Jono Frew: From Complicated Simplicity to Simple Complexity
Natural Performance, and Symbiosis Agriculture Ltd
On the outskirts of Ashburton, we met up with Natural Performance and Symbiosis Agriculture Ltd owner, Jono Frew, as he took us through an in-depth look at what it's like to grow a regenerative crop.
BUILDING PLANT DIVERSITY
Ten years ago, if Jono Frew were to drive past the property we visited, he would have thought the farmer who owns the land was mad and that he'd need to get in there with a sprayer and tend to all of the weeds. The property looked unkempt, and as a society, we're so used to seeing clean, tidy paddocks with only one crop. Not until we understand the whole regenerative process does it begin to make sense, and the outcome can be life-changing!
The owner of this dairy farm was curious about regenerative agriculture and committed to a diverse species setup crop that consisted of 30 different species over 100 hectares. These mixes are produced by Jono and his Symbiosis partner, Peter Barrett, to help stimulate soil biology, creating a home for the microbes to work together without applying any fertilisers.
Symbiosis Agriculture Ltd was co-founded by Jono Frew and Peter Barrett who decided to put their expertise together to create a seed company that is unique to New Zealand. Jono often refers to this famous quote by Albert Einstein, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” They have since created over 8,000 hectares of seed mixes together and aren't slowing down anytime soon. Jono said that there are very few mixes that are the same, as they are created to suit; based on climate, context, and what the farmer wants to achieve. Dealing directly with farmers who grow these seeds, Jono and Peter wanted to make these mixes more affordable for farmers, with a lot of their clients saying that their mixes are at a competitive price.
Jono's work with Symbiosis ties in beautifully with his coaching and consultancy business, Natural Performance, as it's about encouraging and helping growers build plant diversity and gain insights into increasing profitability and maintaining joy throughout the process of regenerative agriculture.
ALLOWING CURIOSITY TO FLOURISH
Jono's previous experience and expertise are an interesting one, with a unique set of circumstances getting him to where he is today. Originally from Duntroon, a small town in the Waitaki Valley, Jono lived with his mum and stepfather. His stepfather worked as an agricultural contractor and worked on a range of different chemical application projects.
When Jono was 19 years old, he was involved in a 100km head-on collision with a fertiliser salesman, with Jono labelling the incident as "quite ironic". He broke his femur which left him laid up for a few months. Like most farmers he was unable to sit still, so he decided to go and learn to spray and understand the chemistry behind farming, just as his stepfather did.
After getting married and having children, Jono ended up managing a chemical company as an agronomist. "Every year I was watching the crops I was responsible for drop in the response to the treatments we were applying," Jono said. At that time Jono also watched the Maerewhenua river, where he used to swim as a little boy and farm alongside, dry up in some areas. At this moment, he knew that something had to change. Chemical application wasn't something Jono wanted to do for the rest of his life as the workload was getting too much. Doing 110-hour working weeks for eight months of the year and having kids throughout that was not what he signed up for.
Jono got asked to manage a 200-hectare organic sheep and beef farm called Harts Creek. This mixed crop farm had been organic for 36 years. When he decided to take on the management of the farm, Jono and his wife separated, and it was at that point where he needed to address what he was doing with his life.
When Jono was in school, he didn't like learning because he wasn't interested in the subjects. Working at Harts Creek taught him to apply himself to things and allow curiosity to flourish. Jono began to develop an interest in sustainable farming and individuals that immersed themselves in that field of work. He brought the likes of Nicole Masters, Christine Jones, Simone Osbourne, and Nigel Greenwood together to create a discussion group which today is called Quorum Sense. This is New Zealand's regenerative farming network to extend information and expertise about regenerative farming to other individuals that are looking to get into it.
After three years of managing Harts Creek Farm, Jono started Natural Performance in 2018, travelling around New Zealand and using Zoom to coach people from all over the world. The people that Jono coaches through Natural Performance are very broad, with a majority of them being large-scale farmers. Jono also coaches and educates students, delivering talks at Lincoln University.
"When people are being responsible for their farming operations and actually making some money and they're having fun, it ripples out into their families. Their children get to have their parents for more time, the farmers get to be more present and intuitive in what they're doing. The ripple effects are huge."
GOOD SOIL HEALTH
Jono mentioned that regenerative agriculture means different things to different people, there is no one prescription. It all depends on the farmer, the context, and what applies to them and their interests. He says that it's about, "getting out of the way, what's in the way, for nature to take over – increasing your function on farm".
Jono believes that the key success of your regenerative process is having good soil health. "In every teaspoon of healthy soil, there are more microbes than there are humans that have ever lived on the planet," Jono said. "Right now, it's hard to be lonely because we're surrounded by billions of microbes."
<br><b><i>These are the five key tenants of good soil health:</i></b><ol><li>Limited disturbance of soil</li><li>Armour – always keep soil covered</li><li>Diversity of plant and animal species</li><li>Living roots – maintain as long as possible</li><li>Integrated animals – nature does not function without animals</li></ol><br>
Jono mentioned that most of the time what's missing in the soil is oxygen and plant diversity. Each plant has its own unique strengths, just like humans. The more diversity in plants, the more services we can provide for each other. "The more compacted our soil is, the less habitat there is for microbes to colonise and to do the work we are doing in applying fertilisers." Once we begin to understand that soil is a living entity, we will begin to treat it differently and with more care.
The good thing about regenerative agriculture is that you don't need a large farm to do it, anyone is more than capable and the techniques are all the same. The first step for anyone looking at getting into it, Jono said, is to understand the biological functions. There are plenty of resources online and everything is so readily accessible to us. "We're going from complicated simplicity to simple complexity, so although what we're dealing with here is massively complex, it's rather simple. You don't have to have a Ph.D. to understand soil biology." The second step is to get your hands on some diverse seed mix from Symbiosis or get some expert advice if you're wanting to create it yourself. The third step is to implement the seed mix, then watch it grow.
"Each plant performs its own role in this ecosystem, so we have plants that are aggressive with their root architectures, we have plants that are nitrogen fixers, we have plants that are phosphorus mobilisers, we have plants that are really good at filling in the gaps between the aggressive big taproots. And all of it equals this great symbiotic chaos that is thriving with health, and resilience."
Understanding the process of stimulating soil biology will help to relieve soil from compaction, giving it more oxygen and helping it thrive. "More plants = more microbes = more nutrients." In the same way, introducing animals to graze on your diverse range of plant species has major benefits on their gut, giving them more sustenance and nutrients.
"Pumping 1% soil organic matter or carbon into the soil every year would give a paddock the ability to hold onto an extra 180,000 litres of water per hectare every year. In areas where there is no irrigation, if we can hold onto that amount of water every year – imagine what that's going to do to the environment, not just for the rivers that experiencing the amount of leaching that they are, but also for the hydrological system in itself. We're not experiencing drought to flood, drought to flood because we've learnt how to store our water when we need it."
MINDSET IS THE FOUNDATION OF EVERYTHING
Jono developed a love for farming at just 11 years old. As a child he was very energetic, always doing things, whether it was sports or being interested in machinery. He realised that he wasn't always present in class and wasn't too good at communicating when it came to work and personal relationships. Jono said he would just say things that people wanted to hear and get on with it. Spending 15 years in farming, the "tough guy" persona fitted him very well growing up. Jono never liked talking about his feelings and it wasn't until he and his wife separated and managing Harts Creek, that he started expressing himself more openly and communicatively. Once he began to do this, all the right people and resources started to come into his life. Shedding off those layers helped him to become more effective and gave him confidence in things that he once doubted. Jono is now a businessman, plays guitar, and goes hunting in the mountains – things that he never thought he would do.
"The mindset is the foundation of everything – whether you think you can or can't, you're right. The mindset is what limits us to what's possible," Jono said. "Context is like a box that you operate from. Most people don't know that there is a box there that's keeping them limited. If we can teach the mindset that there is no box and that you can change your context every day to suit what's best for your situation, then the limits are endless. That creates the space for learning, it creates the space for discovery and it takes away a whole lot of stress and anxiety. It really is the foundation, the mindset for sure."
Jono hopes to create a programme that enables young individuals to be present and create their own paths and a new way of thinking. "Enabling young folk to enquire new areas and apply new techniques to different things is really important to get us to a new place," Jono said.
"Once you start to dig a hole (literally dig a hole), it becomes a never-ending hole of curiosity and discovery and the more I discover, the more I'm just fascinated by what's possible," Jono said. "Now that I'm doing what I'm doing – I can't see myself doing anything else."
THE FUTURE OF FARMING
When talking about the future, Jono ended on a positive note saying, "the future that I see in New Zealand is one where we are all supporting each other. We're using nature to our advantage as a by-product. We've then got clean rivers as a by-product. We're all eating healthy food that's grown and supported by nature, and as a result of that, we're no longer relying on medical treatments of symptoms that are a result of a poor food production model".
"I see New Zealand as being a resilient, more connected, more vibrant farming community. I'd like to see farming in New Zealand be that we've got no discussion on suicide, there's not even a discussion of depression. Farmers are vibrant and healthy and there is no more noble cause than growing food for the people of your country or the world, and doing it with passion."