When Mornington Peninsula viticulturist Joe Vaughan planted his vines in 1996 he approached farming as he would a battlefield. 

“It used to be like a war zone,” he said.

Each week he would deploy an arsenal of pesticides and herbicides on his Tuerong property to kill unwanted weeds and bugs.

Twenty-five years on his approach has completely changed.

By composting locally sourced green waste, manure and the grape solids leftover from winemaking, Mr Vaughan is putting nutrients back into the soil.

Two hands in rich compost filled with worms.

By composting Mr Vaughan hopes to create a “closed-loop” system, where local resources are reused instead of discarded.(ABC Melbourne: Matilda Marozzi)

Instead of just lawn around the vines, he is planting a variety of flowers and legumes between rows to attract insects and encourage biodiversity.

When slashed the mid-row plants then provide mulch under the vines, helping to keep moisture in, reduce weeds and protect his plants from heat.

These are just some of the changes Mr Vaughan has implemented in the past decade since he began learning about regenerative agriculture.

As well as being environmentally friendly, regenerative farming techniques have improved the quality of his fruit and his potential for profit.

Farmers part of climate solution

There are now a growing number of farmers, like Mr Vaughan, who have decided being sustainable isn’t enough — they want to improve or regenerate the land they are on.

Regenerative farming is part of the Mornington Peninsula Shire’s plan to achieve its target of net zero emissions by 2040.

By 2030 they are aiming to sequester 1 million tonnes of carbon locally and have 20 per cent of farms adopt regenerative practices.

The shire’s climate change and sustainability manager Melissa Burrage says there is a lot of support for farmers wanting to become more sustainable.

Last week council sponsored a Zero Emissions Farming conference to help promote regenerative farming and demystify carbon farming and trading.

With Western Port Catchment Landcare Network (WPCLN), they also ran an eight-week Regenerative Agriculture Training Course in 2020 and 2021.

“With advice from research and industry experts, and on-the-ground evidence from local farmers who have recently adopted more sustainable farming practices, we are hoping to demystify the carbon cloud and provide a clear path forward for our farmers,” Ms Burrage said.

A woman and a man stand on dirt wheel tracks next to a row of vines

Karen Thomas from the Port Phillip and Westernport Catchment Management Authority and Landcare’s Peter Ronalds share their knowledge with farmers.(ABC Melbourne: Matilda Marozzi)

Regenerative farming is not one prescribed practice, but an approach to agriculture that focuses on rehabilitating the environment.

With the help of people like WPCLN’s sustainable agriculture manager Peter Ronalds, farmers across Victoria are experimenting with regenerative agriculture practices and sharing their findings with others.

“We are keen to support all farmers with increased knowledge,” Mr Ronalds said.

“A lot of the principals of regenerative agriculture are as relevant to horticulture as they are to grazing — it is all about looking after your soils and your water and the atmosphere.

Mr Ronalds has been working with Mr Vaughan to trial different regenerative farming techniques and has been measuring the amount of carbon in the soil every year since 2018.

As well as seeing more immediate improvements to the quality of grapes and local biodiversity, Mr Ronalds says they are also recording “small gains” in the amount of carbon being stored in the soil.

“That’s important because every tonne of carbon you put into the soil is 3.7 tonnes of carbon you’ve sequestered out of the atmosphere.”

A man looking down the middle of two grape rows

Joe Vaughan says he is still learning new ways to run the vineyard.(ABC Melbourne: Matilda Marozzi)

Working to better the environment

Half an hour away at Cape Schanck, a mixed-use farm is also implementing regenerative farming techniques after the owner attended one of Peter Ronalds’ training workshops.

The 444-hectare property known as Barragunda Farm is home to native bushland, a market garden, an orchard, and grazing areas for sheep and cattle.

Chef turned regenerative farmer Simone Watts tends the property’s market garden.

A younger woman kneels next to a raised garden bed with tomato plants in it, in a greenhouse

Simone Watts says the Mornington Peninsula farming community is really collaborative.(ABC Melbourne: Matilda Marozzi)

“With the environment I find there is a lot of talk about the problems and the solutions,” she said.

“Here we are actually doing things, it’s rewarding.”

At Barragunda, Ms Watts says there is as much work going into regenerating habitat as there is growing food.

In the next few years Ms Watts aims to open a 40-seat restaurant on the farm, supplied by the onsite garden.

By working to produce, sell and serve food locally, she hopes to empower others to make positive change.

“When I read too much about climate change, or look at some of the bigger summits, it gets overwhelming and you feel like what you’re doing doesn’t affect anything,” she said.

“Through the restaurant, I hope I can remind people of the ripple effect, that every decision you make can make a difference.”

From terminator to germinator: Find out how these farmers are helping Australia reach net zero
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