Smart Farmer: Regenerating the Australian Wheatbelt

A farmer strengthens soil and community

Stuart McAlpine is a fourth-generation farmer in Australia’s hot, dry Wheatbelt. An early adopter of alternative farming methods and natural networker, he is working to see resident population numbers in his region flourish along with the soils.

Like 90 percent of Australian farmers, Stuart McAlpine uses no-till methods, but twelve years ago he felt there was still a long way to go. “Farmers here have come under a lot of pressure on what was already a very arid continent,” McAlpine explains.

“We have had to maximize returns per hectare to stay profitable. That led to expansion and specialization, and away from diversity. But diversity is important to maintain an ecosystem, so that kind of farming has come at the cost of natural capital.”

He decided to switch his farm in the Wheatbelt of South West Australia from monocrop grain farming to more regenerative agriculture. “Regenerative methods put the health of the ecosystem first. By focusing on soil biology, farmers reduce their dependence on artificial inputs, rebuild carbon in the soil, and encourage biodiversity.”

“Regenerative farms are shining this year despite the drought”

- Stuart McAlpine

Drought-proofing farms

Next to no-till farming, ways to achieve these outcomes include reforestation, composting, and replacing monocultures with crop sequencing. “Above all,” McAlpine says, “our challenge is to try and assist nature to regenerate our soils and let her get on with the job.”

McAlpine now grows canola and lupin next to wheat in order to reduce pathogens and replenish the soil naturally. He also keeps around 500 head of cattle and a herd of up to 1,000 sheep, using regenerative ranching methods such as cell grazing and sowing pastures with multiple grass species.

These methods are not a quick fix: it can take years for soil to recuperate to the productivity levels achieved using high-input farming. Nevertheless, McAlpine is wholly committed to them. “Our regenerative farms are far more resilient and able to cope with the climate changes we are getting. The ones that have been going for a while are shining this year, despite the extreme drought.”

Stuart McAlpine (with spade) during a soil health workshop at his farm in 2018

He runs various workshops and networking opportunities through organizations like Liebe Group to encourage other farmers to adopt these methods and stay the course. “A lot of people walk away from regenerative farming because of lack of support or lack of patience. They don’t get to experience the long-term benefits.”

A business model for “hope and wellbeing”

Commonland, a company that works with local people to restore fragile landscapes worldwide, started a project in South West Australia in 2015 and Stuart soon heard about it. “The approach really resonated with me,” he says. “Especially their focus of hope and increased wellbeing. It was nice to have it framed in a business model.” He is now a Non-executive Director of Wide Open Agriculture, a listed company which practices regenerative farming based on Commonland’s concepts.

One of Commonland’s pillars is bringing people back to depopulated areas, something McAlpine had already started working on nearly ten years ago. Currently at 7.1 residents per square kilometer, population density in South Western Australia has never been high, but McAlpine was disheartened to see local schools closing for lack of pupils in 2010.

“We’ve managed to increase the local population by 15 percent”

- Stuart McAlpine

Bringing back the people

“Bigger farms mean diminishing populations,” McAlpine explains. “I reckon the population has been halving here every ten years. I saw that no one was addressing the problem. We would have to think outside the box to rebuild social wellbeing with things like social gatherings and sporting events. So we started working with some great local businesses to find solutions.”

The local government’s Regional Repopulation Plan is based on McAlpine’s ideas. It aims to attract people, including migrants, to the area to meet labor shortages in agriculture and other sectors by offering English language instruction, integration support and housing assistance. “We’ve managed to increase the population by 15 percent. And school numbers have doubled in the nearby town of Dalwallinu.”

Ecosystems big and small

McAlpine is now working on enabling quorum sensing on his land, a method that advocates high levels of microbial biodiversity in the soil. Some bacteria need to reach a certain density to work best. They can then build symbiotic systems with other microbes that maximize the health of the soil. “It’s a complex system,” says McAlpine. “But we can measure the changes in ecosystem function compared to the current approach.”

Sound radical? McAlpine is not phased. “I’ve been working on change for years. It’s a bit like climbing a mountain: it’s bloody hard work, but once you get to the top, it’ll be pretty easy walking down the other side.”

Photo at top: NACC