A call to recalibrate our relationship with the land

A call to recalibrate our relationship with the land

There’s a call for a change in our mindset about land, in the writing of this timely book.  Author of Who’s Minding the Farm? In this climate emergency, Patrice Newell, doesn’t beat around the bush in this, her latest book released in June this year.

Tim Flannery calls the book ‘A heartwarming, informative and engaging account of sustainable farming down under.’

Kerry O’Brien says ‘Patrice Newell’s account of life on the family farm in this era of climate change is evocative and urgent.  This is the raw, unadulterated truth for all of us to absorb, as basic as it gets.  The future for our land and food.’

Picking small slabs to highlight the content is risky, but we  hope that these few extracts will inspire you to buy or borrow the book to get the full story.

Land is a generic word for soil and all that happens therein and thereon, so it comes as no surprise that attention has been given to biomass and its capacity to make multiple contributions to agriculture.  Trees after all having been practicing biomass services for millions of years…disappointing that we have taken so long to cotton on to this after having spent much time and energy ripping trees down.  And so it is such a tragedy that we continue to do so in the name of soy beans and palm oil, cheap manufactured products and deep fried snacks masquerading as quality food.

Chapter 4: New Ideas — “Crop residues, besides being a potential biomass source, already play an important role in soil protection, and on a small farm or plot they usually stay on site. My small olive prunings are potential biochar feedstock, but we mulch them back into the earth to become the soil of the future…”, says Patrice (page 101)

“Chemical and fertilizer companies want us to believe we’re all going to starve unless we use their products in ever greater amounts.

Developers use statistics to argue that we must open up new regions for agricultural development. Yet in Australia many paddocks lie idle.  The land is capable of storing a lot more nutrients and water and therefore producing more.  And this is possible without adding billions of inputs…

In November 2017 the federal government launched its National Food Waste Strategy, with the ambition goal to halve food waste by 2030.  Australians waste food just about everywhere, in the paddock, during transport, in factories, in supermarkets, in our kitchens.  The Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre claims that we waste 40 per cent of what we produce: that means we’re also wasting 40 per cent of the water and fertilizers used in food production…

We demand instant gratification in everything, and most of all food. Accustomed to having anything we want to eat whenever we want it, we’re indifferent to the energy wasted at every point of the food chain along with the time, the effort, the transport and most of all water…

Then there’s the fact that too many people are eating far too much food, and the wrong kind of food.  The obesity epidemic is part of food waste too, and the money spent on futile diets is more than some people spend on food…

We don’t need to colonise more land, use more water, spray more chemicals or use more fertilizers in order to feed the future population.”  (pages 108-110).

Chapter 5: Health: Land, Mind, Body — “We know we’re losing traditional agricultural skills all over the world.  We’re losing biodiversity in nature…In Australia, song cycles have been lost (page 122)…The homogenization of culture everywhere is making the world less interesting.  We seek out unspoilt destinations and spoil them in the process…Thanks to those profound discoveries in genetic science, we know that that all humans of all colours from all times and everywhere are inextricably linked – surely a reason to abandon the nonsense of racial superiority and bigotry.  Yet we are reluctant to abandon this as we are to abandon our sense of superiority over the entirety of nature.” (page 123)

“When Martin Luther King Jr said that we live in a ‘network of mutuality’, he didn’t know that our genes were almost identical to those of the vegetables we eat.  Genetic mapping has confirmed our interconnectedness with not just other primates, but with all of nature.” (page 129)

Chapter 7: Regeneration – “It’s good to hear a fellow farmer say, ‘I’m a soil regenerator, really,’ in a matter-of-fact way.  But it’s not only the soil that needs regeneration, nor is it just agriculture, it’s us.  Agriculture, in my view should be aligned with the health sector, not merely to resource management…Placing agriculture with healthcare would give us an association beyond money.  Our health is our more prized personal possession.” (page 155)

“New Zealand feminist, economist and MP Marilyn Waring wrote Counting for Nothing. The book became my New Testament. In it Waring argued that GDP as currently calculated was dangerous nonsense, because so mcy work done by women and children and people living outside the cash economy are unaccounted for…Waring has spent a lifetime arguing with passion and precision about the lunacy of an economic system that doesn’t account properly for nature, but at last is being discussed at the highest level of financial management, academia and politics.”  (page 158)

Reference to Peter Andrews and Natural Sequence Farming and the featured program on ABC’s Australian Story: ”When dollars rather than decency define success it’s a challenge to incorporate regeneration into our personal, professional and political lives…The very word ‘regeneration’ helps us imagine a cyclical rather than linear economy.  Let a new generation use regeneration to defeat the brainwashed belief in never-ending growth, or at least push this malignancy into remission.  Cells can regenerate.  We can regenerate.  So can ailing societies and ailing land.” (page 161)

“…there is not a scintilla of evidence that corporate farms are better environmental stewards.

History has shown, and Australia’s highly successful Landcare movement confirms, that local communities are often the best at land regeneration, assessing, monitoring and conserving bio-diversity on all types of lands, both private and public…Even suburban home gardens are important components in preserving biodiversity and potential providers of biomass.” (page 162)

When it comes to the most suitable grazing animals in the Australian context it could be sensible to “include native wildlife, such as kangaroos and wallabies, as alternative animals to livestock…to help reduce methane emissions.  Our native soil-turning animals, such as bandicoots, bettongs and potoroos are also working as unpaid ecosystem engineers across many farms as they gently till topsoil, spreading seeds and leaf matter.” (page 165)

“Unless non-meat eaters manage to b e 100 per cent organic, they’re complicit in the chemical warfare against multiple forms of life.  The act of growing any kind of food demands sacrifice.

Neither animals nor plants can argue their case, of course, but there’s now evidence that plants are societal and can actually communicate, perhaps even have some sort of feeling.  We’re all part of an ecology, living and dying together. “(page 169)

“There are plenty of good ideas about how things can be done better…a favourite of mine is Soil and Civilization by Edward Hyams, published in 1952… In a few places but specifically Peru, Hymans was impressed how human thought of themselves as being at one with soil, becoming soil makers rather than destroyers.  Bruce Pascoe’s 2014 book Dark Emu describes numerous Indigenous agricultural systems across Australia where deep, fertile soils were managed for millennia before the first European settlers arrived and destroyed them.” (page 172)

The Atlas of Living Australia provides a good quick way to “see how diverse our ecology is, why it’s a good idea to preserve it, and how to become a citizen scientist even if you failed biology in high school. What we have is a jigsaw…Every day in Australia, a development application is put before a government body that will result in something being destroyed in the name of progress.  It’s a continuation of the old attitude of ‘If it moves, shoot it. If it’s still, cut it down.’ The pioneer gene lives on in many rural people today and is still seen as somehow heroic.  To clear the land is to tidy it, to improve it, to be the master.” (page 177)

Chapter 8: Addiction — Prickly Pear and Tiger Pear and biological controls. (pages 196-197)

Glyphosate and its widespread use:  “The maximum level of glyphosate allowed in grains entering Europe has been reduced, and the EU is moving towards a total ban.   Glyphosate is already banned for use in public spaces in the Netherlands, and France banned Roundup Pro 360 for use in January 2019, effective immediately.  President Macron has said all the other glyphosate products will be outlawed in France by 2021…“When the ABC’s Josie Taylor reported in 2018 that local councils were using glyphosate widely she was accused by the chemical industry of sensationalism and fear mongering…I’m eager for the day when we’ll look back at this period with incredulity and disbelief – this period when families can put Roundup in their supermarket trolleys along with their groceries.

The lesson here: don’t believe a chemical company when the say their products have been tested and proven safe.  They would say that, wouldn’t they?”  (pages 198-201)

Water management and ‘the market’: “There can’t be a perfect water management system because our personal and business needs always change…I yearn for the death of ‘the market’ being considered a masterful arbitrator of how our agricultural water should be used. The flow of money doesn’t know ‘best use’. If racehorses and wine become the most profitable, is that ‘best use’? The market doesn’t respond to environmental need, care about our health, business diversity or the importance of a sustainable future. Money flow and water flow remain at odds. Once we realize that, this debate can yield long-term results.”  (page 222)

Chapter 10: Rearrangments — The community: “When we talk about drought, it’s the primary producer who comes to mind, but we know that the tendrils of drought reach far and wide into every part of the community…Charles Massy’s fine book Call of the Reed Warbler describes new-generation farmers choosing a regenerative path for their rural business, using what Massy describes as their activated ‘emergent minds’, once their old ‘mechanical brains’ can be laid to rest.”

So if we apply this to water, “He’s not talking about brain transplants, but new attitudes he believes we’re all capable of learning.” (page 240)

“My actions are part of the future of farming. Every farmer and potential farmer is part of that future, whether they’re old farmers ready to respond to the climate emergency with new ideas, or bright young things from Environmental Studies, coming to the land to apply their principles. Every decision each of us makes shapes what comes next…We know the importance of speaking up…Kids do it. My dogs do it. ‘I need a cuddle’ CJ (my dog) thinks, and immediately her head is on my thigh and she gazes lovingly at me to pat her. She’s not thinking, ‘should I let Patrice have her cup of tea first?’ Never. She knows her needs.

The land is actually like that. It’s asking but we don’t hear. Land does speak to us without words. We have to listen to know its needs.” (pages 247 – 248)

These days there are apps for just about everything and Patrice has been bombarded with her fair share: “I’ve deleted many of them, keeping the essentials: BOM, NSW Fires Near Us, and Field Guides. It will be a sad day if I remove from the glove box my books on birds or weed identification.

At the start of 2019 BOM data continually reported soil moisture in steady decline, predicting a lack of water in our river, dams and, most importantly, in our soil…After a small shower, the soil dries almost immediately…The water just disappears into the magnet of deep dryness.” (pages 256 – 257)

The book ends with a call to recalibrate our thinking about our relationship with the land, in every respect: “There are profound and proven links between mental health and environmental health…but all the farm courses in the world won’t do a thing until deep down everyone who manages land understand that relationship and refocuses their work to nurture both people and land…We’ll need an army of minders to do it. The farmers, the blockies, the land managers, the glasshouse operators, the urban gardeners, the fun lovers, the eaters. Nothing will work unless we do. All of us.”  (pages 259 – 260)

For another brief review from the people at WOOF Australia, follow the link: Who’s minding the farm?