What Makes Our Oats Regenerative?
Conventional broadacre farming relies heavily on synthetic fertiliser and chemicals to grow oat crops, which destroys the soil's natural biome. Regenerative farming builds soil health by focusing on building a healthy and biodiverse soil biome, which in turn grows healthy deep root systems and strong resilient plants. We feed the soil food web, not the plant. This allows our farmers to eliminate fungicide and pesticide use, and greatly reduce herbicide use to grow oats with no chemical residue. Our strong resilient oat plants actively pull carbon down into the soil and regenerate soil biodiversity.
Our oats have been grown by WA farmers as part of a Regenerative System, which focuses on the 4 key principles of Improving Soil Health, Biodiversity, Water and Nutrient Cycles and Committing to a Learning Journey.
In my role as Regenerative Farmer Coordinator, I complete a Regenerative Farm Plan for each of our farmers when they join up as suppliers. We list what they are doing on farm under each of these 4 key areas to show where they are now on their regenerative journey, and what they are doing to improve their practices year on year. This involves going through 52 practices considered best practice for regenerative agriculture.
Our farmers also sign up to our Oats Production Protocols, a set of non-negotiable rules for how a product is produced, processed and delivered to Dirty Clean Food's receival points. These Protocols are unique to individual product lines based on consumer demands and expectations around regeneratively farmed food products.
Below are some examples of what our oat farmers are doing on their farms that differentiate their system from a conventional broadacre system here in the WA Wheatbelt.
The oats are part of a 4 year rotation with multi species pasture, canola, lupins, and opportunistic summer multi species cover crops. By planting a diverse range of species together, and rotating different crops in sequence, our farmers have eliminated the use of synthetic pesticide and fungicide over the past 2 years. They have also been experimenting with growing oats in a mix with other nitrogen fixing crops, such as serradella (pictured below), to promote biological diversity in the soil and reduce nitrogen use.
All crops are zero till and have been seeded with a disc seeder to minimise soil disturbance, which makes the biggest difference to soil health. Tilling or digging over the soil breaks up the spaces between the soil particles where the microbes live. Imagine a good soil structure like a city of multi story apartments, with the microbes living in the spaces created by the buildings. Tilling or disturbing the soil is the equivalent of demolishing that city, with the microbes having to re-build their homes before they can get back to providing the plants with nutrients again. Our farmers use disc machines that till the soil as little as possible, much less than machines that are fitted with tynes. Disc machines are technically referred to as 'Zero Till', with tynes being 'No Till'. 'Full Till' has not been used in broadacre cropping here in WA much since the 1990's.
In conjunction with multi species cropping and zero till, our farmers use liquid biological inoculants with humic and fulvic acid which wake up the soil biology, feeding the soil food web rather than just the plant. By activating the soil biology in this way, they are now using 70% less nitrogen based fertiliser with no yield loss. This means that the oat plants have formed the symbiotic relationship with the soil biology, and as the plants excrete sugars to feed the biology, the biology in turn break down and make available the minerals that the oat plant needs.
The longer you can keep active roots growing in the soil, the more sugars are excreted, with the excess being turned into humus in the soil - the process of sequestering carbon. This in turn acts like a sponge, holding onto water and nutrients in the soil, and creating a more resilient agroecological system. To extend the period that live roots are in the soil our farmer also plants opportunistic multi species summer cover crops, sowing over summer when rain from thunderstorm events is used by these summer plants to grow and provide cover, such as these sunflowers.
Including animals in a regenerative farming system has a huge impact on soil and ecosystem health, and a regenerative system has a huge impact on animal health and wellbeing. Sheep are able to graze the multi species cover crops, where their impact tramples down the plants to create a mulch layer on the ground. The sheep also eat the plants and their manure feeds the soil food web, providing natural biological diversity for the soil. The sheep have also been seen to be more fertile after grazing on a multi species pasture or cover cropping mix, in turn having a higher number of healthy lambs.
Regenerative farming isn’t about doing one thing - it is the complex regeneration of an entire agro-ecosystem. This can look different on each farm, depending on the system itself - whether it be cattle, oats, sheep, chickens or lupins. We are incredibly grateful to be sharing the regenerative journey of Dirty Clean Food’s farmers, and being part of their regenerative journey.