Rich soil: can regenerative farming ease the climate crisis?


Utopian thinking, economically unsustainable or the only solution to the looming global warming disaster – regenerative farming is dividing the agriculture sector. Reporter Caroline Hartnett meets Victorian farmers with strong opinions about a landcare method that looks to “old” ways and limits the use of chemicals.

Charlie Heal shouldn’t be able to farm where he runs 3000 merino sheep.  It is some of the most marginal land in Australia. But he does – and successfully too.

Heal is a regenerative farmer, part of a growing movement across the world that focuses on improving soil health through natural methods that include not tilling soil, deploying cover crops to protect the soil, increasing soil nutrients by ensuring a diverse range of plants and rotating stock so no one part of the farm is overrun.  Importantly, regenerative farmers limit the use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilisers.

Using regenerative methods Heal has managed hard granite soil to be drought and flood-resistant, producing year-round green pastures that feed his sheep.

Heal says it is only by using regenerative methods on his 3000 acres at Wirrate in central Victoria that he can produce wool that goes directly onto the catwalks of Italy.

Ninety per cent of the world’s fine wool comes from Australia. Merinos are a semi-arid desert animal, so the dry conditions at Heal’s property are perfect.

“There is nowhere else in the world that produces like we do,” he says.

The drought-like conditions might be good for merinos, but they make it a hard country to farm. With scarce rainfall, growing feed year-round is a challenge.

When it does rain, Heal has to take full advantage. “What we do in the regenerative world, when we look at soil health and biodiversity, is water-use efficiency.

“You can get two inches of rain, but if your soil is hard it just runs off down to the creek, out to the river and into the ocean.  Here, over summer and autumn it is important to have effective rainfall,” the softly-spoken farmer says.

Australian farmers manage over half of Australia’s land, a quarter of water extractions and contribute 13 per cent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions each year, which is set to accelerate as global food insecurity grows.

The Albanese government’s greenhouse gas emissions target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 43% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade won’t be met without significant change in the agricultural sector.

Heal says: “Agriculture will be the answer to a lot of the issues we are facing with the environment.”

There are many regenerative farming principles.  But the main ones aim at protecting nutritious organic soil so it can sequester, or capture, carbon and become resilient to droughts and floods.

Heal has 100 per cent ground cover all year round as “it is important to focus on organic matter which turns into carbon and stores a lot of water”.

The Ewert brothers can’t see a way forward without synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Image credit: Caroline Hartnett

Despite its noble aims, regenerative farming sparks passion and debate amongst farmers.

It has devoted followers, who believe it is a new way of farming. Then there are those who believe it is, simply, rebadged traditional methods. And it has detractors, who say it is “crap”.

Heal says: “Regenerative farming is looking at the land in a different way.

“A lot of the time farmers focus on controlling and killing weeds or pests, but as soon as you start focusing on what you do want – a perennial grassland, a diverse pasture, biodiversity – it becomes easier.  And you are not spending money.

“Chemicals now are so expensive. In the last six months, synthetic fertiliser prices have more than doubled.”

But those resistant to regenerative farming claim that without synthetic fertilisers they would not be able to produce crops at scale and sustain the feed needed for stock in an affordable way.

Ben Ewert and his two brothers manage 4000 acres at their family’s Wahring farm in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley.  Ewert grows wheat and canola and produces prime lamb.

Like Heal, he is in his early thirties, but while he says the environment concerns all farmers,  Ewert can’t see a way forward without synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

“If glyphosate is banned, that will be a real problem in farming.  It is the biggest tool in the toolbox, the most important one and I don’t know how farming will survive without it,” Ewert says.

Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world.  It is found in Roundup, which is heavily used in Australian food production.

Most US states and some European Union member countries have banned the use of glyphosate as they claim it is a carcinogen, extremely damaging to the land and human health.

At present, there are class actions by farmers in Australia and overseas against the manufacturer of Roundup, German agricultural chemical company Bayer, claiming it has caused cancer.

Ewert does worry about the increasing prices of Roundup.  He recently bought extra supplies as the price continues to increase.

“Last year we paid $640 a tonne for fertiliser and we sold a tonne of canola for $650, so it was very similar tonne for tonne.  This year a tonne of canola is $920 and a tonne of fertiliser is $1200,” Ewert says.  “The price of glyphosate has gone through the roof.”

A few kilometres down the road from Ewert is cropping farmer James Verge who has 3000 acres. He has just had his best harvest of canola and says without using Roundup a harvest of this scale would not be possible.

While the commodity market is booming, he isn’t worried about the price of Roundup. But if prices go back to where they were a few years ago, “you just couldn’t do it, people would walk away for good”.

Verge says glyphosate is essential for cereal farming in Australia. “If Roundup is banned it will affect us enormously,” he says.

He says Australian producers are not able to harvest crops and produce meat at scale without fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

All farmers take great care of their soil, he insists, because only the best quality soil reaps the best crops. “We are constantly testing soil.  We are growing better crops now more consistently, and that has got to do with the varieties we now have.  But new varieties also bring worse pests and rust – and that needs to be managed,” he says.

Someone who is new to the “regen” world is Susie Bate.

From Melbourne’s leafy east, Bate and her husband Jack, have only been farming for nine years.  With no experience but fresh eyes and an eagerness to learn, they took on a 1000-acre farm breeding merinos and fat crossbred lambs and followed the advice of the previous owner’s professional adviser, an agronomist.

“The first thing I noticed was how much glyphosate we were told to use by the agronomist,” Bate says.

“I couldn’t understand why we were using all these products – for the paddocks, for the animals – something in me just said this isn’t working.

“Our pastures weren’t getting better, we had animal health issues, we were losing a lot of stock, so I looked into it myself and did a holistic management course.”

Regenerative farmer Susie Bate in one of her roadside paddocks in Locksley, central Victoria. Image credit: Caroline Hartnett

Bate was quickly convinced regenerative agriculture was the way to go.

“I said to Jack, give me three to five years and if there are still issues, we will discuss it.

“It is hard to be a different farmer to what everyone else around you is doing, especially when you are new.  The generation around here are very much conventional farmers, they don’t feel that they can afford not to be,” Bate says.

Two years after Bate stopped chemical spraying and started planting cover crops, her worst paddocks became her best.

Bate says there is a growing interest as the results speak for themselves.

“The roadside paddocks we have are invaluable.  All the cynical people now say to Jack, ‘what the hell are you doing out there?’, ‘what are you sowing?’.  In the middle of summer, when everything around us is brown and we’ve got green millet and yellow sunflowers growing, they think ‘maybe there is something to this’,” she says.

“In this region there are four youngish people who have big farms and they are on board.  One of them is managing the biggest properties in the region, so he has an open canvas. I am excited about that.”

Bate says bright, young and articulate people like Charlie Heal will capture a lot of positive attention for regenerative agriculture in Australia.

“What he has achieved on his property is remarkable given the nature and climate of the land.  We need the young Charlie Heals of the world to do it, and do it properly.  We need their brains behind it and then people will start paying attention.”

But even Heal has had bumps along the way.

“Regen farming is hard work,” Heal says. “I’ve put $15,000 worth of pasture seeds and cover crops in the ground and got nothing – zero germination.”

Heal questioned what he was doing and decided to take a step back from pure regenerative principles and began tilling soil on the parts of his property he felt needed loosened up.

Local farmer and entrepreneur Ian Metherall agrees with Heal’s approach and says: “I don’t believe any one system works, you have to have a combination, and what I fear today is people have locked themselves into a system of thought that might not be the right system for the year or for the season.  People have to be more adaptable than that.”

Metherall was one of the first Australians to import no-till machinery to Australia.

“No-till works, but there are times it doesn’t work.  Up north they have had so much rainfall that everything is growing so much … they have to spray it out or go back to tillage to kill it out,” he says.

Metherall is a progressive farmer who believes in the goals of regenerative farming but worries about an ideological, evangelising tendency within the movement.

“The younger farmers are losing the techniques of the older farmers because they are being pushed in one direction of pure regenerative farming.”

Ian Metherall beside a recently tilled paddock on his farm in Nagambie, central Victoria. Image credit: Caroline Hartnett

He says as much as regenerative farming should be an aspiration if there is to be a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, it also has an element of utopian thinking and farmers need to live with the practicalities of the climate and their land.

“With climate change no-till is not working this year, everything goes in cycles and changes and you just have to go with what works.  Right now you can’t keep up with the demand for tillage tools because farmers realise they have to go back to the traditional ways to offset the season and avoid a high use of chemicals,” he says.

But Metherall does believe Australian farmers rely too much on chemical fertilisers.

“I just see we have shifted too far into the way of chemical farming and we need to move back to a middle ground.  There are scalable alternatives to chemical farming.  But because the farmers have been so used to using chemicals it is going to take a long time before they learn how to farm without it.”

Back at Heal’s farm, he is not using pesticides or herbicides, only organic fertilisers that he makes himself.

Heal says those resistant to regenerative farming are holding onto their own ideology and therefore cannot be moved by evidence.  “Being a politicised issue, people refuse to believe in it based on which side of the fence they sit on,” Heal says.

Heal also believes the government should incentivise and educate people to take up regenerative farming and drive change in the agricultural industry through policy.

“Shit will go down by 2050, there are billions and billions of dollars in super and if these super companies can’t afford to pay their retirement payments, and the world [becomes] too risky with properties underwater and not worth anything, it will be a real issue and the market will have to fix it.

“Laws are catching up too. Climate laws are a massive thing, companies are getting sued now for fossil fuel damage by farmers,” he says.

Heal says it was the market for merino wool that drove the early settlement of Australia: “That is the origin of the saying ‘they rode on the sheep’s back’ – a lot of people became very wealthy very early on from merinos.”

Now he believes market forces and consumer sentiment will combine to make regenerative farming into a new driver of national prosperity.

“Can-do capitalism can work,” Heal says. “Even the naysayers, I think, are cottoning on.”

But Susie Bate says market forces are not coming quickly enough as “there is still cynicism about how we farm, we haven’t got the runs on the board yet.”

Like Heal, she says if the movement had government support — through education programs and funding for regenerative farmers — agriculture could be leading the drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure Australia meets its 2030 target.

“Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, but it is also the one industry that can flip that totally in the sea and land – kelp, soil – carbon sequestration can totally change that.”