Above The sell-out conference at Colac attracted participants from across Australia. The key message was — put the soil first.
What happens when a small Landcare group interested in regenerative agriculture wants to learn more and build a bigger network of like-minded farmers? They hold a three-day regional conference.
The Otway Coast Regenerative Farmers (OCRF) Group formed in 2013 when a small group of landowners met while attending a series of whole farm planning workshops run by the Southern Otway Landcare Network (SOLN). We became a new Landcare group and did a lot of learning in subsequent years, largely funded by sausage sizzles. In 2018 we decided to apply for Australian Government National Landcare Program funding to enable us to hold a comprehensive two-day conference – From the Ground Up: Growing Regenerative Agriculture in Corangamite.
Our application was successful and OCRF President Ros Denney set about contacting the best of the best in the quickly growing field of regenerative agricultural practices. Charlie Arnott agreed to be our master of ceremonies. A bio-dynamic farmer from Boorowa, NSW, and recipient of the 2018 Bob Hawke Landcare Award, Charlie was the hook and anchor during the conference and had an easy rapport with the audience.
The final line-up of speakers included internationally renowned soil ecologist Dr Christine Jones from NSW, Coles Weekly Times Farmer of the Year Grant Sims, regenerative agriculture practitioner Kym Kruse from QLD, President of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance Tammi Jonas, and award-winning Natural Intelligence Farmers Ian and Dianne Haggerty from WA. The conference grew to a three-day event with concurrent sessions and a choice of field trips so a broad range of topics and case studies could to be covered.
The conference was held at Colac from 18-20 September 2019. Tickets sold out two weeks in advance. We hosted 180 delegates from all over Victoria as well as Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland. There were owners and managers of a variety of farming enterprises on properties of up to 3500 hectares, as well as service providers, consultants, catchment management, agency and Landcare staff.
The key message throughout the conference was the importance of looking after soil biology by nourishing the mycorrhiza, bacteria and fungi that work symbiotically with plant roots to source nutrient uptake, and support carbon sequestration.
Land managers were encouraged to move away from synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, and instead foster life within the soil through more natural means such as biofertilisers, significantly increasing plant diversity, attracting increased beneficial insect populations and establishing productive shelter belts.
The conference field trips demonstrated different aspects of the regenerative approach including organic dairy farming, agroforestry, water infiltration systems and cover cropping. Conference break-out sessions delved deeper into topics such as carbon sequestration, climate change preparedness, ethical foods and integrated pest management.
The other key lesson for delegates was the importance of developing communities of like-minded people to support each other in making the change to regenerative practices. Many early adopters commented on how isolated they felt when they started to change their practices. While it is undoubtedly much more enjoyable to farm this way, having a network of others to use as a resource and for support makes a big difference.
Local producers shine
The conference dinner was held at Otway Estate with chef Duncan Green showcasing a diverse range of produce from the region. More than 20 local producers contributed items for the menu. Food writer Richard Cornish gave the after-dinner speech and later congratulated the conference organisers.
“It was a stunning piece of education, community building and emotional affirmation. What an amazing collection of human beings. It was like walking around a living library. So much information and experience in one place. It was a pleasure and privilege taking a small part in the conference,” Richard said.
Conference delegate John Carruthers, a landholder from central Victoria, was also impressed. “All great endeavours need a tipping point and l feel I’ve had the privilege to be at a fulcrum. The event’s magic for me was the mix of science and practice, and the remarkable ecosystem of speakers, providers, farmers and participants,” he said.
We were constantly impressed by the level of engagement from the 180 delegates. The new knowledge and enthusiasm that they have taken back to their communities is the best indicator of the conference’s success.
A conference of this scale is a major undertaking. It wouldn’t have been possible without a huge volunteer effort, and the collaboration between OCRF, the Corangamite CMA, SOLN and many other parties including the Central Otway Landcare Network and the Colac Otway Shire.
The OCRF group is now expanding beyond the Otways to become a source of regenerative farming information for all of Victoria.
Ally Hughes was Landcare Facilitator and Manager, Southern Otway Landcare Network until November 2019 and Helen Masters is Treasurer of the Otway Coast Regenerative Farmers Group. Ally’s position was funded through the Victorian Landcare Facilitator Program.
To learn more about regenerative agriculture and to view OCRF’s practice standards go to www.otwaycoastregenerativefarmers.com.au