On the first day of Spring, Rebecca Zentveld, owner of Zentveld’s Coffee Plantation and Roastery, located on 15 hectares in Northern NSW, witnessed an eruption of colour between the rows of mature coffee plants on her trial multi-species cover crop plot.

The field pea and vetch, among the mix of legumes, cereals, radish, buckwheat and broadleaf, sown in June, were bursting with hot pink and purple flowers. The cover crop trial, led by Dr Terry Rose from the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Southern Cross University, is delivered by the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance in partnership with the Australian Macadamia Society, and the Australian Subtropical Coffee Growers’ Association. This project is one of one of eight industry-led soil research projects which aim to quantify the benefits of regenerative agricultural practices in restoring soils across Australia over three years.

However, it wasn’t just the riot of colour that lifted Ms Zentveld’s sprits. “We found that two native grass species were showing up in the rows where we had planted cover crops the previous year. Bringing in more biodiversity by planting our 7-9 cover crop seed mix has allowed the right conditions for our dormant native grasses to thrive, which is very exciting.

“It was a moment of joy in our regenerative farming journey; bringing life and diversity to the land we look after.”

The eight soil research projects are funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment. The grant funding is from the Building Landcare Community and Capacity Program (BLCC), which is an element of the National Landcare Program (NLP). BLCC grants are funding a diverse range of projects across Australia which are agriculture-focused, strategic, capacity building initiatives to support the sharing of knowledge and achievements, and promote community leadership.

The ‘Multispecies Cover Crops in Subtropical Horticultural Plantations’ project, which centres on six farms in Northern NSW, will measure changes in soil health and insect ecology in macadamia, coffee and avocado plantations with either permanent groundcover or annual mixed species cover crops between rows, re-sown continuously following termination with a roller crimper.

From left – Dr Christopher Carr (Southern Cross University Entomologist, ) John and Rebecca Zentveld, Dr Terry Rose (SCU, Director, Centre for Organics Research).

Ms Zentveld said she looked forward to welcoming entomologist Dr Christopher Carr on site to inspect insect life.

“It will be interesting to see which pollinators we are encouraging with the flowers. Measuring our soil biology is equally valuable and we look forward to sharing the details with other Australian coffee growers through Australian Subtropical Coffee Growers’ Association meetings and future open field days. Soil results will also be written up into peer-reviewed publications and shared with macadamia, avocado and horticultural networks.  The project will measure the soil health parameters such as microbial biomass carbon, fungi and bacteria ratios, total nitrogen, total carbon, and more,” she said.

“Lead researcher Dr Terry Rose has been very accommodating and collaborative. He has really listened to want we wanted to achieve.”

Lorraine Gordon, founder of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance and Director of Strategic Projects at Southern Cross University, said: “Farmers have come to the researchers with a problem and farmers, researchers and other important stakeholders collaborate to co-create solutions delivering on-the-ground benefits for farmers, whilst also contributing to a scientific base of knowledge.”

For Ms Zentveld, regenerative agriculture is a journey. “We dropped the use of chemicals seven years ago. In that time, it’s been wonderful to see the increase in microbial life and soil health. This is the next step in our journey.

“The process of regeneration is an enlightening headspace. We don’t just focus on the problems. When we see weeds, we ask ‘what is their role?’ rather than trying to make our coffee plantation look like a neat park.

This has attracted employees who share this mindset. We have just employed a regenerative agriculture student from Southern Cross University, who is now on board, ” she said.

Read more about all eight research projects.