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Can ‘regen ag’ work in the orchard?

Industry Best Practice

This article was first published in AFG – Autumn 2022 edition.

Applying regenerative agriculture practices on their orchards is improving soil health and quality for growers, while reducing inputs and costs.

 

At a glance:

  • Regenerative ag systems aim to improve the health of farmland and environment through farming approaches.
  • Orchard regenerative approaches focus on soil health and carbon, biodiversity, IPDM and reduction of chemical inputs.
  • On-farm decisions are supported by rigorous scientific testing.
  • Early adoption in cherry growing shows opportunities for cost-saving, profitability and enhanced export potential of crop.

Testing and monitoring soil is important to Chris Hall, Hall Family Orchards. Photo: Matt Beaver

 

NSW cherry grower Chris Hall, of Hall Family Orchards, set about transitioning to regenerative agriculture – or ‘regen’ – nine years ago with a goal of reducing chemical and fertiliser use for the health of his orchard.

“To make regen profitable at the start, I’ve been focusing on good flavour and quality instead of pushing the yield,” he said. “Now I’m starting to see those good yields, too.”

Regen is essentially farming practice that aims to enrich and regenerate soil, biodiversity and plant health while producing food. Sustainability – but one step further.

Inputs and output

For Chris, NSW Farmer of the Year 2019, the financial argument lies in both cost-saving and increasing the quality of his output.

“If you approach it right, regen practice can potentially reduce fertiliser and chemical bills by 30 per cent in the first year, then potentially 10–20 per cent every year after that,” Chris said.

Andrew Smith, Managing Director at Smith’s Fruit, Wangaratta, and consultant at Hybrid-Ag, isn’t necessarily a ‘regen farmer’, but uses a ‘holistic system’ approach to soil health and plant nutrition to achieve profitability and sustainability.

“My driving force is profitability based around a holistic system of orchard best practice,” Andrew said. “As a grower, true sustainability is not only in the field, but on the farm spreadsheet as well.”

Practice and principle

Chris has been gradually transitioning his orchard to regen practice over the past nine years, focusing on soil health, biodiversity, cover cropping and compost, ultimately aiming to reduce inputs.

“I wanted to reduce chemical and fertiliser use for the health of my orchard, and realised I could save money, too,” Chris said.

Without an orchard ‘regen playbook’, Chris has been learning through experimentation.

“I couldn’t always afford the best cover crop seed, but I’ve been allowing different species of weeds to grow – plant diversity leads to increased diversity in microbe, insect and bird populations,” Chris said.

“Water was a challenge – the quality of the water affects nutritional uptake, and I had a build-up of salt in the soil from fertiliser and salty bore water. I’m using microbes to break down the salt.

“Now I’m not buying as many products, I’m using my own compost and I’m building biodiversity in and around the orchard, as well as resilience to insect attacks and diseases.”

But as Andrew points out, a holistic system doesn’t require a ‘zero chemical’ approach.

“I am outcome focused, not input focused,” Andrew said. “I’m prepared to use mineralisation and microbes within the system via nutrient and biological inputs based on what the soil and crop requires. It’s about nutritional and bio balance, while making sure the soil is working with you, not against you, so your crop can access all the nutrients needed via the soil food web.

“When you have a bio healthy balanced soil delivering the correct nutrients to your crop, if you come to a seasonal bump in the road, you can overcome it with fewer inputs, as your crop will have far better resistance in its healthier state.

“The results are there: consistent yields, producing fruit with higher nutritional density, better cell formation, structural integrity and better lustre (shine) on the fruit. Not only does this fruit look better and have better flavour, it has longer shelf life for consumers.”

Data-driven regeneration

In his work with Hybrid-Ag, Andrew found many growers were already using similar regen sustainable practices for soil health – but he said having more comprehensive data was necessary for success.

“It’s a ‘test, don’t guess’ approach,” Andrew said. “More data collection from more useful tests, with more data analysis. If you want to leverage the benefits of nature, you’ve got to understand what’s going on at certain critical growing stages of your plant so you can influence the results of those growth phases.

“We start with comprehensive soil testing, then we use Differential Leaf Sap Analysis (DSA) testing tools to monitor the growing cycle at critical points of influence to determine nutrient movement and ensure they’re in balance. Every action has an interaction, so we’re adding mineralisation that presents to the soil and plant in a healthy way.”

Chris has a degree in horticultural science, so rigorous scientific testing is also key to his regen practice.

“Two key tests for me are the Haney Soil Test – a soil health test to determine microbially available nutrients and the amount of microbe activity – and DSA,” Chris said. “Unlike a tissue test, sap tests give a more current snapshot of what nutrients the trees are lacking, especially when it comes to those trace minerals.

“I also did a microscopy course as part of soil food web studies, learning to identify what’s in the soil and what’s lacking. It helped me develop my own composts and to assess my own soils for microbe activity.”

 

Chris Hall, Hall Family Orchards. Photo: Matt Beaver

Is this a market opportunity?

Unlike ‘organic’ or ‘carbon neutral’, regen does not involve accreditation programs, and so marketing ‘regen produce’ is difficult.

According to Andrew, Hybrid-Ag is currently looking to develop an accreditation system that can measure and communicate the nutrient and vitamin values of the food that growers produce for a consumer benefit – adding value to growers following the holistic growing system.

However, the Australian cherry industry is exploring other possible benefits to regen approaches – including accessing lucrative export markets.

Charlotte Brunt, Industry Development Officer at Cherry Growers Australia (CGA), said they began seriously exploring regenerative agriculture as a potential system to support their export program.

“We were considering alternative methods for pest and disease control that would reduce agrochemical residues to meet MRLs (maximum residue limits) more easily,” Charlotte said. “Improving and maintaining market access is critical, because in a good year there’s far too much production for the domestic market, and premium Australian cherries can command the second highest export price for cherries in the world, after New Zealand.”

CGA has facilitated workshops, including with US-based regen grower Mike Omeg, to provide industry with insights into the practical application of regen principles in cherries.

“These online sessions been very well received,” Charlotte said. “The industry is really interested, and we’re going to continue workshops with a focus on sustainability and regen. Most cherry growers are doing IPDM, so this is just introducing a practice that bolsters that.”

Profitable for pome fruit?

Andrew Smith, Managing Director, Smith’s Fruit.

According to consultant Nic Finger, Fruit Help, while regen ag is a loosely defined term, it might not be so far from current orchard best practice.

“I’d argue many growers are practising some form of it as part of their management, especially in the soil,” Nic said.

“Orchards are generally very good at building up organic matter; things like mow and blow and spreading composts or mulch help and are becoming fairly common. Shifts to other practices like IPM, reduced mowing frequency and moving away from certain types of chemicals fit the bill of regenerative ag but importantly also provide benefits in the form of reduced costs.

“Some growers go a step further by planting more diverse inter rows, regenerative seed blends and applying microbial products, but results can vary.

“Not only are these practices good for the orchard but being able to communicate the ‘clean and green’ aspect to consumers could potentially become a marketing advantage as well as reducing some costs.”

How do you start?

Chris suggests the following steps for growers curious about starting regen:

  1. Do your research – whether it’s starting with foundational regen principles or getting deep into the soil food web via an online course.
  2. Find a consultant who can make a tailored plan.
  3. Back up your practice with scientific tests and hard data.
  4. Most importantly, be observant on your own farm. Understand the diverse ecosystem, and how soil health and IPDM work together. Watch out for ‘who is eating who’ – insects, microbes, fungus, bacteria – and use that to your advantage.

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