Helen and Mike McCosker are fourth generation farmers living on their 3,000 acre family farm in Northern NSW. Following the last drought they began a national campaign to raise awareness of regenerative agriculture by founding the charity Carbon8. Carbon8 is a grassroots, farmer-led initiative that responds to the challenges of drought, flood, and desertification by supporting farmers to increase the carbon in their soil and to help them transition to regenerative farming. Keep reading below to hear from Helen about their journey.
What does regen ag mean to you?
Don’t leave the heart out of regenerative agriculture!
For Mike, regen ag is particularly about rebuilding soil health, the biological activity, the carbon levels, and the resilience of the whole system. So it then becomes the whole ecology of the farm and working with nature.
For me, it’s about how we revive and restore our communities. Just like the soil which needs diversity to thrive, our communities need mentoring and support - a whole of systems approach. Our involvement in the local community helped us understand that regenerative ag is about how we can connect deeply to Country.
What inspired you to start educating other farmers about regen ag?
In 2019, we were in the grip of the worst drought since the early 1900s. The landscape was brittle, dry and barren and it was really tough. I remember going to the local coffee shop at the nearby town, Ashford, and seeing a glass jar with the words “FOR THE FARMERS”. It was jammed with $50 notes!
I came home and was overcome with emotion that this small little community (one of the lowest socio-economic towns in NSW) was so generous. The level of support was incredible. Our city cousins were also deeply concerned and helped to raise over $150 million to support farmers. It was such an outpouring of love and generosity. These funds went directly into food packages and Buy-a-Bale programs. Emergency relief.
Over a kitchen table conversation with Mike and my tree changing friend, Kelly Jones, we noted that while emergency relief was important, the knowledge about regenerative agriculture was not in the minds and hearts of people and not enough farmers were engaged. From this, we came up with the idea of setting up a day that would celebrate and create awareness around Regenerative Agriculture. So we coined the National Regenerative Agriculture Day, and the following year the grassroots charity Carbon8 was launched.
What practices are you using on your farm?
The most important one is mindset. The first thing that we need to change is what’s going on between our ears. Focussing on passion, commitment, ingenuity, creativity and adaptability.
Mike and I have been growing multi-species crops for over five years now. I love including meadow flowers in with the 18 species mix we use to bring in the birds and bees. Ground cover really is amazing.
We also manage our cattle and rotationally graze the animals, planning up to a year ahead on which paddocks will be used. When doing tree planting projects, always ensure tree selection provides habitat and feed through all the seasons.
Carbon8 is really excited about our Community of Practice online program where farmers have access to an online education pathway every fortnight with other like minded farmers. We mentor and coach farmers and provides them with a Regen Farm plan and full support. This includes a digital ‘twin’ - a map so we can measure and manage the results (something we do on our own farm). Having a 90 day plan helps take the overwhelm out of management (it still can be tough) but having a community of other farmers to support each other has been an amazing journey.
What benefits have you seen?
A landscape full of birds and wildlife (we have over 1,000 cockatoos living in our scrub country), profitability, healthy food production, leaving a legacy for our kids and their kids - future generations.
What have the challenges been?
1,000 cockatoos living in our scrub country!!
Learning through mistakes! It takes time, effort and commitment. There is no silver bullet. Trusting nature is a tough business sometimes and she throws curly challenges to overcome. Coming out of the drought, nature repairs by growing plants quickly, and we’ve seen so many weeds grow, which is tricky to manage.
What have you learned?
There is no gain without a loss. If we hadn’t had the drought, farmers would still be farming conventionally and wouldn’t need to make the transformative changes that is needed to transform our landscapes and heal the heart of the food chain.
What do you hope for the future of people and planet?
We envision in twenty years from now people will have a deep respect and honour for country, and understand where their food comes from. Farms have adopted regenerative practices without the use of pesticides or chemicals, landscapes are thriving with rich diversity and animals and the food we eat is nutrient dense. Communities trust that farmers are custodians and stewards of their land and are connected to the dreamtime stories and songlines of their area. Foodies honour farmers for their love and connection to farming and providing healthy nourishing food.
How can we connect with your farm and Carbon8?
You can also check out this interview with Mike and I on Groundcover where we speak about our regen ag journey.
Helen and Mike McCosker, regenerative farmers and the founders of Carbon8.