Tribute to retiring board member Matt McKinley
19th May 2021
It is with mixed emotions that VicNoTill farewelled two of its valuable board members, Paul Oxbrow and Matt McKinley this year. Matt was our board’s first NSW member and joined in 2017, and we have appreciated his refreshing honesty as his approach to building a more resilient farming system has evolved. We took a look back with Matt on his journey with VicNoTill in our member magazine From the Ground Up, Autumn 2021, Issue 63.
MATT MCKINLEY, COOLAMON, NSW
Riverina farmer Matt McKinley first connected with VicNoTill in 2014, and joined the board three years later. Matt has stepped aside from his board role to make room for the growing number of young farmers who are innovating their farming systems through no-till, soil biology, holistic and regenerative techniques. We catch up with Matt to see how his farm system has changed since VicNoTill first opened his eyes to a farming system that was ‘beyond sustainable’.
Matt McKinley thinks carefully before he answers a question. He doesn’t have all the answers, and is frank and open about the mistakes he makes along the way. This makes him a perfect fit for VicNoTill, whose foundation is built on ‘farmers helping farmers’.
Matt farms with his wife Belinda and their three children, and parents Dave and Heather at Coolamon, north of Wagga Wagga.
Matt’s parents were early adopters of minimum till techniques, although when he started working with them on the farm in the 1990s, their key focus was their self-replacing merino flock. During the late 1990s and early 2000s they shifted more towards cropping.
It was a challenging period, with extended drought making it a difficult juggle. Seeing their sheep with clouds of dust behind them remove the groundcover they’d been working hard to keep through reduced tillage and minimum till, pushed them to making a change. Reluctantly, and not unanimously, they removed sheep completely in the mid 2000s.
A decade on, Matt was standing in a freezing cold paddock at Streatham near Ballarat when passionate soil health advocate Jay Fuhrer from the US lit a spark.
“This was the first time someone gave me an insight into any form of agriculture other than the well drilled nitrogen and phospherous model of industrial ag. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t realise there were other ways to farm before then. Since Jay lit the spark, there’s been no turning back.”
The paddock walk with Fuhrer was part of VicNoTill’s 2014 conference week and by the end of it Matt knew he’d found an organisation he wanted to be part of.
The catch cry and end goal for farming always used to be about being sustainable, but VicNoTill showed me there was something beyond sustainable. This was a really important trigger point for where I am today.
Matt says VicNoTill has paved the way for opportunities he never imagined including overseas travel, meeting likeminded farmers from Australia and overseas, presenting at national and international conferences and welcoming visitors to their paddocks from around the world.
It has broadened his network, and his own way of thinking.
“VicNoTill has allowed me to be in many situations where I’m asked to share my thoughts, our own way of farming and our story. It has put me in a vulnerable position and really made me think about myself and continually evaluate what we’re doing and why. It has helped me immensely to pick up on things about the way we farm and the way I think; things I hadn’t even realised.”
First NSW farmer on board
VicNoTill started in the Wimmera in Western Victoria in 2002. Matt was the organisation’s first NSW board member and part of a move to expand the ‘farmers helping farmers’ network.
“The level of interest and growth in VicNoTill has really taken off in the past five years, and it’s given an even stronger depth of experience and knowledge to the network.
One of VicNoTill’s best features is that everyone who is part of it wants to give and share their knowledge and experiences. They share failures as well as successes – and when you are part of that ‘giving’ environment, there is so much to take home with you.
Matt says when he first joined the Board, a lot of VicNoTill’s ideas and concepts were seen as ‘out there’. Their systems approach to farming has now become a lot more mainstream.
“VicNoTill farmers have been exploring the concepts and ideas of more holistic, biological and regenerative farming system for many years. We were onto something, and more and more people are now onto it too.”
Combining no-till with plant diversity and advanced nutrition to create a more resilient production system has been the end goal for their system.
“Our changes have added really pleasing crop resilience, underlying resilience, in years where frost, pest disease and drought take the most toll. I really enjoy this system in the tougher years.
“The results we have are more stable than previously when our farming was more boom or bust. We now have good financial results every year, even the more challenging ones.”
However, on the tail end of a rare ‘trouble-free’ year in 2020 with good rainfall and ideal planting, growing and harvest conditions, Matt admits they left some profit behind.
“If we were prepared to put on large quantities of granular urea we would have increased our farm profitability. But we just weren’t prepared to that because it doesn’t meet our ecological farm goals. This came an economic cost.”
This bugs him.
“Productivity is a driver of our business and last year demonstrated that our current system doesn’t allow for us to fully optimise productivity in the really good years.”
But he knows he’s still on the right path.
“When you take a big view, our system now has definitely smoothed out the seasonal boom and bust problems.
We have been able to alleviate a lot of yield-limiting factors in tough seasons. The most exciting challenge ahead is to maintain that crop resilience whilst optimising crop productivity in high yield potential scenarios.
In 2016, after a US Study tour with SANTFA and VicNoTill, Matt’s family reintroduced livestock into their system. Through controlled strip grazing of trading cattle they were trying to add another income stream, spread financial risk and boost soil biology.
“Reintroducing livestock was a big breakthrough and gave me a real injection of enthusiasm.”
Things didn’t always go according to plan, and the cattle have been an important part in their a rapidly evolving learning curve.
“Although we really enjoy having cattle in the system, we still haven’t worked out a way to manage the trading risk. We have found that at certain times of the year we don’t want cattle on the farm at all, so this restricts when we buy and sell, opening us up to market fluctuations. Times like now, where stock prices are so high and volatile, we stay out.”
No right or wrong
Another thing he has learnt through the rapid shift in thinking from ‘beyond sustainable’ in the past several years is that labels can never define an individual’s way of farming.
There’s no right or wrong when it comes to your own farm.
“VicNoTill opened my eyes to new ideas and new ways of doing things, but the thing it has taught me the most is that being evangelistic about a certain method or paradigm can be a real trap. It can eat away at your own intuition.”
Matt is trying to ensure he doesn’t impose restrictions on himself when it comes to the reality of running the farm.
“The script of the future of agriculture is unwritten, but as we write it, we need to be in control of our own thoughts and make our own rules.”
He has learnt this the hard way and says he’s as guilty as anyone in trying to jump through too many hoops at once when changing his system.
“It comes down to working out what sort of farm do you want? I want ours to be better than sustainable. But for me, the absolute holy grail of a farm that meets all the ‘principles’ of regenerative ag, I don’t necessarily want that.
“There’s the ecological evolution of the farm to consider, along with family, along with our wealth and capital aspirations. These all form part of what I want and whatever I do, I want it to work.”
One challenge Matt is chewing on is a decision to cultivate a paddock this year. It’s a confronting move after zero cultivation for 25 years.
The paddock of light textured granite soils has bad acidity and aluminium layer at depth. They’ve been masking it for years with soluble fertiliser but as they reduce synthetic inputs, this underlying soil constraint is rearing its ugly head.
“There was a period when I have said an absolute no to cultivation. But I’ve tried everything else on this paddock so I’m treating this as a positive step backwards. It should make the other steps we’re taking towards cutting back on synthetics work a lot better going forward.”
The most important and valuable aspect of his involvement with VicNoTill has been having his family come along for the ride.
I’d come home with all these new ideas and at first it was challenging for my parents. But they have always supported me, even when it was hard for them. Seeing them warm to these ideas has been special. Dad reads soil health books now and it’s been fantastic to see the older generation come on board and really embrace this new way of thinking about farming.
“Equally my wife and children. My children have grown up in the VicNoTill network and I’m really proud to see the positive outlook it has given them.”