FRASER POGUE: From the pages of books to the silver screenJuly 9, 2021
This story first appeared in Issue 62, the Spring 20120 edition of our member magazine From the Ground Up. We welcome new members, and your membership includes a copy of our popular magazine. JOIN NOW.
By Melissa Pouliot
In the winter 2016 edition of From the Ground Up, Ardmona irrigation farmer Fraser Pogue’s story began with: ‘The pages in books might be black and white but farming certainly isn’t.’
The analogy drew on Fraser’s ever-increasing book collection on soil biology and his pursuit of a new way of farming that was outside the norm, and definitely not black and white.
Fast forward to spring 2020 and the Pogue farming story has moved from the pages of books to the silver screen and comes with a renewed focus on how their farming system can contribute globally to climate change.
It was a chance appearance on one of last year’s most hard-hitting yet accessible documentaries ‘2040’ from award-winning director Damon Gameau (That Sugar Film) which has opened a Pandora’s box of new questions and reignited Fraser’s inquiring mind and passion for sharing what he’s learnt to help others.
“The film has got me questioning a lot of things, particularly around carbon. And it has probably forced me to have an opinion on climate change and carbon in the atmosphere – something I didn’t really have to have beforehand,” he says.
“We always talk about wanting to have healthy soils but we need to talk more about why we want healthy soils.
“Originally I was attracted to soil health as a means to increase yields and profits when I could see that conventional farming methods weren’t delivering. Now I understand the ‘bigger picture’ advantages of creating healthier yields, healthier food and healthier catchments and sequestering carbon. The next step is to look at how to monitor improvements in carbon over time by farming this way.”
Family farm journey
Fraser and Leanne and Fraser’s parents Jan and Cliff have been on their 320-hectare Goulburn Valley irrigation property ‘Belturbet’ since 2006. Before that Fraser was dairy farming and contract silage and hay baling on the family farm he grew up on about 15 kilometres away.
At ‘Belturbet’ they removed all stock out of their system and gradually transitioned from growing lucerne for hay to baling cereal crops. They then moved into growing irrigated corn and in 2011 started making significant changes to the way they farmed, with a key focus on how improvements to soil biology could improve yields and the quality of what they were growing.
They shifted away from burning stubbles to retaining them, and went from traditional cultivation to a baker boot tyned seeder and then to zero till with a disc seeder. In 2013 they introduced cover crops and replaced insecticides and fungicides with biological treatments. Then in 2017 they reintroduced cattle onto their paddocks.
Collectively these changes have seen them achieve above average yields while decreasing inputs by 40%.
Innovative and exceptional
The 2040 documentary highlights how the future might look if innovative farming systems that build carbon were adopted more broadly.
Timing and Fraser’s connection with one of the main characters, Australian pasture cropping pioneer Colin Seis, is how the Pogue family ended up on screen. They also feature in the official trailer: “What would the world look like in 2040 if we just embrace the best of what already exists? …Imagine a world where we adopted regenerative practices like Fraser’s, putting carbon in the soil to make it healthier.”
The crew was filming over the 2018 summer and needed a green regenerative farming backdrop.
“Colin Seis recognised that we were innovating by having a diverse summer cover in the ground which we were planning to mob graze, so he passed on our details to Damon and the 2040 crew.”
Being part of the project provided an opportunity to reflect on the way they farmed and made Fraser realise their family has developed an ‘exceptional’ system.
“We feel like what we’re doing is normal but seeing our story in amongst so many others from around the world makes me realise what we are doing is really innovative.
“The movie did a great job of highlighting what you can do with soil and the important role farmers play in climate change. We were proud to be part of it.”
Roles and responsibilities
Fraser says the film has also made him look at their role and responsibilities when it comes to carbon sequestration.
“The film portrays that on our farm we are building up carbon. We need to make sure that this is really what we’re doing. We also need to continue to share our knowledge as much as we can with others.”
He says to achieve a broader shift towards building more carbon in soils, farmers needed financial incentives and a measurement system.
“There are financial benefits which come from farming in a sustainable manner where you have confidence in your soils being healthy and delivering good quality good yielding crops year on year.
“We often don’t directly associate sequestering carbon in your soil as part of that process.
“The benefits to the environment are substantial and it would be great if farmers were financially supported on this transition.”
Fraser says when it comes to wanting to grow and eat more nutrient-dense food, he believes everybody genuinely wants that.
“But how do you measure this nutrient density so that the people who are growing this quality food in their high carbon soils are financially rewarded for their efforts?”
Reinventing the farming system
Fraser admits that when he first started reinventing his system in 2011 he wasn’t 100% clear on what he was doing.
He’d had an epiphany that conventional farming wasn’t working on his property as he wasn’t seeing the yields or profits he knew were possible in an irrigated cropping operation.
“I could see that if I was to be able to grow high yielding crops year-in, year-out I needed to replicate on a commercial scale the same lush soil profile that you see in a vegetable garden.”
He began researching and following the five rules to soil health – keep soil covered, keep a living root in the soil all year round, reduce soil disturbance, integrate livestock and increase diversity.
Although his end goal was to improve soil health, Fraser sites the main challenge was customising and innovating often theoretical principles into practical solutions that met the needs of his unique soil type, climate and irrigation cropping operation.
To achieve this he introduced a series of new practical tools to allow him to move towards getting off the synthetic fertiliser treadmill.
“There are rules of thumb or principles of soil health but they don’t tell you exactly what to do. Unless your next door neighbor is a fully-fledged regenerative farmer with an identical operation as yours, you will need to trial, adopt and apply practices in a manner that meets your unique needs.”
The change in their farming system didn’t happen overnight.
“Although I really wanted it to, it’s taken a decade of trials and hard learnt lessons to develop, progress and tailor my farming system to a point where I have full confidence in knowing I’m strongly positioned to consistently hit my crop yield targets.”
Building relationships with like-minded farmers like VicNoTill past president Grant Sims and connections with VicNoTill and Landcare also provide plenty of food for thought.
“We are in a lot better position now than we were 10 years ago in terms of transitioning into this type of farming system thanks to the likes of the VicNoTill network of farmers who are having some really great success farming this way.”
Fraser is now enjoying how the system is coming together. His soils are functioning well thanks to a combination of grazing, cropping and fermented biofertilisers. In the past couple of years he’s started making his own brew of multi-mineral fermented cow manure, ‘biofert’. He says these are a good tool for keeping fungicides and insecticides out of their system, as well as to increase yields (see biofertilisers Q&A).
Continuing to evolve
Fraser still considers his farm to be in a state of evolution despite receiving formal recognition from the likes of Landcare last year via a national award for the contribution he has made towards regenerative farming.
“We have progressed a long way down the regenerative and biological farming pathway.
“I still need to consciously use conventional tools such as tillage and insecticides in a minimalist manner to ensure I meet our commercial requirements, and each season I look for and introduce new ways that will further enhance my yields and profitability.
“Our end goal is to no longer use harmful conventional farming tools to operate our commercial operation, and knowing that I am continuing to improve my soil health excites me.
“I’m really enjoying farming at the moment, it’s fantastic.”
Adapting to suit
Breaking away from a set of ‘rules’ hasn’t always been easy and Fraser admits he’s learnt many things the hard way.
A turning point was when he completed a holistic farming course in 2016 which took a lot of the emotion out of his farming decisions. This gave him more confidence to do what suited his system, even if it went against his core farming principles.
He recognises that prior to the course he had taken an idealistic view of the tools in his farming arsenal – treating them as being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Now he realises it is not the tools that are good or bad, it’s the management of them.
“Prior to 2016, my farming principles guided my decision-making as I viewed tools like cattle grazing as ‘good’ while tillage or using insecticides were ‘bad’. In the early days, this resulted in costly decisions because yields suffered – and worry and stress increased.”
He can see now that he wasn’t using all the farming tools available to him in a way that his farm needed.
“Just prior to doing the course I had a crop disaster which took a big financial and emotional toll.
“I’d done everything in accordance with the five principles of soil health: I planted directly into a highly dense stubble load and multi-species cover; I didn’t disrupt the soil; I didn’t use many synthetic fertilisers or insecticides.”
Fraser had unknowingly created a perfect storm as the dense cover created an environment that maintained too much moisture and weakened his plant health, making plants unable to handle the extreme weather conditions they experienced that season.
“The timing of the course on the back of such a poor crop experience helped me recognise that I needed to be able to access all farming tools that were available to me to meet the needs of my unique farming operation.
“I continue to focus on being true to my core biological farming principals, but I’m no longer hard or critical of myself if I need to do something like strip-till a paddock in order to ensure a crop gets the best start possible.”
Continuing to learn and try new things
Fraser says talking to and visiting other farmers is a great way to find practical solutions.
“I’ve recently visited Ian Hamano’s farm (From The Ground Up, Autumn 2019) and he’s been doing great things mulching his corn stubble and his soils are looking magnificent. He’s given me new ideas and inspiration of how I might be able to control my residue and get cultivation right out of my system.”
One idea Fraser is trialing is planting corn on 60-inch (152.4cm) row spacings. This is twice the width of Fraser’s current 30-inch (76.2cm) corn system.
“The North American experience of planting on these wider rows has seen little to no loss in corn yield, yet it has many benefits.”
This is how it works:
- Multi-species forage crop is planted in late summer or early autumn
- Multi-species is grazed and then possibly cut for silage or hay
- Corn is planted in spring on 60-inch row spacings
- Winter crop is sown prior to corn harvest with a mini seeder
- Early crop vigour creates grazing over winter
- Winter crop is harvested with a stripper front
- Stripper stubble is grazed
- Cycle starts again with multi-species
Fraser sees this as having the following advantages for his system:
- There is now only one corn row sitting directly above the sub-surface drip line, rather than two rows of corn per drip line which are offset. This has the benefit of making it easier to water up the crop.
- Wide rows allow access to corn crop with mini seeder. This in turn allows the following crop to be sown early, and without the corn stubble being on the ground causing problems.
- Many other smaller benefits such as being able to scout the tall crop with a four-wheeler.
Farmers helping farmers
Fraser says the farmers helping farmers approach is at the heart of ‘good farming’.
“If you get too wrapped up in subscribing to a particular approach or system – whether it be conventional or technology-based or biological – then you miss out on finding the real magic which is somewhere in the middle of it all.
“Good farming should regenerate and be sustainable forever. Good farming is looking after your soil, growing nutrient-dense food, looking after your catchment. We get a bit carried away by trying to define farming systems – the important thing is that we should all be open to new things and new ideas.”
He says he used to get emotional and have strong opinions about what he should and shouldn’t do. Now he takes a more practical approach.
“When I am seeking out the knowledge of specialists and experts, they really need to have that combination of theoretical and good practical grounding. I think people get far too bogged down in wanting a silver bullet or one line of advice – you need to find exactly what works for you.”
Intuition plays a big role in the way he manages his system.
“It’s hard for me to isolate one thing and say that’s resulting in a specific amount of extra yield because it’s about my whole eco-system functioning really well.”
This was obvious from his latest corn crop, a stock feed variety, which yielded 17.1 tonnes of grain per hectare average over 47 hectares.
“It was beautiful corn. The quality was high, it had hardly any insects or disease and was big, plump grains with no moulds. It was a brilliant crop.”
The results weren’t reliant on having perfect seasonal conditions; it wasn’t an ideal growing year with a cold start and extreme heat during the growing season.
“I think this showed that it’s all about bringing the system together. We achieved an above-average yield for our area on below-average inputs in a less than ideal growing year. Plus we produced really healthy grain, really good food. If you can do that, you’re on the right path.”
The corn followed a diverse multi-species crop.
“Growing multi-species crops have been part of our system for a long time now and are here to stay. They work really well, particularly since we brought cattle back.”
Fraser says they plant around six or seven species, and always include a grass, cereal, brassica and legume.
They haven’t been immune to making mistakes since reinventing their farming system, so it felt good to get things right.
“I’m quite happy to say when I get it wrong but am also happy to share when I get it right. What we’ve put in place since 2011 has really come together.”