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There is no alternative to agroecology

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Juanita and Randal Breen at Echo Valley Farm

When I read this bold statement on the Terra Madre, Salone del Gusto 2022 program I was no less than intrigued! What was agroecology? How was it connected to regenerative farming and how was it different to permaculture? I was even more curious when I discovered one of the presenters on the panel was an Australian delegate from the Slow Food Convivium in Brisbane and when I met Randal Breen and his wife Juanita in person at a pre-Terra Madre welcome dinner in Turin, I knew these were the people to explain it!

The couple run Echo Valley Farm – a 300-acre mixed or stacked farming enterprise in the Goomburra Valley, South East Queensland. They are in their own words new farmers, having begun their journey just eight years ago. In that time, they have already experienced a full gamut of disasters – drought, a mice plague, and now a flood. However, it’s the increasing occurrences of these ecological threats that attracted them to agroecology – a method of farming practice that works with the land and environment in a sustainable and regenerative way – in the first place. They are now literally leading the discussion in this important new way of looking at how we farm and produce food.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) defines agroecology as this: “Agroecology is a holistic and integrated approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems. It seeks to optimize the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment while also addressing the need for socially equitable food systems within which people can exercise choice over what they eat and how and where it is produced.”

While you can find a wealth of resources on their website at https://www.fao.org/agroecology/home/en/ it can get a bit academic, and I found Randal’s explanation, which he spoke about at Terra Madre, far easier to understand.

“When establishing our farming operation at Echo Valley, sound and ethical ecological farming practices took priority. Thinking long on how we could integrate these approaches into our farm systems, we developed the ‘Four Good’ principles: Good for the animal, good for the land, good for the farmer and good for you,” explains Randal.

“These four values are integral to every industry on farm, with each farming enterprise at Echo Valley having been thoughtfully established to be in harmony and linked to the other on-farm systems, creating a farm that not only applies the four goods, but is holistic in its approach.”

The farm began with chickens, or eggs — of course it’s hard to say which came first — and now runs approximately 2000 hens in a pastured system where the hens are rotated around the pasture in their cute caravans on wheels.

“Our hens are free to express their ‘inner chookiness’ by roaming around the great outdoors, all day, every day. Stocked at 500 hens to the hectare they are grouped in small, age specific flocks and are supplemented with an ASP certified grain to balance their diet. With no antibiotics, no chemicals and no hormones, these eggs are nutrient dense and full of flavour, in fact, we’re often told our eggs taste like eggs used to taste,’” says Randal.

With a high demand for quality, ethically produced eggs, this part of the business has been a good earner as well as playing an important role in putting nutrients back into the soil.

“When we bought the farm, the soil was in poor condition due to years of monoculture cropping. I could dig a hole and find no earthworms at all.”

But the farm is not just chickens. Cattle are rotationally grazed throughout the property and pigs forage in the previously underutilised native forest areas. Mixed pasture cropping provides fodder as well as bringing biodiversity back into the soil.

“Our cattle are an integral link in our symbiotic farming system; they are the catalyst that activates and utilises the pasture growth. We use holistic management principles and low stress stock handling techniques on our herd of Brangus cattle, allowing them to best display their natural grazing behaviour,” says Randal.

This means that the herd is constantly on the move, like their wild ancestral herbivores –who were nomadic. Cattle are rotated as often as daily, enabling them to utilize every square metre of the farm.

The heritage ‘bushranger’ breed pigs use the land traditional farming would place less value on, and in addition their natural foraging and digging behaviour helps regenerate the landscape and activate once dormant grass and other plant seeds.

After eight years of holistic management, Randal proudly explains how his ‘shovel method’ for measuring the health of the soil shows a fantastic improvement.

“At last dig I counted 29 earthworms in the shovel of soil! That’s something we’re really proud of!”

Randal refers to the 5 pillars of healthy soil as fundamental to this improvement: keeping plant roots in the soil, minimising disturbance or trillage, keeping cover on the landscape, plant diversity and integrating livestock. It’s certainly wonderful to see how a mixed or stacked farming enterprise like this is working alongside the natural ecology of the land, and it’s easy to see how the Breens are using regenerative farming techniques to produce their eggs and meat. But agroecology has another aspect – it must be good for the farmer and the consumer too.

The Breens have made strong connections to the people who buy their produce, forming a direct link from farm to fork. But they’ve gone one step further in the unique way they have financed a new farm, partnering with their customers.

“People who we had been feeding for years wanted to invest in regenerative farming, and we’ve recently bought a property next door as shared owners – we can expand our farm, and they can be a part of the food process!”

You can learn more about what the Breens are doing, and learn more about the concept of agroecology by visiting their website www.echovalley.com.au and following their blog.