Bush Summit 2019, Climate Change and Regeneration in Australia

The inaugural Daily Telegraph Bush Summit was held at Dubbo, NSW on the 18th of July 2019 where Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor Leader Anthony Albanese outlined their Australian agriculture vision.

“Our farmers are among the best in the world, if not the best. 75% of what our farmers produce is exported," said the PM.

Yet the federal Labor leader said people are hurting, and hurting badly. Some are on their knees, overwhelmed by everything that life is hurling at them. Not all the discussions at the Bush Summit resonated, with criticism that

it was “another talkfest”, and with calls for action. Farmers said they need help urgently, and the most critical thing was water, whether it fell out of the sky as rain or was irrigation water. Political cartoonist Warren Brown described the issue as "a topic that has torn apart rural Australia."

Drought-stricken farmers and their neighbours in country communities may not have heard exactly what they wanted, but the PM did make some significant statements that the media did not pick up on in their reporting afterwards. The media either did not understand the importance, or the media chose to ignore it, as they did in the past. Some of what the PM said, and the fact that the PM said it, has great significance.

From the 7 minute time marker of the video to the right, the PM talked about soil health, carbon sequestration, regeneration, making soils more profitable and the work of former Governor-General Major General Michael Jeffery from Soils for Life. The national soil advocate will be introduced to help farmers improve profitability and boost water storage, by addressing climate challenges and poor management practices that impact on soil quality. This is very consequential and significant news!

The PM has made it clear that generational leaps in the areas of the management of water, soils and land will have to be made. He said that the work of soils advocate Michael Jeffery made a lasting impact on him at the National Drought Summit 2018, as he talked about 1 gram of carbon in soil holding 8 grams its weight of water. The PM said:

"Healthy soils with a higher carbon component, protecting our soils, remediating our soils, is essential for any serious water resource management policy. This is especially true in Australia where, due to the increasing marginality of the lands we farm, we must do more with less.

That’s the reality, that’s the business risk of running a business in the agricultural sector.

Australian soils are under strain.

They’ve been working overtime, producing food for a growing population and to meet international demand for our high-quality produce.

They’ve been eroded by wind.

They’ve been baked by drought.

They’ve been impacted by, on occasion, not the best practices."

Around 60 percent of Australia are being used for agriculture production. Farmers are the stewards of this highly valuable asset, on behalf of 25 million largely urban Australians. Learning from Soils for Life, other highly successful regenerative farmers, soils scientists and educators around the world, are essential.

Soils for Life and the Restore the Soil: Prosper the Nation report

“Australian agriculture has to adopt regenerative practices, or continue to suffer through recurring and increasingly severe droughts.” - Michael Jeffery

Soils for Life is an Australian non-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging adoption of regenerative landscape management. They support the growing number of innovative farmers and land managers who are successfully regenerating their landscapes while maintaining or increasing their production. The Government will also provide $2 million over 4 years to support their work. Soils for Life has many worthy case studies on their website.

Michael Jeffery is very understanding about the plight of the Australian farmer. He wrote the report “Restore the Soil: Prosper the Nation” on how to address the current drought, and presented it to several ministers last year. In the video below he describes why money and feed given to farmers are simply crisis management, and not long term solutions. There is a lot of talk about drought-proofing farms, but Michael says too little is being done to inform farmers on how to go about doing it. Listen to the short video below:

We recognise the value of this work, even though the Australian media seem to be unable to. Regenerative practices are vital for the Australian landscape, the growing of the nutrient-dense foods for increased health of animals and humans, the restoration of ecosystems, and eventually more stability in farming, despite the effects of weather extremes.

According to this article, the 2017 report, Restore the Soil: Prosper the Nation, Soils for Life recommended the federal government:

  • Agree to a national soils policy with the objective of maintaining and restoring the health of the Australian agricultural landscape

  • Educate children about soil health and healthy food with a garden in every primary and junior high school.

  • Promote the production of healthy food from healthy soils as an antidote to illnesses and allergies.

  • Support farmers to adopt regenerative practices so they don't have to go into debt.

  • Establish a long-term soil, water, vegetation and agricultural knowledge program to encourage collaboration between scientists and successful farmers and re-establishes State/Territory agricultural research stations.

  • Increase the funds available through National Landcare to encourage more farmers to adopt regenerative land management practices.

  • Ask Rural Research and Development Corporations to direct a proportion of their research funds to improve understanding of the plant and soil microbiome processes underlying regenerative farming practices.

The Heat Dome Effect and Restoration of Ecosystem and ‘Climate’

‘Climate change’ is wrapped up in many micro- and macrocosm definitions, influences and jargon that not everyone understands, but the analogy below is easy to understand. This is what some of Australia’s farm land currently looks like, and there are vast areas of it:

Image: Hunter Valley, NSW in drought. There is no protective green growing plant cover on it, and it may have been overgrazed. If it gets heavy rains or strong winds, the topsoil will be taken off farm. As time goes on, farmers will be less likely to recover from drought. Our lives depend on the protection and conservation of the 6 inches of topsoil for our very existence.

Image:   Tilled farmland. If sufficient rain doesn’t fall, some farm land can look like this for a few years in a row. Science show soil microbiology, and thus soil fertility, suffers tremendously as the surface is ravaged by heat and other elements.  Mycelial networks  of mycorrhizal fungi cannot flourish in this soil. This is mismanagement of a precious resource. This is how dustbowls come into being. Cover crops and no-till are some of the ways this cropping farm land can be regenerated.

Image: Tilled farmland. If sufficient rain doesn’t fall, some farm land can look like this for a few years in a row. Science show soil microbiology, and thus soil fertility, suffers tremendously as the surface is ravaged by heat and other elements. Mycelial networks of mycorrhizal fungi cannot flourish in this soil. This is mismanagement of a precious resource. This is how dustbowls come into being. Cover crops and no-till are some of the ways this cropping farm land can be regenerated.

At the 30 minute time marker of this video, Australian soil scientist Christine Jones explains the heat dome effect, as described to her by a Texas farmer. On a day when the ambient temperature is 105’F, the soil surface of bare field can be 155’F. However, beneath warm season multi-species cover crops in an adjacent field the soil surface temperature is 77’F.

Read that again,

  • Ambient temperature is 105’F (41’C)

  • Surface of bare field can be 155’F (68’C)

  • Multi-species cover crop soil surface is 77’F (25’C)

Christine says that the presence of green plants is the most important factor for climatic stability, and also for soil health. She says this heat-creates-more-heat effect is happening in Australia, because we have large areas of bare soil. In previous articles about regenerative and biological farming we have described how many farmers overseas are now utilising cover crops for grazing in their permanent pastures to restore biodiversity, resilience, water holding capacity and to grow a nutrient-dense feed for their animals:

Soil scientists show that grassland really need the right kind of aerobic soil microbes, agrochemical-free farming, rotational grazing and high diversity of plant species, to create soil fertility and remineralised forage. The soil functions when there is abundant beneficial soil microbes, like mycorrhizal fungi, protozoa, nematodes living in it as part of a natural ecosystem, more here.

American microbiologist and soil specialist Dr Elaine Ingham explains that we need

to make sure we have the right organisms in the soil that will set up the habitat and conditions in the soil, that will make it impossible for the diseases, the insects, the pests, the problem organisms, or the weeds to grow. These beneficial microbes can be utilised to kickstart abundant diversity and resilience in pastures. They are not only part of the carbon cycle putting atmospheric carbon back into the soil, they are part of the nutrient-cycle that create healthy plants, animals and people.

Image:   Making hay bales in NSW. This is another practice that exposes the soil surface to the sanitising heat of the rays of the sun, diminishing soil microbiology year after year. Some regenerative farmers like  Gabe Brown  now recognise this as a harmful practice. Damage to soil health can be mitigated by keeping some pastures exclusive for grazing and hay making, and others as green growing, grazing pastures only. Farmers need to start doing their own little experiments so they can get visual proof that what they are doing works.

Image: Making hay bales in NSW. This is another practice that exposes the soil surface to the sanitising heat of the rays of the sun, diminishing soil microbiology year after year. Some regenerative farmers like Gabe Brown now recognise this as a harmful practice. Damage to soil health can be mitigated by keeping some pastures exclusive for grazing and hay making, and others as green growing, grazing pastures only. Farmers need to start doing their own little experiments so they can get visual proof that what they are doing works.

Farmers need to understand the basics of soil health first before regeneration will make sense to them. Growing biology and organic matter are essential for the soil's water-holding capacity, as former Australian Chief Scientist, Professor Robin Batterham explained in this Soils for Life video.

It is the soil microbes that build the soil structures - called aggregates - around plant roots, that funnels the water deeper into the soil. The organic matter stores it there. It’s the substances produced by soil microbes - like glomalin - that create a protective space around plant roots that make them ‘invisible’ to harmful pathogens, creating a certain amount of ‘immunity’. When mycorrhizal fungi connect in a super-network, it becomes a community-wide super-organism that is the true basis of ecosystem resilience. It transports nutrients, information and carries out complex tasks. It’s highly intelligent, organised and cares for all the plants in the community when allowed to flourish. This natural synergy is all about collaboration, co-operation and mutualism. See this Soils for Life case study about weed control through improving soil fertility (no herbicides). Farmers Greg and Sally Chappell of Shannon Vale station came to the realisation that weeds flourish in poor soils, and that the structure, chemistry and biology of the soil needed attention to fix the problem.

“We can be more profitable in year one and usually by year three you’re seeing significant changes to the soil ecosystem itself, and to farm profitability.”

“It’s a matter of understanding how ecosystems function and then applying those five principles…” - Gabe Brown, regenerative farmer

Farmers need to learn to think about the soil microbiology in everything that they do. Many agrochemicals - like some commonly used herbicides - have antibiotic or anti-fungal properties. Synthetic fertilisers can disrupt the vital symbiotic relationship between microbes and plants.

Some farmers have been discouraged by reports that profitability of regenerative farming is low initially. US regenerative farming pioneer and farmer educator Gabe Brown said in this interview that he and his business partners have not come across a farm - that they work with - that has not shown a profit in the first year. Gabe is the author of a new book Dirt to Soil, and teaches regeneration all over North America. Some farmers overseas are regenerating so fast that not even nature can do it in a similar timeframe, but they need the right kind of tools and information first.

Of Urban/Rural Disconnect

The Bush Summit 2019 was another opportunity to bridge the gap between country families doing it tough and city residents. In his speech, even the PM expressed his concern about the disconnect between the bush and the city.

There are many articles that report farmers saying that ‘outsiders’ don’t understand their problems, like this one. Gippsland farmers, who are in a ‘green drought’ say that despite the recent good rainfall, it was not considered enough to change their fortunes. Paddocks have a short green tinge - a result from earlier sowing - but they were still dominated by weeds. Gippsland farmers are still spending a fortune on bringing feed in, and many dams are still empty. It is estimated that Gippsland farmers in their third year of drought have lost as much as 70 per cent of their regular income. There are hopes for more rain, access to more water and more financial assistance. Many farmers are having a mental battle to say positive and to make good decisions.

“Our regulatory regimes and policy frameworks need to help, not stymie. This means abolishing unnecessary and bureaucratic rules that get in the way or demoralise recovery and resilience efforts.” - the PM

In the PM’s address (transcript here) he talks about helping rural producers and communities to take charge and stay in charge of their futures, by giving them the tools and information to make their own decisions, not having state, federal and local governments tell people what they should be doing.

The drought has shown us that farming has to become more sustainable. We would love for Australian farmers to learn how to utilise these drought-proofing practices, regenerate, diversify and thrive. As always, we’re looking forward to the fine print of the Morrison government’s new policies, to see how they enable the nutrient-dense artisan foods, and if they will allow the direct farm-to-consumer sales that are profitable for small-scale farmers and rural communities. We know that some Australian-produced nutrient-dense foods are currently being exported. There is nothing wrong with export, however, our own rural and urban communities should be fed and nourished first.

“People want to know more about where their food comes from - that’s well-evidenced now. They want connection, identity and trust. They want to know the names of the cows, the diet they eat and how the calves are treated.” - Alex Heffron, raw dairy producer

There is a huge desire on consumer’s part to connect directly with the farmer, but this is only truly viable where real value is involved. A recent British article showed that micro dairies are allowed to flourish in the UK, because regulations enable small dairies to produce according to consumer preference. There is a lot of social interaction, and some even have waiting lists for their raw drinking milk. Diverse consumer preference and values should be satisfied in Australia as well. There is great demand for all sorts of food production system alternatives.

  • Cow/calf friendly How Now Dairy just north of Shepparton, Victoria recently concluded their crowdfunding campaign. They managed to reach their target of AU$500,000 with 462 people pledging AU$522,971 in just one month.

  • Gled Herud from Happy Cow Milk in New Zealand finds financial support from 630+ patrons through Patreon for his alternative approach dairy model.

  • Schulz Organic Dairy in Western Victoria crowdfunded $106,100 for their milk-in-glass campaign last year that recycles the bottles.

Recently an Australian Opinion article asked: Where have all the farmers gone?

Many have had to find other opportunities due to present-day unfair regulations preventing them from the direct farm-to-consumer food sales that satisfies consumer preference, and is profitable. An earlier Landline story underscored these issues in abundance. Australia has some of the most prohibitive and draconian regulations in the world, that effects small-scale farmers the most. The ‘get big or get out’ narrative has caused the downward spiral of communities and the disintegration of connection with the land.

It almost seems as if a significant death of old ways needs to happen first, before Australians can embrace the new fully. Australian food and farming is in a time of profound transformation. It’s challenging to see the way ahead while we are in this process of change and growth. Regional Australia’s problems are larger and more complex than what they appear to be. If the government wants to fix things, it is going to have to include the removal of many regulatory obstacles that stand in the way of farmers and consumers connecting over valuable food and food production systems of their choice.

Image  : This is representative of putting a green growing cover on the soil, and managing ruminants in a sensible manner on it. It’s not about what food we grow, but how we grow it.

Last words on the new future of farming…

The government sales pitch is for agriculture, fisheries and forestry to become a $100 billion industry by 2030 under a Morrison government plan to drive jobs in regional and rural communities. It is said that the government will finalise a plan in coming months to boost the size and financial scale of the industry.

Some media headlines around the Bush Summit in Dubbo asked: Where is the action? It is possible that the government doesn’t want to take more assertive action on regenerative farming too quickly, because it may upset the apple carts of many industries, like the synthetic fertiliser industry, the agrochemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry and all those jobs and investments that have depended on the status quo of industrial farming for the last few decades.

However, the room at the summit was packed with prominent community, business, political and industry leaders. Have these leaders since come to their senses about the urgent need for change, and the benefits of regenerating practices? If the PM’s address, and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s article about soil health published on the day of the summit are anything to go by, it seems quite likely that more of these leaders in government and industry are undergoing their own transformations, and

reaching new understandings… at last. This drought may potentially continue for years to come. We can’t continue to sleepwalk in the midst of the many crises. It’s also not fair to keep knowledge of regeneration in exclusive circles, when all of Australia needs it so urgently. The average age of the Australian farmer is close to 60. Now is the hand over time, in more ways than one.

According to this article, the government’s $5 billion “future drought fund” was knocked back in the last parliament, after Labor announced it would not support any moves to take funds from the Building Australia Fund to pay for it. At the drought forum in Dubbo, Scott Morrison said one of the first priorities for the government when parliament resumes next week would be to reintroduce, and pass the bill.

If this does pass, we’re looking forward to see how this money will be spent. There is already a lot of evidence and science that details the dynamics behind why regenerative agriculture works. We don’t need to waste time trying to reinvent the wheel with endless research. We need educators and soil health consultants who can teach farmers asap, so farmers can implement on-farm regeneration. Also remember that not all regenerative farmers and scientists are good educators.

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There are some highly effective farmer educators and soil health consultants - locally and overseas - who can teach farmers the practical down-to-earth aspects of regeneration, without it being a talkfest that are meaningless for farmers and doesn’t really help them.

Get real and get practical. We already have the solutions.

Find the right people - who are experienced and skilled at transferring the right knowledge - to teach farmers to implement the solutions. See this example.


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