Reflections on Regen Ag Conference 2023 with Matthew Evans | Geraldton, Part 1

Gathering for breakfast with Matthew Evans at NACC, Geraldton

“Aboriginal people don’t know how to care for country that is so badly damaged. Scientists and conservationists have never seen landscapes so badly damaged. We need to come together, learn from each other and work together to find the solutions to address this challenge.”

Heidi Mippy, Regen Ag Conference 2023

September 15, 2023 | Yamatji Noongar Country

The final day of Matthew Evans’ WA tour began with tasty breakfast provided by the Central Regional TAFE at the Northern Agricultural Catchments Council (NACC) in Geraldton. Gilly Johnson, Executive Officer for the Mid-West Food Industries Alliance Inc., who promotes growers and food from the region warmly welcomed everyone and thanked the TAFE chefs and hospitality students for preparing the delicious meal. Gilly pointed out that most of the food was locally produced. For instance, she highlighted a fruit cup that aside from a trace of vanilla seasoning, was almost 100% from the mid-west: with mango and mandarin from Collier and Son Fruit Growers in Irwin, goat curd from Bookarra Goat Dairy in Rangeway, and granola from Red Lime Jones in Geraldton. Gilly then went round the room to mention all the growers who were in attendance and what they produce. Finally, she thanked DPIRD and Regen WA for providing the funds for Matthew’s two-week tour.

Katherine Allen from NAAC was invited to do an Acknowledgement of Country of all Aboriginal Nations that comprise the mid-west region. Gilly then opened the morning’s question-and-answer panel session about the Regenerative Agriculture (Regen Ag) Conference 2023 held in Margaret River, September 6-8.

Gilly Johnson with Matthew Evans, Rod O’Bree and Katharine Allen at NACC, Geraldton

Gilly introduced the panel comprising Matthew Evans, Rod O’Bree (regenerative farmer, Yanget Farm, Geraldton) and Katharine Allen and proceeded to ask them a series of questions about their own experience and learning from the conference before opening questions to the floor.

How do you explain to people what Regen Ag is?

Matthew: If it’s the general public, I say it is farming that aims to improve the quality of the land on which we farm. If they’re a farmer, it’s desirable outcomes from farming. Is it desirable to not be farming this land in 500 or 50 years? Is it desirable to make it more fertile? Is it desirable to use chemicals that you know in your heart, you shouldn’t use around your family or yourself?

Rod: I asked artificial intelligence (AI) to explain it in five words and it came up with ‘sustainable agriculture supporting ecological evolution.’ To me regen farming is a style with the best methodology to first, produce food. If we can’t produce food, we’re dead. Second, we have to make sure we’re doing this in decades time which means we need to address our soil and the living system.

Katharine: Firstly, it’s a journey. It has to be inclusive because people are at different stages. Essentially, it’s farming that reduces any degradation of natural capital but continues to produce food and fibre.

Matthew, although you’ve written a book on soil, is soil your passion?

Matthew: Yes, but soil is not disconnected. My emphasis on soil is to get people to care about something that underpins water, underpins life. Soil is a part of that cycle.

Katherine, you were at the last Regen Ag conference in 2019 just before the COVID-19 pandemic, would you overview and compare the two meetings?

Katharine: It was at Optus Stadium and was attended by a lot of people including a good mix of farmers. The meeting had a strong emphasis on reducing the chemical component in regen farming, whereas at this last meeting there was a more holistic view within the context to improve natural capital.

What are your key reflections or takeaways from the conference?

Rod: It struck me how many farmers there was who were looking to incorporate indigenous practices and reading of the land into their system. That was really good. Also, different methodologies have come to the fore around improving the landscape and in relation to buying food, what we’re eating; where it’s come from; what the soil has produced for us; the discussion on soil; were really useful. There was a lot to learn and it was good to see these discussions coming to Western Australia.

Matthew: I loved what Heidi Mippy said that Indigenous people don’t know how to care for country that is so badly damaged. Scientists and conservationists have never seen landscapes so badly damaged. We need to come together, learn from each other and work together to find the solutions to address this challenge.

One takeaway from day one was we talked about soil, people showed their farms and how they adapt and improve their farms but essentially everyone was about growing and producing food which for me is very much tied into the health industry. It’s one of the things we should focus on. It’s a benefit of regen ag being more holistic. It’s not just about the cash, or the volume but there is an inherent quality in what we produce, a co-benefit.

A second takeaway was from a guy who spoke on agroforestry and planting trees that we really want to have on farms and that we really want to chop down. He challenged the idea that once we plant a tree, we can’t chop it down. He shared where he lives, you aren’t allowed to chop certain trees down, so no-one plants them despite them being good habitats for native species.

Third takeaway, was from Di Haggarty, a grain grower from the eastern wheatbelt. She spoke about sheep wisdom. She was really talking about was epigenetics and livestock naturally adapting to their environment and the innate wisdom in human is about knowing how to find things that are good for us that can be passed on in generations.

Katharine: Heidi Mippy’s presentation was really insightful. She shared we need two-sided conversations to find ways to work together to address the challenges we face.

Another standout comment was that “a sole focus on cash return has not ended well.” Unfortunately, I don’t remember who said it but it struck me as quite profound.

What surprised or inspired you?

Matthew: Rod O’Bree inspired me. He didn’t come from a farming background but he showed, without having a clue, how he’s changed his landscape by controlling how water moves through his land. Honestly, it was like a kid playing in mud, but his demonstration elegantly showed how water moves through a landscape. After seeing it, it was like ‘I could do that. So simple.’

Rod: The indigenous conversation surprised me. There is now widespread recognition of indigenous knowledge to read land. There is also momentum building in the space to change entire food systems to bring back the quality. It’s not just about soil, or water any more but a focus on the quality of food.

Katharine: There are many passionate people in this space committed to improve land and food quality. In particular, there are many innovative and really smart young people applying their minds to some of the challenges we face.

Matthew: Adding to Katherine’s point, I loved Jake Ryan’s presentation. He’s so smart and innovative and went so deep nobody could understand him. He shared how he’s made one change, I think with his broccoli, that by applying regen principles he reduced his tractor use from 8 passes to one pass per paddock per year. This saved him 10,000 litres of diesel per hectare per year. Amazing.

Katharine: Jake’s story epitomises thinking differently about farming. This is the great thing about young people in this space, either taking over the family farm or coming newly into ag.

What would you like to see at future meetings?

Matthew: Conferences are great for bringing like-minded people together to generate ideas and network and often good things happen in the breaks between sessions. However, conferences never usually challenge their audience. What I’d like to see is a keynote speaker that offers an opposing view e.g., ‘I tried regen ag, but gave up because we went backwards or it doesn’t work.’ I was once asked to speak to MARS foods. They’re the worst of the industrial food system and I told them “there is nothing you do that I don’t hate. I don’t care what you did 10 years ago, if you’re doing the same thing today you did a decade ago, you’re standing still. If you’re standing still, you’re going backward.” They were really brave to hear what I said, and what I wanted was someone to disagree with me so I could dig deeper and ask questions. It is important to be challenged over what we’re doing. We get to question our thinking and dig deeper. We need to be brave and challenge our thinking.

Rod: I agree with Matthew that we need to ask those harder questions. I found sitting there listening to all those presentations was good but the conversations later in the foyer bouncing around things like ‘I’m having this problem’ were better.

Katharine: There was a young farmer who presented lamenting a poor rainfall in 2019 of only 935 mm rather than the usual 1,200 mm. It was laughable to people around here. I would like to see more from farmers in low-rainfall zones that highlight the challenges we face in the regen space. We need to be more relevant to the broadacre, industrial farmer in the low-rainfall zones if we want to bring them on the regen journey. The mid-west should host the next regen ag conference.

Gilly: Regen is a massive opportunity for all. I’m reminded of the story of two salespeople who went to a remote area to sell shoes. The first, wrote back to the office and said ‘there’s nothing to sell here, these people don’t wear shoes.’ The other wrote back ‘massive opportunity here, they don’t wear shoes.’ The opportunity lies in our mindset.

Will you summarise the key principles of regen ag?

The panellists agreed they are:

  • Green living plants
  • Don’t turn soil
  • Diversity
  • Livestock
  • Holistic – including how to manage people

What challenges does regen ag face?

Katharine: People are doing really innovative things, yet somehow, they are invisible. We need to get these people to bring their stories to us.

Rod: Improve the entire supply chain to get produce to markets. We need to develop regen markets.

Matthew: Farmers don’t ask their neighbours what they’re doing but they will learn from someone hundreds of kilometres away. This is very limiting.

How we can support regen ag, the entire supply chain?

Matthew: Farming is not a good way to make a living but it’s great way to live and make a loss. Farmers don’t want to be told negative things but they want to hear they’re feeding the world. They want to be proud of their efforts. Putting their names on products is positive. We need to give them credit.

Katharine: Consumers, suppliers and producers need to work together and be connected across the entire supply chain.

In closing, where to from here?

Rod: People need to maintain their ecosystem and maintaining soil is critical to this. We need consumers on board with more understanding of food, soil and water. It’s a whole system management challenge.

Katharine: Regen is a journey and it will be tough for some people. They need a mindset re-frame. A mistake isn’t failure, it’s learning if you don’t keep doing it.

Matthew: Mental health is a major issue for farmers, they have the highest suicide rate in the country. There are better mental health outcomes for regen farmers. This is a huge positive for regen.

The 2023 Matthew Evans Regional WA Tour is funded by the Western Australian Government’s Agriculture Climate Resilience Fund, supported by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development in a collaboration between Perth NRM, RegenWA, the Institute of Regenerative Leadership, Certified Organic Biodynamic WA, Gathered Organics, Loose Produce, Merredin & Districts Farm Improvement Group, Wheatbelt NRM, Northern Agricultural Catchments Council, Midwest Food Industries Alliance and Galloway Springs.