Book Review: Call of the Reed Warbler by Charles Massy

A few months ago, I decided to read a book which was a bit outside of my normal reading topics. It was called Call of the Reed Warbler by Charlie Massy. It’s about the concept of regenerative agriculture – a new type of agriculture which aims to improve farming yields in the long-term by improving soil health and working with the environment rather than the conventional methods which seem to work against it. As environmental historian Cameron Muir puts it:

There is a dimension of ‘war’ about the way settler Australians have approached their land – understanding it as ‘mongrel country’, rather than a functioning ecosystem poorly adapted to the expectations of Western agriculture … The same society that executed massacres caused ecological degradation on the nineteenth-century grasslands.

There are many different communicators on the subject of regenerative agriculture. Some are more technical in nature, while others look at the stories and the people behind the successes. Some focus on the potential increased profit for the farmers, while others focus on the benefits of the consumers and again more on the impacts on the environment and society at large. Charlie Massy’s book seems to be a balance between all of these approaches. Instead of delving too deeply into the technical detail, he explains some technique while still telling the stories behind the people executing the concepts. He explores not only the potential benefits for the farmer and consumer, but also the environment and society. Without having read too many books on the subject, I can surmise that this is an introductory book, outlining many different paths to follow in order to engage with the subject more deeply. In reading this book, I’ve found about a hundred different concepts, books, studies and lectures that I want to delve into to learn more about the subject. I would take a bet that this was exactly the purpose of such a book.

Now that the review of the book itself is out of the way, I can take some time to explain the concepts.

The meat of the book is structured to talk about five landscape functions. They are the solar energy function, the water cycle, the soil-mineral cycle, dynamic ecosystems and the human-social impact. The first four landscape functions come from the work of Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean farmer who is the pioneer of holistic grazing. Massy added the fifth function, the human-social impact to reflect the importance of the people who farm the land and farming’s relationship with broader society.

The first landscape function, the solar energy function, is concerned with using plants as solar factories covered in chloroplasts which are essentially tiny solar panels. If we can capture more of this solar energy, we can use it to create better soils, increasing our yields, storing carbon and producing healthier crops all at the same time. In this section, Massy tells the story of Tim Wright, a farmer in New South Wales, who turned to regenerative agriculture through the drought in the 1980s. By the drought of the 1990s, he had massively improved his yield and was performing far better than his traditional farming neighbours. This is one of the many stories of transition to regenerative practices which are triggered by extremely difficult times, such as drought or chemical poisoning.

The second landscape function, the water cycle, is all about keeping water in the land rather than allowing it to run off, taking precious topsoil with it. Increased run-off means less penetration of water into the soil, and the deep roots and ground cover that are so important lose protection. This leads to more evaporation and less plant growth, as well as less stable rivers after extreme rain events. In this section, Massy explores the work of P.A. Yeomans, an Australian farmer who developed the Keyline method which uses the contours of the landscape in order to keep water in the soil rather than having it wasted through run-off. This is a similar concept to the terracing method that is used extensively both in South America and in many East Asian countries. He also looks at the work on Peter Andrews, who uses a technique called Natural Sequence Farming which aims to produce similar results by storing water. This passage was one of my favourites from this section, quoting Peter Andrews:

“A farmer gets three things for nothing,’ he explained, ‘air, sunlight and water. Everything else farmers pay for. You would think, then, that the logical thing for farmers to do would be to concentrate on making the most of the things they get for nothing.”

The third landscape function is the soil-mineral cycle. This one discusses the importance of soil health in agriculture. As Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, “a nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself”. This is where the soil microbiome comes into play – a complex system of billions of tiny organisms in the soil. This chapter was one of the more complicated for me to understand, but there are plenty of resources which I am going to explore in the future to get a better grasp on these concepts. This chapter tells the story of a few different farmers, such as Colin Seis, Daryl Cluff working on the Winona farm in NSW and Bruce Maynard, who encourages people to take a 100-year view of agriculture rather than the immediate returns that traditional agriculture seems to focus on. This is one thing that many of these thinkers seem to have in common in regenerative agriculture – they are not short-term thinkers but long-term thinkers and broad thinkers. Rather than being focused on just one goal of profit, they are focused on broader goals like the environment and soil health – the paradox is that even in the relatively short-term, these farmers are more profitable.

The fourth landscape function, and the final one in Allan Savory’s work, is dynamic ecosystems. In keeping with this broad-based thinking, this function refers to the fact that farming is not just about growing cattle or harvesting a crop, but instead about managing several ecosystems and their relationships with each other. In this chapter, the importance of regenerative farmers building relationships with indigenous firestick farmers is stressed. Another book, mentioned in this one, which goes into indigenous farming techniques in great detail is Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe – a truly eye-opening book on some of the great misconceptions about pre-1788 Australia.

The fifth landscape function, and the one which Charlie Massy has added to Savory’s four, is the role of the people in this regeneration. The biggest determining factor is not in the soils or in the grasslands but in people’s minds, that is farmers and consumers alike. If we can muster the human will to change our agricultural practices, there are huge benefits to be had. Not just for the environment, but for the farmers themselves and for the health of our community. Massy talks about there being two vested interests stopping many farmers from making the change: one is money, which is obvious (and which is a misnomer anyway), and the other being pride, which is less obvious but just as powerful.

In all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone at all, even if you don’t have a particular interest in agriculture. It’s always good to understand where your food comes from and the different methods by which it can be made, and there are also lessons to be learned if you want to grow a small veggie patch in your backyard. Anyway, Charlie Massy is a legend and you should read this book. Seeya.

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