren’t aware of what ‘backgrounding’ is…
[Scott:] Backgrounding cattle just means that we have people who come on and pay an agistment rate or weight-gain rate of having cattle on your farm. So I have people who send down heifers to grow out over winter time and they pay me an agistment fee each week for that. If it’s a weight-gain one, you get paid so many cents or so many dollars per kilo that you put on that animal so,… it can be sheep or cattle, there’s a number of things. We try and use that as our top base, our cream of the crop I suppose you’d say. We have a nucleus flock of sheep that we try and maintain. That does vary a little bit, with stocking rate and carrying capacity, but that’s our breeders. We don’t want any more than about, I’d say about 75-80% of our farm max is to be breeding stock, because if you get too many than that that you can’t offload quickly enough. Once you’ve joined, you’re pretty well committed unless you can find someone who wants to buy joined sheep, but usually it’s dry. People don’t want them. So, it’s important that we have that diversity to be able to shift really quickly with our stocking numbers.
Is there any questions about what we do at home? Please yell out I want to try to keep it as brief as possible so I don’t bore everybody to pieces.
So that’s our main income that we ….. My wife’s a school teacher. And at the moment, I noticed that David wrote on one of the things here about being, our production side, how do we manage that. Our stage of our life at the moment, I’m trying to be as productive as I possibly can without hurting my ecology too much; I’ve got a very big focus on improving my ecology and it is moving. And it’s moving quite quickly. Dave’s been very good for me for that cause I’m always in a hurry… like, it’s just not happening, and his words of wisdom he says that in ecology terms it is exploding, but in human times you want it always quicker. That’s been a really good settling thing for me, to say righto, just let it happen. I think that’s really important.
But, I’ll have three kids in private school next year. That’s starting to… I opened the envelope up last week and nearly had a heart attack, so… I’ve got to be in that, in that little bit of, um, I’ve got to have that thought process of being profitable. If I’m not being profitable I’ve got to go do something else. So, that’s really important at the moment that we remain profitable. I want to be here for whatever generations I quite possibly can, hopefully that continues on.
[Question:] Scott, how do you reconcile the profitability with looking after your land and how will you face the next drought in terms of the fact you say you’ve been looking after the ecology generally…
[Scott:] Yeah, look, definitely, using a grazing chart is part of our planning and monitoring and, quite often the grazing chart at the moment will tell me that things are bad, but actually the land looks better than what the grazing chart is. So I’m building buffers into my country, it’s becoming more resilient, there’s no doubt about that. It’s holding a lot more water. Our dams are always empty, which provides other issues that we have to attend to. But just the sheer process of planning, monitoring and re-planning alone is making our place a lot more profitable.
[Question:] And are you an island or what’s happening around you generally, is this a more regional approach?
[Scott:] As in how many other adopters we have? There’s quite a few, I’ll probably talk a little bit more about that when I give my little Landcare spiel about the grazing project we’re running. Um, at times I feel like, I’ve got a couple of neighbours who have done some training and they quite often say ‘when you gonna get some cows in here, you’ve got too much grass’, and their farm is like a table, so, um, that can be a common thing in certain areas.
It’s amazing what neighbours don’t see over the fence. My brother is a prime example. His farm, particularly, has two big sheep fellas beside him and they can’t see the grass on his farm, or the animals, let alone that 700 cows go past in one mob in two days in each paddock, they just think he’s got no stock. When they actually see them go, well they mustn’t see them go past, but when they go past it’s a hell of a sight. That side of things, they quite often will say to Gus, ‘you’ve got too much grass and you got no stock what are you doing’, but then when it starts to blow away, their country starts to blow away, they can’t see that either.
Things like rainfall events, 2010 we had a major rain event in Canowindra, which was very noticeable, I could nearly not get home. It was the biggest flood I’ve seen on our farm. I shouldn’t say our farm so much but – there ‘s old rabbit netting that was dug in on the creeks and it’s the old style big rabbit netting which would have been from probably 80 years ago. It took that out of my creeks. So it was a really sizeable flood, and yet it put a foot of water in some of my dams. So that to me, is a big indicator that our soils are getting healthy and soaking up moisture. But, all the other dams in the area, like around the area, were chockers and they were running and that was what was coming down the creek…
[Question:] The soil…?
[Scott:] Yeah, and nutrients and goodness knows what else.
So there is a lot of perception there, that if people are interested in looking over the fence as to what’s going on… but it’s very difficult to get people to really concentrate on what is actually happening. It’s an interesting one. We do have some people, like in any area, that explain and are that keen and are just running with it. So that’s nice to see to, so it’s infiltrating in, definitely, into the area.
Excerpt from a presentation by Scott Hickman to ARLASH AGM, ACT, 2.12.15
Mid Lachlan Landcare & Growing the Grazing Revolution
In 2010, Mid-Lachlan Landcare decided that they, they came across a little bit of money in conjunction with the CMA of the time, Lachlan CMA, about whether they could do a project that would help grazing management basically, and they came up with, a few people came up with the idea of a project called Growing the Grazing Revolution, with Mid-Lachlan Landcare. I’ve just printed this off, but you can get it on the website, and it is actually there, and it gives all the goals and things they wanted to achieve.
But basically it was a project they wanted to get together where they could get someone to help with mentoring, but also to help put groups of people together to discuss little things about what is happening in grazing management. And it’s not preaching Holistic Management, it’s not preaching GFP or anything like that. It’s more that getting people to understand that a small amount of change in the landscape can have a bit difference.
I know that 85% of Australia is under some sort of grazing management practice, and I have some pretty big goals of what that means to me. Things like, I’d love to have natural resource management in mainstream agriculture, okay, that means being involved in Landcare. At the moment, there’s a feeling out there of ‘Natural resource management doesn’t mean that much to me as a farmer’ – well it should. Everybody should be thinking it is. We know that we’ve got a very valuable asset and it’s an asset that should be part of every farmer, really, it’s not just planting trees. And it’s the same for Landcare – it’s not just planting trees or waterways and things like that. We can make a simple change in landscape management, it could be… I wrote on there, stuff for our central tablelands strategic plan, if we could have in the central tablelands 80% groundcover – which doesn’t sound like much, but if we could have 80% groundcover 100% of the time in the central tablelands, the actual ecology change, community change, sustainability, all those things, water change and things, would be huge. So that’s a really simple little goal that would be absolutely fantastic to incorporate in.
The other one is to have a positive message too. I think too many times we look at the bad things that have happened in the past, or you turn the news on and you have a very negative aspect of what’s happening in the rural communities. Things like that. It’s nice to get up, have someone get up and talk really positive stuff. We know the world’s got some issues, but by geez, I’d much rather listen to the positive stuff than the negative stuff about that. That invigorates me. The depressing stuff just gets you down.
So the growing the grazing revolution was formed in 2010 and we sort of started it off as a… We’ve got a board that helps, puts ideas and guidance for me, especially, I’m just again, I’m just a small cog in a big wheel. We run field days, we have six grazing groups, that have been running, we’ve got six now, we’ve had about five of those running for about the past five years obviously. We do major field days, we do some trips out of the area to see what other people are doing, we’ve been to Dave’s place quite a few times. We try and do the mentor learning as well. I always try and have someone who’s been practising some change for a while at my grazing meetings if I can. Numbers can vary greatly as to what we do in those areas, but usually we have six to 12 to 15 people at each meeting, meeting two or three times a year. And we really try and target on specific things that are happening in the season at that time, and some planning if I can. If I can get someone to take home just a little bit of a message to implement on their farm, it might be just going from eight mobs to four mobs of sheep, or starting to really concentrate on some ground cover, I think we’ve done a really good job.
We have a large corporate company that owns 22,000 acres north of us in Canowindra they turned up to a GFP course that we ran in Canowindra. I was shocked that they came along. They bought their managers from Sydney and Victoria, plus their livestock manager who looks after the four or five properties down the east coast of Australia. And they’ve implemented a really simple cell grazing operation on their 22,000 acres. They’re not going to always get it right, but to structure it through from top to bottom, I take my hat off to them, because it’s a really, really big effort to do that. And I still have a relationship with them, where I go and see them at least once a year, just to see how they’re going. They won’t always get it right, but by geez it’s a lot better than what it was. So that’s been fantastic.
So if I can get someone to take just a little bit of information home, I’m really excited about that.
We’ve had some outstanding speakers over the years at our field days. David Lindemeyer was an interesting one, he came and did one for us at Boorowa. I think it opened up David’s eyes as to actually what the rural community is really trying to do. Um, and a lot of us have that goal of improving landscapes with animals. I think, it’s been an interesting approach for me to go onto people’s farms and talk to people about what they’re doing. I’m not an educator, by any means, I wouldn’t say I’m an educator, I like to think I’m a bit of a mentor and I can help people capacity build and get people together and hopefully find out information. Number one thing to don’t do – don’t walk onto a farm and tell farmers what to do. Cause I know what I’d do. You’d get the front gate before you can say boo.
So, I think there’s a softly way to do it, and you quite often have to take people to show them what’s actually happening to encourage them with confidence and then you have to mentor them through the change, if they’re going to make change. As I say, we’ve got a wide range, we’ve got people who are obviously earlier adopters than me, like my brother, 20 years ago, and he still comes along to try and pick up bits and people (sic) from other people, other farmers from that group, group learning. We also have people who are just about to launch into some training, which is fantastic, we also have pure farmers turn up, ‘cause they realise they could probably do their landscape management a little better and easier, and also some just come for the social aspect of, ‘what are you up to at the moment?’, ‘is your place looking as bad as mine or looking as good as mine?’, or ‘what can I skyte about…?’ We like to do that, farmers, but I think that’s important to that we have that social side of getting farmers together.
We had one fellow, which I won’t mention his name. Saying ‘You know what ruined the’… I won’t do his voice, though David, cause you’ll know who it is, ‘ …what ruined the social aspect of a little place like Canowindra?’, ‘Tell me?’, ‘– the booze bus’, I’m going, ‘what do you mean’, ‘well, we used to got to town on a Friday night, we’d have a coupla beers, we’d share all our information, and if we had a problem we’d share it out there, and we’d go home feeling much better and you’d know you’ve got it off your chest’, he said, ‘and I can’t do it anymore’. He brought that up as one of the reasons why he comes to the grazing groups. So that’s really interesting to hear. Um, so I think that side of it’s been absolutely fascinating.
Um, so yeah, look, as I say, I think we’ve got, we’ve done, I’ve just written a couple of little things here, we’ve done nine major field days since 2010, this is in our area, Mid-Lachlan, we’ve had 520 people come through those field days, it just amazes me that they want to keep turning up to things like this, which is absolutely terrific. We have six area grazing groups going which meet two to three times a year, I do quite a lot of personal visits now as well, and that’s just that pat on the back, ‘keep going you’re doing a really good job’. Maybe pointing someone with some information with someone they can go and talk to about what they’re trying to do. We have an email list of about 380 people, and that’s from all over the place. It’s amazing how many people will travel to a field day, they’ll travel three hours, four hours to come along if it’s a good field day. I’ve just got to be careful because I know that a lot of Government departments don’t understand the whole capacity building, they look at those figures and go ‘it’s a successful project because they’ve had an average of 57 people to every field day’. That’s not why we’re doing it. I’ve had field days where I have had three and four people there and they’ve been the best days of the lot, because people come along for the right reasons and they want to learn. So I’d much rather do ten smaller field days or ten smaller group get-togethers than a large field day. They’re a lot easier to run and the information sharing is a darn sight lot easier and a lot better.
Um, so that’s what we’ve been up to. I’ve done a, this year we did, Mid Lachlan and myself in conjunction with South East LLS did a start-up one a Boorowa, Yass , Bookham and Crookwell, and again it’s been pretty successful. We did two big field days, again the last one at David’s, but that was pretty good to, whether or not, what step they take to continue it on, will be interesting to see what happens in the new year.
I should probably say some of the pitfalls of the project, one has, the positive for me is it is run by Landcare, it gives me, I’m not aligned to any organisation or corporate body or someone trying to sell something, so that gives us independence which has been absolutely fantastic.
I have a fantastic LSO, which has cut my book work and reporting time in half, cause I’m a bit like David at the computer, I’m bit of a typer like that, so we can, she sits down and she says just talk, she dictates what I’ve been talking about and it makes sense and comes out and it looks good. So that’s been a really big positive thing with Landcare. Also our Board, obviously, gives me guidance and makes sure I don’t steer off the wrong way. And having that network of people that I know I can ring and get hold of is really important.
The negatives have been that we are Government funded and we tend to go from six months to 12 months funding, and we’ve quite often said we need, it would be lovely to have three years’ funding ahead so we know we can plan three years ahead. Rather than, we ran this year six months without any funding at all, and then we got caught up halfway through. So that’s been a bit of a challenge and you get a bit sick of just chasing people to see what they can do for money. But, that seems to be a fairly common occurrence. But otherwise it’s been a pretty positive project as far as I’m concerned.
Have you had enough of me? Does anybody have any questions they’d like to ask? So there is a network happening. And I think you’ll find… Obviously RCS and people, companies like that have a very big network happening. They do a thing called Executive Link after their training. Which is quite expensive, I didn’t do it, my brother did that and it got him there a lot quicker than what it has for me, But it is a highly successful one… we have, out of the HM training in our area, there’s two groups I know that are still going, I try to help them a long a little bit. But they do tend to get a little bit fragmented, unless you’ve got someone who’s willing to organise it and get it going.
[David:] Need someone to drive it, don’t you.
[Scott:] And also I think the other reason is that in our area is that most people know who I am too, and, I’m pretty approachable and also I don’t mind people ringing me, so people ring quite often, it’s amazing how many people will ring you, or pull you up in the main street, so the in-kind stuff, which I love with Landcare as well, happens a lot. You go to town to just, try and, classic example – the national field days this year, pretty ordinary day, I took my 12 year old son up and, I was in disguise, had the big hat on big coat, cause it was raining, I was trying to sneak around to see what was doing, I probably ran into I don’t know, 20 to 30 people, it was just, and they’d be asking me questions. And at the end of the day, my son looked up in the car and says ‘Geez dad, you can talk’. I said, ‘I was in disguise mate, I was trying to…’, so he got me a beauty there, but that happens a lot and phone calls, it just seems to be that people are unsure, they want to ask, so that link and network stuff actually works really well. It’s hard to quantify and how you put that down on paper as well.
Excerpt from a presentation by Scott Hickman to ARLASH AGM, ACT, 2.12.15
David Marsh tells us he has been farming Allendale, 814 hectares of undulating arable country, as mixed farming, sheep and wool and some annual crops, and cattle since 1971. Over the next thirty years he managed the farm through the unpredictable Australian climate cycles of erratic rainfall interspersed with severe droughts. The operation switched to cattle as David grew older. All this time it was farming in the industrial model, with lots of high impact products such as inorganic fertilisers and herbicides, taking advice from experts in maximising yield. Hand feeding livestock in droughts was hard on the farm’s family, their income and the land. By 1999, David had concluded that “a fixed enterprise management regime in a variable climate was a very poor gamble”. And the intensive workload of the standard drought-recovery cycle was not the way he wanted to live with the land.
Since 1999 the ‘laws of nature’ that is, natural systems, have acted as the guide for farming decisions, allowing natural processes to unfold without the interference of chemicals or tillage. David describes how this shift has radically altered the Allendale landscape. Appropriate animal numbers, both increasing and decreasing, are continually matched to the dynamics of changing seasons and timed to allow the land to recover. Locally evolved native grasses, long absent from constantly grazed pastures are returning, the soil fertility, measured in terms of full groundcover and increasing soil carbon has rebounded; natural capital has increased at almost no cost, and the workload has become a partnership in which the land itself does most of the work.
The classic standard for good land management is to increase its social, economic and environmental capital. Regenerative farming on Allendale differs from the Australian farming tradition on all three. Socially, a regenerative farmer’s relationship with the land is a partnership, which, as David Marsh says, is eco-centric, not techno-centric. As a partner, he felt responsible for the damage of the droughts, and unworthy of the gifts of his partner, the land. Environmentally, after only two years the tendency of all natural systems towards increased productivity could be clearly seen. In the years that followed, the unimpeded interaction among plants, soils and climate had done half the restoration work. Economically, the cost-benefit from farming holistically included increased profit, and a more consistent economic performance than from the boom and bust of previous technology-dependent farming.
David concluded by saying that living sensitively with the natural patterns of the landscape, and allowing the land to meet its own needs, has meant that he and his family are able to live the way they want to live. He has now become an active node in a network of regenerative farmers who are making these same shifts in farming practice together. David is a founder member of ARLASH whose focus is on regenerating landscapes and social health. All members share their experiences in re-forging the human-land relationship.
Summary of interview with David Marsh, Allendale, NSW, 28.5.15
Regenerative Landscapes and Social Health Connections
Valerie Brown talks with John Harris.
Valerie Brown sees ARLASH as ‘a germ of a movement’ for ‘building connections’. Particularly important for Val are the connections between social health and the biophysical landscapes of Australia and the planet. She told how ‘in peoples’ experiences these connections are well recognised but it is not the way our [mainly western] society addresses important public health and landscape management issues. They are treated as if they are quite separate and unrelated. Public health professionals are quite dismissive of landscape managers and vice versa’. Val brings this understanding to ARLASH after decades of working and ‘trying to link the biophysical and the social’ as a researcher, social activist and teacher.
Val continued, ‘while the vision of ARLASH is most imaginative, I am not sure it is transformative’. Val found through her work that people readily reduce issues to oppositions. In addition to biophysical and social issues being treated as separate and different (i.e. a dichotomy) there are paradoxes like sustainable development, which cannot both be possibly and therefore requires collective dialogue for resolution. She has found that people find it very difficult to connect dichotomies and paradoxes into a relationship. Asked why, Val mused, one dimension by which I would explain this is that we have no custom of reflecting on such oppositions, of wondering “why do I do that”. Val tells us that she has no doubt that dichotomies and paradoxes can be changed into positive relationships by constructive dialogue and potentially becoming a catalyst for change.
During Val’s 1990s research into the social dimensions of the Landcare movement, when a third of all farming families were involved, she realised that Landcare was both strategic and a change of viewpoint. She discovered that people’s identity with their environment was more important than their social role. The connections that created Landcare communities across Australian landscapes were not the result of social conditioning but were generated though individual identities. Val went on to reflect further on this finding and how Indigenous Australians find their identity as a group saying, “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are incapable of thinking of themselves as other human beings separate from their cultures and their landscapes. You cannot separate these”. For a multicultural Australia, trying to find common ground amongst such cultural diversity may not be necessary or plausible. “In this era, it is more important to look for the recognition of diversity, we should be looking for diverse landscapes too: those which support most people in place”.
Val shared her vision for the whole of humanity saying, “I have a vision of human beings in collaboration”. “Peoples with a collaborative understanding of each other and willingness to cooperate and negotiate the diversity between them and to create a synergy that would be a move forward. I did not dream this up. It is based on direct experiential learning with many different communities and the synergy created by each community-in-collaboration”. In over 300 community consultations and workshops overseas and throughout Australia, Val became a catalyst for tackling complex social and environmental issues by encouraging constructive dialogue and collaboration. It was during these consultations and workshops with diverse peoples, in diverse environments and landscapes that Val hit upon five constructions of knowledge that are perpetuating isolating modes of thinking, maintaining professional silos as well as reinforcing the merit of individualism and dichotomous thinking. The social constructions of knowledge Val identified are individual, local, specialized, organizational and holistic. She called these subcultures of Western society because their legitimacy is embedded in the formal social structures of a dominant culture, each with their own rules and languages.
Val concluded by telling us that we cannot keep talking about change without saying what it is. At first she came under ‘‘aggressive defence against change’’ in her community workshops but after an explanation of the five western subcultures and calling for the building of connections between them, Val found participants changed and constructive dialogue and collaboration flourished. “And this is the big thing I am interested in, if we can discontinue the dichotomies and divisions created and change to thinking about relationships as well, we have all these possibilities for synergies, for collaboration and for unprecedented solutions and paths”.
By ARLASH seeking change and asking for greater reflection, Val sees the Alliance also coming under ‘aggressive defence against change’ but thinks that this can be countered by giving recognition to diversity within the Alliance and considering how members can work together with this diversity through collective thinking. Ever positive, Val told us that “we seem to be moving into an era where we humans are being more reflective and even sharing our own identities as members of humanity and as a species. I believe that ideas come first and then behaviour. A new behaviour may lead to a new idea but in humans the mind always leads and then there are changes in behaviour. By using the full capacity of collective thinking individually and in groups, positive change through building connections is made possible”. http://www.collectivethinking.com.au/valerie-a-brown/ [accessed 13.5.16].
Summary of interview with Valerie A. Brown, ACT, 6.8.15
Regenerative landscape management and land-use
Richard Thackway approaches regenerative landscape management as a land-use issue. His interest in the regeneration of landscapes was sparked while growing up on the family farm on the New England Tablelands, NSW. While observing his father clearing native forests for productive land use, Richard became aware that native forested landscapes had an intrinsic capacity to regenerate themselves after disturbance.
Studying Rural Science at the University of England in the late 1970s turned out bittersweet. Richard did not take to his studies well because he knew that he could not go back to the family farm. It was too small. Nevertheless, Richard’s interest in Australian wildlife was ignited and as a teenager he took up an opportunity to travel to Sudan where he participated in aerial surveys of African wildlife. On returning to Australia full of excitement to learn more, Richard enrolled in environmental science at the University of Canberra. He also volunteered for work experience at the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology (now Sustainable Ecosystems) in Canberra. There he worked with the distinguished research scientist, Alan Newsome. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) courses had just commenced on the UC campus in the early 1980s and Richard excelled at using this computer-based method for integrating different kinds of geographical or land-based information. After graduating, the CSIRO Division of Water and Land Resources, approached Richard to continue further study at the Australian National University completing a research-based Masters entitled Environmental classification as a basis for faunal survey. Subsequently, Richard worked at CSIRO with the Principal Research Scientists Ken Myers, Joe Walker and Henry Nix on land and vegetation surveys for military training areas.
Over the next two decades Richard broadened his experience while working in collaboration with research colleagues and refined his understanding of Australian ecosystems and the use of GIS techniques at CSIRO, Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (ANPWS) and Environmental Resources Information Network (ERIN). Richard travelled widely in Australia liaising with state, territory and national land management and research agencies to develop the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia. This was a new way to describe and classify Australian landscapes which included geology, soil, terrain and vegetation thus extending the early and pioneering CSIRO land systems surveys. Subsequently, Richard led the development of the National Vegetation Information System by translating and compiling state and territory native vegetation survey and classification initiatives. More recently, he worked closely with his late colleague, Dr Robert Lesslie, to develop the classification system called, Vegetation Assets, States and Transitions (VAST): a framework for assessing and mapping the transformation of native vegetation condition at site and landscape scales.
Richard argues that land management practices influence ten vital ecological criteria of regenerating landscapes: soil hydrology, soil physics, soil chemistry, soil biology status, fire regime, plant reproductive potential, canopy vegetation structure, understorey vegetation structure, canopy species composition and understorey species composition. By monitoring landscape condition over time using these criteria and by including associated indicators that land managers and ecologists consider relevant, VAST becomes a learning and decision-making tool for land managers enabling them to reveal regenerative pathways for repairing degraded landscapes.
Richard concluded by saying: “Deep insights have been gained by working closely with land managers and local ecologists through analysing their adaptive management practices in various ecosystems in tropical, temperate, semi-arid and arid ecosystems of Australia”. Underpinning Richard’s work is what he considers “a new paradigm” that “native vegetation and landscape functions are remarkably resilient”. Richard, who is the ARLASH Coordinator, believes that this provides the Alliance with a positive platform for advocating regenerative landscape management and social health throughout the whole of Australia.
Summary of interview with Richard Thackway, ACT, 18.6.15
ARLASH is powering healing and reconciliation
Kerry began by saying that meeting Charles Massy while both were studying for their doctorates at ANU was her “first engagement with people who were trying to decolonize their minds and move beyond petrochemical agricultural practices and harmonise the experience of living on country and engaging with different knowledge traditions to do so.” Kerry then found herself “invited into different kinds of spheres of influence around land management and environmental health and wellbeing and people who were thinking about biotic communities and what sort of grounding they needed.” Kerry also discovered that there were similarities with her own views on country and productivity and what it means to make land productive.
A few years after completing her doctorate, Kerry accepted an appointment as Professor of Indigenous Health at the University of Melbourne in 2013. One of her first tasks was designing the inaugural Oceania EcoHealth Symposium and Workshop for reconciling peoples and landscapes, health and wellbeing. It was at this Symposium that three founding members of ARLASH, Charles Massy, Col Seis and David Marsh, spoke there and shared their intellectual and experiential journeys as regenerative farmers. It was the first time that people in the health sphere had the opportunity to engage with farmers who saw themselves as ‘underground insurgents’, rebuilding soil and its capacity to grow nutritionally high quality food for city and suburban folk.
Kerry talked of her empathy with members of ARLASH and of understanding the importance of what the Alliance is trying to achieve: the transformation of attitudes to landscapes and to country. She celebrates a return to organics as a land use strategy rather than continuing investments in agricultural pursuits that treat land as an exploitable resource. Kerry told of her deep sympathy for the farming community following the last severe drought when for the first time in the history of Australia the suicide rates of farmers equalled that of young men from vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. Her empathy also arises from knowing firsthand what it is like to be different, saying “this requires small acts of bravery every single day and making sure these acts are consistent.”
Asked about individuals finding the strength to do this, Kerry thought that it had more to do with healing, of “practising a certain level of vulnerability” and accepting being seen to be different to others. Healing is the salve for the sacrifices and hardships and fractures manifest in such aspiring regenerative farmers and their communities. It begins by individuals taking a different view of farming and managing landscapes and reconciling their ways of living in a farming community and being on country. Kerry believes that where there is the strength of conviction for healing and reconciling peoples and landscapes and country, then community health flourishes.
Public support for this new found conviction is vital to enabling communities to communicate with each other and to inform others. “This can be done through holding field days and going on-line, using social media”. She told of knowing many people who were searching for meaning through ‘on country activities’ and that when people find ARLASH, and the goals of ARLASH resonates with them, they will support the Alliance. Kerry thought that National Parks and Heritage Sites were other landscapes where healing and reconciliation is facilitated through joint management agreements. These collaborative arrangements are reconciling the ways people think about landscapes and country and forge relationships between national parks and local communities, especially with local Indigenous people with ancestral connections to country. For example, there are the Gunditjmara people living in south-west Victoria who designed and managed eel traps and farmed eels sustainably for millennia, http://www.gunditjmirring.com/#!nationalheritagelisting/cf9f [accessed 6.8.15].
Kerry can think of many ways the Australian continent has been carved up that do not acknowledge that prior to colonisation there were over 300 language groups across Australia. So there were over 300 ecosystems in existence where people were able to live and survive and flourish. Kerry said, “Today, many individuals imagine Australia as one large landscape where previously there was so much diversity and there are people who appreciate, understand and work with that diversity but we as a nation completely negate that diversity.”
Coming to the end of the interview, Kerry said ARLASH is a powerful way of being collective which safeguards the rights of humans to have an emotional connection to the landscapes over which we as a society provide stewardship. This is a quality that sets ARLASH apart. “When people have or call out an emotional response in you and you know their science is good, and you appreciate their struggle to be different and some have had NO CHOICE but to go a different way; then you can’t help but have a human to human connection and a human to human response that brings you back to emotional, social and mental wellbeing as well as physical health. Once you ground peoples relationships to each other back into country, back into landscape; well that is a completely different kind of experience altogether.” ARLASH “is illuminating a new way of being productive, of becoming and living on country at the same time. It is superb”.
Summary of ARLASH interview with Kerry-Ann Arabena, ACT, 23.8.15