This article is based on our conversation with Jono Frew for Episode 3 of the Happen Films Podcast.
We first met regenerative agriculture coach Jono Frew about a year ago, and were blown away by the stories he had to tell about the regenerative agriculture world. Jono spent the first part of his life dedicated to conventional farming, but the cost he was paying in terms of personal relationships, health and being under constant pressure eventually led him to make changes for something much more fulfilling.
“When you’re focused on production as the goal, regardless of the cost – you know, the monetary cost, the ecological cost, the cost on yourself as far as what that actually requires from a human being…I got stuck in it,” he explains. “Trying to chase that target of more and more and more and more. It takes you away from living.
“When you’re in it, you don’t notice. That’s why we have the rates of depression and suicide we have in the industry, because it’s just, it’s seen as the norm.”
Organic farm management
Having made the decision to change his working life in some way, Jono was still committed to working within conventional agriculture when an offer to manage an organic farm appeared. Taking that job sent him in a completely new direction.
“No longer did I have the chemical answers, no longer could I just look back through my history and come up with the solution in the form of a bottle. I actually had to think about my management and a lot of things happened.
“I started to discover the power of plant diversity and ecosystem function, which as the farmer that I trained myself to be, was a completely uncharted territory. That was what started it.”
That journey included starting a discussion group with other local farmers interested in non-conventional farming, a group that grew rapidly. It was the catalyst for Jono eventually committing full-time to helping other farmers transition to what’s now known as regenerative agriculture.
Coaching not consulting
“I call myself a regenerative agriculture coach and a big picture coach. Teaching farmers ecological principles and functions based on the regenerative agriculture principles,” he states.
“They can then look at how that might apply to them on their farms, and go about creating systems for themselves that suit them and their own very unique circumstances. Doing their own thing that’s specific to their interests, rather than, you know, taking on a generic approach like what we’ve been used to in the conventional space.”
The shift in mindset has been dramatic, both in terms of agriculture and the role of food production – Jono feels that much of what we’re dealing with as a society is the result of how we produce our food. And it all starts with the soil.
“I’ve seen farmers that have been dealing with issues on certain areas of their farm for generations. And then I come along and get them reconnected to the things that they can actually observe for themselves within the soil.
“Very quickly you see light bulbs come on, like, ‘Wow, we’ve not been shown this, this is why these areas aren’t performing’. When you get farmers reconnected to those basic fundamentals of food production, it’s life-changing for them.”
Trusting in nature
For most, it’s about getting out of the way and letting nature do her thing. Being part of an ecosystem as opposed to trying to control it.
But it’s important to avoid blame for past activities. As Jono points out, the ‘us-versus-them’ attitude that’s often found in debates around regenerative and conventional agriculture is highly counterproductive.
“Everything that people farming conventionally are doing is justified, and there’s even stacks of data that validate what people are doing. Their actions are perfectly suited to their view of the way things are.
“When we get stuck on ‘us-versus-them’ and blame, and then we get defensive, there’s no progression in that. There’s no desire to explore and there’s no learning – we won’t move forward if there’s righteousness.
“There’s so many ways that we can be farming, and we’re innovating all the time. To innovate, you have to be able to let go of what you’re currently doing, and if you’re stuck in defense mode there’s no letting go.”
Improving human health
Perhaps we all have a responsibility – and reason – to help hold that creative space for innovation in agriculture, where no-one feels backed into a corner. After all, the connection between the healthy soil that Jono advocates and human health is becoming widely accepted, and we all stand to gain.
“If you were to dig up a teaspoon of healthy soil and put it under the microscope, you’d find there’s actually more microorganisms in that teaspoon of soil than there are human beings on this planet,” he highlights. “In the soil, there’s millions of microbes all working together in symbiosis to support plants in their growth, so that they can then in return feed [the microbes].
“You’ve then got plants that are fully sufficient in all their minerals and are dense in nutrition. When animals and humans feed on that plant, it’s then basically taking that biology and inoculating their stomachs.”
Just as there are benefits from microbial diversity and symbiotic relationships in healthy soils, so there are for humans, with microbial diversity in the gut microbiome critical to health.
“When you get that diversity of biology present – whether it be in the soil or in the human gut or in an animal’s gut – that is more efficient, it’s more resilient and it requires less inputs but can produce more outputs. It all comes back to the soil, and how do we increase the diversity of food that we’re ingesting?”
Breaking down barriers
While it can be hard for those who believe in regenerative agriculture to understand why everyone isn’t farming this way, the barriers to shifting from conventional agriculture are real. There’s often a lack of understanding around the principles and practices involved, and those principles can directly contradict with current practices.
“If they don’t understand something, you can’t blame [farmers] for not wanting to go and invest in that thing,” Jono continues. “It requires some vulnerability and some willingness because you’re going to have to let go of some stuff.
“A lot of what we’re observing is actually going to be quite tricky to analyse and put into a set of data people are used to seeing, which is very linear. [In] ecosystem function there’s not much that’s linear.”
There’s also the social pressure to not go against the grain, not be ‘weird’, something Jono experienced personally when first moving into organic farming.
“But once you get a group around you of people that are interested in supporting each other and forward progression and innovation, it’s just so infectious,” he states. “I’ve got people that I’m out there with, and they’re just so fascinated by all the life that’s in their farming system that they were never aware of.
“I’ve had farmers in their sixties say to me they’ve been waiting their whole life for something like this. That’s something I never expected to be a part of, you know, I never expected [the] impact to be so broad in their lives.”