Regenerative agriculture is supposed to save us from climate change, freshwater pollution, soil erosion, drought, the invertebrate apocalypse and poor mental health. Does it live up to the hype?
The paddock is a waist-high riot of yellow sunflowers, blue vetch, purple lupins and a dozen shades of green. Small flocks of birds whirr away at our approach, and a pair of honking paradise shelducks fly overhead, black and white against the dusty Dunstan Range. Four-year-old Alfie Rutherford emerges from a waving sea of flowers taller than he is. “Look, Daddy!” He has some sunflower seeds in his hand. “Can we eat them yet?”
“They’re still a bit soft, a bit cheesy,” says Tim Rutherford. “They need to harden up a wee bit.”
Summer is sunflower season here on the Rutherfords’ high-country farm in Tarras, Central Otago. Cattle and fattening lambs graze on the flat lower paddocks beside the Lindis River, while up in the high country, 4000 merinos run with the rabbits among the rocky schist outcrops and the matagouri.
Tim’s family has farmed these 5500 hectares for four generations. In 1909, Tim’s great-great-grandfather bought half the property for his daughter and son-in-law, then was balloted the rest. The son-in-law died relatively young (from a heart attack while plucking a turkey, according to family lore) and the farm was passed to Tim’s grandfather, then his parents. Fifteen years ago, in the midst of a punishing drought, Tim returned to help his father, Alastair, run it.
“I could see if I didn’t come back then I wouldn’t have anything to come back to,” Tim says.
The paddock we’re standing in used to be one of the farm’s poorest performers. Now, Tim is giving it a dose of soil therapy. Back in spring, he sowed 22 species of annual crops, a potpourri of brassicas, grains, legumes and clovers. It’s late February, and the paddock is buzzing. The flowers attract beneficial insects and give the livestock a varied diet. In fact, the lambs keep escaping from other paddocks so they can come back to this one, and some have even figured out that if they straddle the sunflowers and walk forward, they can push the seed heads low enough to munch on them.
But the main point of all this diversity, says Tim, is to feed the “underground livestock”—the uncountable billions of microorganisms that live in the soil. More species above ground means exponentially more underground, as each plant has its own symbiotic relationships with different microorganisms. Each plant’s roots grow differently, opening up spaces in the earth where water can collect. Tim chose these sunflowers for their long taproots rather than their flowers, but the expanse of yellow is also good for morale.
Tim pushes a tool called a pentrometer into the ground. It’s a long metal spike as thick as Tim’s thumb, and it has a pressure gauge on top. It’s designed to measure how firmly the soil is compacted, and Tim has to apply a bit of force, which means the paddock still needs some rehabilitation—another year of this rainbow crop, among other things. “I want to be able to push that in with one hand,” he says.
But when he digs into the dirt, he’s pleased to see it clumping together in bobbly lumps. “You can see how we’re starting to get some good soil aggregation—the plants and the fungi make this—and the oxygen and the water can get in.”
He then picks a kale leaf and mashes it in what looks like a heavy-duty garlic-crusher, squeezing the bubbly bright-green juice onto the glass panel of another small tool called a refractometer. He holds it up to his eye. “It’s Brixing at twelve,” he says. “That’s great. Really healthy.”
Degrees Brix is a measure of the sugar content in a liquid. Tim tells me a high Brix reading equates to better-tasting food with a higher nutritional value, and to healthy plants that resist pests. I don’t yet know what science has to say about this (more on that later), but this kale plant does look lush and healthy, and the leaves have no holes. You could turn the entire thing into fancy kale chips if Tim wasn’t feeding it to his sheep. “Since we stopped using insecticides in 2018 we’ve had no problems with insects,” he says.
Tim is one of a growing number of farmers worldwide who are experimenting with regenerative agriculture—the idea that farming can reverse soil degradation and bring vitality back to the land, its plants, waterways, animals and people. And its star is rising. In the United States, upmarket supermarket chain Whole Foods Market declared regenerative agriculture the number-one food trend for 2020. Last year, a coalition of multinationals including Google, Danone, Nestlé, Walmart and Unilever signed an agreement pledging to “scale up regenerative agriculture”. Also in 2019, packaged-food giant General Mills announced it would apply regenerative agriculture techniques to one million acres by 2030—about a quarter of the land it sources food from in North America.
In New Zealand, both the Federation of Māori Authorities/Me Uru Kahikatea and the industry body Beef + Lamb are investigating the potential benefits of regenerative agriculture. Impact-investment start-up Toha is aiming to accelerate farmers’ transition by connecting them to investors. And Greenpeace is campaigning for a regenerative agriculture revolution in the wake of COVID-19, calling on the New Zealand Government to establish a $1 billion fund to help farmers switch to a “cleaner, higher value and more resilient industry”.
It’s a beautiful, hopeful vision —but can it work in New Zealand, at scale, and over the long term? Are the practices used in regenerative agriculture supported by scientific evidence? And is regenerative agriculture really the answer to some of farming’s most persistent problems—greenhouse-gas emissions, water pollution, drought, animal welfare, and farmers’ poor mental health?
Regenerative agriculture is a catch-all term for a set of techniques focused on improving soil quality. That might involve planting a greater variety of plants, not tilling the soil, minimising the use of pesticides and herbicides, avoiding synthetic fertilisers, using livestock to fertilise paddocks, and keeping land covered with vegetation so there’s always a “living root” in the soil.
The exact definition of regenerative agriculture depends on who you talk to. “It’s fuzzy for a reason,” says farming consultant Nicole Masters, one of the key proponents of the movement in New Zealand. The fuzziness, she says, enables innovation and discourages dogma. “It’s more like: Are you doing the best that you possibly can, and are you improving your systems? There’s no one who’s like, ‘Right, I’ve done that. Finished!’”
Masters went to the University of Otago hoping to study great white sharks, but discovered soil instead. “That was it for me. Sharks did not even feature.”
Soil, she explains, “is the new frontier. There is so little we actually understand about it, so you really feel like you’re at the cutting edge of things.”
That new frontier involves a world invisible to the naked eye. Science is only just beginning to unravel how the intricate ecosystems of microorganisms in the soil influence life above ground, and what the implications are when it comes to food production, drought, flooding and climate change. Globally, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the top 30 centimetres of soil contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. The process begins with photosynthesis. Plants separate carbon from the carbon dioxide in the air, and use it to grow stems, leaves and roots. When the plants die, soil microbes break that carbon down—they release some of it back into the atmosphere through decomposition and respiration, and lock a small amount away long-term in dark-brown organic matter known as humus.
A single teaspoon of soil can contain billions of microbes, representing thousands of different species—the vast majority unknown to science.
Regenerative farmers seek to foster and harness that invisible ecosystem to have a positive impact on their environment. It’s sometimes said that New Zealand farming is already regenerative, a claim Masters scoffs at. There’s certainly plenty of room for improvement.
New Zealand loses 192 million tonnes of soil into waterways each year, according to the government report Our Land 2018. In the North Island, that erosion comes mainly from pasture grazed by livestock. “Our biggest export continues to be soil,” says Masters.
Moreover, a large proportion of soils are affected by compaction—too few pore spaces in the soil—according to another government study, the Environment Aotearoa 2015 report. Compaction, says the report, reduces soil biodiversity, restricts plant growth, and increases greenhouse-gas emissions and pollutant run-off. It affects half of the soils farmed for meat, wool and deer velvet, and nearly 80 per cent of soils under dairy farming.
A third of New Zealand soils contain too much phosphorus, according to Our Land 2018, meaning there’s more fertiliser in the soil than the plants are using. Excess phosphorus ends up in waterways, where it fosters the growth of unwanted plants and algae. Nitrogen from fertiliser and animal urine has a similar effect.
“There’s no excuse for the state of New Zealand waterways,” says Masters. “Why are you pouring all that nitrogen on? You don’t need to.”
Her consultancy works with farmers to help them transition to using lower levels of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, or eliminating it altogether.
There must be some trade-offs in taking this approach, I venture. Masters is emphatic: “No. The only risk is not doing it.”
It’s eight o’clock in the morning. On the front deck, Tim Rutherford pulls on his boots, while Alfie chases cabbage whites around the garden with a butterfly net. “Integrated pest management,” jokes Tim. He tickles and kisses two-year-old Lewis, then walks up to the shed for the morning meeting.
This far south, there’s already an autumnal chill to the day’s edges. Tim’s father, Alastair, leans against the shed door in a wool jumper and shorts, and farm worker Jonathan Dale is smoking a rollie, talking about the lambs. “Want me to bring all those bogans up to the yards?” he asks Tim.
The Rutherfords are neither hippies nor hipsters. Tim’s wife, Camilla, who photographed this story, is originally from Scotland, where her father was an agronomist for agricultural chemical giant Syngenta. Tim and Alastair used to farm conventionally—clearing fields with herbicide, tilling the soil to a powder, planting monocrops of kale or lucerne to feed stock over the winter, applying more herbicides to take out any competition and fertilisers and pesticides to help those crops grow.
But, around three years ago, Tim underwent something of a conversion. He had just become a parent—“It makes you think about your future and their future”—and Camilla, in charge of feeding the family, was getting interested in the quality of the food they were eating and producing. Tim was also becoming uncomfortable with what he calls the “treadmill of inputs”. Technical advisers from farm supply companies—one of the only sources of in-person advice that farmers get—would come out to look at his fields and prescribe recipes of pesticides and nitrates.
“I was doing more and more spraying, using more fertiliser, and not getting the crops I was expecting to get. I started questioning it. I started sitting down with Dad: ‘You used to grow turnips and you never used any insecticides. How come you didn’t have bugs back then?’”
Tim started reading about soil health, which led him to the concept of regenerative agriculture. During long hours in the tractor, sowing seeds or applying herbicide, he listened to audiobooks and podcasts about regenerative agriculture, and he began to see his land in a whole new way.
“The modern way is you look at the soil as just the medium that holds the plant up, really. But now it’s like I’m looking at it as a whole ecosystem. Instead of trying to feed the plant, I’m mostly trying to feed the soil, and get it functioning properly to feed the plant.”
I ask Alastair what he thinks about it all. “I don’t call it regenerative agriculture. I just call it farming. It’s like the kind of farming my father did.”
In some ways, regenerative agriculture is a return to a time before all those inputs. But in addition to the latest microbiology, it also makes use of advanced technology.
This morning, Tim is sowing a winter crop in paddock three. (There are at least 50 paddocks and, while one to five are numbered, most have affectionate names that have been passed down through the generations: Albie’s, Wong’s, Burnett’s, Broad Gully, Triangle, Spur.)
He rolls up beside me in the biggest tractor I’ve ever seen—the rear wheels are taller than he is. “They don’t come any bigger,” he says. It’s necessary to pull his heavy seed drill, the crucial tool for what’s called “no-till agriculture”. This allows farmers to get plants into the soil without damaging its structure. Tim’s seed drill was designed by New Zealander John Baker, a former Massey University soil scientist who now exports his invention to 20 countries—though the no-till practice hasn’t been widely adopted in New Zealand.
I climb in and we head to a field scattered with deep-green lupins and blond ears of rye-corn. A macabre row of decomposing rabbits hangs along the fence line, all matted fur and bleached bones—draped there by hawks, says Tim.
In the old days, Tim would have tilled the soil to a fine seed-bed before planting a monocrop into it. Different forms of tilling (also called cultivation) have been used for millennia, but it’s now known they cause erosion and reduce organic matter in some soils—which means fewer microbes and nutrients, and less water retention.
Tim wants to get more diversity into the pasture, too, so he’s tipped a muesli-like mix of seeds into the two huge barrels atop the drill: vetch, crimson clover, Winfred rape, kestrel kale, turnips, radish, ryegrass, triticale, oats and peas. The machine drills the seeds straight in among the corn and lupins and thistles. Twenty-three serrated discs cut two-centimetre-deep slits into the earth, while a specially shaped ridge rolls each seed onto its own tiny shelf in the soil. A pair of wheels then press it down, zipping the seed into the earth.
We move on to another paddock. Tim stops the tractor, and jumps out to have a look at the soil. “This is my second multispecies crop in here. I’ll do one more, and then leave it as permanent pasture with lots of different stuff in it.”
This is the first year Tim hasn’t used any superphosphate or urea (synthetic nitrogen fertiliser). Instead, he has applied what he calls “paddock smoothies”—a stinky mixture of molasses, fish-factory byproducts and humates (acids from broken-down plant matter found on the outer layers of coal seams). The idea is that this pungent concoction will add carbon, nutrients and fungi to the soil, and Tim reckons it’s working. “We’ve grown more grass and clover than we have for a long time. It’s going gangbusters.”
Haven’t they also had two summers of good rainfall? “Yes—but this was on our irrigated fields, so water wasn’t the limiting factor.”
In general, though, water is the limiting factor for farming here in Central Otago, the driest region in the country. Tim hopes that, by reducing compaction and improving the soil biology, he’ll be able to build spongey, porous soil that will hold onto the scarce moisture longer, reducing the need for irrigation and improving his farm’s resilience to drought—and to flooding.
Tim and Alastair have also changed how their livestock graze. They used to turn cows and sheep loose into a large paddock for up to a month, but now they divide fields into very small sections and move the animals at least once a day, sometimes more. Instead of chewing the pasture right down to the roots, the animals eat some of it and trample some into the soil—along with their manure—and this nourishes Tim’s “underground livestock”. Then the pasture is left to regrow until it reaches a certain height—this can take 30 to 100 days depending on the season.
This technique goes by a number of names, but it falls under the umbrella of “holistic grazing”, conceived in the 1960s by Zimbabwean biologist and farmer Allan Savory. His theory is that grasslands only flourish with herds of herbivores stomping and defecating on them—and that farmers make better decisions when they take an all-encompassing approach to their farm ecosystem. Holistic grazing has become a key tenet of regenerative agriculture.
“It takes a farmer to farm,” says Tim. “Observing your land and what’s going on, and continually making adjustments. It makes you think about each action you’re taking on the farm now, and whether that’s going to have an effect somewhere else.”
The multispecies crops, all the drilling—that’s just Tim’s short-term plan, a primer to improve the soil. “Once I get everything going really well, I can probably sell the tractor and drill, and just use livestock for everything—and that would be minimising our carbon impact again.
“I don’t want to be in my tractor all day. I want to get everything back into permanent pasture, and then manage it with grazing.”
There’s so much to learn, to change, and, on a farm this size, so much to do. “It’s quite overwhelming. But we’re actually farming again. We’re not just middlemen chucking stuff on hairy-mary.”
It might all sound too good to be true—and that’s just what the critics of regenerative agriculture say it is. So is there any evidence that these techniques work as claimed?
It turns out that’s a pretty hard question to answer.
Scientists usually compare farming techniques in isolation—till vs no-till, plant diversity vs monocrops, organic vs mineral fertiliser—because that’s by far the most practical way to study them. Introducing too many variables at once makes it hard to untangle everything, and it’s also expensive and time-consuming.
But, since regenerative farmers believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, they often dismiss scientific findings as “reductionist” for failing to take into account the full complexity of their farming systems. Scientists, on the other hand, point out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Most controversial is the claim that regenerative agriculture can mitigate climate change by dramatically increasing the organic matter in the soil, thereby taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere—in other words, preventing climate change by farming beef. Some regenerative farms in the United States have been found to store more than enough carbon annually to cancel out the burps of their cattle, at least in the short term. But scientists are divided over whether, at a global level, changing farm management practices while maintaining the same production levels can increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil to a level that will make a significant difference to climate change.
Rather, a lot depends on context—soil, climate and production system—according to two soil-carbon experts I spoke with, Paul Mudge from Manaaki Whenua—Landcare Research and Louis Schipper from the University of Waikato.
Current data suggests New Zealand paddocks already have high carbon stocks compared with other parts of the world. While the native prairie ecosystems of North America contained a lot more soil carbon before they were converted into cropland and repeatedly cultivated, the opposite is true for New Zealand. Soils under our native forests naturally store lower amounts of carbon than grassland, so converting this land to pasture actually increased the amount of carbon in the soil (though overall, carbon was lost when the trees were cut down).
Some of the large soil-carbon gains reported in places like the United States and Australia have occurred in very degraded, carbon-poor soils that were either cropped continuously for a century or where animals were previously set loose to graze a
Now, those farmers are switching to a variation of the rotational grazing system widely used on New Zealand dairy farms. “It might be considered very novel in America, but we’ve been doing it for the past hundred years,” says Mudge. (There are some differences, he notes. Conventional dairy farmers move cows to a new paddock every 12 or 24 hours, typically on a 20-day cycle, while regenerative grazers leave their pastures to recover for longer.)
Having a high starting point will probably make it harder to dramatically improve the soil carbon in New Zealand, he says. But it’s not impossible. “It will be very interesting to see whether or not the nuances of regenerative agriculture can find a way of lifting carbon even higher. That’s a question that a lot of people want to answer.”
Scientists haven’t yet found a conclusive way to increase soil-carbon stock in New Zealand pasture soils. In fact, there’s still a lot we don’t know—such as whether carbon stocks in this country’s soils are increasing or decreasing. Mudge is leading a new study at the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre that will sample 500 sites on agricultural land throughout the country, in order to better understand the conditions and practices that lead to increases or decreases in carbon stocks. However, since the study is just starting to gather baseline data now, any conclusions will be years away.
Meanwhile, conducting a recent experiment, Schipper and Mudge were surprised to discover that irrigation leads to soil-carbon losses, despite increasing plant growth. It’s not yet known why. “Carbon stocks are important for soil structure, for holding on to nutrients, holding on to water,” says Schipper. “But expecting very large [carbon] gains in the New Zealand pastoral system—there just isn’t really the support for that at
So, carbon sequestration has a question mark over it. What about the other claims?
Some of the common practices are common sense, says Schipper. Keeping the ground covered with living plants as much as possible will help hold carbon in the soil, and prevent erosion and run-off.
“The worst thing you can do to a soil is leave it bare—but that’s something that has been said for generations.”
Plant cover can also make soils more resistant to drought. There isn’t much evidence in the New Zealand context, but a 2017 analysis of 150 peer-reviewed field experiments from around the world found that keeping a living root in the soil all year round (plus other regenerative practices) increased water infiltration—the rate at which water enters and moves through the soil. This meant the soil absorbed heavy rain better, and made more water available to plants than under conventional systems.
There is some New Zealand evidence in favour of more diverse pastures. One of Schipper’s studies found that, when farmers replanted pastures with a greater variety of species, they lost a little less carbon in the process compared with planting ryegrass and clover. “It’s a bit of an open question, but the small amount of work we’ve done does suggest it may be beneficial,” says Schipper. A 2013 New Zealand study showed that pastures with more diverse species—including those with deeper roots than ryegrass and clover—were more productive. Another study in 2017 found that more diverse pastures were more resilient to climate extremes. Schipper points out that diversity in and of itself might be less important than selecting the right mix of plant species for a particular farm—something many regenerative farmers are already paying attention to.
Minimising tillage does have benefits for soil structure, says Plant & Food Research’s Mike Beare, which can help to reduce the risk of erosion and run-off. But no-till systems haven’t been definitively shown to be better or worse for carbon storage, he says. A 2020 review of tillage studies around the world (though none were from New Zealand) found that its success largely depends on climate. No-till agriculture resulted in both a higher crop yield and and more soil carbon in warm and arid regions of the globe, but in cold-humid and tropical-humid climates it frequently led to reduced crop yields and soil-carbon loss. According to New Zealand’s Foundation for Arable Research, the use of ploughing and other more intensive forms of tillage on cropped land declined between 2006 and 2016, with more farmers using direct-drilling techniques. Around half of crop farmers still use ploughing to establish crops.
As for holistic grazing, a 2020 review found that, after half a century of research into the practice, the scientific literature is still divided on whether or not it improves the environment. Rather, its ecological effects vary depending on the context. There is little controversy in the social-science literature, however, which agrees there are considerable social benefits to the practice, including stronger relationships, and greater resilience and optimism among farmers.
The science on Brix as a measure of nutrients and pest resistance is uncertain, too. According to a University of Ohio study, there is currently no scientific evidence that Brix values alone can be used to describe a food’s nutritional value. So far, there is only anecdotal evidence for the idea that, like Tim’s kale, a plant with a high Brix value is more resistant to pests. According to a 2010 report, this hasn’t been researched independently.
Does using less synthetic fertiliser benefit soils? Longterm studies in New Zealand found no evidence of carbon loss associated with the use of phosphorus fertiliser, and Schipper says he hasn’t seen evidence that synthetic fertilisers harm soil microbiology. Given we can only name five to ten percent of the microbes in the soil, we just don’t know what effect fertilisers might be having, or on whom. “You might end up with a different microbial community,” says Schipper. “But if it’s still growing grass, does that matter?”
Schipper says he’s concerned that farmers’ financial viability might be affected if they completely phase out mineral fertilisers, and it reduces their yield. But there are hundreds of farmers around New Zealand who have made the switch, and anecdotally, they’re staying profitable. All this points to the need for more research.
“We need to test this,” says Mudge. “If some of these claims and the anecdotal evidence can be substantiated, then everyone should be doing this. And if some of the claims don’t stack up, then we need to be clear: ‘Hey, guys, don’t do it for this reason. It’s not going to give you these benefits. Don’t waste your money.’”
That’s where Gwen Grelet comes in. The Manaaki Whenua—Landcare Research scientist is dedicating her professional life to putting regenerative agriculture to the test. A soil ecologist by training, specialising in mycorrhizal fungi, she moved to New Zealand from France and got involved in a governmental research project looking at ways to reduce nitrogen leaching out of dairy farms.
She suggested trialling high-diversity pastures, but that sort of intervention was considered outside the scope of the study.
“We weren’t looking at things that were enough outside of the box that were going to make a difference,” she says. “We weren’t considering a transformation.”
That frustration led her to the community of regenerative farmers. “I realised they were challenging a lot of long-held scientific paradigms. And that’s when it becomes really exciting for a scientist. I realised that, if I wanted to do any really relevant research, I needed to step out of my ivory tower and talk to the farmers about what they think I can contribute. My whole way of working was turned upside down.”
She quickly discovered there was very little research examining what regenerative farmers are doing. “Usually, when a scientist sets out to find answers, they’re looking at one thing in isolation. They’re not looking at all of the different tools that can be mixed and matched.”
That’s what Grelet now wants to test, by designing a new type of scientific research that takes a holistic view, and focuses more on outcomes than on inputs. She is involved in a multidisciplinary effort in Australia, co-designed with farmers, to study the role of soil carbon in regenerative systems there. At the same time, alongside Mudge and other Landcare Research scientists, she’s begun a pilot study on 12 farms in Otago and Southland, comparing the ecosystem performance of six regenerative farms with six neighbouring conventional farms (though she points out that “regenerative” and “conventional”, rather than opposites, are different points on a continuum of approaches.) Half of the farms are dairy, the other half sheep and beef. Each farm is collecting data on soil carbon, nutrient cycling, water infiltration, forage diversity and quality, the amount of microbes and larger soil creatures like earthworms and insects, animal health, and profitability. (Grelet would have liked to include human well-being, greenhouse-gas emissions and run-off into waterways, but the budget didn’t stretch that far.)
Preliminary results, based on visual soil assessments, suggest the soil has greater capacity to sequester carbon on the regenerative farms than the conventional ones, although the variability between paddocks and between farms is high.
Grelet stresses this is a very small-scale study, which is designed to test the methodology and point the way for future research.
Grelet is also leading a research project for the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, due out in November, that aims to describe what regenerative agriculture looks like in New Zealand, and to develop a framework for building a scientific evidence base.
“We don’t really have the answers from a scientific standpoint yet. But unless you are absolutely sure, why should you close your mind?”
“There’s loads we can do to understand whether it is really the pathway forward to a transformation of our food system. If you just base yourself on, ‘Are there studies that show that it works?’ you would say, ‘Well there are no studies, so why bother?’ There is no proof. There is just hype. But if you start looking around you see that the kind of management that they are deploying really is ecologically sound.”
Mudge agrees that there are mostly upsides to shifting to regenerative agriculture. “Even if it doesn’t provide some of the claimed benefits, it probably isn’t going to have a major detrimental impact.” He likes that the movement is encouraging farmers to closely observe their land, and ask questions. “One of the things they are really advocating is: ‘Look at your system. Pay attention. Dig a hole. Have a look.’ It’s energised a large community that are wanting to do good things for their land and the environment, so I think regardless of the science some good things have come of that.”
Could these more intangible human benefits be one of regenerative agriculture’s greatest contributions? For years, farmers in New Zealand have felt beleaguered and misunderstood, persecuted for their cows’ farts and blamed for the state of the waterways. Switching to a kind of farming that places the well-being of land, people and animals at its heart helps farmers feel like they’re part of the solution.
When I ask Tim what’s changed since he started down this path, he says the last three years “have put a lot of joy back into farming”. That word—joy—isn’t something I was expecting to hear from a blokey guy like Tim.
But Nicole Masters, the regenerative agriculture consultant, hears it all the time. “The number of ranchers that come to me in a big cowboy hat and want to talk about how much they love their cows—there’s a tear in their eye. There’s something that’s starting to awaken in them that they previously couldn’t talk about.” And it’s not just in the United States, but here, too. “They say things like, ‘I sat there and I watched the cow, and she ate this type of plant and then she ate that kind of plant, and I wonder why that is?’ They’ve never actually sat down and watched what the cows were eating before, because why would you? They’re just eating ryegrass. It just brings a spark of creativeness that I think agriculture had lost.”
Masters believes practising regenerative agriculture allows farmers to tap into a sense of self-reliance and autonomy, and the love of the land that attracted them to farming in the first place. Research backs this up: One study found that farmers adopting holistic grazing in Australia were more accepting of risk and open to experimentation, with a change in mindset “from trying to gain control over the land… to working within the bounds of natural variability”. Other international studies have found regenerative farmers report higher levels of well-being, show more interest in animals and insects, less concern about weeds, and are more optimistic about the future than otherwise similar conventional farmers. They report being more observant, and seeing themselves as doing more “acting” than “reacting”.
In New Zealand, regenerative farmers share advice through a network called Quorum Sense. (The name is a scientific term describing the ability of bacteria to change behaviour as a group when they reach a certain population density.) The group’s manager, Sam Lang, says members talk about feeling less stressed, more empowered, and more excited about farming.
Grelet hopes to look at that social dimension in her work. “What I find fascinating is the change in people,” she says. “Their change in mindset, in their relationship to the land, to their business, to other people around them, how they see their work. We’ve got so much to learn from looking at that.”
Masters might be focused on the soil, but she says her work is just as much about precipitating a shift in worldview. “For me, the definition of regenerative agriculture is really: How do you see the world? Do you see the Earth as something you need to control and kill and dominate, or do you see the world as ‘I wonder…’”
In the afternoon, the Rutherfords take me up to the high country. “Gaaaaate!” shouts two-year-old Lewis every time we approach one. The top of the farm, at 1600 metres above sea level and over the back of the Dunstan Range, isn’t even visible from the farmhouse. The four-wheel-drive ute lurches along a narrow track, scattering rabbits as we climb higher and higher. (The rabbits are a problem when it comes to applying regenerative techniques to this part of the farm—they’ll demolish any cover crop that Tim plants.)
Before long the Southern Alps are visible, Mount Aspiring/Tititea’s white face peeking over the range in the west. While the kids play on the rocks, spotting skinks, Tim and I look down into the valley.
It’s clear some of the neighbouring farms have been tilling recently. Plumes of dust are rising in the wind. The sight makes Tim cringe. “I mean, I used to do that. Now with what I know it makes me feel a bit sick, really, the amount of nutrients being lost. Our soil is so fine it blows away pretty quick.”
No farmer wants to degenerate their land, he says, but there are lots of ways New Zealand farms, and the government, could catch up with what he and other regenerative farmers are discovering, and what science is
“Maybe in the future leaving bare ground will be illegal. We don’t have to rip up the soil every time we want to plant a new crop. I’m not saying there isn’t a future for synthetic fertilisers—yes, there will be times when people need them—but the more we can farm without them, the better it is for everyone. As a country we can do it, and it will benefit everyone in the long term.”
Most of all, regenerative agriculture has given Tim a future he can look forward to.
“We’ve been here a hundred and ten years now. It’s our home. It’s our history. I want to be improving my resource so that when I hand it on to my boys they’ve got something better than what I started off with. It is a privilege to live on the land, and we don’t want to be degrading it. We want to be constantly improving it—and be able to grow really good food and wool at the same time.”
June 30, 2020: An FAO figure was found to be misleading and thus removed from the story. The FAO reports that New Zealand consumes 1777 kilograms of fertiliser per hectare of arable land per year, but this number seems not to take into account the fact that most fertiliser used in New Zealand is applied to permanent pasture, not arable land.