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.