Farm Yarns

The Koenigs, Ingelara Farm

Tobias and Beatrice

Some farmers arrive at regenerative agriculture after initially navigating the world of farming through more conventional routes, eventually veering away from the destructive, depletive practices of chemical-laden agriculture  and towards the holistic, life-affirming outcomes created by using regenerative principles. 

Others consciously step into this way of farming from the very beginning, knowing that for them, ‘regeneratively’ is the only way that they want to grow their food. Tobias and Beatrice Koenig are two such farmers. 

Tobias knew from day one that he would follow the holistic principles of biodynamic farming that fall in step with regenerative agriculture. These principles guide his every decision on the farm so that his family can ensure they are taking care of the soil, but it also gives them the peace of mind that they are growing the most  nutrient-dense food possible. The appreciation for these methods is reflected in their customers’ loyalty, and gives hope for the type of demand we can create when more people come to know the value of regeneratively grown food.

We visited Ingelara Farm on Monaro Country, an area south-west of Canberra, and spoke to Tobias and Beatrice about why they farm the way that they do, and what they think it will take for more farmers to turn away from chemical-heavy agriculture. 

The consumer has got power because he’s going to decide which type of agriculture is going to be supported

Please tell us a little of how you came to be producing food and stewarding land as Ingelara Farm?

We arrived in Australia in 1994 and for the first 10 years we lived near Narrandera in the Riverina where we were share-farming and leasing country to grow certified organic/biodynamic food. . We begun with dryland wheat and spelt alongside running a few cattle. We experienced ten very difficult below-average rainfall years with only two good grain harvests during that time. I started running an organic Demonstration block at the Department of Primary Industries Yanco Agricultural Institute growing a diverse mix of vegetables and row crops to demonstrate organic growing principles. Beatrice was homeschooling our two children, Marie-Elaine and Laurence, but we got to the point where we were looking for a suitable school to send them. So we started to look around and found the farm, Ingelara, near Canberra. In 2004 we bought the farm with another family and our children were enrolled at the Canberra Steiner School where Beatrice started to teach.

Do you find being a biodynamic farmer has a positive effect on customer purchasing and perceived product value?

The Demeter trademark in Europe and particularly in Germany is the best known, the ‘Mercedes’ of the alternative agricultural labels. In Australia, the official biodynamic movement sits within two groups, the Demeter group managed by BDRI, and the Biodynamic Association. Both adhere to the same ideas but are not united because of personalities which is a bit sad really.

Only a small proportion of our customers are dedicated biodynamic supporters so while some buy the produce because it is certified, many buy it because it is good quality and they love the flavour.

What is your current range of products and how do you distribute them to market?

We run a commercial Angus herd and the weaners are sold in autumn to the normal market because the market for certified organic/biodynamic livestock is limited. We don’t like to be butchers selling meat at the local farmers market for various reasons but mainly there is already enough organic/biodynamic meat available and we don’t want to compete with our fellow organic/biodynamic farmers. We sell about 8 different varieties of potatoes, garlic, pumpkins and summer vegetables. We sell as much as possible to two farmers markets in Canberra, plus organic shops and a range of restaurants. Some garlic is also sold to a Wholesaler and as planting material to other garlic growers.

How would you describe your relationships with your customers, community and landscape?

Over the years we have built a loyal customer base who support us and our way of farming. They support us by buying our produce but they also support us mentally and emotionally. We live on the Monaro which is a place where new ideas take a while to be considered and even longer to be accepted but the wider community has certainly noticed that we are a hard-working family and that we look after the land. There are people who realise that the grass is growing differently on our farm, although some people think that we have higher rainfall on our side of the fence!

Our aim is to heal and enhance our landscape with the help of our general farming methods and in particular using Holistic Resource Management practices in the grazing areas. We do this by managing ground cover, raising carbon levels, increasing mineral and water cycles, using multi-species cover crops to enhance biodiversity and planting trees for shade and diversity.

How do you communicate the message of regenerative agriculture to your customers?

New ideas only find open ears once people accept that something’s not working. ‘Missionary’ behaviour does not suit us, we don’t want to be followed, we would prefer to inspire. That’s why we run school camps to give young students a hands-on experience and hopefully plant the seeds for further questioning as their consciousness develops.

A lot of people talk about ‘regenerative’ agriculture and we have to be careful that it does not become just greenwashing. Every farmer who is reducing their chemical usage and starting to look after the soil has taken an important first step

Do you feel the regenerative movement is growing in your region?

A lot of people talk about ‘regenerative’ agriculture and we have to be careful that it does not become just greenwashing. Every farmer who is reducing their chemical usage and starting to look after the soil has started taken an important first step. This will lead to changes in the way of thinking and therefore further improve the whole system.

Let’s hope Regenerative Agriculture does not become institutionalised, it should become a living, breathing, widespread community.

What potential barriers do you see preventing more farmers from shifting away from chemical usage?

This is not a problem that should be left to farmers to solve alone, it is a wider societal issue. We have to start with how we raise our children, what they learn at school and their awareness of their surroundings. We should be focussing on fostering their creative thinking, their independent understanding and their willpower, all of which are the basis of Steiner education. This would be a starting point in shifting the way we think as a society.

In terms of farmers, to shift away from chemical use we need more examples of successful, profitable regenerative farms. We need education and further research into regenerative methods. We also need a society who respects and values the work farmers do and are willing to pay a fair price for the produce we grow. 

We have to stop talking about us (organic/biodynamic/regenerative) and them (conventional). In this sense, Certification is a problem, it is divisive, not unifying.

How do you plan to preserve your positive relationship to the land and the food you produce into the future?

Our son Laurence is a trained young farmer who has worked on a diverse range of farms in Australia and Europe and is now part of our business. He has a strong commitment to regenerative biodynamic farming. Our role is now to support him for the day when we will start slowing down.

What does regeneration mean to you?

Sustaining a broken system is not enough, it has to be regenerative.

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