The Long View — Lessons from Farm Planning

Caring for the planet as though we wanted to hand it our children better in every way

Our perception of time differ based on your point of view. Einstein famously pointed out how 1 hour can seem like a life time when waiting for a loved to arrive, yet pass in the blink of an eye when it is the last hour you will spend with that same loved one for along time.

Perceptions of time feature heavily in the wonderful book by Charles Massey — Call of the Reid Warbler

Massey highlights that an ever narrowing time focus lies at the root of many of societies current problems. When we are trying to achieve the goals only of the next quarter, we naturally find solutions that may not be optimal for a year, a decade or a century. So consider how indigenous cultures around the world were able to live in harmony and flourish in their environments for millennia — Aboriginal culture was able to nurture and improve the landscape over 40,000 years through an

extraordinarily sophisticated and continent-wide land-management system.

What they did was remarkable… They were ensuring that all species had a habitat. People could use those resources, plants and animals, and sustain their society, keep its resources abundant and unchanging without risk to their future.

The same cannot be said of our civilisation since the industrial revolution. Writes Massey:

A widespread consensus is building among scientists that the Earth has moved out of the favourable Holocene period and into a new, human-shaped geological epoch: the Anthropocene. Thus, for the first time, one species — humanity — is influencing (and may well determine) the future health and survival of life systems on this planet.

What has precipitated the Anthropocene is that humanity has shifted from an organic, ever-renewing economy to one that is overwhelmingly extractive.

Massey’s hypothesis through the book- based on years of trial and error on the farm, both personally and with other pioneering collaborators – is that farmers can play an important role in reversing this move to the Anthropocene through enhancing the five crucial landscape functions (Massey):

  1. The solar-energy function (focused on maximising the capture of solar energy by fixing as many plant sugars, via photosynthesis, as possible);
  2. The water cycle (focused on the maximisation of water infiltration, storage and recycling in the soil);
  3. The soil-mineral cycle (focused on inculcating biologically alive and healthy soils that contain and recycle a rich lode of diverse minerals and chemicals);
  4. Dynamic ecosystems (focused on maximum biodiversity and health of integrated ecosystems at all levels); and
  5. The human–social aspect (focused on human agency triggering landscape regeneration by working in harmony with natural systems).

Modern industrial farming techniques primarily focus on simplifying ecosystems and drive large yields through huge non renewable energy inputs. Particularly in Australia, Massey highlights how we have seen ecosystems destroyed in the space of a decade through the poorly conceived introduction of European farming techniques and plant and animal species.

Yet there is hope, through the patient application of the regenerative farming techniques at the heart of Massey’s book, we can begin to turn the damage around. Nature can be very forgiving when you give it a chance.

A short paragraph really caught my eye about the change in timescales farmers are looking at as they shift to these techniques.

Richard and Jenny were some of the first to instigate a long-term, whole-farm ecological plan, starting fifty years out and done in overlay sheets of decreasing time horizons: twenty-five years, ten, five and then working forward again in three-year projects. This immediately changed the traditional short-term-farming perspective to a much longer time horizon

Reminiscent of Covey “begin with the end in mind” this sort of long time scale planning is truly what we need to turn our planet around. These farmers are seeing that there will be nothing left for their children to inherit if they continue the way they where and are determined to reverse the damage caused.

A quick search to find more about long term farm planning yielded only limited results, which speaks either to my limited search skills, but more likely to the early phase that this cultural change is in.

One very interesting link is to the Potter Farmland Plan by Andrew Campbell who provides a summary of the whole farm planning approach.

The essence of the approach applied on the Potter Farmland Plan demonstration farms is that land-degradation problems -such as erosion, salinity and the largely ignored issue of tree decline- are symptoms of inappropriate farmland management. There is no point in just focusing on the symptom without tackling the cause of the problem. That is easy to say, but for a farmer or a soil conservationist confronted by an erosion gully chewing its way across the landscape, it is difficult not to focus on the gully itself.

As the old saying goes, ‘when you’re up to your arse in crocodiles it is easy to forget to drain the swamp ‘

The philosophy we started with at Hamilton was that such problems can only be effectively addressed if farm design and management incorporates an understanding of the ecology of the land. Unless we restore ecological stability to farmland, we will always have ‘problems’, and the productive capacity of the land will continue to decline.

This got me thinking about where else we might be able to apply long term thinking for the sake of turning our situation around. Imagine if each generation was aiming to leave a legacy of improvement in each of the five functions Massey outlines. This change in mindset away from our industrial biases which have only existed for the briefest of ticks in the evolutionary clock, perhaps back to the flip ownership demonstrated by indigenous cultures:

Life is the binding and connecting way, the oneness is … if you’re alive, you connect to everything else that is alive. But that oneness included everything that was around us and you were raised with that from a child … See, my people see land ownership as being totally different to the English way of ownership, because our way used to be “The land owns us”, and it still is that to us. The land grows all of us up … We say “the Granny Law” … [it] has given me my responsibility now that I have grown up, to care for my country, care for my mother, care for everything that is around me. The oneness, the completeness of that oneness (Massey)

EndNote — aside from reading Charles Massey’s book, also find out more at this engaging Australian Story episode

Let me know what you think? I’d love your feedback.

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