This is a very different musing to the typical – and yet not so different in some respects either. The tone of some of what I have written before has often queried the reasons for people failing to change the ways they manage the landscape over which they have ‘control’ in order that those same landscapes could become ever more regenerative and productive.
I have to be very honest. I have often said that we need to get rid of farmers! Not all farmers – just those who seem to be so uninterested in looking after the health of their animals, their environment and their soils. The actions of these people I consider to be both an animal welfare issue and environmental vandalism!
I expect many people to be somewhat affronted by that statement and perhaps to get “their knickers in a twist” and need to lash out at that statement. And that is their right and so be it if that is what happens for them.
I would ask those same people to also consider this - we can never be hurt by the words of someone else unless there is truth in those words, or unless those words play into a belief – conscious or sub-conscious -that we already hold as true about ourselves.
If there were no truth in my belief then it would be merely dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic with no emotional import at all.
The origin of the simplistic notion that it would be simpler to just remove all perceived ineffective land managers to effect change came about from my time after transferring to a mine that the company I worked for had recently acquired. My job role was to develop and put in place a Quality Assurance System, Occupational Health Management System and an Environmental Management System. The intent of these systems was so far removed from the reality of the workplace culture that had existed prior to this time that I quickly became aware of the fact that it would be easier to “sack the lot (employees) and start again”! Due to workplace laws in this country that was not possible and so my journey of discovery into how to motivate people to embrace change was forced to begin.
There is so much talk about the drought at present and so much imagery of bare ground and increasingly starving livestock, and of the need for society and government to support the struggling farmers and I say – “Bullshit”! Some of the imagery being portrayed in social media or mainstream media should see charges being laid against many land managers and owners from an animal cruelty aspect alone. And that is without thought for the long term harm being done to the land under the feet of those poor animals.
You see a drought can create a space of minimal or no growth. It cannot in the short term create a space of no ground cover – of bare soils. That is a creation of management decisions – not drought. Now we have the great good fortune (?) to live on the driest inhabited continent on earth – subject to very erratic rainfall patterns and increasingly hot temperatures. Drought seems to be an inevitability.
In fact in the 37 years I have lived in this part of this country I believe that 90% of those years have presented us with drought conditions for approximately 9 months of every year. Sporadic rainfall events that are not followed up by regular falls create very short growing ‘windows’ and freezing winter nights create an almost total absence of growth even if moisture is present. This means that we have to make hay while the sun shines so to speak. When the growth ‘window’ occurs we have to maximise the effectiveness of that growth and budget it’s subsequent use assuming – at least in our brittle environment – that it has to last until the same likely event next year!
The elegant simplicity of the truth of this should be apparent to anyone who wishes to think about it. But why is this important?
It is vitally important because the vocation of farming is dependant upon the health and healthy processes of it’s prime asset – the soil – being able to take advantage of both rainfall and sunshine when they are available to grow whatever we are aiming to grow in our production system whether that be pasture in grazing or crops in horticulture.
You may have noticed that I spoke about farming as a vocation rather than as a business. This is for one simple reason – a business never survives by starting with a capital base and then exploiting that until it no longer can function or even exist. This is a model too often seen in our behaviours that can sometimes in the extractive phase make a lot of money for a very small group of people but in the long run leaves just a train wreck coming that is now someone else’s problem to deal with. And yet that is exactly the model the majority of ‘farmers’ have used for too long and unfortunately are still using. This is simply mining – here today and gone tomorrow.
I recently watched a short video detailing how on a monitored property 6 months of carrying more stock than the carrying capability with the rainfall that had been received resulted in below average production for 3 years! I have observed this first hand many times travelling around this country and have been guilty of having created the same effects myself at times.
My emphasis in this writing is not just to be judgemental but to offer hope. You see, we can (and will) make mistakes! There is nothing wrong with that – it is in fact necessary – it is part of the human experience. And if those mistakes create enough pain we may even be motivated enough to try not to repeat the same behaviours that led to the pain that we are currently experiencing. Wow! Imagine that!
One of the things that I have discovered via my counselling practice has been that most people are only ever going to consider changing their stories when the pain of hanging onto them is so great that they cannot handle them any more.
My personal hope is that this period of drought may be one of those times. When the pain of doing more of the same creates the willingness to try something different then land managers now have the most amazing opportunity to create a new looking future if they can survive the economic stress they are enduring. The only downside to this is the fact that regenerating these landscapes will be a slow process but also a very rewarding one.
Having said that the recovery process would be slow we are learning more all the time about how to expedite the process and the end result of managing the land in a regenerative fashion rather than an exploitative one has to be seen to be believed. It takes less work, it is more fulfilling and a joy to be involved in, it heals broken cycles such as the water and carbon cycles, supports much greater biodiversity and results ultimately in increased production at lower costs per unit produced.
Managing for the sake of soil health produces healthier crops / pastures that provide healthier food for the animals / humans that consume them at the same time as restoring ecosystem functions by keeping rainfall on and in the land for longer and allowing for longer stream flows of cleaner water as well as producing more plant life to feed more soil biology to help sequester more carbon to lift the system even higher.
There is no other way to farm. We either work in harmony with our environment or we ultimately grind ourselves down into the dust we have created by being at war with it. To farm in the manner described in the preceding paragraph or to be endlessly mired in warring against weeds, disease and pests, drought and floods. This consumes much too much energy and ultimately we will never win. Nature always will.
And in this time Mother Nature is showing us the folly of not being in harmony with it, and is asking us to consider a different way of acting as land managers. There are many people farming regeneratively now – all around the world but also many in this sunburnt country we call home. Yes the dry affects them – but much, much more slowly than conventional mechanistic farmers who are removed from the natural systems and processes that sustain life. Many of these regenerative practitioners have improved their ecosystem functions to the point that whilst they experience rainfall reductions they do not experience drought with starving animals and degraded soils as we are seeing now.
The one difference between the two systems of agriculture is choice – it is always that simple, and conversely always that hard. Many have been forced to change as a result of drought or financial hardship but none would choose to go back. All those who have dared to be different have copped the flack from doing so socially and amongst peers in their industries but have persisted both because it works ecologically, productively, socially, financially and because it feels good.
Who wants to farm when you are at war with everything and at the mercy of our climate? What a struggle! And for too long we have portrayed that struggle as heroic! Heroic it is not. Stupid it definitely is. And cruel as well – to the poor animals and landscapes that it is inflicted on. None of us would like to be starved so it is time to stop doing it to other sentient beings – whether they be macro or micro flora and fauna.
When we look after the whole functioning system it will look after us. True heroism is seeing that something is not working and daring to make an effort to change it. Not by warring with it trying to make it perform as you in all your infinite wisdom (or lack of?) perceive is should. Instead flip the story on it’s head.
If I want to grow meat or fibre then first I must grow nutritious forages (not mono-cultural or couple of species forages as that will never equal nutrition). If I wish to grow nutritious forages then first I must support all of the life giving processes that grow a healthy thriving soil. In this manner I can then endlessly achieve my aim of producing the meat or fibre and enjoy the process of doing so.
To grow nutritious grain, fruit or vegetable crops first I must support all of the life giving processes that grow a healthy thriving soil. Only then can I produce a healthy life promoting product. Not a commodity laden with “...cides” that is at war with health.
If we wish to farm then we have no choice but to grow soil – not as some sort of hydroponic substrate that we have so often regarded it as – but as a living breathing ever upward trending medium that provides the basis for all life.
And for those in the grip of drought this can be dismissed as irrelevant or “yeah ..but” and that is OK for those who believe their farming system is as perfect as it could ever be and that they are merely victims.
For those who are tiring of this way of being in the world take a little time to look around and find the people near you who still have feed in their paddocks and healthy, vibrant functioning livestock and ecosystems and reach out to them for guidance. Most people into regenerative agriculture are quietly just doing it wondering why the rest of the world does not get it. They are tired of being bagged for what they do but are generally willing to help coach someone genuinely interested in change through the processes that takes.
And the easiest time to start this process is when you have nothing left. It seems a paradox but when you have finally removed the distractions that “normalcy” provides and the attendant unspoken rules of behaviour that go with that, then at last you are free to proceed in a different manner. This is a process of learning that is guaranteed to be both exciting and rewarding and continues for a lifetime. It all starts with a dialogue and an openness to consider that there may be another way.