Farmers in the Gisborne region were invited to a presentation from Peter Barrett and Jono Frew about ways to regenerate the land used for farming. The Gisborne Herald's Matai O'Connor went along to learn about regenerative agriculture.

Imagine putting 30 different species of plant into the same acre and then letting stock live in it.

Well that's what Linnburn Station's Peter Barrett has done to help regenerate his land.

Linnburn Station appeared on a recent episode of Country Calendar where he shared his story about regenerative agriculture.

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Jono Frew was born in Dunedin and grew up in Duntroon, North Otago, in a family of agricultural spraying and sheep-dipping contractors.

Both created the company Symbiosis which is about sharing information on what regenerative agriculture is and educating people about the attributes of each plant species and providing seed mixes to farmers.

They presented to farmers at the Patutahi community hall last week.

Jono has worked in dairy, arable and sheep and beef, becoming an award-winning farm manager when managing 200ha organic mixed-cropping sheep and beef farm Harts Creek Farm(HCF).

At HCF Jono started to question a lot of the current best practice and the way he had farmed his whole life.

In 2018 Jono co-founded "quorum sense", a forum created to bring innovative farmers and academics together to share knowledge and support farmers from the ground up.

After three years at HCF, Jono decided that he needed to offer people access to relatable and practical knowledge and support in the regenerative agriculture space.

Peter Barrett of Linnburn Station and Jono Frew of Natural Performance Ltd came to the Patutahi Community Hall to present what regenerative agriculture is about. Photo / Liam Clayton
Peter Barrett of Linnburn Station and Jono Frew of Natural Performance Ltd came to the Patutahi Community Hall to present what regenerative agriculture is about. Photo / Liam Clayton

And with his profound experience and a fresh perspective, Jono created Natural Performance Ltd and got to work supporting farmers all over the world.

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Jono is committed to empowering and supporting people interested in producing nutrient-dense food, educating youth at schools and universities, and providing energy, connection and leadership to shift the paradigm of food production to one aligned with nature.

"One that increases the health and resilience of our soil, plants, microbes, insects, animals, people and the ecosystem in all its complexity," Jono said.

The main point of the presentation was about making farmers think differently and changing perspectives on how to do things, Jono says.

"The old ways of farming are about using monoculture crops and controlling any other plant species and insects that grow on the land.

"When I'm speaking about this it is coming from a background of me doing the work, not just some hippy thinking they know what works.

"That clean, monoculture way of farming is keeping us so susceptible to all the elements."

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Regenerative agriculture is no one thing.

Sheep running through mixed plant species at Linnburn Station. Photo / Linnburn Station
Sheep running through mixed plant species at Linnburn Station. Photo / Linnburn Station

"It's not something you can contain in a box — it's an umbrella with different tools lying underneath."

"Some of those tools fall into conventional agriculture and some fall into an 'organic' category, but it's about using the different tools that will support your ecosystem and push the system further forward," Jono said.

The main focus of regenerative agriculture is biology. An important part of biology are mycorrhizal fungi — fungi that develop a symbiotic relationship with 90 percent of plants on the planet.

"They are essentially an extension of the plant," Jono said.

They grow one cell at a time linking plants together, mobilising elements and storing them within the source.

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"You should keep them in your soil as they are a living organism — every time you step on soil, you're stepping on 3000 miles of fungi. They link together to help transport important nutrients."

This means using fungicide to kill fungi is not helpful for the biology and regeneration of the land.

Plant diversity and microbial diversity are important for land to regenerate and do what it naturally does.

"Root mass and growth is important. Leaving more natural growth on the land doesn't mean it's a problem."

Jono showed a picture of plant roots that were covered in soil.

"These are called 'rastafarian' roots — if you have that on the roots then you have a biological relationship with the plants, which means you can rely on the plants to get what they need from the soil.

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"You could have a perfect soil test but in plants that are sick, it's the biological link the roots focus on that makes things available."

Jono said one of the best ways to see the health of the soil was to dig up some and see how it feels and smells.

"You can tell what healthy soil looks, smells and even tastes like."

Soil is important as it houses all the biology that plants need to grow healthy and strong.

"You don't need to be taught what good soil looks, smells and feels like," Jono said.

"When you realise there's more life in a teaspoon of the soil than there are humans on the planet and most of those are good for you — then, getting in there and eating a bit of soil is more beneficial than any supplement you could take."

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Another idea is putting more stock into the same lot to help flatten plant material by doing quick rotations around the farm.

"People thought I was crazy suggesting to put 200 bulls in one lot. I was told to never go over 40 because they start to fight.

"The whole point of having high density is so that the animals can naturally stimulate the top soil."

A farmer Jono consulted with went from having 12 mobs of 39, all doing separate rotations on the farm and next-to-no land in recovery, to having over 200 bulls in a mob and more of the land in recovery.

"The bulls have an increase in weight-gain and contentment. I've never seen such contented bulls," Jono said.

"Ninety percent of his farm is in recovery — he is moving the lots four to five times a day."

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Soil health a priority in regenerative agriculture
The farmer is growing much more grass which means the soil is functioning properly.

"Get connected to the land — there is too much disconnection happening in the farming system.

"The eyes don't lie. We have all got used to not being different, but we are all different.

"You need to see what works best for you and what doesn't. Each of you and your farms will be massively different," Jono said.

"You have got to acknowledge that there's a different world underneath our feet and it provides services we really need to be interested in."

Peter Barrett started his journey into regenerative agriculture in 2012 when he decided to move and live on his family-owned farm, Linnburn Station, a 9300ha beef and sheep station in Central Otago.

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Linnburn Station has been in his family since 1944 and had been run using conventional farming practices.

But when Peter took over the station he thought there must be a better way of doing things.

Peter is one of a growing number of New Zealand farmers experimenting with alternative farming that regenerates rather than depletes the soil and farm environment.

"Regenerative agriculture is about providing ideas on how to make money go further and make yourself more profitable," Peter said.

"At Linnburn,we believe in regenerative agriculture and that healthy soil equals healthy water which equals healthy animals and people."

Early in his journey he did what Jono said and put his hands into the soil and smelt it. He knew it was not healthy — it was compacted.

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Soil compaction is not good. Soil needs air space to allow nutrients and water to circulate as well as roots to grow. When soil particles are too close together, compaction occurs. Compacted soil is hard and dry causing any plants in it to lack nutrients. Water will pool since the soil cannot absorb it.

Soil compaction is a problem that can last for years for gardeners, farmers and landscapers, but by breaking up the compacted area and returning air space to it, you can make the soil rich and hospitable for plants again.

A water infiltration test is a great way to see how much water soaks into the soil. It also tells you about how much air the soil holds and what the soil compaction is like.

Peter looked at his land and saw it was full of thistles. He wanted to replicate how the tap root weeds worked in the soil.

"We came up with a mix of sunflowers, radishes and other plants with tap roots to replicate what the weeds I was seeing were doing — so air could get into the soil profile," Peter said.

"It's very simple. You just need to focus on putting seed in the ground."

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Linnburn Station had limited diversity before this.

"It is our belief that soil health is a priority. We use the diversity of cover crops, companion planting, zero till, biological stimulants and high-intensity grazing instead of synthetic fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides and set stocking to increase soil carbon, improve soil health and stock health.

"You need intrusive roots that open things up — that's why we use plants like this that open the soil up and get air into it."

Once he diversified the plants he was growing, "all of a sudden worms turned up" which is a sign of good soil health.

"We are happy about growing tall, diverse plants to keep the ground protected," Peter said.

He showed a video of 3500 lambs going through a regenerated paddock and flattening out the 70ha of plant life.

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"This is done to create an end result where the soil temperature increases by 2 degrees.

"It keeps life functioning and allows the land to recover while keeping the soil protected from rain, sun and wind," Peter said.

This also allows soil to build up because of the 5 to 8cm cm of plant material.

"This has changed our environment. In the past you had to drill to get soil out to test but now you can dig into it with your hands.

"It has allowed us to awaken our senses and trust our eyes instead of getting all this data about our farms. Trust what you see and experience . . . and think differently," Peter said.