West Australia takes regenerative agriculture from niche to mainstream

Ben Stanich says regenerative agriculture helps his land and his bottom line. (ABC Great Southern: Tom Edwards)

By Jon Daly - 01.

West Australian grain grower Ben Stanich has not used a drop of fungicide on his 10,000-hectare broadacre farm for seven years and no insecticide for two.

Key points:

  • There are moves in WA to expand regenerative agriculture as consumers become more fussy about where their food comes from
  • WA's first regenerative-branded meat is on the menu in the state's high-end restaurants
  • The demand for 'clean and green' organic food across the world is on the increase

Instead, Mr Stanich focuses on plant nutrition and soil health and diversity.

Come harvest time, Mr Stanich — a large-scale practitioner of regenerative agriculture — still fetches the same price for his grain as farmers who are not.

Regenerative farming aims to balance modern science technology with age-old stewardship techniques to boost the sustainability and productivity of the land.

Its adoption has largely occurred on the industry's fringes, but WA businesses are vying to expand it to mainstream markets and menus.

Industry figures say consumers at home and abroad are asking more questions about the story behind their food and they are willing to pay extra if they get a good answer.

A waiter holds a plate of regenerative beef

WA's first regenerative-branded meat is finding its way into high-end restaurants. (ABC Rural: Jon Daly)

Making a market

High-end restaurants in WA's South West are the staging ground for the state's first regenerative-branded meat.

ASX-listed company Wide Open Agriculture is selling grass-fed beef and Dorper lamb, sourced locally from what it considers to be regenerative farms.

Managing director Ben Cole said regenerative produce should and could be a mainstream market in the future.

"It is the trend in food right now," Dr Cole said.

"We see regenerative agriculture as a mainstream way of producing food [that allows] consumers to have access to it at a price they are comfortable with."

A man in his twenties smiles in a restaurant

Wide Open Agriculture's Ben Cole says regenerative agriculture could become a mainstream food production method. (ABC Rural: Jon Daly)

Dr Cole said his company had its focus fixed on export opportunities in emerging economies in South-East Asia.

Those aspirations are shared by Trevor Badger, who is on the board of WA's biggest bulk grain handler, CBH Group.

WA accounts for 40 per cent of Australia's total grain exports and it supplies key markets in China, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines and South Korea.

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However, some markets are under threat from overseas competition, such as the Black Sea Region in south-eastern Europe, which can produce grain far cheaper than Australia.

"There's no future in just growing bulk-standard grain that's just average," Mr Badger said.

With an emerging middle-class, Mr Badger said higher-value Asian export markets would soon demand traceability and reduced chemical use in exchange for a premium price.

Mr Badger said WA's chemical use was already comparatively low to the rest of the world, thanks to a favourable climate and the absence of numerous pest species.

Breaking down barriers

A middle-aged man in a farmer's hat stands near some grain silos looking at the camera

CBH Group director Trevor Badger says the appetite for 'clean and green' produce in Asian export markets is growing. (ABC News: Tom Edwards)

The regenerative farming movement still attracts sceptics. Mr Badger likened it to the introduction of no-tillage farming in 2000s, which is now a widely-used method of growing crops or pasture without disturbing the soil.

"It's healthy scepticism when people want to know what's happening," he said.

Angela Pattison, a research scientist at the University of Sydney's Institute of Agriculture, said the main barrier for conventional farmers was profitability, as regenerative farming systems tended to yield less than industrial ones.

"But because the practice is more sustainable, if the consumers are interested in paying a bit more for their food, then farmers will produce the food knowing they'll get a slightly higher price," Dr Pattison said.

Bringing regenerative food production into the mainstream will require a holistic approach to the supply chain, according to Dr Pattison.

"If the consumer is ready to purchase it and the processor is ready to use it, then farmers will produce it," she said.

Bottom line sustainability

A smiling man in his thirties in a baseball cap stands smiling in a paddock

Cranbrook farmer Sam Lehmann took a different approach after strong winds damaged his paddocks. (ABC Great Southern: Tom Edwards)

Sam Lehmann was a conventional farmer, but that changed two years ago when wind erosion damaged parts of his farm near Cranbrook, about 320 kilometres south of Perth.

He began integrating regenerative practices by reducing chemical use and looking to the health of his pastures and soils.

He also changed his grazing system to stop livestock grazing paddocks bare in autumn and summer months, and he sows pastures with the aim of maintaining all-year-round soil cover.

In one year, Mr Lehmann has managed to increase stocking density at lambing time, when feed demand is at its highest, by at least 30 per cent.

"Traditionally we lamb at 5-6 ewes per hectare, and now they're lambing at 9 ewes per hectare … so I can see a lot of upside in what we're doing," Mr Lehmann said.

A plant in a man's hands

WA farmers are combining modern techniques with natural methods to help boost sustainability and profitability. (ABC Great Southern: Tom Edwards)

"I know the sheep are content because they're in better feed, there's more of it, and I feel like we can take this a lot further."

For Mr Stanich, who farms near the town of Pingrup, in WA's Great Southern region, profitable regenerative crop production has been the result of more than a decade of effort.

Since then, Mr Stanich said average yields had increased by about 30 per cent.

Throughout the growing season, Mr Stanich sprays organic fertiliser and trace elements at key stages of plant growth, also known as "foliar feeding".

"You give it the right nutrition it needs and it's going to fight off insects, fungus, all sorts of different things."

From the money saved by reducing chemical inputs and getting better yields, Mr Stanich reinvests in methods that improve soil health, such as retention of the previous year's crop stubbles to boost organic matter.

Mr Stanich said there was no "silver bullet" and making regenerative agriculture succeed on a large-scale required discipline and long-term planning.

 

But also in Australia the Famer' Shares must improve, off-farm costs reducd drastically and more consumers must directly buy from the farm:

The Farmer's Share

Did you know that farmers and ranchers receive only 14.6* cents of every dollar that consumers spend on food at home and away from home? According to USDA, off-farm costs, including marketing, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retailing, account for more than 80 cents of every food dollar spent in the United States.

Download The Farmer's Share


 

two-liter

Soda

Two Liter Bottle

Retail: $1.49
Farmer: $0.05

 

lettuce

Lettuce

1 Pound

Retail: $2.29
Farmer: $0.65

 

 

tomatoes

Tomatoes

1 Pound

Retail: $3.19
Farmer: $0.54

 

 

carrots

Carrots

5 Pounds

Retail: $4.59
Farmer: $1.49

 

 

ham

Boneless Ham

1 Pound

Retail: $4.99
Farmer: $0.65

 

 

bread

Bread

2 Pounds

Retail: $2.00
Farmer: $0.10

 

 

potatoes

Potatoes

Russet, 5 Pounds

Retail: $2.30
Farmer: $0.70

 

 

sirloin

Top Sirloin

1 Pound

Retail: $10.49
Farmer: $1.82

 

 

Fresh Apples

1 Pound

Retail: $2.29
Farmer: $0.33

 

 

flour

Flour

King Arthur, 5 Pound Bag

Retail: $4.29
Farmer: $0.37

 

 

cereal

Cereal

18 Ounce Box

Retail: $2.99
Farmer: $0.05

 

 

bacon

Bacon

1 Pound

Retail: $6.03
Farmer: $0.65

 

 

milk

Milk

1 Gallon, Fat Free

Retail: $3.89
Farmer: $1.81

 

 

eggs

Eggs

1 Dozen

Retail: $2.19
Farmer: $1.29

 

 

beer

Beer

6 Packs, Cans

Retail: $10.99
Farmer: $0.04

 

 

bagel-wheat

Wheat Bagel

1 – 4 oz. Bagel

Retail: $0.56
Farmer: $0.01

 

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