ODPG 2020 Conference Report

I have spent a lot of time at conferences where businesses and NGOs are talking about and proposing agricultural solutions and innovations. What was different about the ODPG conference, was that this meeting was filled with farmers talking about real solutions that are working on their farms.

Alissa Welker

We were lucky to have blogger and photographer, Alissa Welker from Cultivate Conversation attending The Regenerative Soil Solution at Lincoln University earlier this month and here is her own take on what she learnt. If you didn’t see her photographs, here’s a link to our last blog post.

Conference Report

I filled over ten pages of notes in my notebook over the two days of speakers and farm visits during the Organic Dairy and Pastoral Group Conference (ODPG) held on the 7th and 8th of March 2020 at Lincoln University. I struggled to keep up with all of the great information provided in the presentations that included a range of topics from human health to carbon storage.

With an agriculture technology and business background, I have spent a lot of time at conferences where businesses and NGOs are talking about and proposing agricultural solutions and innovations. What was different about the ODPG conference, was that this meeting was filled with farmers talking about real solutions that are working on their farms. So often agri-business tries to innovate without farmers’ input and focus primarily on the existing high input model of agriculture. The ODPG conference was one of the first agri-food conferences that questioned the status quo in a way that is enabling farmers to to critically look at the value of diversification and transitioning their operations to a future agriculture and food system that is better for people and the planet.

Here are a few concrete takeaways which summarize the common themes that emerged throughout the two days.

Agriculture Plays A Pivotal Role In Climate Change: ​Several speakers pointed to ways in which agricultural pollutants are causing human and environmental health issues while others illustrated data pointing out that agriculture can act as a carbon sink and be a solution to our changing climate. Agricultural production practices that improve soil health, act as a carbon sink instead of a carbon source, and create healthier ecosystems are possible. Many discussions over the two days acknowledged the big challenges ahead of us and the important role of the influential farmers who attended the conference to create change.

A Complete Paradigm Shift Is Needed​: A point of discussion that is absent from most other agri-food conferences I have attended is the fact that creating an agriculture system that is good for the planet, rather than harmful, requires a complete change in thinking. Our thoughts and practices must go beyond adopting more precision technology tools and creating more efficiencies in our mono-crop, high input, commodity system. While further efficiencies are possible, we need to go a step further. Farmers who previously managed their conventional, high input systems explained how they shifted to regenerative practices and the benefits they are realizing in both soil health and financial results. Solutions such as using essential oils in place of synthetic pesticides or releasing dung beetles across the farm are specific examples of different thinking that have proven to work on some operations.

We Need To Bring Together The Regenerative And Organic Farmers​: Within the group of farmers present at the conference there was a distinct line between the organic and regenerative farmers. The biggest difference discussed was a difference in opinion on which is the lesser of two evils as a weed control method – tillage or glyphosate. Many of the regenerative and non-organically certified farmers in the room still use glyphosate as a tool to combat weeds, while the organic growers choose to till their fields for weed control. Multiple productive discussions focused on these two options and the potential to move to an organic regenerative system without tillage or glyphosate.

Farmers Are Running The Ecosystem Services Of The Planet:​ Farmers are stewards of the land. While this is an obvious statement to any farmer, the perception of farmers in the public eye rarely describes farmers in this way. In agriculture, like any profession, a few bad apples create a bad image for the whole industry. Yes, some farmers don’t care for the land and their animals, but the vast majority are doing their best. The farmers that are doing it right and innovating best practices on their operations need to be celebrated. Agriculture has the potential to create and nourish healthy ecosystems, and farmers are the ones that can cultivate this change.

It’s All About Soil​: Many of the farmers that spoke over the two day conference emphasized the importance of healthy soil. Farmers spoke about ways to adopt practices that focus on building soil rather than degrading it. For example, livestock can be managed as a tool to improve soil health and the emphasis can be placed on growing soil first and crops second.

We Must Address Agricultural Challenges With Systems Thinking​: The talks over the two day conference covered a wide range of topics including: human and environmental health, water access, and more. The breadth of topics illustrate the necessity of systems thinking to address agricultural and environmental issues. While the term systems thinking was not directly cited at the conference, the myriad of topics covered point towards the importance of incorporating a wide range of solutions for a better agriculture system.

More Independent and Scientific Research Is Needed In The Field Of Regenerative Agriculture​: There is a lack of research and funding in the space due to the different nature of regenerative agriculture practices. Rather than continuing in the high input model of farming, regenerative agriculture is working to move away from synthetic inputs and look towards nature for symbiotic relationships and nature made solutions. Much of the current funding from agri-business and large agricultural institutions is not focused on regenerative farming research.

Regenerative And Organic Farming Practices Put The Fun Back In Farming​: The excitement and passion around the topic of organic and regenerative farming was palpable. Farming is not an easy profession, especially in the current environment, but through the smiles and lively conversation, a new found hope for the future of the industry was present.

I look forward to seeing the rise of the regenerative agriculture movement as we move forward, and I am excited about the potential that it holds for New Zealand and beyond.

by Alissa Welker

Read Alissa’s article on her other experiences during travels around New Zealand here:

NEW ZEALAND MOMENTS on Cultivate Conversation

Cover Photo Credit: Alissa Welker (ODPG Conference)

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