Regenerative agri: a New Zealand approach

In the fourth in the series, Geoff Burke, co-founder of Agro-Ecological, explains how regenerative agriculture techniques are intrinsic to the firm's approach to farming in New Zealand.

Agro-Ecological, the New Zealand-based agriculture investment firm that recently raised NZ$1 million ($850,000; €600,000) of family office capital for a kiwifruit project, offers exposure to livestock operations and fruit and vegetable farms using systems that are based on agro-ecological scientific research and understanding.

Here, Geoff Burke, co-founder of the firm, explains how implementing these practices, that will by default incorporate many regenerative agriculture techniques, are part and parcel of the firm’s approach to farming in New Zealand.

What is an ecologically constructive management system?

It is one that improves ecosystem service-type metrics such as water quality, biodiversity, soil biodiversity/soil organic matter.  It also recognises and seeks to advance the farm ecology in order to generate superior production performance by understanding and utilising ecological science or, more specifically, agro-ecological science.

It starts with the soil and the identification of what state the soil is in but also the key characteristics of that soil and its optimal use. This is considered alongside climate, location, water and various other relevant operational factors in order to create a system that is designed according to the underlying characteristics of the property. This can in practice mean changing the use of the land and the enterprise overall – such as removing grapes and introducing kiwifruit – which can in turn generate superior income.

Climate change and energy efficiency are also part of the mix and are considered from a life-cycle analysis perspective which delivers advantages not only in terms of ecological footprint but cost of production.

Physically such a system will look different to an industrial version such as having diverse, multispecied pasture in a livestock operation or larger amounts of beneficial plants, particularly in a horticultural system.

What are the main challenges of implementing such a system?

The status of the property you have taken over can present a huge challenge the greater its ‘addiction’ to inputs, particularly nitrogenous fertiliser, because it can be hard to wean the land off those and adapt.  Attempting to implement a system without the right knowledge base makes it extremely likely that it will fail.

Geoff Burke, co-founder, Agro-Ecological
Geoff Burke, co-founder, Agro-Ecological

 Why are you quick to highlight that regenerative agriculture outcomes are just a by-product of what you do, as opposed to your main strategy?

Our focus is on generating the best possible returns for investors, we are not trying to save the world. By operating an ecological science-based strategy we improve and enhance the farm ecosystem (agro-ecosystem) in order to generate superior productive and therefore financial performance. In many ways the ecosystem service type metrics reflect how well we are doing with our strategy and if they are doing well then it is highly likely the production system is performing well which puts us in the best position to deliver attractive returns for investors.

As a New Zealand-based business our background and education has been in New Zealand farming systems which means that pastoralism, rotational grazing and other such practices are normal for us. I had never even heard of North American feed lot systems until I went to University, so to me those systems are atypical.  I grew up with ruminants eating grass… it is what they are biologically programmed to do.

An interest in, and focus on, diverse, healthy pasture and the utilisation of pasture is fundamental to what we do in all livestock systems. Therefore the impact,  and if you like ‘revelation’, of pastoral agriculture will be of more significance to someone from a background of the North American approach to meat production than to someone from New Zealand. It is also why we know that it is not just enough to graze outside on grass and think you are sustainable; this is an extremely important point for investors to understand.

Water pollution is a big topic in rural New Zealand at the moment, how does this impact your work? And how do you manage your water supplies in general?

It is a very big topic in NZ and only getting bigger. It actually creates opportunities for us because we are already seeing areas where an industrial farming strategy will be limited but where our strategy can be successfully applied. And in short we believe that will result in our being able to achieve a superior performance.

How we manage water is a topic big enough for a paper in itself. In simple terms we seek to be as measurably good as it is possible to be and primarily focus on managing water as efficiently as we can without impacting negatively on its quality. We are working with local university researchers to record our impact on water and other eco-system services and expect this to be part of our reporting process.  Again good water outcomes will come about not just by focusing on water alone but from creating a healthy robust agro-ecosystem.