LAKE EPPALOCK farmer Darren Doherty has been commended by the Hawaiian Government for his leadership in ecological agriculture systems around the world.
Regenerative agriculture I would describe as ‘beyond sustainable’ agriculture. – Darren Doherty
Mr Doherty, who runs a global “regenerative agriculture” business with wife Lisa Heenan, was recognised by the Hawaiian Senate after he delivered a series of talks in the Hawaiian Islands two weeks ago.
Mr Doherty spoke to large landholders in Hawaii about how they could make their farms more sustainable by changing grazing and cropping practices, value-adding and integrating forestry.
The talks were well-received, Mr Doherty said, but he was taken aback when Senator Mike Gabbard officially commended him for his work.
“As a rural Australian I am pretty bashful about that sort of thing, but on reflection I guess what we are on about is starting to come of age,” the fifth-generation Bendigo farmer said yesterday.
HeenanDoherty Pty Ltd’s mission is to “maintain creative, intergenerational family and community lives built around regenerative and profitable production, management and educational systems”.
For 20 years Mr Doherty has run talks and designed more than 1600 mostly broadacre projects in 45 countries, and is regarded as a pioneer in the regenerative retrofit of broadacre landscapes.
It’s not just about sustainability, he says.
“Simply sustaining something is lacking in ambition.
“Regenerative agriculture I would describe as ‘beyond sustainable’ agriculture.
“Sustainability is energy-in, energy-out, whereas regenerative agriculture is, ‘things are getting better as a result of what you are doing.’”
Hawaiian farms produced enough beef to supply 24 per cent of their local market, he said.
Yet they only sold two per cent to the local market – most beef was exported.
By knowing how much beef was consumed in that market, farmers could change their practices.
Mr Doherty notes that central Victorian farmers are close to the rapidly growing city of Bendigo.
“One question I would be asking is, how much money do Bendigo consumers spend on lamb each year?
“Do we know the answer to that question?
"How much is spent in Castlemaine?”
Mr Doherty regards Australian farmers as some of the most efficient farmers in the world who are buffeted by global market conditions outside their control.
Part of his aim is to return some control to farmers.
“That’s what we are trying to change,” he said.
“We can continue with globalised agricultural systems or go with more local distribution.”
Meat producers could readily market themselves, he said.
“I have several large (meat) clients in central Victoria and they are all selling their sheep directly,” he said.
“I’m not sure exactly what they’re earning but it’s better than what they’re getting at the saleyards.”
While he acknowledges local marketing is not so simple for large-scale cereal croppers, they could take other action like value-adding, sharing machinery and collaborating with neighbours for economy of scale.
About 10 canola farmers at Kaniva had each devoted 6 per cent of their crop to produce biodiesel and they were now self-sufficient in fuel, he said.
Mr Doherty believes the regeneration of agriculture – not just its landscapes but its people – is “critical”.
“Agriculture is the most critical industry because we all rely on it for food, fibre and energy,” he said.
A relentlessly ageing farmer population with fewer young people in agriculture; decreasing terms of trade; and huge future demand for food, were key challenges.
“It’s not just about producing more on less land, but how do you keep people in the game?
“How do you keep young people, have them take on your property and how do you get young people to come in?
“For every seven farmers over 75, there is only one under 25.
“Regeneration is not just about landscape.”
Making farming profitable, integrated, to make a good living is “what gets us up in the morning,” he says.
Mr Doherty grew up on 30 acres at Junortoun where his grandfather traded sheep and cattle and his aunt ran 500 chickens.
His father died in Vietnam when Darren was three months old and his grandfather and the Junortoun farm was a big influence on him.
After leaving school he travelled around Australia working in hospitality.
Then he got a job in an organic green grocer’s shop in Bendigo where he came into contact with leading organic farmers in central Victoria and “it reignited my passion”.
“I began to get interested in design and re-designing so I studied Keyline agriculture.
“Then we opened up our shop (their agriculture business) in 1993 and haven’t stopped since.”
For 20 years he has honed his creative and analytical skills on broadacre farms of more than 100,000 acres.
With wife Lisa he has run 180 workshops around the world from Vietnam to South America and Lisa also manages their Lake Eppalock farm, Dehesa Felix.
Last year HeenanDoherty Pty Ltd changed from a for-profit to a non-profit business when they cleared all their debt.
”We’ve always extended information freely around the world….50 per cent of what we do is education.
“Being out of debt gave us the freedom to become a not for profit.”
Mr Doherty said he was “standing on the shoulders of other people who are much more radical than I am in this space.”
He believes the times are shifting quickly and his work will be more commonplace in years to come.
“As Mark Twain said, today’s revolutionaries are tomorrow’s conservatives.”