When farmer Barry Green first decided to establish an orchard farm in Donnybrook, he sought the best advice he could get. He called an advisor from the Western Australian Agricultural Department to his farm. Green wanted to integrate living animals into his orchard system. Chickens. He was met with a stern no. The advisor chuckled. Orchard pesticides and chickens don’t mix he said to Green. He guaranteed Green that the chickens would die.
Green chose to ignore the recommendation. But he can’t deny it hit a nerve. He refused to partake in an agricultural system that denied the natural symbiosis between plants and animals; a system that works against nature instead of with it. And he still does. His chickens roam free in his orchard that doesn’t require a drop of pesticide. It was this moment with the advisor that cemented his ambition to establish not only an organic, but a regenerative farm.
While it was the harmful use of pesticides that first got Green thinking, The death sentence that accompanies pesticides was only one of many perplexities modern agriculture presented him with. Our rapidly declining soil health was an issue caused by intensive agriculture he soon found far more daunting.
Public health nutritionist Ros Sambell says we will need two planets in 50 years, if we keep producing food in the same way in which we’re producing it now.
“All the measures are saying we can’t sustain it,” she says.
We have run our arable land into the ground. Scientists have been privy to this for a while now. The WA government is now slowly catching on too. RegenWA project manager Shayanna Crouch says conventional WA farmers are really good at what they do. The challenge though is how sustainable they are.
RegenWA is a government-funded program that provides guidance to farmers seeking to transition to regenerative practices. It is also creating a network of farmers and industry stakeholders devoted to sharing their learnings.
But the bigger issue, Crouch warns is “how many harvests do they have left?” This is where regenerative practices come in, she says.
Originating in the 1980s, regenerative agricultural is an ecological approach to farming that aims to improve soil health and rekindle the resilience of our agricultural landscapes. It’s different from organic farming which more simply aims to limit toxins in our food system. Regenerative farming is all in the name – it’s about allowing landscapes to completely renew and regenerate themselves.
But for many WA farmers, a deep-rooted hesitancy has stagnated the transition to regenerative farming. With time ticking, the question remains why are there not more farmers making the switch?
There are many barriers to adoption that shackle farmers to the destructive mainstream practices of modern agriculture: debt, insufficient knowledge and education, policy, technology, lack of incentives, communication and scalability. The list is a long one.
CSIRO research director of sustainable agriculture Dr Michael Battaglia says a major barrier to adoption is due to the harsh reality many WA farmers are financially challenged.
Green says when you’re indebted to banks, risk is not an option. Banks are quick to sniff out risk with regenerative agriculture because it’s not the norm and it hasn’t been marketed down our throats like industrial agriculture.
“You become subservient to the system.”
While the grip of debt is crippling, perhaps the biggest bully of them all is the hyper-commercialised agricultural industry and the food industry our farmers are trying to survive in.
Large-scale agricultural companies producing what is coined as ‘Big Food’ dominate supermarket shelves, leaving little room for competition by sustainable and regenerative farmers.
As Charles Massy puts it in his 2017 book The Call of the Reed Warbler, the modern agricultural system lives and breathes a productivist mentality: “the belief that food output should be prioritised at the expense of other agricultural, natural and human values.”
Sambell says Big Food producers don’t have public health, nutrition, or sustainability at the top of their agenda – that place is reserved for one thing only: money.
Battaglia says customers have to be willing to choose and pay for this produce and supermarkets need to be willing to identify it if we want to support farmers to make the transition.
A complete disconnect between producers and consumers goes hand in hand with this issue, Green says.
“A stable system needs a feedback loop. That’s what makes it stable, and the actions of the supermarket have broken that feedback loop, so there’s no connection between farmers and eaters.”
When all consumers hear on their TV when their tummies are full and their feet are up is “down, down on price,” it’s inevitable the value they associate with food is going to be money, says Green. The thought given to the nutrient profile or the sustainability of the apple you just crunched down on is as fleeting as its after taste. And perhaps not so sweet.
According to a 2015 journal article by Gunnar Rundgren, the old adage ‘the consumer is king’ wrongly attributes the amount of power we consumers really have. He argues the policy makers sit in the front seat. Our choices have impact for sure. We can chose the farmers market over the monopolised grocery store, lined with its perfect aisles stood tall like the endless straight rows of monocultured fields. But at the end of the day, it’s the hyper-commercialised food industry that is the true architect of what we eat. Our food production has come to be organised like an industrial assembly line. He says we must re-localise food production and de-commodify our food system.
Green adds that farmer markets and agritourism are essential to restore our broken perception of where our food comes from and what a sustainable food system really looks like. He believes it is only when consumers are enlightened about the destructive nature of our food system that market change can happen.
Sambell, alongside industry stakeholders and WA farmers, held a workshop in 2018 in order to uncover the challenges and successes in transitioning to a sustainable food system in WA. The farmers all echoed a common problem – Big Food in supermarkets. How can they make these practises viable when they would have to endure years of hard work: completely uprooting their farm, changing equipment, refining practices, failing, financial burdens, taking risks, refining again – to receive nothing in return given there is currently no mechanism for differentiating between conventional and regeneratively grown foods in supermarkets?
“There is a great intention of farmers to actually do the right thing, but the challenge is, the [food and agricultural] system isn’t actually reflecting the support for that,” Sambell says.
Battaglia adds: “[If we can] help connect consumers to farmers, to finances and capital and banks and insurers who may all be interested in this, there’s an increased capacity for the whole system to come together and create the enabling mechanisms for those sustainable practises to be applied.”
While mainstream media and public support may be lagging, Green alongside other farmers and independent scientists have taken to the internet to find their own solutions to the problem.
Charles Massy calls it an ‘underground revolution.’ Green says he doesn’t have to look further than his phone to witness its insurgency.