Although to a degree the soil remains and perhaps always will be a dark and mysterious world – the phrase from the hymn comes to mind “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes” – the microbiome revelation has definitely brought about a shift in my approach to soil management. It leads to a question, “how can this new knowledge affect the way I farm my own soils?”
In this connection, I’m definitely at the beginning of a new journey, which seems strange to admit since I’ve been doing my best to farm my small parcel of land in West Wales for over 40 years in a relatively sustainable way, having avoided the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides during that time. But if I’m honest, apart from using crop rotation to build fertility and the application of animal manures, I haven’t really paid sufficient attention to my capacity to enhance the process of soil digestion, the success of which will undoubtedly be the single most important influence on the yields and quality of the plants that grow on my land.
Here is a by no means definitive list of the actions I am already or shall be taking over the coming months and years:
The soil/farm as an ecosystem
There is nothing intrinsically new about this thinking, as it was outlined in Rudolf Steiner’s agricultural lectures in 1924, in which he advised farmers to manage their holdings as an ecosystem, indicating that over time all the life forms in the system, including soil organisms, plants, animals and the human beings themselves who will manage the ecosystem, would become adapted to the unique combination of geographic, geological and climatic conditions which make up a farm’s distinct ecology. Apply this thinking to soil, and one realises that we have a responsibility to assist in the development of soil microbiology which will inevitably – because of the aforementioned conditions – be unique to the place, and probably result in specific tastes and qualities of the particular food stuffs that are produced on that holding. This gives a whole new meaning and justification to the idea of re-localising food systems.
Rebuilding soil fertility
I’ve read in lots of textbooks that it takes hundreds or even thousands of years to build an inch of soil which may well be true when building soil on barren rock, but I’ve now come to the conclusion that there is no basis in practice for making this statement when farming on existing good soil. I’m increasingly certain that with a combination of holistic grazing management, crop rotation and other positive practices designed to enhance the soil microbiota, we can dramatically speed up the process of soil building. We are only at the beginning of that particular journey of understanding, but let us make it a pilgrimage from now on!
Plant varieties and crop rotations
Like most farmers I have given insufficient attention to the idea, actually the reality – as we learn from the study of epigenetics – that over time, all plants and animals (and no doubt soil organisms) adapt to the environment in which they are growing. As a direct result of this lack of understanding, my selection of purchased seeds has contributed towards the narrowing of the agricultural plant and animal gene pool, no doubt both above and below the ground. How can I do better on this front? To be honest, I’m not yet entirely clear. For instance, I could save my own seeds, but realistically, I lack the expertise and understanding as to how I can do that, especially in relation to the grasses, clovers and herbs that constitute my grassland mixtures. I could stop using artificial insemination for my dairy cattle and have an Ayrshire bull instead, but then I will need to build a bull pen as Ayrshire Bulls are dangerous! And so on and so on.
This sounds dull and boring, but I shall always regret the fact that I did not keep good records of the impact of my farming practices over the soil organic matter and nutrient content, let alone the bacterial and fungal diversity of my soils. This would have provided some very useful data for scientists who are interested in the long-term impact of applying particular management practices to soils. On that thread, if there is anyone out there who would like to make a study of the soils on my farm, do get in touch!
Holistic grazing management
I’ve been putting this into practice for the last couple of years, along the lines that Allan Savory, Joel Salatin and others have been advocating. The idea behind this is based on the understanding that plants need to maintain a dynamic balance between the above and below ground biomass, but when they are repeatedly defoliated through grazing, as happens when cattle are left in a field for several days, plants understandably respond by shedding root mass, thereby becoming less productive. The antidote is to graze intensively and then move the cattle on, as a result the grass grows back quickly, stocking rates are increased, soil compaction is avoided, and the biological health of the soil is enhanced. Introducing this approach has necessitated considerable investment in farm tracks, additional water troughs and electric fencing. It’s still early days to make a full valuation of the impact of holistic grazing, but my impression already is that there is a potential to increase the stocking rates by at least 30%, and maybe much more than that.
Timely interventions and the avoidance of soil crime
This sounds obvious, but as I know from experience, when one is farming in a challenging climate with high rainfall and vulnerable soils, it is very tempting to graze cattle when conditions are too wet, or to go on the land with heavy tractors and implements at the wrong time, thus compacting the soil and creating anaerobic hostile environments, discouraging the right kind of soil life to thrive. It was once said that the difference between a good farmer and the bad farmer is two weeks, meaning timeliness of intervention is everything. And although I already fully subscribe to that concept, developments in understanding the complexity of soil microbiota have revealed a new sense of urgency and importance to sensitive soil management.
Management of animal manures
Until recently, the management and application of my animal manures has been pretty basic. We do not compost, or at least not in the real sense of the word, despite my first hand knowledge that composting is not merely sensible but arguably essential since when undertaken correctly, it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as effectively acting as a soil inoculant, introducing beneficial bacteria and fungi as well as basic nutrients.
These are just a few of my opening thoughts about what I believe should constitute a new chapter of agricultural practice, based on the collective enlightenment that we are all experiencing due to the extraordinary unfolding revelations about the soil microbiome. Let us stand in front of this new knowledge with a sense of reverence and enquiry, as this will assist our strivings to increase the depth and complexity of that thin film of organic life which clothes our home, planet Earth, and upon which the sustainability of most human nutrition will ultimately depend.
Photograph: Steph French