What drives farmers towards regenerative agriculture… or away from it?

Mark Wootton, “the carbon neutral farmer” at Jigsaw Farms, near Hamilton, Victoria

For Victorian mixed farmer Mark Wootton, it all began simply enough: through a love of trees and the birds they attracted.

He and his wife, Eve Kantor, enjoyed watching the different types of birds and recording what they found at their property, Jigsaw Farms, where they run 20 thousand sheep, 500 cows, and have timber and biodiversity plantations.

This eventually led them to construct a shelter belt, which ultimately became a carbon sink for the farm. (The birds were happy too).

Then, when Melbourne University approached Mark to record the data that would help Jigsaw claim carbon neutral status — he thought, why not? Mark achieved carbon-neutral status back in 2010, making him one of the early adopters of a whole-of-farm approach to reaching net-zero carbon emissions.

But don’t call Mark Wootton a “regenerative” farmer.

While he’s clearly passionate about solutions to climate change, he is not so keen on the term “regen,” which he likens to “an evangelical movement” that’s based more on emotions than science.

In our recent AgTech…So What? podcast series, we interviewed six farmers and experts, including Mark Wootton, about regen ag. And with all the controversy around the term, we’ve been fascinated by the various reasons farmers are drawn to, or away from, this system. Here are three.

Driver #1: A belief in the regenerative agriculture principles

A big reason regenerative agriculture is so polarizing and controversial is that it goes right to the core of a farmer’s belief system. Farmers practicing regenerative agriculture follow a set of principles based on farming in alignment with nature, ultimately seeking to increase soil carbon levels and “regenerate” the land.

This makes some farmers feel that anyone not self-branded as “regenerative” is, by comparison, perceived as a “degenerative” farmer — with the implication being that they are blindly (or worse, wilfully) wreaking havoc on their own land.

Sam Trethewey, who runs a regenerative agriculture farm in Tasmania, called Tas Ag Co

While not all regen farmers believe their way is the only way to care for the land, many do have conviction that the “conventional,” post-industrial method of farming is no longer working. They believe that the status quo is damaging soils, rather than replenishing them.

Tasmanian farmer Sam Trethewey came to regenerative farming from this perspective. He says it’s a grassroots movement and that to become a regen farmer you need a significant mindset shift.

For Sam, it’s not enough to just adopt a few practices, such as the rotational grazing of stock, to call yourself regen. It’s all about storing carbon in the soil, improving soil health, and lowering the use of chemicals. Or, as Sam says, “we need to just stop killing stuff and start working with mother nature.”

For regen skeptics, like Mark Wootton, the principles-based approach is too fluffy, lacking in cold hard evidence.

Driver #2: Meeting the growing consumer demand for sustainable food

There’s a clear and growing trend towards consumers wanting to know more about how and where their food is produced. Increasingly, this includes a desire for environmental credentials, such as the carbon footprint.

Some producers are tapping into this consumer demand by branding their products as “regenerative,” in addition to tactics like selling directly to their customers.

Sam Trethewey also falls into this category — he’s producing what he calls ‘carbon positive’ beef, and selling it to customers in high-end restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney. For Sam, the marketing opportunities that regen ag provides for his beef are a core part of his business strategy.

But many farmers are pushing back against this consumer trend, claiming that “regenerative” is meaningless, as the principles-based approach inherently means it lacks a clear definition.

Further, some believe these consumer demands are unreasonable as they fail to appreciate the constraints farmers face and the drivers behind decisions to use certain products and practices.

Driver #3: When it makes good business sense

For many farmers, the journey into regen ag begins when there’s a problem on the farm that conventional farming methods aren’t solving.

South Australian wine grower and Nuffield Scholar, Richard Leask, came to regen ag in this way: he was looking for ways to increase water holding capacity and solve a herbicide resistance problem in his vineyard.

Richard Leask, at his vineyard in McLaren Vale, SA

After traveling the world looking for solutions, as well as trialing new practices at home, he found that by following regen principles he could increase soil carbon, improve soil biology, and ultimately help the soil retain more water.

He also turned to inter-row cropping to help reduce reliance on herbicides. To combat the problem of reduced soil health due to over-cultivation, he has begun using mature green cover crops and a no-till system to control weeds- a system he has seen working successfully in multiple vineyards, in multiple countries.

While certainly promising, Richard Leask would also be the first to acknowledge that the evidence for regenerative agriculture is more anecdotal than it is based on peer-reviewed science.

But while good science and strong evidence is critical, clearing that bar can be a challenge, especially within the complex interplay between business and natural systems, where the data itself can tell two stories, depending on how you analyze them.

For example a 2018 report published by Sue Oglivy et al. through the National Environmental Science Program found a group of regenerative agriculture graziers were more profitable than other comparable Australian farmers.

Yet soon after, John Francis from Holmes and Sackett argued the measure of profitability in the Oglivy article “was inappropriate compared to how most farmers would understand profitability.”

Given the conflicting messages, some farmers may choose to wait for further evidence; while others, like Richard, may move gradually down the regen path, using the results of their own, non-peer reviewed experiments and drawing on the experience of their peers.

Will technology ultimately change the regen conversation altogether?

At AgThentic, we’ve decided to wade into this debate because we believe there’s a massive opportunity to shift our food system to better meet consumer demands, realize environmental benefits, and increase profitability for farmers.

This may, or may not, be Regenerative AgricultureTM- the label itself is beside the point.

As technology develops, from remote sensing to novel modelling approaches to low-cost measurement and verification technologies, so too will our ability to know which practices are delivering ecological and economic benefits, and to do so affordably.

With these technologies will come more evidence, evidence that can move the regen ag debate beyond the trap of a good/bad dichotomy, and enable farmers to access technologies and practices that will improve their profitability and environmental credentials.

Consumers and farmers will also be more confident in their choices. Food companies won’t be able to just slap a label on a brand and claim that a product is “sustainable.” Farmers likewise will not be able to defend a practice because it “feels right” or because it’s “what has worked for generations.” In all cases, the claims will need proof.

But while we have a strong belief in the need for evidence and further research, we also know that technology, consumer demands, and the realities and constraints of farming in a changing climate are evolving at a much faster pace than the production of scientific papers. The lack of evidence, however frustrating, is not going to stop this.

So while our research community works hard to build evidence, we believe there are opportunities to explore new practices, build new solutions and connect with customers — with or without the “regen” label.

What drives farmers towards regenerative agriculture… or away from it? was originally published in AgThentic Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

What drives farmers towards regenerative agriculture… or away from it?