I’ve been pondering something lately. How did my lifelong quest to zone in on our optimal diet culminate in an obsession with soil health and regenerative farming? How did I arrive at the conclusion that local farmers hold the key to our collective health, rather than green smoothies and superfoods?
Well, given that formal nutrition education focuses predominantly on food type and quantity rather than provenance and quality, I set out to fill in the blanks. I pushed through the murky world of food labelling and, dissatisfied with the bulk of the information on offer, began to speak directly with farmers.
As a nutritionist, I thought I’d been providing solid advice by encouraging people to opt for ‘grass-fed’ meat and ‘free-range, organic’ eggs, if finances permitted. However, with the opportunity to glance behind the curtain, two things have become abundantly clear.
Firstly, there’s huge variations in both product quality and farming methods under these labels, due to the woefully inadequate labelling laws. This means there’s literally no way of knowing what you’re really eating. Case in point: its perfectly legal (and unfortunately common) for ‘free-range’ chickens and pigs to have never seen the light of day.
However the bigger realisation was that there’s similarly large discrepancies between most farming methods (even for organic, ‘grass-fed and finished’ meat products) and regenerative agriculture.
What is this ‘regenerative’ farming, I speak of?
In a nutshell, this type of agriculture focuses on improving the fertility of the soil and pastures and prioritising animal health and welfare.
As part of my research for our What To Eat program, I visited some local farmers who are implementing regenerative methods. And whilst I knew a bit about the principles and benefits of this type of farming, I was rather astounded by how they could manifest, visually.
When Virginia from Grace Springs Farm took us through her property, we were greeted with lush, knee-deep, dark green pastures, with a ‘salad bar’ smorgasbord of different grasses and weeds – a stark contrast to the surrounding dry and scrubby plateau of Kulnura (NSW).
This can be attributed to frequent animal rotation (a technique championed by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms) that ensures the animals are continually moved away from their waste, on to fresh, well-rested pasture. Aside from the obvious health benefits of grazing on such incredibly nutrient-dense vegetation, this method also results in animals with significantly lower rates of disease and a reduced need for medications.
At a local level, this type of farming can regenerate the land and improve the microclimate. Implemented on a larger scale, it’s feasible that this idea could literally save the world from desertification and climate change. Not the usual mantra, when discussing meat production!
Local farmers: the unsung heroes
It’s a shame that there are no labels to help us distinguish these types of products from the rest. And in fact, when it comes to the labelling of animal products, there aren’t many that can be relied on to guarantee optimal quality.
This is why having access to the producer offers so much more value. The only way to have real transparency is by returning to a more localised system, where we’re in direct communication with local farmers or their trusted distributors.
The thing is, we also need more small-scale, local farmers!
And although most of us can accept that farming isn’t the easiest of professions, it wasn’t until I visited a few newly established farms that I truly began to understand the steep learning curve and potential risks associated with the first few years of setting up a small-scale operation.
It strikes me as unfortunate that farmers are the ones burdened with all the risk when consumers are set to benefit the most. (Which, as an aside, is why I love community-supported agriculture).
Paying it forward
My conversations with these local farmers got me thinking, what part can I play in effecting the change I’d like to see, towards a more localised food system?
Our What To Eat program helps educate consumers about food quality, labels and provenance (amongst many other things), which helps to raise awareness and boost demand for these types of farms.
However, I wanted something more direct and tangible, which is why I decided to donate a portion of all What To Eat ticket sales to two local families who are in the early stages of setting up small-scale farms. I look forward to keeping you updated on their progress.
You can read all about the farms and how they plan to use the funding, here.
I’d love to hear from YOU. Have you discovered the joys of shopping more locally and if so, what aspect do you love the most? What changes would you like to see in our food system over the next decade? Leave me a comment below! :-)