My Lifelong Journey Back to Regenerative Agriculture

Before WA

Late in January 1998, I moved my young family to Western Australia. For almost to seven years before relocating, we lived in a cute but spartan cottage former NZ Prime Minister Norman Kirk grew up in on a small holding near Waimate, New Zealand. We organically farmed five acres and raised our boys surrounded by lots of animals, home grown vegetables and water.

Sunset at Cave Hill, Gimlet Ridge, Perenjori WA Photo: Raquel Johnson, Galloway Springs, WA

Trouble with the Water

Next door to us was a dairy farm owned by John Kirk who famously created the pod irrigation system now widely used in developing countries. In the early 1990s, South Canterbury was mainly sheep farming country, so a dairy farm was rare. I soon learnt that living close to dairy cows had its own set of challenges. The sickly-sweet smell of silage and the piles of dead calves left at the front gate for pickup was confronting even for the girl who grew up on a farm. But what bothered me the most was the impact of an unhealthy water cycle of irrigation and nutrient loaded runoff on the river system. I may not have had the language to adequately describe what I foresaw, but I was worried serious environmental trouble was looming with so many new dairy farm conversions in the pipeline leading into the 21st century.

Chemical Free Challenges

Our land also included a river and a stream. Unlike our neighbour we didn’t farm anything intensively, we were attempting to invigorate diversity. Perhaps it was too much for one farming couple with young children, full time work and a study schedule to manage but I wish we’d been more patient. Wanting to see results fast was not the way to go when attempting to grow food in harmony with nature on degraded land that had been over rested. Truthfully, I found farming without adding chemicals challenging and good advice that went against the industrial agriculture paradigm was hard to find. The knowledge I was seeking certainly didn’t exist in my own farming family and going outside of it was tantamount to heresy.

Focusing on Food Production

Fast forward to 2020, living in Perth, WA on our urban farm created for our enjoyment and the comfort of getting our hands in the sandy soil, I circled back to agriculture. Combining my environmental focus and a long career in community development, a pandemic concentrated my attention on farming and food production once again. The damage to soil health and waterways and its impact on human health is now so widespread and serious I knew I could no longer pretend there is nothing I could do about it.

Institute of Regenerative Leadership

Today, I am the co-director of the Institute of Regenerative Leadership, and I am a coach trained in ontology and Holistic Management (HM) principles on the path to becoming an educator. I am also completing post graduate study in Regenerative Agriculture. We work with farmers – rural and urban – who want to regenerate themselves and their land, and lead their community toward a connected up way of living.

Holistic Context of Decision Making

Nothing makes me happier than working with passionate people who use a well-thought through holistic context to make their decisions. I understand profit is important in business and crucial too is taking into consideration the physical and social environment. Being introduced to the HM decision making framework was the breath of life I needed. I realised was free-range farm raised within a reductionist mindset that correlated human worth with the size of the bank balance; environmental and social overdrafts notwithstanding. This limited thinking had me become a workaholic at a young age and it literally made me sick. By 17 my body’s ability to metabolise energy no longer worked; without medication my life was not sustainable. Despite the feedback I got from the people in my world, intuitively, I felt there had to be a better measure of a good life well lived than simply numbers on a bank statement.

‘Low Stress Stock Handling’ Demonstration, Weelhamby Farm, April 2022. Rod Butler, Gimlet Ridge, Perenjori, WA. Photo: Barb Howard

Gimlet Ridge, Perenjori

Over the recent Anzac long weekend, my HM collective learning cohort visited the property of HM pioneers, Rod and Katrina Butler. Their farm, Gimlet Ridge is situated near Perenjori about four hours north of Perth. The Butler’s are clients of ours and they are now firm friends. This was the second time we had visited their property; the first time was in the middle of a blistering summer back in late January. What a difference a few months and some rain made. Their land was green and alive unlike the bare or brown paddocks we passed on the drive north. Rod and Katrina were enlivened too and keen to share their inspiring story of regeneration with a take home message that what is happening beneath our feet – soil biology – is critically important. They introduced the group to the managers of the neighbouring property who they mentored in HM. Weelhamby Farm is becoming a large-scale carbon farming operation and their plan is also an inspiring demonstration of what can be done to restore pastureland and biodiversity.

Every time I learn of examples like Gimlet Ridge and Weelhamby Farm I am filled with hope that the past 100 years or so of damage by industrial agricultural practices can be rectified and the dead dirt regenerated back to healthy, productive soil full of life.

Louis Verheggen from Wandoo Springs, WA, at Weelhamby Farm, Perenjori, WA, April 2022. Photo: Raquel Johnson, Galloway Springs, Bridgetown, WA.

Our next group adventure is to Galloway Springs near Bridgetown WA, in June 2022. I look forward to sharing with you what we discover from Murray and Raquel Johnson’s dynamic endeavours. Please stay tuned.