Radical regenerative farming model revealed by food system change-makers

serenity hill and Kirsten Larsen

Food system change-makers Kirsten Larsen and Serenity Hill have revealed their radical new collaborative farming model and succession plan designed to improve ecological function, support a diverse range of small-scale businesses, and ensure security of tenure for emerging farmers.

The couple, who run a self replacing flock of Australian White ewes on a 168-hectare property near Benalla, are founders of Open Food Network, a game-changing open source technology which connects growers with eaters and builds valued and fair food chains.

Serenity said the new collaborative farming model is underpinned by the same two values that have driven the success of OFN.

“Audacity and humility.”

“Audacity because we believe we can do it, and humility because it requires letting go of control.” explained Serenity.

A lease arrangement like no other

Currently, Serenity’s mother who owns the family farm is in the process of transferring the land into a family trust.

The trust will have an 80-year lease arrangement with a non-profit guaranteed company, Pukawidgee Land Management, which is now a registered charity. 

Over the course of the 80 years, the equity of the trust will be transferred to the non-profit in exchange for improved ecological function.

After 80 years, the land is transferred to the not-for profit at a peppercorn rate.

Serenity’s mother is adamant the land be used for food production which works towards ecological improvement.

We are building multiple protections into the DNA of the agreement,” explained Serenity. The lease agreement will take into account the challenges and uncertainties of providing agro-ecological services while adapting to the climate impacts of the next 80 years.”

The innovative lease arrangement is being drawn up by rural lawyer and farmer Matt Grogan at Halliday Solicitors who has a keen interest in succession planning and co-operative arrangements. He recently helped set up the energy co-operative Totally Renewable Yackandandah.

Collaboration the key to regenerative farm enterprises

As fierce proponents of agroecological farming systems, the couple believe they can counteract the cost associated with slower, more labor-intensive regenerative style of farming with four things: access to premium markets through a vertically integrated business; reduced input costs through regenerative practice; payments for ecological services; and innovative co-farming structures that welcome more people into the enterprises.

The couple market premium meat directly on the Open Food Network.  In the future options include creating a vertical business with micro-abattoir, and boning room onsite as well a café and other community focused activities.

Governance that allows for adaptation and deep connection

Serenity said a lot of the collaborative farming solutions for young farmers are not looking at the important and deep seated need of farmers to connect deeply with the local ecology over time. 

“Young farmers want security of tenure built into the model. We understand that the need to own and care for land over time is a deep cultural thing.”

“We wanted to try to experiment with this governance model — the traditional co-operative model doesn’t fit with our goals.

“We needed to build in the model a recognition that things change, so we decided to establish (Pukawidgee Land Management) as a guarantee company with charitable status.

“There would be potential for collaborators to become directors after participating for some years, but they would have to show they had deep values-alignment and put plenty of skin in the game first,” Serenity said.

The couple see potential to bring a diverse mix of collaborators who would offer something unique to the regenerative mission of the farm and contribute to triple bottom line outcomes.

For instance, there are participants who would like to set up a program for nature connection for children and families; building regenerative culture.

“The idea is that people could come to the farm and have these deep nature connection experiences. They would stay in our accommodation and have a connection with land and with us.

“Our vision is to have fewer customers but those who are more deeply connected to the farm, like a Community Supported Agriculture model.

Why regenerative agriculture needs to adopt collaborative models

While there are plenty of regenerative agriculture advocates who focus on reduced input costs, Kirsten and Serenity have a more realistic lived experience of managing land holistically. 

“We have found ecological agriculture to be more labour intensive, particularly in the start up phase. There are rewards, but increased labour often requires a more collaborative way of thinking if it is going to be successful”

Serenity questioned the wisdom of individual families trying to run multiple regenerative enterprises at once, trying to emulate models such as those promoted by Joel Salatin. 

“This is not a balanced approach. When looking at doing different things on farms, we need to look at alternative governance models that embrace collaboration and diversity.” 

Capturing learnings from Open Food Network: A dance between holding a strong vision and letting go

What the women have learnt from Open Food Network is the importance of getting the ‘governance infrastructure’ right so that members have a sense of ownership and a place in shaping it. 

This means stepping back and ensuring they leave enough space for others to fill. “You can’t have everything stitched up. You have to leave enough room for other people’s creativity. It’s still a learning curve,” she said.

“It’s a delicate dance between having enough of a clear vision — so that people can step into and be sure their vision aligns with ours and it’s not a shambles — and letting go and leaving space for things to emerge.”

Open Road – a collaborative logistics pilot

As if Open Food Network and a game-changing succession planning aren’t enough to shake up the food system, Ms Hill and Ms Larsen are driving a pilot program called Open Road, a network of farmers, food hubs, and social enterprises working together on logistics. 

The Open Food Network founders see logistics as a big barrier for small scale farmers. Open Road is the solution.

The first experiment they are running is for three on-the-ground delivery loops in Victoria. One is running in North east Victoria, working with hubs like Strathbogie Local and North East Food Hub in Wangaratta.  Open Road is also operating in Gippsland working with hubs like Baw Baw Food Hub and Prom Coast Food Collective.  A pilot north and central Victoria region run is launching in September.  Open Food Network is working with partners in Melbourne – Melbourne Farmers Markets and CERES Fair Food to help produce moving on Open Road to reach more customers. 

Serenity said scaling the operation from a pilot to something more far-reaching is complex and expensive and will require social, public and philanthropic support. The women are currently looking at ways to get this done.

Again, it will require a combination of audacity and humility. Fortunately, they have plenty.

Further resources:

Open Food Network

Open Road

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