Woolworths, growers & researchers lead regenerative farming trial.
It may not be long before supermarket shoppers are choosing a new kind of vegetables off the shelves – grown using regenerative agriculture practices which could transform New Zealand’s horticulture over time.
Well, to be clear, they will be the same kind of vegetables we eat now…but they will be grown more sustainably, using regenerative techniques being trialled by Woolworths New Zealand, teaming up with growers, scientists and the Ministry for Primary Industries to research ways to improve the impacts of vegetable farming.
A three-year project involving Woolworths, LeaderBrand Produce, and Plant & Food Research is the first plant-to-plate collaboration to investigate how regenerative farming practices in vegetable farming benefit productivity, profitability, people and environment.
It’s run out of LeaderBrand’s vegetable production operation in Gisborne, with a demonstration site trialling regenerative practices and evaluating the impacts of using compost and cover crops across varied crop rotations. The trial site is running next to a control site using current management practices, so direct comparisons can be made over time.
So what is regenerative agriculture and why is it needed? Big picture: the population of the planet is expected to grow by about two billion people in the next 30 years. More food is needed for more people but we have to navigate how to meet these needs while supporting the resiliency of our food systems, so we can keep farming for generations to come.
That means extending existing knowledge of how to grow food sustainably and without damaging the very environment we need to produce our food. The research is aimed at not only producing more good crops but also mitigating such effects on the environment such as nitrate leaching, biodiversity loss, and nutrient loss.
Regenerative practices are all about restoring and boosting soil health and biodiversity. To achieve this, regenerative farmers use compost, keep the soil covered as much as possible, diversify crops and plant perennials on the land to improve soil structure and water holding capacity, retain nutrients and increase on-farm biodiversity.
In commercial vegetable growing, the soil is often left bare between harvest and planting the next crop. In regenerative farming, non-cash crops such as sorghum, oats or buckwheat are sown to cover the soil between two cash crops to protect it from erosion and improve its health and reduce nutrient losses.
Much of New Zealand’s research on regenerative agriculture has previously been focused on beef, lamb and dairy – the study by Woolworths, LeaderBrand, and Plant & Food Research looking to provide an evidence base for the horticulture sector.
The project has just completed its first full year of field trials and the research team has found some initial positive effects from composting, likely to be from soil conditioning rather than any additional nutrient supply from the compost.
The project is also looking at the role of perennial plantings in facilitating ecosystem restoration, and has engaged with staff, community, and iwi to create practices that work with, and for, the wider community.
Woolworths NZ head of sustainability Catherine Langabeer says the results are promising, but not yet definitive: “This is why it’s a multi-year project – because you need to be able to do multiple rounds of testing to show clear trends.”
The findings - which are already being shared with other growers - could help convince growers to adopt regenerative farming practices and help improve the long-term health and resilience of NZ’s food supply, Langabeer says. She wants Kiwis to have the confidence that the produce they buy from Woolworths supermarkets and put on their plates has been farmed in a way that is good for the planet and for people.
The field trials are producing food destined for Woolworths’ shelves, such as mesclun and spinach, so production must be maintained - it’s very much a real-world trial.
At a recent Field Day on site, the LeaderBrand team was upfront about what is working and challenges, Langabeer says. The team used sorghum as cover in some sites and talked about the practicality of having to cut down and process the bulky crop after it had done its job in time for the summer crop planting window: “This is why it’s so important to keep testing and learning.”
“We know cover cropping is beneficial but then we are having to manage a whole new process before we put the commercial crop in.”
Another challenge was being mindful of what insects the cover crops might attract, she says, and the trial is giving growers a chance to experiment and find out what works, she says: “We appreciate there is a lot that farmers have to navigate. We don’t want it to be overwhelming.
“Already the wider LeaderBrand team is taking what is working and adopting it on other non-trial sites. That’s so exciting that it’s already showing benefits.”
General Manager of Farming for LeaderBrand, Gordon McPhail, says the project has been good for the business: “It has to be something we all buy into and make it commercially viable to be sustainable. It may not stack up commercially on day one but ultimately it must have a goal to take us to that point – and that’s where we get sustainability and can build momentum and trust through the industry that we can do this.”
LeaderBrand Sustainability Manager Stuart Davis says work with composts has already shown a lift in soil health, measured in crop performance. Another part of the project was a knowledge review of the crop pest and beneficial species associated with perennial native species which would be used in large wetland restoration projects being planned for two of LeaderBrand’s Gisborne farms.
Staff have been enthusiastic about the project, too: “I am very pleased to be working for a company thinking of the future health of the land and not just the profit margins for now,” one LeaderBrand employee says.
The three-year project will have a total cost of about $1 million. Woolworths and LeaderBrand are contributing 60 per cent (in cash and in kind) supported by 40 per cent cash from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.
For more information: Countdown.co.nz/regenerative-agriculture