Saving our soil

Words by Charlotte Graham

Soil, like air, is everywhere. We walk on it, build our homes on it, and most importantly, we grow our food in it. Yet like air, we take it for granted. Soil is essential for life on earth but until recently we have not valued it as a resource, let alone a non-renewable one, as  The Ministry of Primary Industries describes it. But is it really too late to save our soil?

In a Yale Environment 360 interview, Rick Haney, a researcher in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, discusses “how decades of agricultural abuse have taken their toll.” He says that modern farming practices are “depleting the dirt of essential nutrients and killing off bacteria and fungi that create organic material essential to plants.” While Haney admits “it’s true that our yields have come up a lot in the last 50 years, it is taking more and more external inputs to keep it going.” He likens it to “instead of feeding your children a balanced diet, let’s just feed them vitamins.”

This overfeeding has negative consequences for soil health as Soil Contamination- Threats and Sustainable Solutions, lays out. Within their chapter, Nikita Bisht and Puneet Singh Chauhan from the Microbial Technologies Division and CSIR-National Botanical Research Institute in India, explain how an excess of synthetic fertilisers can lead to soil acidification. “Thereby reducing organic matter, humus content, beneficial species, stunting plant growth [and] altering the pH of the soil.”

Pesticide and fungicide use are also a problem, says Haney. “It’s like chemotherapy for cancer: It’s not targeted, it just kills everything,” he admonishes, “Pesticides kill the good bugs as well as the bad bugs. Fungicides kill all the fungi in the soil, including the helpful ones.” Foods produced with these sprays can negatively impact us as “Agrichemicals can interfere with gut health,” says John King, author of Curiosity: Farmers Discovering What Works and speaker on regenerative farming. John adds that “Generally, there are many similarities between gut microbes and soil microbes, so plants from non-spray farms have a greater variety of good bugs.”

Haney observes that when relying on modern farming practices of “a lot of tillage [turning over soil], no cover crops, and chemical dependency, that the soil just doesn’t function properly.” John says that these types of cultivation practices are part of a cycle that “creates soils that are dense and hard like popping bubble wrapping. The result is larger machinery to smash soil harder, creating more dust, erosion, fertiliser use and more problems because carbon escapes back into the atmosphere.”

On a brighter note, Haney says “The good news is that soil will come back if you give it a chance. It is very robust and resilient.” Regenerative agriculture is a farming movement that is trying to achieve just that. Its focus is on regenerating microbiological communities and soil function, says Understanding Ag, one of the organisations leading the regenerative agriculture movement in America. John adds that overall regenerative’s purpose is to “help farmers work closely with nature, to optimise natural ecological processes without a lot of synthetic inputs and lift the functioning of landscapes for the farmer and their community’s benefit.” Regenerative agriculture is still production focused, but, as John points out “it’s attempting to use less off-farm resources to remain profitable and it’s also trying to stimulate ecological diversity.”

John notes that regenerative agriculture differs from modern farming as it relies upon farmers’ observations and their knowledge of natural processes. As such, he says many argue that regenerative is about returning to a husbandry style of farming “agricultural science and economics really haven’t got to grips with how nature self-organises.” John adds that at the moment regenerative is context based and practices differ slightly between farm environments. He says this allows farmers to “skill themselves up on the principles and try things to their own liking.”

Wholly Cow Butchery in Cambridge, owned and run by husband, wife and son trio, the Andrews, focuses on sustainability and regenerative farming practices. Wholly Cow is a largely closed circle business with the Andrews producing beef and lamb on their farm, processing in their micro-abattoir and selling it with a tongue-to-tail approach to butchery. “Nature and regeneration are circular processes that we can be part of,” notes Carrie Andrews, “the animal waste is composted by going back to the land, which grows the food for the animal, that feeds the people.”

The Andrews engage in several of the core regenerative principles John highlights. In particular, John says Understanding Ag recommends “covering the soil, ensuring a living root in the ground, minimal cultivation, encourage diverse ecological communities, and integrating livestock.” Carrie explains on their farm to cover the soil “Tommy lets paddocks grow and fall over to self-seed. We don’t break feed, we shift into whole paddocks, rotational graze, and we don’t graze our paddocks down bare.” Leaving “crop trash,” such as maize stalks and residue, rather than removing it, and giving pastures a rest period, are also effective methods of protecting soil structure and biodiversity, says John.

The Andrews also avoid tilling, which feeds into John’s advice to switch to minimal cultivation techniques, such as “surface tillage, direct drilling and more tree crops [orchards].” These are planting methods that avoid disrupting soil structures by overturning them. John also notes that it is important to mix a variety of pasture species, such as legumes, herbs and perennials, rather than only using annuals, as this ensures throughout the seasons there is “always a living root in the ground.”

Building biodiversity is aided by planting “trees and hedgerows as shelterbelts,” explains John, as well as integrating multiple species of livestock to “stimulate the environment by shifting fertility, reseeding, and trampling woody weeds.” The Andrews have seen the benefits of bush on their own farm and have recently planted another five-hundred trees, which Carrie says is beautiful. “We have great birdlife, insects, tree litter for mulch and shelter for animals to rub against and seek cover in.” As well as a worm farm, they also use a variety of dung beetle species on their property. Carrie explains that these “take the manure down into the soil and create pockets. When it rains, we have better soil porosity and absorption.”

“Regenerative agriculture aims to preserve the health of the soil, water, animals, biodiversity and people” says NZ Beef and Lamb, “while also serving as a critical means of carbon sequestration.” They explain that “New Zealand is one of most carbon efficient producers of beef and lamb,” and they partly attribute this to “carbon being sequestered through native and woody vegetation on our farms, which is maintained and not released, unlike intensive cropping systems.” As well as helping to offset emissions, John discusses how the simplest way to reduce drought and flood frequency and severity is to increase carbon sequestration, as “Carbon holds a minimum of four times its weight in water.” Coming full circle, John says this comes back to what you plant and how you graze as the “Carbon Sponge” is extended by “tap-rooted plants (legumes and herbs) that can get their roots deeper into soil.”

Understanding Ag explains that diversity is a core part of working alongside the land’s natural regenerative practices as “Nature never supports or produces a monoculture. Nature always yields incredible diversity—in soil microbes, macro-organisms, plants and animals.”  John believes that natural fertilisers are an important aspect of promoting diversity and says “many farmers are swapping their inputs. Instead of synthetic fertiliser they use biological soups for example, to help soil microbes like bacteria and fungi to function more efficiently.” Carrie explains that Wholly Cow put this into practice by making their own hot compost “using our abattoir waste of skins, inedible offal, pelts, bones, straw and manure from the local stables.” She adds that they spray their blood water onto pasture. “That’s all the fertiliser we use.” In your own garden, you will have seen the difference compost makes. As Carrie says, “I grow my veggies in our compost, and I have spring onions the size of my thumb and broccoli weighing over a kilo.”

“All these techniques are targeting improvements in soil structure, soil biology and the accumulation and circulation of nutrients,” says John. However, he also notes that “more work still needs to be done on proving the value of ecological farming methods on farmers bottom lines and the environment.” For the Andrews, Carrie points out being micro has allowed them the time to learn about regenerative practices and what works on their farm. “We became independent so that we can take the time to farm how we want and preserve the skills of butchery,” she explains, “We aren’t here to take on the world. We are looking to take care of our area by supplying locals quality meat at a fair price.” Carrie believes that community and curiosity about the environment are at the heart of regenerative agriculture.

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