elephant browsing on a bush in Africa

3 eccentric farming pioneers—innovators in holistic and regenerative agriculture

People with ideas are more valuable than ever, even the eccentric farming pioneers we need the most.

Eccentric farming pioneers are stepping forward while we laugh at their antics. The thing is that we shouldn’t laugh at the strange. Humans will need unusual farming techniques when the familiar ones start to falter.

We will also need ideas for regenerating degraded landscapes as the soils lose their potency and fossil fuel inputs become scarce and expensive.

Here we would like to introduce you to three eccentric farming pioneers who have dared to be different and tell people all about it.

3 eccentric farming pioneers  

Alan Savory

Many years ago, I met Alan Savory, the inventor and passionate advocate for holistic management, a form of farming that integrates agricultural production into nature and the farming people by understanding complexity. 

Alan’s ideas have spread far and wide through the  Savory Institute, which promotes the mindset of making complex decisions in food production from an ecological perspective.  

They teach a suite of planning procedures under the banner of Holistic Management that include planned grazing, land planning, financial planning, and ecological monitoring, but the real lesson is that food comes from nature—a complex web of interacting organisms. 

Ecological processes drive food production.

In his book Holistic Management: A Commonsense Revolution to Restore Our Environment, Alan explains how his insights came from tracking animals across the savannas of southern Africa. He saw how grazing animals gathered in herds to reduce the risk to each individual of ending up in the jaws of a predator and that, in turn, the predators tracked and moved the herds across the landscape.  

A concentration of herbivory had to move. Otherwise, all the plants would be eaten. So animals tracked across the grasslands and open woodlands, sometimes in great migrations that followed the rain, but everywhere herds moved, grazing the vegetation in pulses.

This is the opposite of the way modern humans rear livestock on rangeland. Ranchers let animals roam across large fields that end in a fence. In these constrained conditions, they eat a little and often all the time—a continuous grazing system.

Alan’s insight was to mimic the great herds in livestock production systems.

I recognised where Alan came from, having spent two years in Zimbabwe and another seven in Botswana. I saw the herds followed by the lion prides and walked over the land 5,000 buffalo had just mauled. It is so apparent when you see it. My ecological background meant that I immediately knew how Alan came to understand the process of pulsed grazing and ‘regeneration with rest’ that characterises many savanna ecosystems and helps make them so productive.

Alan is a purposeful presenter and engaging enough to have his TED talk on How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change reach close to 6 million views on Youtube.

But the reality is that no matter how logical and profitable holistic management can be for many livestock and mixed production systems worldwide, it has little traction. 

It is still in the backwaters of agricultural thinking, well away from the mainstream.

Part of this is because Alan Savory is unusual. 

The average Joe is wary, and maybe a little jealous, of a dude who runs barefoot in Africa amongst the lions and the buffalo.

lioness in grassland on the African savanna prompting one eccentric farming pioneers to have an idea
Photo by Dan Maisey on Unsplash.

Peter Andrews

Australia is an old continent famed for drought, fire and flood. After living in NSW for nearly 30 years, I can confirm this weather-related notoriety is justified. I have seen the wildfire dispense with the plants at the bottom of my garden and bailed the water from the shed after a flood. 

Australia is a tough place to grow food. The weather is an obvious challenge, but the soils are old too. They have been exchanging nutrients with plants for millions of years and have lost much of their innate capacities and organic matter.

On my travels, I have seen the dry grass, the thirsty trees and the parched soil stretch for mile after mile. Farmer after farmer works all hours to make the average 4,000 ha farm productive. They need a  lot of land to make it work. Their European colleagues make a living on an average of less than 100 ha. 

Then out of nowhere, an emerald green paddock will appear on the horizon. 

The first thought is that a farmer has invested in inorganic fertiliser or has tapped the groundwater to irrigate a crop. As I get closer, it’s clear that the greenery follows the drainage lines in vast swathes.

Chances are, I have stumbled across a property managed for natural sequence farming, the intelligent idea of eccentric farming pioneer Peter Andrews OAM. 

The simple and elegant concept is to regenerate a degraded landscape by slowing the water flow with leaky weirs and judicious planting of whatever plants will grow to help hold the water and build the organic carbon in the soil. These plants might even be weeds or alien species. It only matters that they hold on to the water.

Enthralled by his idea and initial success on his farm, Peter Andrews wrote two books, Back from the Brink and Beyond the Brink, about how to recover the dry landscapes of Australia by holding water in the landscape. 

He got the ear of senior politicians, ran training courses, and was awarded the Order of Australia Medal. The research was commissioned to confirm that his techniques meet the claims, curiously by hydrologists rather than ecologists, and as with all things involving nature, the results were equivocal. 

A few devotees follow the methods with the support of the TALS Institute, where Peter Andrews is chair. And yet, two decades on from his 2006 book, natural sequence farming remains at the margins. 

Part of this is because Peter Andrews is unusual. 

His idea works, but after its initial regeneration, his farm failed, and his capricious personality puts off many would-be advocates.

Ernst Götsch

Swiss farmer Ernst Götsch developed techniques that reconcile agricultural production with landscape regeneration through a set of principles and practices globally known as Syntropic Farming 

The idea is to change the way we see, interpret and relate to the farm so that food production becomes cooperative with nature rather than one of  dominion over it. In Ernst Götsch’s vision, holes become nests, seeds become genes, weeding becomes harvesting, any competition gives way to cooperation, and pests and diseases are seen as the “agents from the department of optimisation of life processes”.

His 410-hectare farm in Brazil is regenerated from degraded land with the resurgence of 14 springs and the reappearance of native animals. It is a testament to the concept.

But I’m guessing you have not heard of syntropic farming. I hadn’t until recently, but Ernst Götsch has been at it for 40 years, and his nature-based techniques for agroforestry are still not mainstream in that niche area of food production.

Part of this is because Ernst Götsch is unusual. 

He may be a normal enough fellow, but he speaks a very different language to the average farmer. Succession, companion planting, and pruning are all tied up with trial and error. These words are not what farmers talk about in the pub.

wetland with reeds and water loving trees
Photo by Luke Hodde on Unsplash

Unusual agricultural technique

Savory, Andrews and Götsch are eccentric farming pioneers. 

They share the challenge of doing different and counterintuitive to a farming industry and society that has grown fat on a command and control model of production that relies on energy subsidies.

They are also a little odd, eccentric even.

I admire them for this because, being a little eccentric in my views on food, ecology and diet, I know it takes a lot to go against convention. You must believe in your contrary view because there will be doubters, critics and trolls. 

Most people are put off by the eccentric, a little scared by their passion for what is, for now, the extreme. 

The thing is this.

Intensive agriculture is a massive energy sink that persists because of fossil fuels. A change is coming because the ancient energy pulse will end. This is the truth, a resource constraint on how we grow food to meet the 22 trillion a day challenge. Oh yes, and the climate is changing, too, which makes matters worse.

Holistic management in agriculture, regenerating degraded landscapes through natural sequence farming and syntropic farming principles are ways forward from this over-reliance on inputs. They are similar in their understanding and use of ecology and ecological principles to grow food where the energy is innate, and nutrients are cycled through complex interactions between organisms and their environment.

Savory, Andrews and Götsch are not just eccentric farming pioneers; they are visionaries who see what is possible when the oil runs out.

What sustainably FED suggests

Novelty is always a bit scary, shiny with risk, even if there is a faint aroma of opportunity around it. It makes people wary, and aversion comes with the territory, like the three stages of food security: not true, better ignore it, I told you it was true.

Only humanity needs pioneers, thousands, millions of them. 

We have to have more ideas people. They deserve our support so their inspirations can be tested, applied and rolled out and we can go beyond denial, laughter, and ridicule to acceptance where we all can say…

See, I told you it was true. 

Hero image modified from photo by Yolande Conradie on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Subscribe to our explainer series

* indicates required

Most discussed