Putting Grasslands to Work

August 8, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Alan Savory received a fair bit of attention last week, not least from George Monbiot, who has taken quite a somewhat unsavoury approach to his work in the Guardian.

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However, he has also received great deal of attention on the international stage as a result of his conference on regenerative agriculture, Putting Grasslands to Work. SFT Chief Executive, Patrick Holden, gave a talk which can be found here, (you will need to register). As SFT team members we were invited to join him and sitting alongside a serious group of world class spectators, we couldn’t help but feel inspired. Here we have shared what it was that enthused us. From a radical approach to grass-land management, to a profound new respect for soil microbes, we’ve highlighted the speakers and segments that left us feeling motivated to work towards the change that is needed.

Keynote Address: ‘Uniting Team Humanity’

Alan Savory, is both founder of the Savory Institute and developer of the term ‘holistic management‘ – ‘A decision-making framework which results in ecologically regenerative, economically viable and socially sound management of the world’s grasslands.’

The term ‘holistic’, means something characterised by the belief that the individual parts of a system are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole. It’s a philosophical concept that may seem a little abstract for chemistry-based agricultural systems.

‘Holistic’ is a term that Savory argues we all need to understand if we are going to be able to address the many global problems we face today. A holistic approach calls first and foremost for a willingness to address the complexity of the issues we face. He believes that complexity and connectedness are all things that our modern management systems are seemingly averse to.

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Giving a quick overview of historical management structures, he suggested that since Napoleon, professions have become increasingly divided, with siloed training and their own specialist terminology, which makes the work of these professions impenetrable to an outsider, and in turn make conditions difficult for interdisciplinary dialogue and thought. As such, Savory suggested that our modern management systems are ill equipped to address the complexity of human organisation, as our current need for strategies and set objectives often leads to a neglect of the bigger picture.

“Chess is complicated, computers are complicated but human organisation and agriculture, they are complex.”

So what’s this all got to do with agriculture? Well, it concerns our perception of agriculture. We could see agriculture as the 5% of the Earth’s surface which produces crops, or we could see agriculture, like Savory, as the indivisible whole that is all of the land and sea that sustains the world’s urban and rural populations, with environmental, socio-cultural and financial factors all tied in.

If we see agriculture only as cropland, we run the risk of creating technologies and agricultural policies that focus solely on the successful production of crops or livestock, whilst running the risk of ignoring the environmental and socio-cultural factors that are an integrated element of food and farming.

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‘How will we get a holistic vision taken seriously?’ He asked. ‘By changing the mind set of those with influence’ he says, ‘and who are whose with influence?’ Us. It is down to us to shift the current common perception of agriculture.

For how else do counter intuitive insights get into our institutions? Whilst they remain counter intuitive they cannot, the audience was told. As Obama has said governments can only act when society says, the reality is that policies have to go with the thought majority.

‘Institutions act as the last resistance until public opinion changes.’

In his talk, Savory painted a grim picture of the consequences we face if we do not push for more holistic frameworks in our institutional policies. To quote one of his last points, ‘the ship is sinking and we’re not even at the policy table – we have to act now.’

Image RemovedWe’d recommend watching the talk again here. Savory’s speech is followed by accounts from farmers practicing under the Holistic Management Framework. All talks from the conference are available to view once you have registered on the above link.

Community is real wealth, soil is real wealth

Water is often in the news because of pollution, depletion, disease and flooding… but how often do we hear about soil? Land degradation is actually the root cause of many of these problems. In particular, in the context of climate change, we can no longer just think about the air, because diminishing soil health plays a key part in our changing landscapes. Agriculture and soil have always gone hand in hand, but this talk argues that we now need to move away from an era of agriculture and chemistry, towards a new era where farming and biology work together in harmony.

The Sustainable Food Trust’s Patrick Holden describes having, what he calls, a ‘soil epiphany’ after talking with David Wilson, farm manager at Duchy Home Farm. He now refers to the soil on his farm as the ‘stomach’ of the plant. The soil feeds the plant with all its essential nutrients, and without it, plants simply cannot survive. Therefore careful management is needed to ensure this stomach stays healthy. The result is healthy plants.

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In a talk on holistic grassland management, Elaine Ingham, a microbiologist and president of Soil Foodweb told us that soil should not only be seen as the stomach of the plant but the centre of our universe. She stated that active management is key to the health of our soils and illustrated that healthy grass root systems should not be restricted to a depth of just few inches, but can grow up 15ft deep! With a healthy deep root system, issues for farmers such as dry periods in the summer would be less of a problem.

Elaine explained that when a plant is grazed it causes the roots to release a huge surge of exudates into the soil. Exudates are things that we release – for us this may be sweat – for the plant this is mainly sugars, with some protein and carbohydrates. In response to this release, microbacteria, protozoa and fungi present in the soil grow rapidly and begin fixing essential nutrients from surrounding sand, silt, clay and organic matter to store in their own biomass.

These organisms are then predated on, and these previously tied up nutrients are released into the soil right at the surface of the root. The key to this concept is that these essential nutrients provide the plant with just the right balance to re-grow successfully before the grass is grazed once again.

However, if animals return to the same area of grass too soon before the plant has had a chance to replace and restore the soil’s nutrients, it can stress the plant, causing it to continuously release this surge of exudates into the soil. If this happens repeatedly the plant will shed its deep root system limiting the water uptake from the deeper soil, eventually killing the plant. The balance can also be upset if chemicals inputs are added to the soil, as they gives the plant one particular nutrient in excess. Image RemovedBoth of these problems, if not properly managed, can lead to anaerobic conditions where oxygen fails to reach the deeper layers of soil. In these conditions the roots cannot penetrate below this layer thus restricting root depth and limiting the overall health of the plant. As sustainable agriculture pioneer Albert Howard once said ‘sour soils arise when you mix chemicals and anaerobic conditions.’

The key to this concept is careful livestock management. By actively moving herds to new areas of fresh grass on a regular basis we can allow grass to regrow sufficiently before it is grazed again.

This circulation in order to maintain soil health is just one of the key features of holistic grazing. If you want an example of someone that goes the whole hog then please let us refer you to Friday’s keynote speaker, Joel Salatin a world renowned advocate of alternative farming. His farm Polyface farm, ‘the farm of many faces’ disregards what they see as ‘conventional’ farming wisdom. When starting out, he planted trees, built huge compost piles, dug ponds, moved cows daily with portable electric fencing and invented movable sheltering systems to produce all of their animals on perennial prairie polycultures. As a result they have not only created a hugely successful operation, but also a community with countless and varied career opportunities for a future generation of sustainable land stewards.

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To watch all the talks from across both days of the conference, just click here and register.

Tags: holistic thinking, managed grassland systems