A conversation with Randal Breen, a first-generation farmer in Australia who managed to double their farm with a very innovative financing structure. We talk about investing holistically, non-flexible lease, ecological and social debt payments and more. Randal, Juanita, Eli & Bridey Breen run Echo Valley Farm.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
We all know or should know how to manage land holistically, and many farmers have done that with great success over millions of hectares globally. But when that touches the world of finance, many of these principles go out of the window. So how would you approach a holistic investment?
FIRST GENERATION FARMERS STARTING IN REGEN AGRICULTURE
Randal and his wife Juanita started selling eggs at local markets on the weekends. Managing two jobs at first. That was their baptism of fire into the regenerative agriculture movement. They got their first 250 hens on January of 2014, and by the end of June 20th, less than six months, they had relocated their entire operation on to 350 acres. They purchased a bigger farm, and made the conscious decision that they were going to be regenerative farmers.
“In 2013 I went to a three day course, when Joel Salatin had come out to Australia. And we say that that was probably the moment that sort of launched us into the concept of, well… here’s some ideas around stacking enterprises on land. I guess, we can blame him for giving us the idea that possibly this was something that we could do more than just on the weekends.” – Brandal Breen
“And so with the charismatic sales speech that we got from Joel at that course, we ordered ourselves 250 laying hens and build ourselves a little mobile chicken trailer. And on the January of 2014, those trucks turned up, and then there we were […] he’d talked about pigs and meat, chickens and those sorts of things. And we’d looked at the different options, and it felt as if egg production might have been the easiest way to enter that sort of stalking an integrated farming model.” – Brandal Breen
HOW TO APPROACH AND STRUCTURE A HOLISTIC INVESTMENT
The concept was developed holistically. They are holistic land managers, and they have done training through the Savory Institute. The purchase of the property occurred quickly, but the relationship had built up over a number of years. They went on a journey with the people that wanted to invest in that landscape, and invest in them. This is a dynamic document or a dynamic agreement that is constantly evolving and developing. Things like rainfall, ground cover, and grass growth are triggers that will enable them to either increase or decrease their financial obligations to the owners of the land, trying to be responsive to the landscape and the environment.
“We sat down and wrote a holistic context together as purchasers and farmers and developed a vision for that landscape together. Which is really exciting. It means that it’s not us farming the land and them owning the land, but it’s actually we’re on this journey together to develop the landscape and to build a business that essentially is viable for us, but also provides them fulfilment in what their holistic vision was.” – Randal Breen
“What we identified is that one of the challenges, particularly in our landscape, which is a brittle environment, is that we need things within that agreement, or that partnership that is directed through, similar to what would encourage us to destock cattle off a landscape, because if we notice that we don’t have enough grazing days, or that we’re starting to lose ground cover, or that we haven’t had enough rainfall, that those biological monitoring of our landscape would trigger us to start destocking”- Randal Breen
WE NEED TO PAY DOWN OUR ECOLOGICAL AND SOCIAL DEBT TO OUR LANDSCAPES
Randal prioritizes the ecological debt and even social debt they’ve seen within rural communities, and these are the things they want to address first. They have found like- minded people to go on that journey.
“I guess both parties are pretty driven by this notion of paying down the ecological debt that we’ve got over the landscape. So, we don’t view it just as a financial debt, that we’ve got all sorts of debts that we need to pay down, and sometimes within farming or even some of these other quieter voices, as I like to describe them.” – Randal Breen
WEEDS DON’T EXIST, REPAIR PLANTS IS A BETTER WORD
Even though where Echo Valley Farm is, it is a grain-heavy district and a lot of people are growing cereals, and they would love to be able to start harvesting grains, their priority at the moment, is to try to build the soil health back.
“We came to believe that the soil had a memory and that for 120+ years that this soil had only grown single species, monocultures predominantly cereals. And that seemed to be all we could grow, and what people described as weeds, which we don’t really use that, we use the word repair plants. […] As we’ve built more diversity and more life back into that soil, all of a sudden we’re seeing more perennial grasses starting to emerge. And it’s quite remarkable to see the seeds that have even, after 100+ years of being beaten with chemicals, all of a sudden, we’re starting to see native grasses reappear.” – Randal Breen
“Allowing these plants to move through succession, and allowing those things to be triggered within the soil. And then, watching worms arrive, when we first came onto this landscape, I could dig every day for a week and not find a worm. Whereas now, we’re finding 20+, my record is 27 worms in one shovel. We’re clearly building soil health through the use of livestock and allowing plants to grow and heal, not deciding which one stay and which ones leave, but allowing it to go on that journey of succession and moving through the stages of soil health.” – Randal Breen
RELATIONSHIPS ARE KEY
They are building a collaborative scale and working with a range of other farmers, and all contribute to that system. That is generating more viability for more farmers than just them. Altogether, they are regenerating more than 7000 acres.
“Something we’ve done strategically all the way along is to try to collaborate with other farmers and other producers. And I think that’s what, in the long term, will give us scale. And so, although we’re working on, now just 700 acres, where we can finish cattle and pigs and produce the eggs and as we heal the soil those numbers should increase, theoretically.” – Randal Breen
OTHER POINTS DISCUSSED:
Koen and Randal also talked about
- CSA – Community Supported Agriculture
- Relational transactions rather than transactional relationships
- What Randal would do if he were in charge of a billion dollar investment?
- Connecting young and emerging farmers
- Echo Valley Farm
- Darren Doherty – Regrarians
- Joel Salatin
- We Feed the World: Meet the Australian farmer who created the pasture cropping movement Collin Seis
- Community supported agriculture
- Allan Savory @ Groundswell – On what impact investors should focus on in regenerative agriculture
- Paul Woebkenberg on Ecosia’s regen ag investments
- Paul Woebkenberg, Ecosia’s 500K flex finance fund for regen ag
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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.