Save Our Soils

2012-03-26_15-17-05_353Just a quickie about the Soil Association’s Soil Symposium, which took place in the lovely @Bristol Science Centre yesterday and day. I love these events, mostly because it’s a great reminder about why we do what we do: when you see horrific consequences of soil degradation and loss (and we’re not talking Amazonian rainforest or American dustbowl here, we’re talking pre dessertification of prime UK agricultural land which is being washed away by bad management, a lack of organic matter being returned to the soil, and poor understanding of the most basic soil science by some farmers), then it helps keep your moral up when spreading compost (pictured) or manure on your own holding. You can feel like you’re doing your bit to lock up carbon, provide nutrients and moisture-retentive mulches for your plants, not to mention breeding grounds for beneficial soil fauna and flora, and generally make the world that bit better. Everything starts with the soil, and as Rob Richmond pointed out today, farmers’ main role is to turn sunlight into food for us all. This can only happen with healthy soil – and that is what the real meaning of Organic is.

When In Rome

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Luigi shows us the range of common land available for local cattle and horse grazing

…visit organic farms and become a revolutionary! Well, I’m pretty sure that’s how the old saying goes anyway. That’s certainly what I got up to last week: there was a meeting/conference/general get-together of European growers, farmers, researchers and campaigners looking at access to land issues, which meant somehow I managed to get myself invited to spend four days in lovely sunny Rome when the UK was enjoying its usual drizzly weather. It’s a hard life eh?

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These organic water buffalo get milked just once a day, to Mozart

The meeting was the next step in a Grundtvig project: previous meetings have already taken place in Germany, England (Bristol) and Lithuania, so now it was the turn of Italian partners AIAB to host a meeting. The Soil Association is a partner in the project, and it was through them that I heard about the scheme – as they were unable to attend the Rome meeting themselves, they asked whther I could go as their representative (and an ex-apprentice from their Future Growers scheme), plus my new book Gardening For Profit (clang!) also looks as how to gain access to land, so I knew I would find the trip very interesting and relevant.

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“Camorra not welcome” banner at the co-operative – eek!

Along with members of other European organisations, such as the famous Terre de Liens from France, our group visited 7,000 hectares of common land in the Tolfa mountains north of Rome on Monday (gorgeous); a buffalo mozarella- and ricotta-making co-operative based on land confiscated from the Camorra Mafia a few hours south of Rome towards Naples on Tuesday (scary); and on Wednesday we went to the pioneering co-operative farm Agricolutra Nova just outside Rome, with veg, animals for cheese and meat and other enterprises, which started life in the 1970s as a collective of protestors and farmers who occupied land designated for development (revolutionary).

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Revolutionary restaurant for workers and visitors at Agricoltura Nova

All the farms were amazing in different ways; most of all though it struck me that much of Europe still has a lot of common land, or land that is held by local, regional or national governments – and finding access to farm this land which already exists is the issue for many people in the area. However, in the UK, we face quite different problems: the idea of people taking up possession of the few small commons and village greens we have left is almost unthinkable. Occupation of land does happen, and the Reclaim The Fields movement is keen to make it happen more: but on the whole we expect to find land from private sources. I think we’ll need to change our psychology, as well as regulation, to gain better access to land in the country.

Foam Trial

IMG-20130911-00556 In conjuction with BABOG (Bristol & Bath Organic Growers, a regional group of the OGA), the Soil Association’s Duchy Originals Field Labs programme, and via the Organic Research Centre, there was a foam weeding demonstation today at the Somerset Flower Farm in Wrington, south of Bristol. This was part two of the trial; the first demonstration day was back on 19th July, and we took a look at the plots of land that were treated then.

IMG-20130911-00555The hot foam weeding system, Foamstream, is currently available to buy direct from the manufacturer (rather out of my price range at circa £24,000); or there are trained operatives who can come and treat your weeds for you, and will charge a day rate according to the size of plot to be covered, weed type, water access, operator and number of days booked – but probably the best starting rate would be £650/day. Our operator was William Iliffe, from Ecological Weeding Techniques; and after checking out the results from the previous application, we also saw a demo of the system in practice.

IMG-20130911-00557The ‘foam’ mix is organically approved, and made from plant extracts; however the foam is simply a wetting agent and 0.5% of the total solution, designed to make it easier for the heat from the near-boiling water permeate the cell walls of the weeds and seeds. So it’s the extreme temperature (over 90C) that actually kills the weeds, not the chemicals in the foam. The foam bubbles also helps keep the heat around the plant for longer, acting like a mini blanket.

There was a definite difference between treated and untreated patches, especially where docks were less prevalent; and even aggressive perennials such as docks had been knocked back a couple of weeks after application, compared to untreated areas. However when we saw the patches, 7 weeks after initial application, many weeds that had survived had caught up size-wise to those in the non-treated areas (although on mst holdings any new weeds would have been hoed off very quickly compared to untreated areas, rather than left for trial purposes). It will be interesting to hear whether the stubborn perennial weeds on the treated patch are weaker long-term, such as spring next year; and how long the surface sterilising effect lasts on those patches that showed such a successful marked difference between treatment and control. For the full report on these demos, check out the next issue of the Organic Grower magazine, free to Organic Grower Alliance members.

Organic Food Awards

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Not many leftovers left…

I enjoyed a brief escape from the heat of the field this morning, to be a judge at the Soil Association’s Organic Food Awards at the lovely organic Duke of Cambridge pub in Islington. The category I was given was confectionary, biscuits & desserts (what a bummer eh?), so I sampled some yummy organic treats, from meringues and rice pudding, through moist treacle tarts and chocolate bars, to fruity children’s sweets and mince pies (very seasonal!). It was pretty hard to judge such a varied array, but between us we selected some really lovely things for gold awards, and to go forward for category winners.

IMG-20130718-00496Some sub-categories had a surprisingly small number of entrants, which was a real shame, as we knew of many great organic desserts and treats which could have entered. I wonder if seeing a form and small entrance fee (I think just £20 to enter), plus arranging for products to be delivered or couriered (especially chilled and/or larger produce), puts smaller artisan producers off, especially if they have tiny admin teams (ie one person does everything).  It’s difficult to know what else to suggest to encourage more entrants – perhaps a small fund could be set-aside for micro-producers to cover the entrance fee, and put together a simple entrance form for them? Often though it seems that it’s not the actual money, it’s the hassle when you’re resource-poor, as your time is so valuable and there are so many other things to think about; perhaps admin help could be offered to businesses with five or less employees for example?

I wonder if the winners of each category (and also all the gold award winners) could also ‘win’ something more immediate and tangible, other than prestige; such as a slot in their local supermarket for Organic Fortnight in September if production numbers would allow (Waitrose might be keen on something like this)? Or a free stall at the Bristol Harbourside market, with some marketing materials and PR help to go with it? Food for thought…

Back to Basics

More than just keeping the plants up: soil feeds everything; so this green manure crop will help put nutrients and organic matter back there in the spring when incorporated

Phew, I’m pooped: just got back from a two-day Soil Symposium, put on by the Soil Association, and held at Coventry’s Transport Museum (really surreal but cool venue, wandering around loads of old and new cars and racers, bikes, props from films etc in between sessions). These events are always such a good reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing: and also full of practical advice of how to do it better.

As well as looking at why soil is so important (well, it’s what everything is made of, comes from, and returns to for a start), we covered biochar benefits, composts, agroforestry and soil compaction. Quite a lot to cram in; but it was all really useful.

Now it’s time to work out how to follow on from that in the field. I think some of the things which I’m going to do as a result of the conference are: turn my compost more to improve aeration (especially in the first month, I’ll try to do it every week!); get involved in earth worm surveys, by joining the Earthworm Society; look at designing really efficient mini agroforestry strips (though this might have to wait until I have a piece of land of my own); try more trials with biochar in the soil next year, and look at trying to start some trials making and using my own/local kilns; and try to find some old solid tines to go through the field in spring, in case the rotovating is causing soil panes and compaction (the wet has shown that it doesn’t drain terribly well in patches).

Really it’s a shame that people don’t value this most basic resource more highly: we do abuse our poor soils. I’d also like to try and build up the soil organic matter, both in and around the polytunnels, and in the field, by adding more manure and especially homemade and green waste compost. The trouble for me is moving material in quantity to the field, and my transport isn’t a tractor and trailer, but me and a wheelbarrow. Still, food for thought over the winter…