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

Published in the Sunday Times

Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth *****
Charles Massy, Chelsea Green, R500

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 counter-intuitive”, 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 solar-energy cycle, the water cycle, the soil-mineral 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?” @bronsibree

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