A revolution in agriculture improves prospects for conservation

David Teather, Emeritus Professor and long-standing NPA member

It’s not surprising that attention on nature conservation in Australia is focused on the 8% of the total land area of the country that is reserved for conservation purposes. But what about the much larger proportion, 54% of the total, that is used for livestock grazing? Smaller proportions are used for other forms of agriculture (4%), and forestry (2%).

Different land uses often form a patchwork, and the ways in which adjacent land patches are managed affect their neighbours. Think of the spread of wildling pines into grassland, of runoff from land disturbed by mining, or of dust storms that sometimes carry topsoil from inland Australia into the Bight or the Tasman Sea.

In his recent and widely acclaimed book, “Call of the Reed Warbler: a new agriculture, a new earth,” Charles Massy describes and analyses fundamental changes in grazing and other agricultural practices. These changes have the potential, if adopted more widely, to make farmland itself much more valuable for nature conservation purposes, and to benefit land that is already designated as part of the conservation estate.

Massy’s book is complex. Nevertheless, it is easy to read, difficult to put down. He writes engagingly and perceptively about farmers and farming practices, and closely observes the natural world. Importantly, the structure of the book enhances the readers’ ability progressively to grasp the essential elements of nothing less than an agricultural revolution.

The book focuses on “regenerating five landscape functions”, under the headings solar energy, water, soil minerals, dynamic ecosystems, and the human-social aspect of landscape functioning.
Massy starts with fundamentals. For example, the primary task of the farmer is to maximise the amount of energy captured by photosynthesis. This means maximising the area of green foliage exposed to the sun throughout the year.

However, the main theme of “Call of the Reed Warbler” is to explain and demonstrate alternatives to the currently dominant paradigm of industrial agriculture. This dominant paradigm drastically simplifies the natural environment, typically replacing it with monocultures that are maintained only by the application of massive amounts of pesticides, artificial fertilisers and fossil fuels.

Dissatisfied with these shortcomings, Massy draws on his own experience of incrementally modifying his farming practices over several decades. He also presents a wealth of case studies of graziers, broadacre farmers, and market gardeners, mostly in Australia but some overseas, who are evolving viable alternatives to the dominant industrial model.

One example is his 10-page account of Tim Wright’s farm, ‘Lana’, on the New England Tablelands of NSW. Inspired by Holistic Resource Management, written by Zimbabwean, Allan Savory, Tim Wright began subdividing his grazing paddocks in 1990. Today he has over 300 paddocks, averaging 20 acres, and plans to make them smaller still. By better grazing management, particularly in times of drought, he is able to avoid overgrazing and improve grass utilisation. His soils have become deeper, releasing more nutrients and storing more water, and biodiversity has increased.

Massy visited ‘Lana’ after several years of drought, when most neighbours were agisting their sheep and cattle elsewhere. But ‘Lana’ was still supporting record stock numbers. “I witnessed a farm humming with life, diversity, vibrant energy, much greenness and an exudation of health.”

“…. the entire farm was a beautifully managed landscape of linked shelter belts. …. Linking to the vegetated hills, shelter belts curved along contours and in turn linked to vegetated riparian zones and to open flats and their clumps of timber. …. One-third of ‘Lana’ consisted of timber belts and forested hills. The result was magnificent biodiversity, across all organism types. Platypus lived in the creeks, and koalas, wallabies, echidnas, kangaroos, possums, marsupial gliders and a rich variety of birds and other creatures lived and moved across the rest of the farm.”

This complexity of natural and semi-natural ecosystems gives them resilience, both above ground and in the soil. Insects and microbes abound. Complex webs of interdependence act as buffers against sudden changes, giving protection against pests and plagues. Plant cover and porous soils resist physical erosion. Natural fertility replaces artificial fertilisers. Natural control mechanisms replace pesticides. Costs and risks are reduced, and long-term resilience is increased.

In sum, better understanding of ecosystem functioning improves farming practices.
As yet only a minority of farmers are doing things differently, but the number and variety of cases presented in this book are encouraging. It is clear from the explanations given for the changes described, that similar conditions for change exist on many Australian farms and that much benefit would come from their wider application.

Already, practitioners of Allan Savory’s holistic management approach to grazing are managing an estimated 30 million hectares in New Zealand, Tasmania and NSW, Patagonia and USA, Sweden and Turkey.

Two years before the publication of “Call of the Reed Warbler”, another book containing 14 case studies of changes on Australian farms was published under the title “Against the Grain”. Written by Bill Hampel, this book focuses on ways in which selected farmers are adapting to climate change.

Sandwiched between a 20-page introduction to the science of climate change, and a 40-page conclusion on the inadequacy of our society’s current response, the intervening 150 pages present case studies of changes in farming practices that share much in common with the cases described in Massy’s longer, and differently focused, book.

Hampel, Bill (2015) “Against the grain: fourteen farmers adapt to climate change”, 280pp, Rosenberg Publishing, Dural
Massy, Charles (2017) “Call of the reed warbler: a new agriculture, a new earth”, 588pp, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia
Emeritus Professor David Teather has worked in universities in Australia, China, England and New Zealand.

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