Just two weeks into the job, Soils for Life’s new chief executive officer Eli Court has realised there’s a missing voice in the mainstream discussions surrounding Australia’s agricultural industry: and that’s farmers who want to use regenerative practices to restore soil health, rather than deplete it. 

Soils for Life is a non-profit on a mission: to support farmers to regenerate soil and landscapes for healthy food and communities. Now in its 10th year, the organisation is focused on increasing its network of leaders in regenerative agriculture who are willing to share their insights and learnings with the industry.

That’s because regenerative farming is still a relatively new and unknown topic, Court says, so it’s essential that farmers are supported to be able to learn from each other and continue to innovate and repair soil and landscape health. Having previously worked at Farmers for Climate Action, ClimateWorks Australia and the Australian Energy Foundation (which recently ceased operations after 21 years of providing energy advice, assistance and support to the community) Court knows soil at the centre of the world’s great challenges.

His work at ClimateWorks was so successful that his joint project with ASBEC has contributed to energy standards upgrades in the National Construction Code, “for the first time in a long time”. 

The emerging concept of ‘soil security’ also underpins the world’s six existential challenges: food, water and energy security, climate change abatement, biodiversity protection and human health.

Now he wants to try his hand at another big challenge: restoring soil health.

Retiring chief executive Dr Liz Clarke left the organisation in April after two years in the role, and was temporarily replaced by acting CEO Katie Ross. 

Now Court will be heading up the team of 13 in the non-profit’s Canberra office. 

In the role of chief executive, he sees an opportunity to ramp up the awareness and education segment of the organisation. 

Regenerative farming practices can help farmers with rising uncertainty and variability in their businesses from extreme weather and economic uncertainty, fluctuating costs of inputs, increasing debt, and market volatility. 

Soils for Life founder Michael Jeffery was quoted as saying: “The emerging concept of ‘soil security’ also underpins the world’s six existential challenges: food, water and energy security, climate change abatement, biodiversity protection and human health”. 

But while there is rapidly rising interest in regenerative agriculture, and emerging technological innovations that can assist with regenerative practices, there is a lot of confusion of where to look for advice.

In fact, Court says you’d be forgiven for not knowing what regenerative farming is about. 

Regenerative agriculture is a term some people struggle to pin down, but it’s become increasingly popular in the last few years, following the popularity of books such as Call of the Reed Warbler published by 2017 by author Charles Massy which invites the reader to change the way we farm, eat and think about food.

What you do on your farm has impact beyond the farm gate.

It’s a term that broadly describes the principles and practices and approaches of effectively regulating soil health, working with rather than against ecosystem processes. 

“Regenerative agriculture helps restore natural processes, allowing you to reduce inputs. This has flow on benefits for biodiversity on your farm and more broadly,” Court says.

“What you do on your farm has impact beyond the farm gate.”

How that plays out in the real world is through farmers taking into account local ecosystems, geography and climate, “how you work with nature rather than against it”. 

It means that farmers are equipped with the tools they need to observe the processes in their landscapes and soils, so they can understand the differences they’re making in management changes and make adjustments. 

“We want to foster peer to peer learning systems – farmers learn best from other farmers.” 

Farmers learn best from other farmers.

The benefits are numerous on the climate front: lowered emissions, carbon sequestration, increased food security. 

But it’s also a boon for the farmers themselves, with lower costs for business owners who are sheltered from the ups and downs of the market, as there is less need for input costs like fertilisers and chemicals.

Soils for Life on a site visit at Amberly Farm with ACT Natural Resource Management, to extract soil core and discuss learnings. Image: Soils for Life

Another problem is that farmers are often geographically isolated and lacking in support. 

To share this information across the country, there is a need for a strong and wide network of support for farmers in government and across industry.

To achieve this, Soils for Life is collaborating with a range of partners, including landcare groups, policy experts, and natural management groups, which have deep and long-standing connections with farmers in every area of the country. 

Some of these partners include ACT Natural Resource Management, Meat and Livestock Australia, Rangeland Living, the NSW Department of Primary Industry, Western Landcare, the Western Local Land Service, Soil Science Australia, Soil CRC, the National Soils Advocate and Parliamentary Friends of Soil. 

“Like any new inspiring and hopeful idea, in a time when we see lots of scary projections, people can get carried away with the next great idea. But there’s an ecosystem of people needed to achieve that change.” 

“We’re unique in that we are the only national not-for-profit focused on soil and landscape health that also has an extensive network of farmers we work with, and strong connection with science and research community, policymaking and the government,” says Court. 

I want to put the farmers we work with at the centre of what we do. 

With funding from research grants, philanthropic institutions, and individual donations, Court says that the non-profit is well on its way to positioning itself into the mainstream discussions around the future of farming. 

“Going forward, I want to put the farmers we work with at the centre of what we do. 

“There’s a missing voice in the mainstream discussions about the future of food farming and agriculture. These farmers are often not heard in these discussions. 

“We can be effective at helping those people put their best foot forward and have their perspectives incorporated into the public discourse, policy making, and the research community.”

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