Simon’s farm has been in his family for over 150 years, and reflected market and consumer demands by growing “pretty much everything” over that time. But, knowing their land so well, the family realised back in the 1970s that the soils were “knackered”. At the time they went no-tillage, and stuck that out despite issues with arable farming. Simon’s reward back then was to witness a gradual improvement in soil quality, especially in organic matter which had only been about three to four percent in the 70s, and is more than double that today. One simple technique he learned then would probably now be called upcycling – to not think of the stubble of crop residue as trash, but incorporate it back into the soil, lifting organic and carbon levels.
One simple technique he learned then would probably now be called upcycling – to not think of the stubble of crop residue as trash, but incorporate it back into the soil, lifting organic and carbon levels.
Now hooked, Simon admits he is very much an experimental farmer – “every year I try something different.”
Fast forward 50 years, and Simon now finds himself at the local forefront of what is known as “regenerative agriculture”. That term describes a whole range of land use practices that focus on regenerating topsoil while also improving water quality, building plant biodiversity and reducing cultivation and tillage. Simon sees soils as not just a medium for growing crops, but more importantly as supplying a number of “ecosystem services” – such as improved soil moisture retention, higher nutrient levels to buffer chemical inputs, and a better structure to lower the risk of erosion.
When in doubt, dig it
For Simon, checking his progress is as simple as getting out there with his spade. Want to know what’s going on with the soil? – well, dig some up and look. He can also observe what is happening below ground by what is growing above. For example, a clump of weeds can indicate compaction, a lack of nutrients or low calcium in the soil beneath. Growing cover crops is now a big part of his farm system, planting them between his cash crops, often anything up to 20 different species of plants all mixed together, with each species chosen for its function and effect upon the soil below. Simon has also started experimenting with what plants can be sown together in the cropping phase, to reduce the mono-cropping profile usually adopted in arable systems.
In tune with our times
Quite frankly, foodies love it. Consumers these days are ever seeking out more sustainable, environmentally-friendly food sources – from locals at farmers’ markets to bigger buyers like restaurants and supermarkets, to international export. Simon has almost done away entirely with pesticides. He has reduced both fertiliser use and diesel consumption to nearly 10 percent of what they were. The more that farmers can bypass chemical systems to focus on biological management of soils, the more palatable the produce becomes.
The more that farmers can bypass chemical systems to focus on biological management of soils, the more palatable the produce becomes.
Simon does warn though: “Your farm will not be spotlessly clean and weed free. Even the fence lines on my farm are living strips of plants beneath them for organisms and insects to overwinter and to breed in.”
It ain’t easy, being green…
Thanks to his family background, Simon had a head start on this whole approach. But regenerative agriculture isn’t quick or easy, and there’s not yet a sure-fire way to make it cost effective. New Zealand is now joining the international movement to invest major research and controlled experimentation to increase the cost effectiveness. Combatting the effects of climate change is also on the line – so it’s high stakes. But let’s leave the last word to our local man with a spade: “It comes down to learning new ways of thinking about how you farm, and new ways to manage your farm system. As a system it is relatively simple, yet incredibly complex.” And you can’t get much more down-to-earth than that.Back to Rural Living
Learn about selling your rural property with Bayleys