While some farmers are struggling with the drought, others are seeing their profits increase – and their farms becoming “effectively drought proof” – by practising a type of farming that promotes soil health and biodiversity.
Regenerative agriculture is a farming system that prioritises the replenishment of the soils, avoids chemicals and industrial fertilisers, advocates for grazing systems modelled on African herds – larger herds on smaller paddocks with faster rotation – and has been heralded as a weapon against climate change because of the ability to store carbon in farm soils.
Advocates of this type of agriculture believe in a “self-organising wisdom that is inherent in the natural system if you allow it,” said fifth-generation Australian farmer and author Dr Charles Massy.
“Landscapes function in certain ways and if we disturb that, we degrade the landscape – simple as that.”
A recent US study found that regenerative cropping systems had 78 per cent higher profits than comparative conventional farms.
“If it’s cropping, particularly, but also grazing,” said Dr Massey, “they are slashing their costs enormously – usually over 90 per cent – because they’re not using chemicals, industrial fertilisers and lots of fuel.”
The same study also found that pests were almost eradicated in the natural farming system; comparative conventional farms had 1000 per cent more pests.
“The resilience of the landscape has improved, which impacts the bottom line: they store a lot more water, you’ve got more biodiversity, taking out pests, and that all contributes to the bottom line,” said Dr Massy.
Australian non-profit organisation Soils For Life collects and publishes “case studies of farmers who have turned old farming systems on their head and are doing very well,” said communications manager Niree Creed.
The Australian farms covered in their case studies, all of which use regenerative agriculture, are reporting large increases in carrying capacity and in profit.
“Productive farms will always be worth more,” said Ms Creed. “The more productive they are, the more valuable they are.”
While debt has crippled many farmers over the past 12 years, NSW grazier Martin Royds increased his farm’s profits 230 per cent between 2005 and 2014 by practising regenerative agriculture.
“He didn’t want me to highlight it too much,” Ms Creed said, “as so many people around him are in drought.”
Water is recognised as one of the drivers of farm valuations, particularly in current drought conditions and some farmers practising regenerative agriculture are not just turning a profit but “effectively drought-proofing their country”, Ms Creed said.
Profit increase in grazing typically comes down to two things, she said: input reductions, so no expenditure on things like weedicides, fertilisers, and feed – “Martin Royds hasn’t put a chemical on his property for more than 20 years”; and for the increases in the quality of their product, such as better wool and meat, which ensured a higher sale price.
Massy advises farmers who are interested in regenerative agriculture to simply “have a look”. Find someone nearby – “maybe in the next district or something, and see what’s going on”.
A former Australian chief scientist, Professor Robin Batterham, said landscapes were complex, living and highly complex systems so, “in regenerative agriculture, there’s no single formula that works”.
To drive up farm profits, “small changes made across the business is often more achievable and can have a larger overall profit impact,” states the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.
Dr Massey advised not to “commit to huge investments in machinery or anything else”, rather simply “fiddle a little bit on little experiments”.
Advocates expect to see the huge interest in regenerative farming continue to rapidly rise as farmers – pushed to the brink by debt and drought – adopt new practises.
“This movement is growing,” Ms Creed said. “We are getting constant requests from farms to be case studies.”