Farming practices in Australia have undergone dramatic change over the past several hundred years since European colonialisation. From the expansive spread of early pastoralists’ imported livestock across the country, to the emergence of commercial cropping operations, post-colonial agriculture has had a significant impact on the Australian landscape.
Over clearing of native vegetation, over tillage of the soils and over grazing of pastures has led to the emergence of problems such as salinity, erosion and desertification, all of which heighten the impacts of drought and ever-increasingly unpredictable weather conditions. However, from an observation of the past new approaches to agriculture have formed, including the increasingly-popular management systems known as regenerative farming.
This methodology is not just about sustainability, which implies maintaining the status quo, but rather about restoration and improvement of the land and its own biological systems.
Australia’s early agricultural history
As is often summarised in introductory Australian history literature, European colonialists arrived in Australia (declared terra nullius) nearly 250 years ago with livestock, equipment, seeds and settlers in tow.
Although Australia’s indigenous people had been working with the landscape to grow and harvest food for many thousands of years prior, it wouldn’t be until much later that their well-practiced techniques would return to something resembling widespread recognition.
Instead, early European settlers set about establishing farms and implementing techniques learned from their own ancestors. However, when crops soon failed they quickly realised that these practices imported from their homelands weren’t as easily transplanted into this new land.
There are early stories of a struggle to even produce enough food to survive in the early days of European settlement; a lack of rain and marginal soils were not necessarily conducive to producing the crops relied upon to deliver fruitful bounties in the rich, fertile farmlands of Western Europe.
Despite the early realisation of the challenges that this new land presented, attention was still placed on clearing the land of native trees and vegetation to make more and more grazing land available for livestock. Over the following century commercial scale cropping also began to emerge, prompted by a global shift toward increased mechanisation courtesy of the industrial revolution.
Most notably, the tractor and combine harvester’s appearance in the Australian landscape effectively rewrote the possibilities of cropping scale and efficiency. This meant a boom in productivity, whereby farming activities in more marginal country also began to appear as the agricultural frontier was pushed further and further inland. In the 1920s the manufacturer of Sunshine Harvesters became the largest industrial enterprise in the Southern Hemisphere – “it had a major impact on the social and economic development of Australia and was a significant contributor to the mechanisation of agriculture around the world. By the 1930s Australia was the third largest exporter of wheat after Canada and Argentina” (Pratley & Rowell).
However, this productivity was to be relatively inconsistent, or at the very least not without consequence. With the landscape largely devoid of native vegetation, over-tillage of a now barren and already marginal country saw the emergence of erosion, salinity and drought.
Each tilling of the land in preparation for cropping combined with set-stocking livestock management practices prepared the perfect conditions for drought of increased severity. Ironically, although the popular deep-ripping and surface tilling techniques of early cropping enterprises sought to retain moisture in the soil, this was only applicable to years when rainfall was relatively reliable.
Although not by design, this focus on short-term productivity caused landscape damage which future generations will be working to reverse for some time. In the decades that followed, the legacy of attempts to farm this landscape began to display themselves in stark changes which have proved difficult to reverse.
While the intention was to make farming simpler, more effective and more productive, the reality was in some ways remarkably different; “Colonisation and the introduction of European farming practices, plants and animals altered Australian land at great environmental costs. Soil degradation, droughts and mismanagement of natural resources have led to many longer-term environmental issues” (Museums Victoria).
Australian agriculture – change and a changing landscape
From the outset, farmers have been forced to adjust their practices to better suit the Australian landscape. However, this adaptation has typically been responsive rather than proactive and the problems that began to emerge have now prevailed for over a hundred years in some parts of the country. This issue isn’t isolated to Australia, however – it’s estimated that around 30% of the world’s soils are moderately to highly degraded (Jeffrey 2017).
For generational farming operations with roots in European settlement, treating these new, unknown lands with similar methodology and techniques to those utilised by their forefathers has resulted in both great long-term challenge and in some circumstances, great landscape damage. Inevitably, from this also comes learning, as custodians of the land look to new ways to address issues like water security and drought resilience. Regenerative farming in Australia holds the key to the restoration of these landscapes as well as their increased productivity and resilience into the future.
Truly embracing regenerative farming requires a discarding of the assumptions that we have made in the past relating to this country, its soils and its climate. The reasonably recent reverence for the effectiveness of the holistic regenerative farming approach in Australia comes with an acknowledgement that our island’s ancient soils require careful and deliberate management. As environmental conditions become increasingly challenging, significant focus needs to be placed on improved and effective water use along with the developing the soil health to support it.
What is regenerative farming?
Although there is room for more complex and detailed descriptions, Regeneration International use the following definition of regenerative agriculture;
‘”Regenerative Agriculture” describes farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle. Specifically, Regenerative Agriculture is a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density.’ (2017)
In its most simplified form, regenerative agriculture focuses on the following key principles;
- No-till/minimum tillage; tillage breaks up (pulverizes) soil aggregation and fungal communities while disturbing the soil’s carbon sequestration capacities.
- Increasing soil fertility through regenerative biological systems which utilise the application of cover crops, crop rotations, compost and animal manures while avoiding artificial and synthetic fertilisers and chemicals. This aims to restore soil microbial community population, soil structure, efficient functioning and moisture retention.
- Well-managed grazing practices to stimulate improved plant growth, increased soil carbon deposits as well as overall pasture and grazing land productivity. This greatly increases soil fertility, insect and plant biodiversity as well soil carbon sequestration.
By improving soil health, regenerative practices enhance water retention, reduce erosion and increase nutrient availability. This in turn improves crop yields and the capacity to accommodate livestock which – when well managed – also perform an important function. A holistic regenerative approach also reduces the need for chemical inputs and more generally supports to the overall resilience of agricultural systems. Additionally, regenerative practices promote important biodiversity by providing habitat for native flora and fauna, thus supporting ecosystem health and stability which is better aligned and in tune with the natural Australian environment.
The emergence of regenerative agriculture in Australia
Regenerative farming represents a paradigm shift in agricultural practices, focusing on sustainability, soil health, and ecosystem restoration. In Australia, changes to modern land management techniques have in some ways come full circle; from large runs utilising native grasses and the natural landscape to feed livestock, through to clearing and working the land and now the emergence of increasingly common holistic and low-till approaches.
This approach represents innumerable benefits for farmers, soil health and the wider environment. Although these benefits have been displayed and tested for over half a century, this movement has only gained significant momentum much more recently. Although still an alternative theory into the late 20th century it could be argued that regenerative agriculture is now very much part of the mainstream. In response to the challenges and failures of traditional farming, regenerative practices have emerged as a very real, reasonable and effective recipe for the successful future of farming in Australia.
Jeffrey M (2017), To the Prime Minister of Australia – Restore the Soil: Prosper the Nation, accessed 26 May 2023. https://www.agriculture.gov.au/sites/default/files/sitecollectiondocuments/ag-food/publications/restore-soil-prosper.pdf
Museums Victoria, Farming in Australia – A Photo Essay, accessed 27 May 2023. https://museumsvictoria.com.au/media/17364/farming-in-australia-a-photo-essay.pdf
Pratley J & Rowell L, Evolution of Australian Agriculture: From Cultivation to No-Till, accessed 27 May 2023, https://www.csu.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/2805521/Chapter1_PratleyRowell.pdf
Regeneration International (2017), What is Regenerative Agriculture?, accessed 27 May 2023. https://regenerationinternational.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Regen-Ag-Definition-2.23.17-1.pdf