Restoring soil health through regenerative agricultural practices is the key to success for families who are taking up the challenge to create a future in agriculture for younger generations.   Viable pathways for the intergenerational transfer of agricultural businesses have been diminishing and many intelligent, passionate young people have been leaving the industry in recent times.  The damage created to soil health by industrial farming practices means these degraded agricultural ecosystems are struggling to support one generation in the business.    The strain of further increasing debt loads to facilitate an intergenerational transfer and keep the younger generation on the land is often too much for them to bear.  Succession planning can become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Industrial agricultural practices have created dead lifeless soils that will not absorb or hold water when it rains. Healthy soils cycle nutrients and plants are nourished by their relationship with soil microbes.  Crops and pastures in degraded soils rely on ever increasing amounts of artificial fertilisers for their nutrients because the soil microbial bridge is blown.  Agricultural systems with nutrient imbalances which create the perfect condition for pests, weeds and diseases to flourish guarantee an income for the chemical companies every season.  None of this is a recipe for financial success for the land managers of the present or the future.

These financial challenges alone are enough to make the younger generations of farming families look for careers outside of agriculture.  Watching their parents lifetime of struggle on the family farm is not something that makes a career in agriculture an attractive option.  The focus of conventional agricultural systems on killing things (weeds, pests, diseases) at every opportunity and spending their days spraying toxic chemicals around is also hardly an enticing lifestyle to aspire to.  Many farming families actively discourage their children from being involved in agriculture as they do not see a desirable future for them in this industry.

The relationship between soil health and succession planning became obvious to me over 20 years ago.  My soil health aha moment occurred at a time I was involved in a family farm succession planning process.  Witnessing the dramatic impact on crop growth where the fertiliser rig had run out opened my eyes to the unintended consequences our farming practices were having on soil health.  These once fertile soils were regarded as being some of the best in the country and yet were not able to support wheat crop establishment without artificial fertilisers.

At this time my now ex-husband and his family were in the early stages of succession planning and I began to question how succession planning could be a viable proposition in the face of declining soil health?  How could this be happening when my parents in law were well respected farmers, dedicated to doing the best job they could to implement innovative best management practices and were frequently winning crop competitions? How could be we bring these tired soils back to life? How could farmers improve soil health to ensure they were leaving a viable business for the next generation?

It became clear to me that in addition to the family relationship and financial challenges that present themselves in the succession planning process, soil health was also a major impediment to successful farm succession.  When you see this relationship you simply cannot ‘un-see’ it.  My career later led me into a Rural Financial Counselling role where I continued to witness declining soil health reflected in the financial statements of the hundreds of farmers I worked with.   It was obvious to me how declining soil health had farmers on a downward spiral which went hand in hand with declining resilience to natural disasters, market fluctuations and climate variability.  These observations led me along the path of exploring and implementing regenerative farming methods in our landscape with my husband Angus, and increased my passion for the vital role that soil and ecosystem health plays on all levels.

Declining soil and ecosystem health are at the core of the reason so many farming families are leaving the land.  The ease of blaming the declining profitability of farming on external factors over which we have no control such as droughts, markets, rising costs of inputs, governments etc has made this easy to disguise.   By continually addressing the symptoms rather than the cause of these issues, the impact of unintended consequences of agricultural practices have continued to compound.  Declining soil carbon reserves, soil compaction,  algal blooms in water bodies, biodiversity decline, broken water cycles, high suicide rates in farmers and declining farm profits across the world are just a few of these consequences.  Our agricultural ecosystems are presently crumbling under these pressures.

Well intentioned farmers implementing industry best practices have unintentionally damaged soil health and as a result the most important resource on which future generations depend has become extremely degraded.  Good intentions can have unintended consequences when we take our eye off the ball and don’t focus on the whole picture.  Addressing these unintended consequences offers us the opportunity to recognise that we all do the best we know how at the time and as we know better we can do better.

When we focus on regenerating soil and ecosystem health we build resilience to the climatic extremes that bring many farm businesses undone, we gain access to an emerging market advantage by growing chemical free food and we reduce input costs and increase profitability by stepping off the high input treadmill.   Our management practices cease making the challenges agriculture throws at our businesses even greater and instead build resilience.

Soil health is the foundation that creates a financially viable and enjoyable agricultural business to pass on to the next generation, building resilience on all levels and increasing the ability of the business to survive the financial strains that can come with intergenerational transfer.  A farming system that prioritises soil health offers a more enjoyable lifestyle which becomes something the younger generation actually want to be a part of.

At Integrity Soils we are frequently inspired to witness the impact of regenerative agriculture is having to create opportunities for future generations in agriculture.  When farming families see the opportunity that improving soil health through regenerative agriculture provides for their business and their life they fall in love with farming again.  As their minds are opened to another possibility for their farm and their family an enterprise is created that becomes attractive to the younger generation to be a part of with the added bonus of increased resilience to climatic extremes, market fluctuations and natural disasters.  Farming can again become an attractive and viable option for the younger generation.

Ross Thompson of Millah Murrah Angus from Bathurst in NSW Australia summed this up beautifully following the Regenerate 2020 workshop in Christchurch.  “At the start of the course when asked who hopes their kids will come back to the farm? Dimity and I had our arms at half-mast.  Five days later they can all come home.  Agriculture looks exciting again!”

Absolutely everything relates back to soil health, and this must be an essential priority for families planning to keep their agricultural business in the family for future generations. Farming systems that continue to run down the planets natural capital over time on which all of life on this planet depends are not just a threat to the families who manage agricultural landscapes, they are a threat to life on this planet as we know it.  All future generations from all walks of life depend on soil health.   Farming regeneratively and restoring soil health is the noblest of pursuits and will create a thriving, resilient and enjoyable agricultural enterprise for future generations, one that we are proud to pass on to future generations and one that they are honoured to be a part of.

Written by Kim Deans.

Kim is available for coaching to empower you to create a thriving, profitable and regenerative farm business.  Email kimd@integritysoils.com Ph +61 0455 596 464