How the regenerative farming movement transformed Charles Massy’s sheep station
“And the day I was there we heard a reed warbler calling in his small patch of reeds. It had just started to grow and it was probably the first time in 150 years that a reed warbler had come back to that denuded valley.”
A life’s work that came from hundreds of conversations with farmers, years of PhD research, a profound love of nature, deep respect for Indigenous land management and recognition of his own mistakes on his farm that nearly brought him and the land undone.
He writes provocatively about: “How modern industrial agriculture … is not just poisoning us but is also, confoundingly, making us obese while starving us at the same time with food that is bereft of nutrients.”
“It has caused a bit of a chasm from time to time in our farming community because … we don’t think it’s fair to be branding people bad farmers if they don’t do regenerative agriculture and good farmers if they do it,” National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson said.
A natural pest control
Charles Massy’s property near Cooma in NSW has been in drought since 2017. But unlike surrounding properties which are bare dust bowls of dead trees, Severn Park is covered in native grass, albeit brown.
Maintaining groundcover by destocking and moving stock regularly is key to regenerative agriculture. Massy says his grass protects the soil, improves its health, the plants trap water and are home to insects for natural pest control.
But it’s only in the past 20 years that Severn Park has been farmed this way.
The property has been in the Massy family since 1928. Massy was an only child whose mother died when he was four. He found solace in running barefoot and free, his companions dogs, poddy lambs, and native wildlife.
“I guess that started to get me in love with the bush.”
He was always open to new ideas.
When he was at university doing a biology degree in the 70s, his father had a heart attack and at 22 he came home to manage the farm.
He sought the best advice, copied the practices of the district’s most successful farmers and developed a innovative merino sheep stud that was profiled on the ABC’s Countrywide program.
His wool was being bought by the “top guys” in Italy for fabric. But he realises now he was overgrazing and killing his best pastures.
“I look back as starting off with shocking mismanagement because I didn’t know better. I love my land. And yet I was harming it,” he said.
“I caused immense damage to this country, perhaps at least a few thousand years’ worth.”
During the droughts of the 80s and 90s he sank into debt buying in food for his sheep. In the “shocking year” of 1982 the entire farm was like a dust bowl. There were grasshopper plagues.
Exhausted and depressed, with debts that would take decades to repay, he came close to “breaking” and nearly sold the farm.
“My mental health was atrocious. I know I was depressed for a year or more because I was in this trap.”
It was the shock, he says, that “cracks the mind open” and the catalyst for many farmers to explore regenerative practises.
He knew that to survive he would have to change. He sold only half the farm and began studying regenerative agriculture, a system of farming which doesn’t push the land beyond what it is naturally capable of sustaining without chemical inputs, a system that values a complex and healthy soil.
As he watched his land recover, he went back to university in his 50s to do a PhD in human ecology. As part of his thesis, he interviewed 80 of the top regenerative farmers, hearing stories of remarkable turnarounds in landscapes, birdsong and lives.
Massy travelled to the Western Australian wheatbelt region three hours north of Perth to meet Ian and Di Haggerty.
Instead of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, the couple have adapted their big machines to spray a combination of worm juice and compost extract to coat the seeds, enrich the soil and boost the plants’ immune system.
“We can take on land that’s fairly run down and start to turn it around. We’re having a big impact on salinity. We have country where it had bare salt scalds and we’ve got perennial plants growing on those now.”
The Haggertys’ chemical-free grain is in high demand.
Mr Massy also talked to Boorowa sheep and cattle farmer David Marsh. Like Mr Massy, drought in the 80s had left Mr Marsh ashamed that his farm looked like a desert.
“We constantly stumbled into droughts and spent a lot of money trying to keep stock alive that we probably shouldn’t have been running at all,” he said.
Mr Marsh began to destock in dry years to protect his groundcover, practise “holistic grazing” of moving stock more frequently and planted thousands of trees.
“There was only one hectare of native grass on our farm in 1999 and now we’ve got native grasses coming up in all our paddocks. Our farm was three per cent tree cover in 1970. Now it’s 20 per cent tree cover.”
“One of the big ideas I discovered going back to uni was this concept which I came to, that our natural complex systems will self-organise themselves back to health. I think it is as big as evolution,” Mr Massy told The Guardian in 2017.
Regenerative farming a ‘story of hope’
By 2000, Mr Massy himself had become fully regenerative and has now planted 60,000 trees.
“So we’re getting wonderful results in pest control from insects and birds and all that sort of thing. We don’t get any wingless grasshoppers anymore. Every plant has a spider on it which is eating the grasshoppers or the eggs.”
Mr Massy’s wife Fiona saw the changes in him too.
“Charlie became more relaxed about farming. It was very encouraging to start to see the results.”
For Mr Massy, not fighting debt and watching the land regenerate made him eager to spread the word.
He has barnstormed the country, advocating for change.
As well as critics, Mr Massy has attracted a powerful ally in West Australian Minister for Food and Agriculture Alannah MacTiernan, who read Mr Massy’s book and thought it “incredible”.
“We have to look at where our markets are headed,” she said.
“Our consumers are deeply concerned about climate change, they’re deeply concerned about chemical residues.
“I think in 10 years’ time, a lot of this stuff will be pretty mainstream.”
National Farmers Federation President Fiona Simson said if all farmers chose to go regenerative at the moment, product would be a lot more expensive for consumers.
“Farmers would not be able to grow the sort of produce and the amount of produce they grow now. And many farmers would go out of business in the short term because the sorts of changes that regenerative agriculture talks about are quite expensive on some farming systems to implement.”
But Mr Massy argued that regenerative cropping saves cost on expensive chemicals and fertilisers.
“Up to 90 per cent of your costs are stripped down straight away. That has a huge impact on the bottom line,” he said.
In the face of climate change, salinity and a drying continent, Massy said his message is ultimately positive.
“Regenerative agriculture has some of the best solutions to solving a lot of our planetary ills.”