Author Talk with Charles Massy

Author Talk with Charles Massy
Call of the Reed Warbler
Talks / Lecture

Recording date: 
3 October 2017

Charles Massy was once like many farmers, unknowingly contributing to the decline of the soil through the use of chemicals. He is now a radically eco-minded farmer who has carefully nursed a 2,000-hectare property back to natural health. He reveals the real story of industrial agriculture and the global profit-obsessed corporations driving it.

In association with University of Queensland Press  


*Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Genevieve Jacobs (G), Charles Massy (C)

*Audience: (A) – no mic

*Location: National Library of Australia

*Date: 3rd October 2017



K:        Hello and good evening, thank you for joining us here at the National Library at the end of a beautiful, beautiful spring day. For those of you who don’t know me my name’s Kathryn Favelle and I’m the Director of Community Outreach here at the Library.

Tonight we’re going to be thinking quite deeply about how we care for the land that we live on and so I’d like to begin this evening by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for it so that we now have the privilege to call it home.

Charles Massey has spent his life caring for the land too, he completed a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and Human Ecology at the ANU before beginning a career farming the land for 35 years and developing the prominent merino sheep stud, Severn Park, near Cooma. In 2009 Charlie completed his PhD in human ecology at the ANU and his research inspired his book, Breaking the Sheep’s Back. Despite documenting the $10b collapse of the wool industry somehow he was awarded an Order of Australia for his services to that industry. If only it were so simple for the rest of us.

Now he’s turned a forensic eye on how we farm and grow our own food and his new book, Call of the Reed Warbler, offers a way for us to secure the future of our food supply, our country and our planet.

Joining Charlie this evening is a much loved friend of the National Library, Genevieve Jacobs. I know you all know Genevieve as a presenter on 666ABC Canberra and you may have heard her speak at one of our many events. Please join me in welcoming Charles Massy and Genevieve Jacobs.


G:        Kathryn, thank you so much. Good evening to you all, a very warm welcome from me too and it’s with great pleasure that I’m here this evening to lead this conversation with Charlie about this beautifully titled, beautifully written book, Call of the Reed Warbler, A New Agriculture, A New Earth. Part lyrical descriptions of landscape, part in-depth examination of big, desperately important issue about how we farm, how we feed ourselves and part hope too, hope for a time of some trouble at the dawn of the anthropocene. Charlie, welcome.

C:        Thanks Genevieve and thanks to everyone for coming as well.

G:        Now we will have time for some of your questions a little later on but I’m going to kick off the conversation, just a word of organisation there. When we do get to the part of the questions just wait for a microphone so we’ll have microphones ‘round and that’ll enable everyone in this big room to hear one another well.

Charlie, woven through the book like signposts there are these staggeringly beautiful descriptions of your country down the road a bit. I’m just going to read maybe a sentence or two from right at the very back and this is about Buckley’s Lake or what the Ngarigo people still know as Lake [Bundawinderi] 3:04 and this description is about a passage of crows taking off from their grub hunting.

They gravitate up high, their blackness becomes framed against the light blue lake and sky, the deep blue hills and the creamy grass heads and variegated brown landscape, a [treroscaro] 3:16 of colour and movement but what my eye finally turns to is a land bedecked in silk, a million glistening spider webs, virtually one to each grass clump. It’s like a primeval scaffold that cloaks and entwines the landscape, a silken song line connecting the earth and sky, horizon to horizon.


G:        Talk to me about how and why you are bound and tied to that place, how it’s dug into your heart.

C:        Well I guess I grew up on the farm, I’ve been there all my life. As an only child I spent a lot of time alone and out in the bush. I didn’t always have that immediate sensibility in the midst of my career but I was always a keen naturalist, I had a wonderful primary school teacher that got me into ornithology and I guess anyone who knows the Monaro, it’s just a gorgeous grassland landscape. We’ve got sort of main range of the mountains behind and we’ve got probably 20% of the farm at least and we’re building that of native bush and variety. And you just can’t help being impacted by it. It’s interesting, Genevieve, I just had a walk – well it’s upstairs – [Peter Drum Rothcar’s] 4:44 wonderful photos, it’s just extraordinary and he – and there’s a film running with it and he said something about going out into the wilderness to find yourself and then when you come back it’s like coming home with that wilderness in you.

And I guess what I'm writing about in the book is how with the way we – a lot of us now farm, we’ve lost touch with where we came from which – I mean we coevolved in this extraordinary landscape, not necessarily Australia but a similar Gondwana landscape as hunter-gatherers in Africa and I don’t think you can deny that, it’s sort of deep-wired in us. And yet I ended up coming home at the age of 22 to take over the farm when my father had a heart attack and I didn’t – you don’t know anything about management just ‘cause you grow up on a farm and so I asked around who are the best farmers and scientists, Department of Ag so it’s pretty much inculcated into the industrial farming.

So on the one hand - I was sort of schizophrenic, I loved my birds but I then started to maltreat the soil and the grasslands and it wasn’t until further on on the journey that I came full circle to valuing all of it. And I think just to finish, the way you come to that, if you start – instead of examining the landscape as some substrate that you can extract product from, I think the shift to regenerative farming is you understand how it works and functions and suddenly you’re thinking ecologically and all these other parameters from the micro to the insects to the grassland comes into your perspective again.

G:        I think the land has a huge amount to reveal of itself and it’s very interesting in the beginning of the book to read about the way that you were able to see the land and see you through the eyes of Rod Mason?

C:        Mm.

G:        Friend who’s a Ngarigo elder and so talk to me about that deep love of country from quite differing starting places.

C:        Yes, Rod Mason is a senior law man with our local Aboriginal people and the last I suppose seven or eight years I’ve got to know him and I'm certainly not out of kindergarten phase with him, he – I think he thinks I’m a very slow learner but it’s been quite wonderful to interact with a senior indigenous person who knows country inside out and I mean he’s even got memory that goes back – he can describe to me, and I haven’t heard this in anthropology anywhere, he can describe to me how they went about hunting megafauna and extinct species that were sort of – he can describe them that are since lost. And – but his knowledge of country, we get him every year now to run burning workshops, cool autumn burns to stimulate landscape and he comes other than that as well and it’s just there – he’s always saying to me you don’t own country, country owns you and it’s what you’re getting at in the first question, I think, it’s – a lot of these top regenerative farmers, you often hear the comment listen to the land and I think after a while as that passage describes you start to perceive things differently and more intensely.

G:        But as you said when you began farming as a young bloke of just 22 you would have said you loved the land no less passionately but you hardly understood it at all. Now what changed? Take me through the motivations for change.

C:        And I think what you’re saying is - I think most farmers I know, whether they’re industrial or regenerative, love the land they’re on, they don’t regard it as an enemy but whether they understand how it works is the key issue as you’ve just asked. I guess I had ecological training and I then went away and got involved in the wool industry and other things and so when I came back to uni after 35 years I had a huge catch-up, particularly in the ecological area. I think the one great development that really impacted me amongst many but this one stands out is the knowledge in the last 20 or so years about complex adaptive systems which has come out of computer theory and chaos theory and stuff. The fact that from the earth down to you know a local patch of ground natural systems have a capacity when disturbed to self-organise themselves back to a state of health or at least resilient stability and they pop up solutions that are tried and tested called emergent properties and that just struck me.

And so from that I guess then studying these regenerative farmers and why they’d changed what I realised I guess through my own journey of having been blind to it was having done soil science at – in the early ‘70s and then again in the late 2000s both courses taught chemistry and physics about the soil which is you know important, you’ve got to understand structure and [cat ions] 10:08 and all that but there’s nothing about this living biology. And so I eventually realised – and if I was the average farmer you go and sit through a - chemistry and physics, your eyes glaze over in five minutes because you’re probably not equipped. And one of the leaders in regenerative agriculture is Zimbabwean ecologist, Allan Savoury, who’s developed this holistic grazing that’s now 30 million and more worldwide and he came up with four basic landscape functions and I’ve added a fifth, the human social which is as one farmer said the square foot of real estate up here. And so that’s basically the solar energy drives everything and our job is to maximise that and then you’ve got the water cycle and the soil mineral and the biodiversity component, all your complex pest controls and insects and all that.

So I guess the book in a way is a journey through lots and lots of stories of describing how those basic functions work and that’s – it’s sort of a tool that I think farmers can grab hold of.

G:        I’m going to ask a farmer’s question now. I always reckon that you learn by doing so what did you bugger up?

C:        I can tell you all the mistakes, Genevieve. Genevieve is a farming girl, by the way, I used to do their sheep work over 20 years ago.

I guess the one that I still feel terrible about was early in my career I was right into putting in improved pastures and we’ve got a range of country at home but the light country which is metamorphic, probably about half a billion year old leached soils is a bit sandy and I went up in this confident mood and ploughed this paddock and I was going to put in pasture from our lambing paddock. But as I drove home after two days’ work I said gee, I hope we don’t get a storm so that was a gambler’s pun. And we got a storm and I – took me half a day to shovel all the soil and dirt off the fence and I can still see the runnels in the paddock you know a thousand years of topsoil probably went through that mistake.

And the other big one I guess which I think all of us have done and it’s what’s destroyed our landscape really is what we call set stocking. You put your animals in a paddock and they stay there if not half the year, certainly far too long and what they’re doing is eating out the sweetest grasses which tends to be you know your valuable perennials and in no time you lose the deep-rooted plants and then the whole thing falls to bits so I can catalogue plenty of mistakes.

G:        So through making mistakes you began to change your mind to learn to be open to observation and let’s look at some of the bigger ideas that have come out of that that you’ve formulated about agriculture and how it’s been applied in Australia and one of the fundamentals in the book are these principles of the organic and the mechanical mind and we then come to the emergent mind but there’s this extraordinary inherent tension that you set up which has got a historical precedent to do with the timing of European settlement in Australia. Explain that to me.

C:        Yes well I guess it’s one of the things I looked at in my thesis. It’s ironic that agriculture was developed about 11, 12,000 years ago and it’s really agriculture that’s led to human civilisation and the scientific revolution and all that and prior to that – and even in a way up to the medieval period if you look at some of the paintings of [Broyals] 13:49 and others, the organic mind was where indigenous and other communities saw themselves as part of earth and its natural systems, they didn’t see themselves as apart and mother earth and nurturing it was integral to their whole philosophy, the indigenous example in Australia a classic.

But as agriculture and human civilisation’s got going we increasingly came to see ourselves as a bit separate and what really tipped us into – and I’m not the one that’s invented the word, mechanical mind, Carolyn Merchant, a wonderful environmental historian and others talk about it. If you look at the scientific revolution and then the European enlightenment and the rise of capitalism what all those you know great scientists did from Bacon and [Dakar] 14:40 and the other mechanists and Newton and company was start to analyse how the world worked and it eventually came to be seen as sort of a – not quite a clockwork universe but a mechanistic universe that humans could then start manipulating so this animate substrate. And John Locke moved that into the societal approach to land becoming a tradeable commodity and Adam Smith took it onto everything we see today, growth, capitalism and neoliberal thinking and all that.

And so when Australia was settled by Europeans it was just at the end of that shift, that massive shift in the human mind to the mechanical mind and so these people who settled Australia just saw this exploitable resource and indigenous people were regarded as inferior and you still see it today. I give an example of that in the book of that environmental officer in northern New South Wales a couple of years ago who was shot because he was trying to stop people illegally clearing and the attitude of the guy that did the shooting was how dare you stop me doing what I want with this land?

And then what I found as I tried to understand what these leading regenerative farmers were doing, and I’m coming back to that idea of self-organisation, that they’d gone back to combine a sort of organic world view that we were part of mother earth but with the best of the mechanical mind, our understanding of ecology and all that. And so I’ve sort of called it an emergent mind but – which is not a static thing, it’ll always be evolving and it’s able to adjust and that’s – for want of a better interim term that’s the best I could come up with. But I’ve noticed in these leading regenerative farmers, and leading urban people involved in the food culture, there’s this new mind that combines the best of the both of those previous minds.

G:        And one of the problems about what you’re describing is that the systems of land and water, the function of landscape in Australia is in many ways utterly different to anywhere that the Europeans had come from or could recognise so it’s taken us two centuries to understand for example how water flows through the landscape, to be able to read the way that the land functions. So you’ve got this clash of introduced agriculture with a mechanical mindset on top of a landscape system that simply does not respond.

C:        That’s absolutely right, I mean we’re talking about two-thirds of Australia, the western shield being up to 3.8 billion years old, heavily leached, lot of underlying salt, dry interior continent and these farmers that brought agriculture to Australia came from a very young landscape, rich soils, humid atmosphere, much of it post-glacial as in western Europe and <inaudible> 17:38 and North American great plains, sort of only 12,000 years of rich soils and deep soils like the American prairies. So the technologies they brought to this fragile landscape which you know I tell a story in the book about finding a snake wrapped ‘round a rabbit which was screaming and go on to say well Tennyson talks about nature being read in tooth and claw and we’ve got that predator/prey relationship in Australia but we also have these long coevolved systems of recycling scarce nutrients and interactions between organisms that’s sort of symbiotic or mutual that shares scarce resources and it’s collaborative rather than you know a nature read in tooth and claw. So when the really dominant farming techniques and livestock came this landscape was just totally unsuited to those technologies and that thinking.

G:        So is the first thing that we need to understand how to read the landscape?

C:        Absolutely and that’s I guess why the book really with stories is about landscape literature – literacy, a capacity to read it and it’s you know I was blind, I didn’t realise what I was doing to native pastures and it’s – when it was really speaking to me to say you know it’s unhealthy and it was time to move stock or do something else or even sell a lot of stock so I think that’s – if nothing else comes out of the book and there’s other things to do with wonderful hope and solutions for the anthropocene challenge but if nothing else comes out I just hope it’s a practical tool for farmers. And having taught a few university courses and road-tested and spoke to a lot of farmer groups it does seem to be something that we can grab onto.

G:        You mention the five functions that you need to grasp for a regenerative process to occur for us to come into the middle of these disrupted systems and to try to work out how we can allow some balance to recur but there are a couple of really big ideas embedded in the book, epigenetics where both animals and humans are concerned and the idea of adaptive landscape genomics or how we and our animals adapt and interact with the landscape function. So talk to me about the significance first of all of epigenetics.

C:        Without boring people to death –

G:        No, they’re a riveted audience, go, epigenetics. They are.

C:        - and I'm no expert but I’ve chaired a company of molecular geneticists and knocked around with geneticists and did a bit so I guess what came out of all that is probably one of the great discoveries in the last 20 years is the idea that’s overthrown what was called the old central dogma that – which came out of the Watson and Crick analysis of DNA back in the ‘50s and ‘60s which was pretty linear, that genes coded for proteins and it was all one way. What recent work shows, what’s called epigenetics is that the environment impact on our genetic mechanisms and it can be expressed in one generation and it’s not doing it by changing DNA but by affecting the mechanisms that allow genes to be expressed, by switching them on and off, chemical processes. And this really relates to what we’ve done – I think it relates directly to modern human health issues because most of our industrial foods have sort of got very little of the original variety and depth and richness of nutrients that they should have let alone the chemicals and poisons we’re putting into that food and the processing that’s denaturing it.

So as we discuss later in the book the direct impacts of what we’re eating and experienced can be expressed very quick – I can give you a quick example in say the sheep world. A friend of mine did some work in Western Australia, they put a large mob of ewes onto saltbush and another mob of ewes onto neutral country, not saltbush and they put them on when the ewes had just got pregnant so the lambs inside were – it was only in utero for that five months. They then took them off the country and when they’d grown up and weaned not only did those lambs prefer the saltbush but they had changed in both structure and function, they were far more efficient at excreting excess salt and their renal structure, their kidneys had changed as well and that was a one-generation change and that’s – was passed on.

And what really twigged people to the power of epigenetics came out of the second world war. From about November 1944 to about April ’45 a lot of the Dutch population were starved pretty much by the Nazi regime and any women pregnant in that time down in future years when those babies that were in that period were born and grown up, they found that that generation of babies from that group of mothers had a lot more health issues, both mental and physical. So that was interesting in itself but what really started to rattle the sciences was the next generation, that the grandchildren of those mothers had similar issues so something from that uterine starvation had had major – and we’re not just talking physical, we’re talking you know mental issues.

So if you think that through, that what we eat and what we experience in a landscape can have an immediate effect epigenetically and maybe I just should give you an example, if you think about a musical keyboard it’s got about 88 keys on it – well it has got 88 keys so that’s your genome. But you can play a variety of hundreds of tunes on those keys which if you like is your environmental influence being expressed differently and that’s really what epigenetics is doing, it’s impacting, it’s a human playing different genes so that gives you an idea of – that’s an analogy that helps. Yeah but the big point I think is what we’re doing to our food through industrial agriculture and not just agriculture, the big food processors and everything else. And if you want to look at the escalation in modern diseases I think epigenetic factors are huge.

G:        So if we think about people who are willing to step outside the parameters of established agriculture, people who are willing to read the landscape function who can look at what you describe often through the book as coevolution and understanding how animals and landscape function together, who were these people? Who were the kind of regenerative farmers as you describe them who were willing to step outside the box and what do they have in common?

C:        There’s a few of them in this room.

G:        That does not surprise me in the least.

C:        And one of them, if he doesn’t mind me saying so, David Marsh, who’s up there and I was only thinking when you asked an earlier question ‘cause it’s a similar journey to me. I remember David saying a lot of the farmers that shifted, this big shift and especially in broader acre agriculture didn’t really occur until after the 1980 drought which was a real mind-changer and I think David’s term was it was a real head-cracker –

G:        It was a terrible drought, it was a hard, tough, really sudden –

C:        It was a five-year drought, it was mentally and physically draining and - but David then said and I – look, I’ll come to your question about the others in a minute, if you don’t mind me speaking for you, David, but he ended up through another course he was doing, doing a Meyers-Briggs personality test and he discovered he was actually biophilic, a lover of nature and he was into chemical farming at the time and he said that discordance eventually tripped him. But in my thesis I studied 80 of these farmers that had shifted and the interesting thing was – I looked at transformative change, the literature on learning and the states but in 60% of the cases of the farmers who’d done this huge world view shift, it was a major life shock that had cracked the carapace of their mind if you like you know marriage breakup or that drought or poisoned by chemicals or whatever.

Which I think was – which is really interesting and the other 40% you could say was a series of destabilisation or other personality issues maybe but that was a common factor and it’s across the board, it’s – the big acreage change has been holistic grazing which is a mimicking of the African grazing herds that’s been adapted to human management but there’s some wonderful examples of new cropping without chemical in Australian native grasslands and there might be one of the innovators here, Bruce Maynott, I think. Agroforestry and of course we’ve got the longest-running one of biodynamics of which there’s some excellent practitioners here today too and what’s called the new biological agriculture which is adapting that living soil thinking that’s come about, really, that understanding you know the last three, four decades so it’s across the spectrum but it’s been a major shift that’s tipped the Australian farmers across.

G:        But one of the things that flows from this though is the social function of farming and we both know this, many of the people you meet know that to change the way you farm is to run against the communal grain in a way that can be very isolating and very hard at a human level to do and you know I was having a yarn with my brother who Charlie knows very well just yesterday about this. He said huge numbers of farmers just want someone to tell them what to do, they just want to follow instructions. Socially this is really hard them to change, isn’t it?

C:        It is and that’s a really good point you make because what’s happened in Australia in the last 15, 20 years is the various state and federal departments have basically eliminated farm extension bodies in departments of agriculture etc. Is that the farmers now, the main advice they get if they’re into say cropping is the chemical company representatives or those for the big suppliers that are flogging it, that’s – and a number of the farmers I interviewed who’d switched said that you’re just totally dependent on the advice, they’ll write out the chemicals and how you go about it. Yeah so it’s a critical issue.

G:        Well it’s the neighbours as well though, isn’t it? It’s the neighbours who are not inquisitive about what you’re doing, who are not looking at what’s happening on your place, who are scratching their heads and saying well what’s gone wrong with Charlie? What does he think he’s up to?

C:        No, that’s right and you know you’ve got to – and there’s the pub pressure and all those things. The leading exponent who pioneered this grazing, Allan Savoury, he talks about the hundred-mile barrier, that it’s very rare for people in the district of one of these radical innovators to adopt what they’re doing because it’s an admission that you’ve been a failure in your own practice. Someone from outside the district can come in and copy it and be seen as an innovator.

But to get around what you’re saying in grazing and cropping and agroforestry there’s some wonderful organisations in Australia now who are very good at social learning, farmers in groups and academia calls it communities of practice so you’ve got a network where you learn but then you’ve got mentors and supporters that nourish you through that isolation and the attacks and yeah, it takes strength and courage to stand up. But I mean I think when you see the results and you’ve got your supportive peer group and - I mean the other big thing I’ve noticed about regenerative farmers is the excitement in what they’re doing again. It’s an open – it’s never going – it’s a never-ending learning journey, there’s an excitement about it and I remember my days more – not that I was into chemical farming – for only a couple of years but when I was belting the country, intuitively I think deep down you know it’s you know you’re not comfortable with it.

G:        We do go into some interesting territory here with the methods that are applied to regenerative farming. The people you meet will apply some very careful scientific filters but you also talk to people who believe in things like dowsing energy systems. Now I know you as a trained scientist as well as a farmer so in reading some of these examples I sensed a sort of alert observation but there’ll be people who say that’s just voodoo. How do you respond?

C:        Believe it or not I did a chapter on subtle energies which we decided might have been counterproductive to – I mean I think the target audience – one of the target audiences for this book – my publisher, Alex Payne, is smiling at the front – one of the target audiences, it’s sort of a general readership ‘cause it’s to do with human health but it’s farmers that are thinking about it and if you come in with what’s really a radical fringe in farming which is some of the ancient knowledge on energy and the landscape etc we thought that would be putting off but I use it – to find water at home I use a guy that’s a very good water diviner and he’s got about an 85% hit rate and I’ve done a bit myself so there’s – and that’s basic physics, it’s flow of energy and that sort of stuff but some of the – I wouldn't call them fringe but people looking at subtle energy, they’re looking at other sort of energies and I'm not ready to condemn it but it’s certainly out there.

G:        In the context of destructive agriculture being destructive to the human spirit as well which you touched on just a moment ago, tell me your thinking about those connections, about what it does to the human spirit to farm in a way that is inherently destructive to the land itself.

C:        I can only speak from my own experience because I mean there’s no way I want to be condemnatory of most farmers, I think most of them are trying their best to produce produce in a difficult environment with banks and all the rest of it and my own experience is this discordance increasingly developed and then when I saw what was going on I realised I had to change. I guess I go back to the fact that – idea you mentioned of coevolution, we did evolve in nature, we’re hardwired to detect all those nutrients etc that come from a fully productive diverse landscape with tens of thousands of phytochemicals and other minerals and all that sort of stuff which we’re denying now. And so when we step outside that I think deep down and intuitively and maybe even epigenetically it’s impacting us. I don’t know if this is valid but after having lived on the same piece of landscape all my life I can go into a paddock and peripherally a snow gum might have fallen over in a big wind and my mind will pick that up and I know other farmers the same and I think that might even go back to the fact that we were hunter-gatherers, we had to know that landscape and it sort of – it’s imprinted on your mind or something? So there’s lot of unknowns and deep sort of stuff that hasn’t been analysed that goes into what you’re asking in that question.

G:        Towards the end of the book you’re talking about the growing realisation that glyphosate, Roundup commercially, does persist in the food chain in ways we’re only just beginning to understand and of course glyphosate was one of the great promises of the last decades, that you could kill things that you didn’t want and that there’d be no effect, there’d be no consequence. We now know and we’ve known for some time that that’s not true. You talk about the hollow bind. Tell me what that means.

C:        The hollow bind is the combination of we humans with our gut microflora, the microbiome of which there are trillions of cells and a lot of leading molecular geneticists see the unit of evolution of us and all our bugs in our system because the genetics there is what interfaces with the environment as much as other parts of our body. So the step back from what you’re asking, in 1974 Monsanto patented glyphosate and then they had the brand name Roundup until it came off patent and then it became publicly available in the ‘70s and it – because of that we were – the shift to chemical farming that occurred in the late ‘80s and ‘90s was possible which in other words you could control weeds with a one or two-time spray without ploughing the soil and exposing it to erosion and stuff. And today it’s nearly selling a billion tons, it’s worth – 8-billion-dollar industry but in the last – and it’s revolutionised cropping agriculture and it’s also the basis of genetically modified foods that now put genes into a lot of the main cereals and other varieties that are resistant to the spray and ironically they’re actually using more spray because they’re using it now to help ripening and other factors.

But in the last 10 or 12 years or longer but if you tried to research that glyphosate was actually having a huge impact on human health, particularly through the gut – immune system, you’d lose your tenure very quickly in an American university, Monsanto and their mates are that powerful. But the truth’s now coming out from both soil scientists and recently there’s been a state of papers, a major review paper of about 300 biomedical and medical papers that shows that glyphosate has a huge impact on our gut microbiome, coming back to your question, it interferes with a pathway in the bacteria for the synthesis of amino acids and these two scientists that reviewed these 300 papers say it’s probably the most dangerous chemical we’ve ever had in the environment. We now know it is in our modern foods off industrial landscapes, the cereals and all the others, the big chemical companies are denying that but it’s definitely proven. I mean a German – at the Munich Beer Fest last year they were shock, horror when they found the top 12 beers had glyphosate residue in them. And so that is now coming in, it’s not just destroying the soil biology but it’s coming into our foods and these scientists conclude by saying it’s probably implicated in most of the major modern diseases from heart attack, cancer – not the primal cause but a major factor and especially you know the immune diseases as well.

G:        And I think what that goes to if we sort of draw all these threads together is that we are all part of a functioning ecosystem for good or for ill and get the balance right and it’s about physical and mental wellbeing for us, the animals and the landscape. Get it wrong and I’ll go back to saying you’ve buggered it up for everything.

C:        Absolutely. I guess what we’re saying is we’re now witnessing a fruits of the mechanical mind which is a reductionist simplistic approach to our landscapes and divorcing ourselves from them and if we start to think about our animals, our plants, ourselves and the landscape you’ve got to do it holistically ‘cause everything is interrelated.

G:        I'm going to turn over to questions from you in a moment but Charlie, in terms of practical viability, can what you’re suggesting work for an average Australian farm carrying a bit of debt, farming family wants to have a reasonable life as well as a reasonable income. Does this only work if you are debt-free or willing to live like a church mouse?

C:        We had a fair debt when we swung over and when you do go cold turkey and turn off the tap on industrial fertilisers and chemicals it takes a while before your healthy cells get going. The best examples I’ve seen is a tripling of income because you’re slashing costs and say with holistic grazing some of the best examples, say one of them, the old person who’s been doing it the longest in New England has gone turning off the tap - and they were pioneers of superphosphate and those things – turning off the tap in the early ‘90s and they had 8,000 sheep on granite country up there, he’s now running 22,000 sheep on his <inaudible> 39:09.

G:        And this is one of the Wrights, one of the great grazing dynasties from Australian history.

C:        It is, it is. The cropping innovations are a bit different because they don’t have the yields of full-on input but the resilience and you know there’s a couple in Western Australia who in the midst of that horrific run of drought years went from 1,600 hectares to 30,000 so they were growing while everything else was going into debt and half the wheat farms in Western Australia are in debt. But I’m not going to guild the lily, it depends on how well you do it and it’s not quick. But ultimately if done properly I’ve got no doubt it’s profitable and resilient.

G:        So finally what happens when you do fix your farm? What are you creating in a holistic sense when that happens?

C:        You’re creating – I’ll just give you one example before I answer that generally - there’s a shining example in the Barkly tableland in Northern Territory where a friend of mine – unfortunately since died but he’d learnt about holistic grazing and he saw the opportunity, he bought 2.5 million acres, it was 180km top to bottom, he got hold – I mean not everyone can do this but he persuaded a big retailer in Singapore and Australia to put in 40 million and so they divided the whole property with water which was what was lacking and he’s now gone from 15,000 cows from 85, 90,000 cows with a healthier landscape because instead of flogging around the waters everything is holistically, ecologically grazed and the waterbirds have come back and when we visited them and the plains bustards are flying and – that’s a social revolution because it would support now seven or eight families and there’s a lot of indigenous communities up there so the simplifications are huge there. But overall – so what was the gist –

G:        What happens on your farm when you fix it and maybe that draws us to the title which is the call of the reed warbler which is the capacity of the land to fix itself and what you create when you allow that process to unfold?

C:        I was advised not to give these side examples to start with.

G:        I feel like it’s a yarn in the pub you know I feel like we’re sort of having a good yarn over a beer.

C:        From my experience and others it’s - your whole meaning of life changes. Every day you can’t wait to get out, you’re starting to read a landscape and its health or react to it if it’s dry. In our case and lots of cases because you’ve introduced a lot more diverse vegetation, both mixed storey in tree breaks or plots or in your grassland you're seeing huge amounts more wildlife and birds and insects. In our case we used to get ravaged by wingless grasshoppers every five, six years, now we haven’t had any because the whole ecology’s working. I think – and socially that Northern Territory example is one of the implications of doing it properly, it’s – the great madness of big industrial farming and these giant machines that are clearing country and – is the displacement of rural people. So often I hear the story when I was a kid there was 30 kids on our school bus, now there’s either two or there’s no school because there’s no room for the labourers anymore and a lot of ecological farming - it’s not just big acres, it’s small acres as well – it’s more labour-intensive and you know there’s an urban revolution going on in gardening and people are coming back and the communities are rebuilding through good food and this learning process. So there’s a lot of upside.

G:        Let’s go to your questions. Now we’ve got a microphone, just pop your hand up and we’ll get the microphones to you. We’ll go to you first just here. Yeah. And just if you yeah wait to get the microphone so we can all hear the question.

A:        Thanks, Charlie, I’ve only just started to read the book but I'm sure it’s going to be a classic. A few years ago I was at an ANU event at [Ciolo] 43:33 and there are some early adopters there and a frightening thing that stuck in my mind was that a few of these farmers were saying that they were regarded as heretics and they couldn’t get bank loans you know they were having to tell lies because this was such a bizarre process to go through. Hopefully your book will start to address that but is there any advance on that at all?

G:        I think it depends. Talking about some of the big banks, partly. I think it’s changing a bit, there might be others in the audience who could answer that better. I can give you an example, the couple I mentioned in Western Australia who’ve through biological means - have got this extraordinary new farming system where you can get grain crops out of five or six-inch rain and they were the only ones doing it and much higher quality grain. They work for one of the - they work with one of the big banks ‘cause they’ve been expanding and the managing director of this bank said we’re going to have to start working with you because the indebted structure in West Australian wheat farming, we’re not game to foreclose or there’ll be a domino effect. And so that bank is starting to work. I think it’s shifting because we’re now sort of – early ‘90s, we’re 20, 25 years into more and more examples and some of your leading training organisations have put 5, 10,000 farms through training now. It doesn’t mean they’re all adopting but it’s – I think it’s more – a lot more familiar and I haven’t heard that story recently but I'm sure it’s still going on because they would also be seeking advice from the big – your Landmarks and your Elders who provide the advice and are still locked in the mechanical, industrial paradigm so I might have been at that meeting and I hear what you’re saying, yeah.

G:        I think regrettably it is actually still happening and again I grew up near West Wyalong and the banking there is geared towards people having huge turnover, that’s what the banks want to see. They don’t want to see a modest sustainable profit, they want to see a massive investment in equipment and a massive investment in chemicals and if you go bust at the end of it well so be it but it’s that kind of turnover of profits, it’s really invidious, it’s dreadful.

C:        The other big issue is, and it’s driven by some of the big accountancy and other management firms which – what the ecologists would call, they don’t do full resource accounting, they look at all the costs except ecology, they miss one of the biggest parameters and so they’re just looking on what they call [roam] 46:03 return on assets managed or whatever, some narrow economic criteria and yet they’re another driver of – probably resisting this change.

G:        More questions. We’ll go to yeah you there. No, yeah, you here. Yeah, you. You who are speaking to me with your hand up, we’re giving you the microphone.

A:        Charlie, I read somewhere and I think it might have been in your thesis about big agriculture, big chemical industry putting an app in schools that kids could learn farming by using this app which was if you used heaps of chemicals then you made this amount of money and then you could buy that amount of machinery and so it was really inculcating those practices with those children, I assume they were probably in rural areas. Now I’m wondering is there any hope of developing something similar that would help the young people who may one day become farmers learn about this kind of approach to land management?

C:        Thanks, Jennifer, that’s a really good question. Yes, there’s a couple of programs that I encountered in my research. I was actually – it wasn’t in my research and in this occasion I was servicing a long-term ram client and there – he had kids at the local primary school, there was only about 25 kids in this school but they were all farming, it was in the middle of a farming district and yes, there was this program that all the kids loved on the computers which the school had bought for them, built and designed by big German machinery companies and one of the big chemical companies where basically they taught from seven, eight-year-old up to be big trader and buyers of big machines and do the chemical spraying so you talk about an inculcation or indoctrination in a paradigm and I’ve seen another program since. And I mean we’re talking about the big end of town and know how to play all the games and you don’t – one of the things I did in my thesis was go through the ads in the big rural papers and you could see the power of the psychologist in touching all the buttons that attracted farmers to buying into them.

G:        And the machinery is just huge as well as the chemicals, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of machinery in that kind of acquisitive way that’s – yeah, it’s just like the reward system’s all firing. Yeah, to you, yeah. Just get the microphone to you.


A:        We’re attempting holistic management on our grazing property near Bungendore and as you know one of the important thing is to rest country and unfortunately the kangaroos are not obeying the fences and the explosion in kangaroo numbers around here is making it almost impossible so we’ve either got to fence them out which hardly seems holistic, or we’ve got to shoot them but with the shooting we’re having to pay the shooters and a lot of them are rotting in the paddock because the commercial industry is not really operating very much around here. I think the nearest chillers are at Hay or Dubbo and so it seems like the demand for kangaroo meat in Australia is so soft that it’s readily supplied now only by shooting males. The meat industry will not take any females so that’s hardly a solution to the management problem with kangaroos. I’m just wondering have you got any thoughts on how we can rev up the kangaroo harvesting in the country?

C:        A good question. What you’ve just told me is repeated district, region after region after region. We’re the same at home and unfortunately as you know with holistic management ‘cause you’re resting paddocks and they’re usually more hydrated and green the kangaroos know exactly where your next paddock is you’re going to make the move and they’re there first. And the issue behind that is that – I think it was Tim Flannery said that Leichardt or one of the guys that traversed up through Queensland hardly mentioned a kangaroo and he said well you know there’s a bipedal predator that was very efficient at the time and since then we’ve put in water and a lot more green feed and anyone who knows the breeding biology of macropods it’s like pressing the accelerator button on breeding. And then the complicating issue, and this is again because we don’t think biologically and holistically as part of a landscape, we sort of look at it in isolated issues, I mean recently there was a big contract potential for one of the best meats in the world which is lean protein, ‘roo meat and it was killed by some extreme animal welfare people so that big contract into California was killed ‘cause people I don’t believe understood the full issues. It’s a complex issue but it’s proving a real headache for all of us, yeah.

G:        We’re also missing apex predators in the system, though, aren’t we?

C:        Well that’s right.

G:        Yeah and you know it’s a system of ecosystem malfunction in some senses that we’ve got this exploding thing because we’ve you know we’re absent the dingoes and –

C:        And in a world that’s crying out for good protein I mean it’s crazy, it’s crazy. The export potential is huge.

G:        Probably one last question just up the back there, yeah, we’ll get the mic up to you.

A:        Hi Charlie, you talked before about a large proportion of the farmers that you interviewed having been through some kind of major crisis, be it a personal crisis or through a drought or something like that so one farmer at a time that change has occurred. I don’t think that our environment or our society can actually afford for that process to occur one farmer at a time given the evidence that you’ve just sort of discussed about the impacts of herbicides and also the impacts we see on the environment day to day just being out there. Obviously no-one’s going to have the – sort of the simple golden answer but I mean what are your thoughts? How do we try and make this change occur as a collective as opposed to one at a time?

G:        Yeah, another really good question. You can’t force it, I know that. I think it’s going to require the full lid being blown on things like glyphosate. Undoubtedly as we move into increasing climate disruption that’s going to the anthropocene, we’re going to have a lot more variable seasons and people are going to start getting sick of crop losses and wondering why lot of the regenerative systems are more resilient. There’s a lot of good people in the industry scratching their heads on how to speed it up and I think it’s just going to have to be an organic process. Maybe it’ll get to critical mass but it – we’re up against some of the really powerful multinationals who have a lot invested in making sure there isn’t a shift. But I'm – nevertheless I’m optimistic, I know that as the pressure comes on with these anthropocene challenges that this has to be the way to go and I think if there’s food issue, if we can connect to the urban people on the nutrient density and health of food coming off these healthy, vibrant, biologically alive soils that – that will start to cut through as well.

A:        What about education?

C:        Yes, if it’s allowed in basic –

G:        It’s hard to challenge this thinking, it’s really hard in agricultural institutions as we know them and we’ve grown up in, it’s very hard to challenge the dominant paradigm. Charlie, I have known you for many years as a mentor and friend to my family. Thank you, the book is so wide-ranging, it’s a wonderful response to landscape that is about hope and maybe a path towards the future. Thank you and I’m going to hand over to Kathryn Favelle for the official thanks.

C:        Thanks Genevieve.

K:        Thank you, thank you for those great questions and for a wonderful conversation. I think one thing that we could do to help make change happen a bit faster is to buy copies of Charlie’s book. Maybe even buy one to give your local member to help educate them and spread the word as widely as you possibly can.

Tonight is almost the first conversation that we hope Charlie’s book will inspire so if you know people who would like to hear Charlie’s story and to benefit from it you know where to find him, invite him to your community, to your farm, to your family and let him evangelise for all of us. It’s been a night of really big ideas and I'm sure there’s lots more thinking and talking that we can do.

Tonight wouldn’t be possible of course without publishers like University of Queensland Press who publish great Australian writing and help us to showcase it here at the National Library so thank you to UQP, thank you so much to Genevieve for being part of the conversation tonight and of course none of this would have happened without Charlie facing that dreadful white screen of the computer and putting all his learning down on the page for use. Please join us upstairs but please thank Charlie Massy.


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