The story of the farmer is often seen as synonymous with the story of Australia. Australian history is dominated by farming heroes, from the tale of ‘The Man from Snowy River’ to the story of the 1891 sheep shearers’ strike. But today, the public view of farming is often of an industry dominated by outdated industrial techniques and thinking from the 1950s. The stereotypical farmer is conservative, backward and reluctant to change their ways to adapt to the realities of the 21st century.
But Charles Massy, author of the recently released book, ‘Breaking the Sheep’s Back’, which charts the collapse of the Australian wool industry, and a PhD student at the Fenner School of Environment & Society, says that farmers across Australia are challenging this view. For Massy, Australian farmers are at the forefront of using innovative techniques that are revolutionising the way they work.
“Everyone knows that land degradation is a major issue in Australia, yet little has been done to effectively address it,” says Massy. “These innovative farmers are changing their practices on a number of levels to tackle this issue and increase the health of their land. For example, some of the most basic techniques include reducing overgrazing, improving soil health, increasing biodiversity, and planting trees and edible shrubs in the landscape. Beyond this, many are now using animal energy, through planned animal grazing and animal grazing of crops, to significantly reduce or eliminate the use of fossil fuels or chemicals on their land. One of the most interesting cases I’m looking at is called holistic grazing management. Rather than animals being left in one paddock, they are moved frequently around different paddocks in a flexible but planned manner. This allows the land and plants to get a lot of rest and recovery, which increases ground-cover and soil water absorption. I’ve seen farmers pretty much drought- proof themselves and increase productivity with this approach. It is revolutionary. These changes are about farming that suits the Australian landscape rather than trying to do it the other way around. It is about ensuring that we have healthy soils and functioning landscapes.”
Massy says that these techniques are also highly profitable, and could have a huge impact on Australian farming.
“Farmers have been increasingly using fossil fuels and chemicals since the industrial revolution.Removing or greatly eliminating fossil fuels and chemicals would therefore be revolutionary in terms of agricultural practice. There are also a range of other benefits to these practices. For example, this sort of grazing and cropping would have the ability to rehydrate the Murray-Darling Basin through increasing the soil health in the region. There are also implications for human health, with the reduction of chemicals making soils and food much healthier. This would have big knock-on effects for society.”
As part of his PhD, Massy is investigating what is driving these farming innovators to change their practices.
“I’ve interviewed more than 80 leading innovators in what I call transformative agriculture. The aim was to look at how and why they changed their personal psychological constructs and why they decided to challenge the dominant industrial agricultural paradigm,” he says. The results suggest a wide variety of reasons for changing practices.
“About 60 per cent of the farmers I interviewed changed their techniques because they had some sort of major life shock. They were burnt in a bushfire, had a marriage break up, or suffered chemical poisoning, for example – the sorts of issues that completely changed their world- view and approach to things. For the other 40 per cent it was a range of reasons, some of them spiritual, some ecologically based, and some due to intrinsic personal differences.”
But these innovators have faced resistance.
“There’s been some flack within the farming, scientific and institutional communities. Australian farming is still based on very traditional ideas, with big trans-national companies dominating the industry. Any major challenge to this is bound to receive significant pushback.”
Massy says that despite this, transformative agriculture is growing and will be hard to stop.
“Through my PhD I’m hoping to get a better understanding of what we need to do to constructively challenge, change and work with the dominant farming paradigm. There are a few things that clearly need to happen. First of all, we need good science. There are some first-rate scientists at ANU and elsewhere looking at what’s going on in the farming world and we need that to continue. Second, some of the groups that are involved in these techniques have already got their own education diffusion systems and that’s starting to snowball. They’re the ones that should be empowered and celebrated, and we need to work out how we can help them. It should be a bottom- up, not a top-down approach. Most importantly however, we need to start thinking differently about agriculture in Australia. As the benefits of transformative agriculture become more apparent, I hope we will be able to challenge the dominant farming paradigm, and that will trigger government and research policy to encourage these changes,” says Massy.
Perhaps those changes will mean Australia’s future, as well as its past, will be illustrated with farming heroes.