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Charles Massy’s book on agri­cul­ture in drought-stricken Aus­tralia has in­cited fu­ri­ous de­bate, writes Bron Si­bree

- @bron­si­bree Ecology · Agriculture · Industries · Australia · Rian Malan

On farm­ing & heists

Charles Massy seems an un­likely revo­lu­tion­ary. Yet this softly spo­ken 65-year-old Aus­tralian farmer, bird lover and zo­ol­o­gist first won plau­dits for ex­pos­ing the po­lit­i­cal skul­dug­gery that led to the de­cline of the Aus­tralian wool in­dus­try in his 2011 book,

Break­ing the Sheep’s Back. He is now lead­ing the charge for an agri­cul­tural in­sur­rec­tion with Call of the Reed War­bler: A New Agri­cul­ture, A New Earth. It is a 500-plus-page tome so per­sua­sive it in­cited fu­ri­ous de­bate in farm­ing cir­cles in Aus­tralia prior to its South African re­lease this month, with prom­i­nent en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist Tim Flan­nery liken­ing its power, scale and hon­esty to Rian Malan’s great saga of SA, My Traitor’s Heart.

Massy, who still tends the farm his fam­ily has tilled for five gen­er­a­tions, prefers to de­scribe the book as “a gen­tle course in teach­ing land­scape func­tion through lots of sto­ries”. But he is quick to ac­knowl­edge that many of the revo­lu­tion­ary ideas he de­scribes in it, in­deed, “came out of Africa”. He is ea­ger, too, to con­fess to his own agri­cul­tural crimes, and to the pal­pa­ble sense of ur­gency that drives Call of the Reed War­bler, which is at one level a mo­men­tous his­tory of in­dus­trial agri­cul­ture and the rav­ages it con­tin­ues to wreak upon global land­scapes at a mo­ment in “this An­thro­pocene epoch where”, says Massy “we are en­ter­ing un­known and fright­en­ing ter­ri­tory”. At an­other, it is the deeply per­sonal story of a clus­ter of in­di­vid­u­als who have trans­formed their farms from drought-blighted dust­bowls into moist, fer­tile, fi­nan­cially vi­able farm­lands by us­ing a range of re­gen­er­a­tive tech­niques — “tech­niques that many re­gard as coun­ter­in­tu­itive”, says Massy.

Among the many tech­niques he de­tails in the book are the rad­i­cal live­stock graz­ing prac­tices ad­vo­cated by con­tro­ver­sial Zim­bab­wean ecol­o­gist Al­lan Sa­vory, whose story, along with that of fa­bled South African botanist John Acocks, is one of many he tells in Call of the Reed War­bler. “It was in­flu­ences like that that helped save me,” says Massy, who ad­vo­cates the Sa­vory method of ro­tat­ing live­stock reg­u­larly and rapidly through small pad­docks to im­i­tate herd be­hav­iour of wild hoofed an­i­mals in Africa. This brings in­ten­sive bursts of manure and urine to the soil which in turn stim­u­lates all im­por­tant mi­cro­bial and fun­gal ac­tiv­ity — as well as greater ger­mi­na­tion of peren­nial grasses and ce­real crops. He also ad­vo­cates — and uses — a form of farm­ing called Key­line, which de­ploys con­tours in the land to max­imise wa­ter and con­serve rain­fall. All in all his book is an el­e­gant and ex­haus­tively de­tailed plan to en­hance five key land­scape func­tions: the so­laren­ergy cy­cle, the wa­ter cy­cle, the soilmin­eral cy­cle, di­ver­sity and health of ecosys­tems at all lev­els, and the hu­man-so­cial. For Massy, the lat­ter is the key, and the most dif­fi­cult. It is our very Western in­dus­trial mind­set or what he calls the “me­chan­i­cal mind”, that has led to such whole­sale degra­da­tion of our soils and food.

He first be­gan ques­tion­ing the reign­ing agri­cul­tural par­a­digm in the wake of the ’80s drought. “Ev­ery day for five years there were mock­ing blue skies; it got to the stage where the dis­trict was dust. We’d never seen any­thing like it. I had a lit­tle fam­ily, my fa­ther was dy­ing and I was de­pressed but didn’t re­alise it. My mind­set was that old par­a­digm — ‘I’m go­ing to fight it and beat this drought.’ It’s a fairly ar­ro­gant state­ment isn’t it?” he now quizzes, “and of course I lost.”

His painful hon­esty in de­tail­ing how he dug him­self out of “decades of debt” — and, more cru­cially, out of the “me­chan­i­cal mind­set” which led him to per­pet­u­ate the mis­takes that turned the fam­ily farm into “a dust­bowl” — is part of what makes this vast hy­brid of a book so com­pelling. Massy’s un­par­al­leled abil­ity to con­vey the beauty and com­plex­ity of the nat­u­ral world to the page is an­other. He is keenly aware, too, that in writ­ing about the de­struc­tive im­pact of in­dus­trial agri­cul­ture on the one hand, and prof­fer­ing counter-in­tu­itive so­lu­tions on the other, he is rub­bing up against the same par­a­digms and vested in­ter­ests that re­acted with vit­riol to Sa­vory’s ear­lier ideas. “But there is more re­cep­tive­ness to change now,” he says, “be­cause farm­ers in­tu­itively know some­thing is not right.”

Since the book’s re­lease he has ad­dressed farm­ers and sci­en­tists in var­i­ous parts of the globe about the re­gen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture he de­scribes. Yet he shrugs off the rigours of pil­ing those added labours onto the de­mands of farm­ing in the in­ter­ests of trans­form­ing the way we farm, eat and think about the earth it­self. “You only get a small unique win­dow of ad­vo­cacy, and if you be­lieve in some­thing, well, you’ve got to grab it, haven’t you?”

 ??  ?? Harry Tay­lor, 6, plays in the dust­bowl of his fam­ily farm. In the Cen­tral Western re­gion of New South Wales, Aus­tralia, farm­ers bat­tle a crip­pling drought which many are call­ing the worst since 1902.
Harry Tay­lor, 6, plays in the dust­bowl of his fam­ily farm. In the Cen­tral Western re­gion of New South Wales, Aus­tralia, farm­ers bat­tle a crip­pling drought which many are call­ing the worst since 1902.
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 ??  ?? Call of the Reed War­bler: A New Agri­cul­ture, A New Earth ★★★★★Charles Massy, Chelsea Green, R500
Call of the Reed War­bler: A New Agri­cul­ture, A New Earth ★★★★★Charles Massy, Chelsea Green, R500

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