From paddock to plate – the impact of farming on climate and nature can be immense. Agriculture takes up more than half of the Australian landmass and uses about 60% of the available fresh water. Approximately 13% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, in some settings it involves a lot of chemical use, and farming is also responsible for the vast majority of land clearing of threatened species habitat.
But farmers provide us with the food we all need, so thankfully there are farmers who are changing that story, including filmmaker and actor Rachel Ward.
With her new film, Rachel’s Farm, Rachel showcases her own experience moving away from conventional farming and embracing regenerative farming for the health of her farm—both financially and for nature. Like many other Australians, her move into considering her climate impact more carefully came from the devastation wrought by the Black Summer bushfires.
“That was a really massive wake up call,” she says. “But I discovered that there was something I could do. I read Charles Massey's book Call of the reed warbler and realised that as a farmer myself, I could take a completely different approach.”
Rachel’s new farming approach is part of a rising tide of farmers, moving away from conventional methods of farming to regenerative farming, including cattle farmers from northern NSW, Meg and Peter Nielsen.
“We have a responsibility to every other thing that exists on this property that we have privilege to have title over,' says Peter.
“The days of ‘I bought it, I paid for it, I do what I like with it’, can't be the way it is. There are too many people relying on that productive land.”
Peter Nielsen, farmer
Conventional farming, especially for cattle, can be extractive. Often, large amounts of land are cleared for the cattle to graze which causes erosion, increases surface temperature, and destroys the homes of native animals. The use of chemical pesticides and petroleum-based fertilisers also harm insects and pollutes soil and rivers.
It’s a type of farming shrouded in settler colonialism and the industrial food system. “We've stopped listening to the land,” notes Ward. “We've just gone ‘shut up. I'm going to do this to you, I'm going to throw this onto you and kill these weeds and I'm not listening to you. I know what to do. I know how to get the best out of you.”
In contrast, regenerative farming techniques take a more holistic approach to farming—focusing on soil and plant regeneration, reduced chemical use, improving biodiversity and water retention, with the aim of achieving more resilient farms and better-quality food.
“Regenerative farming is about rebooting the natural systems and the natural cycles of nature,” says Rachel. “It is glorious to start listening again.”
For Meg and Peter their regenerative farming plan involves restoring soil health through regrowth of trees, not using chemical pesticides or fertiliser and constant paddock rotation. It’s a simple formula that has paid off in the health of their farm.
“We've been allowing all the natural regeneration of the of the trees, and we've planted a lot of trees ourselves,” says Meg. “We're encouraging the biodiversity and looking after the soil. Our aim to get that, the best that we can give to nature. All of this has improved the pastures, it has improved the moisture-retentive quality of the soil and I think our cattle are a testament to that, they're really fat and shiny.”
The benefits of regenerative farming are many – with increased biodiversity on the land just the start.
For Rachel it’s started with the health of the soil, that’s allowed insects back in abundance. “The thing that that makes me most proud is I've got a lot of coverage on my soil now. When I lift up that mulch, it's damp and it's cool. At the very beginning, when I went and dug in the soil was just dirt. Now I can actually grab and squeeze it and I can make a ball out of soil. That means I'm holding moisture in there.”
“The fact that I'm seeing worms now at the top of my soil is very encouraging”.
From worms to goannas to kingfishers and wallabies—both Rachel, and Meg and Peter have been amazed at the diversity of animals that have returned to the land.
Kingfishers are a plentiful sight at Meg and Peter's farm in central NSW. Image: Shutterstock
“We've got 110 different species of birds here without even trying,” notes Peter. “Quite often the wallabies mow our lawn and we virtually step over them to get out of the house. That's a joy to see that the wildlife is so confident with us and we're just merely a benign caretaker.”
While farmers are ultimately responsible for farming practices on their land, Rachel says we all have a role to play in encouraging better food production. “Nothing is more important than finding some way to act,” she says.
“When I came to my realisation, I realised that I had the power of my food dollar, and with everything that I ate, I could be conscious about where it came from.
As cost of living pressures put household budgets into the spotlight, questions about how, what and where food is grown to get best value for people and the planet, and what support farmers need to make changes, should also be a focus.
There are a lot of questions that we can be asking that will enable us to know when we're eating food from best practice farms. The more people that do, the more the checkout system is going to change.
Rachel Ward, farmer
“We can control what we do, how we manage our land. And I think that is the most proactive area that we can engage in. And that comes back to our choices of food and how we encourage farmers to do the right thing.