PEOPLE: Learning from and celebrating landscapes with regenerative farming

Regenerative agriculture addresses the urgent need to regenerate the health and resilience of soils and landscapes to reverse the decline of bio-systems throughout Australia and better survive the impact of climatic extremes, including helping Australian farmers bounce back from bushfires and drought.

In this interview, Juanita Breen outlines how she turned a crazy dream of running a regenerative farm into a reality with Echo Valley Farms. Together with her husband and kids, Juanita operates Echo Valley Farms under what they call the “4 Goods” – good for the animals, good for the environment, good for the farmer, good for you.

  • What originally sparked the idea for Echo Valley Farms? How have your ambitions for the farm evolved over time?

My husband Randal attended a lecture at Gatton with Joel Salatin from Polyface Farm in the US, and was inspired by the idea of being on-farm full time, earning a wage while regenerating the environment. Having grown up on a wholesale commercial nursery, I was happy to pursue it too.

As we’ve continued on our farming journey, I’ve found my own fit and passions within the farm and all that we do. The incredible connections that are created in nature between, soil, plant, animal and life and death, are so easily mimicked and replicated in our own communities. There’s so much we can learn and celebrate from our landscape. Farming, and nature as a whole, is such an unpredictable thing, and our idea of what we will do, and what systems and enterprises we’ll have has definitely evolved through our journey.

I never imagined we would be farming pastured pigs, or using online distribution or yield stream inputs.      

  • Why does your farm rely on regenerative methods?

It was a natural fit to choose regenerative farming, as it held so many correlations to community development. With a strengths-based approach in social and community practice, it seemed like a no-brainer to focus on the strengths of our environment and build on those – just like regenerative farming.

I don’t think regenerative farming can be defined by one set of practices. There is such a broad number of methods and approaches and each farm will use a variety of these to heal and regenerate their own landscape – there’s a lot of diversity, just as in a healthy community.

  • What does this involve for your farm? How difficult are these methods to implement?

Some of the regenerative methods we utilize on our farm – which prior to us had been conventionally farmed for over 100 years – are all around building soil health and re-establishing life back into the soil. We are working towards improving the health and carbon levels in our soil by combining a diverse range of crops, animal impact (allowing our cattle and poultry to break up hardened ground and tread nutrients into it) and no-till planting methods.

We are also experimenting with composting and yield stream waste products (e.g. damaged fruit and vegetables, brewers grain and other products that otherwise would have been thrown out) being turned into nutrition both for our landscape and our animals (who then add it to our landscape again as manure), holistic grazing methods with our cattle, and replanting our environment with trees in our 100 year plan. 

  • What changes have you experienced among your customer base since going online due to COVID-19?  

We had to rapidly adapt to online distribution as we could see the evolving challenges that COVID-19 posed in our previous system, which centred on weekly markets. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the majority of our customer base follow us to our online system. They’re now happy and familiar with it, and most seem to prefer it.

We’ve also experienced a growth in our sales, and diversity in our customer base. We’re selling to more individuals across Brisbane and our local district, and have more of a balance between our products – where previously we were more heavily reliant on our egg sales for viability, we now sell an even number of all our products.

The other wonderful thing to happen, despite the pandemic, is the community collaborations that have happened as a result. We’re now working closely with other farmers in our region, adding their produce to our online store, and increasing their own viability.

About the expert

Juanita Breen is co-owner and co-farmer of Echo Valley Farms in the Goomburra Valley, South East Queensland. As a first generation female farmer, her background in community development and community services has brought a unique approach to farming, engaging with nature, and the many hats she wears as a mother, marketer, business owner, bookkeeper and A-grade egg packer. In full time production for 6 years now, Echo Valley Farms feeds 47 families through their Community Supported Agriculture program, 7 restaurants/cafes and food distributors, and countless other regular customers each week with food generated on the 300 acre multi-species regenerative farm.   

Image description: Photo of a Caucasian woman behind a market stall. She is smiling and looking down as she passes change to a customer. She is wearing a green jumper and her hair is pulled to the side. Parts of a chalkboard with product prices is in the foreground.