Tag Archives: industrial agriculture

Review of Call of the Reed Warbler, A New Agriculture A New Earth, Charles Massy, University of Queensland Press, 2017

A Review

Call of the Reed Warbler

A New Agriculture, a New Earth, Charles Massy, University of Queensland Press, 2017.

The Agrarian narrative that is prevalent in American rural literature, (Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Louis Bromfield, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, Gary Snyder), and many others, is not matched in Australian rural literature. Australia has a paucity of stories about our farming history, from the pens of those with their hands in the dirt. We have been hanging out for this story for a long time. It tells where we came from, and gives an honest assessment of where we are now and where we might be going in the future in our relationship with Land. Of course we acknowledge Judith Wright, Eric Rolls, Geoffery Blainey, Mary E. White, Bill Gammage and lately Bruce Pascoe.

In Charles Massy we find an author with a big mind and a big story, a story for our time, a story that needs to be told. I find it extremely important that he has put down the history of the changing circumstances of thought in the human relationship to land in the centuries before European settlement in Australia.

Many reviews have looked on this book as one that will be a classic, I concur with that view.

One of the findings in Charles Massy’s PhD thesis was that in a majority of cases, the precursor for change was tension of some sort, either social, business or environmental. The scope of this book taken as a whole is breathtaking, Massy is revealing the truth of the processes of Industrial Agriculture. The farmers practicing this type of Industrial farming are in some sense, unwitting pawns in the game of those who supply the products that lead to less diversity in landscapes and farms.

The Massy narrative reveals the evidence of the results of Industrial Agriculture and unplanned grazing. World wide, soils are losing Organic Carbon as landscapes simplify; the opposite of the trend of evolution. This is the birthright of all unborn humans and also, all life.

These are big questions and too important to skirt around. We should be grateful we have someone such as Charles Massy among us, with the courage to inform us.

Research in the Industrial Farming model is currently all about small refinements to a flawed model. Things like satellite guidance and auto-steer, yield mapping, lower herbicide rates etc, are in my view, incremental changes, when what we need is a new model. Innovations such as pasture cropping, which has huge potential and is only in its infancy, is where there should be new research effort.

Any form of agriculture that causes significant simplification of the living community, and is reliant on products that harm the living world will be short lived in the history of the world.

This book is a clarion call for life.

There is ample honesty and stories of farmer’s journeys of searching for a way out of the labyrinth of dependency that is part of the lot of Industrial farming.

One has to admire the organizing capacity of large Industrial farmers, they achieve incredible things in a variable climate. The question though is that the only true profits made in farming are when the money shows a profit, at the same time as people’s well-being is improving and the natural capital base of the farm ecosystem is improving in diversity.

Charles Massy’s message of hope is for farmers to become more ecologically literate, to become independent thinkers, part of the living communities on farms. Considering the effects of our decisions on ourselves, our businesses and the living world.

When I was an Industrial farmer, it was my recognition that the natural capital on our farm was diminishing and that I, and the farming system were the problem, that made me look for more ethical ways to relate to Land. It is that story told through the lives of other farmers that is the heart of Call of the Reed Warbler.

In my experience, farmers mostly don’t read much, so for some the size of Call of the Reed Warbler may pose a problem. I have found it a pleasure to dip in and out, finding chapters that spark my interest. This is a book for more than farmers, it is a book for all.

You can buy a copy of the Call of the Reed Warbler at your favourite book seller or through the publisher, University of Queensland Press.

David Marsh
713 Lachlan Valley Way
Boorowa NSW 2586


Babblers Back at Boorowa

Today is a special day at Allendale and one I have dreamed about for fifty one years. We have changed the woody vegetative cover here by planting seedlings, direct sowing seeds, and lately allowing volunteer seedlings to germinate and survive. In 1966 there was only three percent tree cover on Allendale, now there is almost twenty percent.

We’ve been patient, sometimes we even considered importing some birds with whom we’d like to share this land. My father planted mixed species plantations on our few acres of land at Bowral in the belief that species of birds would appear if you provided habitat. I saw that happen as a young boy, so I knew it was possible.

But today I saw for the first time….. Grey Crowned Babblers!!! A few years ago I gave a talk in Cowra called Birds, Biodiversity and Business. At the end of the talk I had a slide of a Grey Crowned Babbler and said that I would die happy if they turned up at Allendale. And they have, two years before I have reached my allotted minimum expected span of three score years and ten. I emphasise minimum here because now I expect there will be a return of other species that were endemic but who have moved further out as we farmers have altered conditions. Effectively we have made our landscapes unfriendly to species that evolved here. We should ponder that deeply.

Our forebears did not know that was going to happen, they had their eye on the main game, fencing, developing and clearing land, making a quid and surviving. Well the main game has changed and now making a quid and surviving is bound up with the notion of diversity. Farms with increasing diversity are cheaper to run, more resilient to shocks and increasing in soil carbon; they are biologically active and getting more so. It is hard to put a value on seeing that busy little bird turning over litter and hurriedly eating whatever showed up.

It was quite unconcerned as I stopped the vehicle to see if I could identify it. I think I received as big a thrill as when we occasionally grew a big crop of grain.

I am hoping the rest of the Babbler’s family is also here or not far away and soon to be resident.

Common wheat grass, and increasing other native grasses and changed tree cover can lead to increased diversity

The excitement that little bird gave me today was greater and  opposite to the sadness I felt about twenty five years ago when I realised that the Brown Tree Creepers had left Allendale. Back then, I think I knew, deep inside me I had played a part in their leaving. We started growing canola next to their habitat and were using insecticides for earth mites and baits for slugs. That was another shove along the way to finding a way of farming that was more about increasing life, than dealing in death.

Today I felt that the Babbler represented a step in the right direction. Perhaps something we have done helped the process, I like to think it was mostly allowing conditions favourable to this little bird that have been the most important reasons it arrived today and let me photograph it.


A Farmers Tale – Part I

My father was a medical practitioner in Bowral, NSW from 1946 to about 1980. He always had a great interest in literature and the classics and could quote bits from many of those works; he read to us from William Blake when we were small. Lewis Carroll was another favourite, especially the Jabberwock!
Airforce training in the west of Victoria put him in touch with the local medico in Nhill, Dr Middleton, who had a couple of young sons, one of whom was interested in nature. When my father died in 1986 I rang this now long-retired ‘young man’. He told me this story which made me feel immensely proud. Dad’s squadron was in New Guinea and the islands of the Coral Sea, it was a Beaufighter squadron. Every year on young Bill Middleton’s birthday, a book about nature would appear, sent by my father while he was on active duty, and Bill said it was probably this that led to his future career as a forester. Bill also had a big influence on what became Whole Farm Planning and the Potter Farmland Plan.
So what?
Well, the point is that none of us knows how what we say, how we behave or our attitude can influence the thoughts of others, and change often is sparked by chance experiences, often when we are under pressure or tension.
I grew up watching my father making compost, leaf mould, recycling everything, growing vegetables, fruit etc. My constant refrain was “I wonder why”. So it looks as if I was curious right from the start. Like most of us, I thought my situation was just normal, it just was what it was. Comparing comes much later, or it did with me.
My father’s bookshelves were full of thousands of books on a very wide range of subjects, but if there was a dominance in one area it would have been Australian flora and Fauna and agriculture.
There were many books Dad bought in the years after WWII. An Agricultural Testament, by Sir Albert Howard, the Rape of the Earth, Jacks and Whyte, Chemicals Humus and the Soil, Hopkins, Nutrition and National Health, Sir Robert McCarrison, the Living Soil, Eve Balfour, Farmers of Forty Centuries, FH King, Humus and the Farmer, Friend Sykes, The Clifton Park System of Farming, Elliot, Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease, Sir Albert Howard, Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson, Flying Fox and Drifting Sand, Francis Ratcliffe, Malabar Farm, Louis Bromfield, Ploughman’s Folly, Edward Faulkner and many others.

As a young farmer I was aware of those books but had not read them; my experience and the information I was getting was from a different paradigm, what we now know as the industrial farming model.

Looking back, my desire was certainly to care for the land, but my behaviour and attitude showed I had a predominantly economic relationship to land. I was out to prove to myself and others that I could get the land to yield up its treasures and produce more or at least as much as my peers of wool, sheep cattle and crops.

The drought of 1982 was a wake up call. I had to admit that decisions I made or failed to make led to a denuded farm. For the first time dust was blowing, a heavy storm led to high runoff and many fences being flattened. I felt very responsible, even ashamed. I spent the next ten years looking for farming systems that had lower impacts.
My father gave me a book called Wildlife in the Home Paddock by Roland Breckwoldt(1983), and it was very influential as it showed conservation integrated into production and that production was actually dependent on complexity in the landscape.
We became very involved in tree planting, but mainly for shelter and other production reasons, nothing to do with increasing biodiversity as such.
We were early adopters of zero till farming, which seemed so good compared to multiple pass cultivation and occasional erosion events.
However, after some amazing yield results I became concerned that the level of product leaving the farm was unrealistic in longer time frames and also that the chemical control of weeds would lead quite quickly to resistance problems.
Towards the end of the 1980s a friend gave me a copy of a book about managing holistically by Allan Savory.
Savory’s book and thinking resonated with where my mind was going, and has had an ongoing influence on our more balanced way of managing from the perspective of people, business and landscape.
At this stage I had no idea about complexity, resilience, ecology, succession, the influence management could have on solar energy harvest or how much grass would grow if we controlled the time animals had access to plants.
I guess in many ways I was ecologically blind.

The biggest influence that led to changed thinking was the result of our son Matthew suffering a life threatening illness.
Although he made a good recovery I enrolled in a sustainable agriculture course at Sydney University Orange Campus, externally.

I became insatiably hungry for knowledge about ecology.

Language, production, yield and the future

The conventional world of industrial agriculture is very focused on raising productivity so we can feed the world.

The language is confusing, and from an ecological perspective not correct.

What is really happening is a push for an increase in YIELD.
This is usually driven by monocultures to maximise sunlight harvest for our benefit, and justified in terms of economics.

However this model guarantees large inputs on an annual basis of many high energy products (herbicides, fungicides, proprietary seeds, machinery etc), plus an annual requirement of capital.

These activities may produce an increased yield but actually that yield is being purchased at the cost of lower gross PRODUCTIVITY. (Productivity is a measure of the sum of all living activity in a system)

In a variable climate like Australia it also adds to risk. The risks are socially, economically and ecologically unpalatable.
In the last thirteen years, Eastern Australia, has been dogged by eight dry years, two wet harvests and a frost.

However the most concerning aspect of this industrial model is a spiral downwards to increasing percentages of agricultural landscapes losing complexity, carbon, mass and diversity of life.

To survive as a species we will need more life not less, complexity increasing, not decreasing. Complexity is the model adopted over 3.5 billion years of life, by the natural ecosystems on which we rely for our existence.

Individually we will probably need to make do with less if those not yet born are to have access to the things we take for granted. Stable landscapes, clean air and water, living communities able to self replace at very low cost, less dependence on high energy inputs.

We do really already know how to deliver landscapes increasing in diversity at low or almost no cost. Certainly in grazing businesses, those managing holistically are achieving some impressive results in terms of less stress, more stable businesses and increasing diversity and stability in farm landscapes.
Achieving what is needed in crop farming is not so easy, but the development of pasture cropping is a way forward full of possibilities.

Human creativity has shown us capable of incredible ingenuity.
The lessons of how we should behave are right there in the model of how nature arranges her affairs.

Some more mimicry of that model would give cause for hope and optimism.