An Australian sheepherder and range specialist looks at his home’s biotic communities and how to improve their health with a more thoughtful kind of agriculture.
Arachnophobes take note: There’s a reason you want to see a lot of spiders in the tall grass, for, as Massy (Breaking the Sheep’s Back, 2011, etc.) instructs, it means that good things are happening. “To sustain millions of spiders,” he writes, “there must be a corresponding diversity in the food chain, and healthy landscape function above and below ground.” Such a healthy landscape, argues the author in considerable detail, cannot come about through what he calls the “more-on” approach to agriculture, piling chemicals atop increasingly unproductive soil, but instead is the result of a “regenerative” agriculture that necessarily happens at a small scale. The larger scale is what modern agronomists insist is needed in order to feed a growing world population, but at a cost that may be too great. As Massy observes, a livestock grower will always seek to save the herd before saving the range, no matter how shortsighted that strategy may be in the end. The author’s prose can be arid and technical at times, as when he writes, “at a global level, non-regeneratively grazed livestock emissions are a huge source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.” At others, he sounds like a modern butterflies-are-free avatar of Charles Reich: “an Emergent mind combines elements of the previous Organic and Mechanical minds, but its true difference is an openness to the ongoing processes of emergence and self-organization." The circularity aside, Massy’s book is a useful small-is-beautiful argument for appropriate-level farming that people can do without massive machines or petrochemical inputs. Though less elegant than Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, he certainly falls into their camp, and their readers will want to know Massy’s work as well. A solid case for taking better care of the ground on which we stand.