Article by – Bee Winfield
On Tuesday, 110 farmers attended a Soil Restoration Farming Forum in Kojonup. It provided the opportunity to hear eminent soil scientist Dr Christine Jones talk on the fundamentals of soil and how nutrient cycles work. An interactive ninety minutes with Christine required us to think outside the square as she described the farming methods of ancient American Indians in Florida as compared to today, where the soil is now “gutless white sand that can’t grow anything” (that sounds familiar) yet the same location had been extremely productive for thousands of years under the care of the Indians who grew corn, beans and squash with digging sticks. Where energy comes from, building soil, pathways for carbon in the soil and much more were considered by those present. Farming practices that destroy soil microbes mean chemical applications of fertilizer and pesticide are needed as without microbes, plants need “life support”. Chemicals are usually detrimental to the beneficial fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes and arthropods which build soil structure and fertility. If they are killed by “cides” they may take a few years to build up their populations again, if at all. They may have to be returned via inoculants such as compost tea or some of the many biological products displayed on the day. Dr Jones said farmers could cut out phosphate fertilizers completely, with NO loss of production, however she suggested that high-analysis nitrogen fertilizers be phased out over 3 years, as it could be financially risky to go “cold turkey”. Dr Jones said frankly that some practices were very destructive to soil microbes such as the chemical fallow, burning stubble and chemical seed dressings. She highlighted that multi-species cover crops were very beneficial, particularly the perennial plants which would be green (and photosynthesizing) all year instead of only in the rainy growing season. Green cover on soil year round leads to higher fertility /carbon levels than in places where soil is bare or covered only by dead annuals for 6 months. The more microbial life there is in the soil, the more tilth and nutrients there are, and carbon is just one of these nutrients. Soil microbes are attracted to the rhizosheath and bred up with sugary root exudates whenever green plants are active. Photosynthesis is a process which takes carbon dioxide from the air and deposits it as carbohydrates in the soil and plant tissues. Nutrients are held around the roots in the “bodies” of bacteria and fungi. When these are consumed by predators like protozoa and nematodes, the nutrients are re cycled The waste products of those micro critters are excreted to feed the plant with soluble, plant available minerals such as nitrate, phosphate, sulphate etc. The important roles of mychorrizal fungi include extending the root system of a plant and feeding the plant minerals extracted from otherwise unavailable forms, in exchange for plant-derived sugars. A recurring theme was the value of biodiversity. Dr Jones said the fact that the soils around Kojonup (which are today considered to be pretty poor) used to support vigorous perennial grasslands and healthy trees was well documented by the first white settlers and to say our soils are impoverished because they are ancient is incorrect. There has been a rapid decline brought about by ploughing and chemical fertilizer. Photosynthesis is the foundation of life and it’s free. Plants feed the necessary microbes with the liquid carbon essential for a fertile, healthy, productive soil.
Four farmers shared their experiences in talks: “Enhancing soil biology to improve crop quality” from Di Haggerty of Wyalkatchem; “Cover-crop cocktails and weather-resistant farming” from Nick Kelly of Newdegate; “Keys to profitable beef production” from Colin Thexton of Northcliffe; “Bugs and biology- activating soil microbes” from Rob Rex of Kojonup.
Di spoke of her family’s experiences across six owned and leased properties and their endeavours to build natural fertility and encourage root development. They attended many seminars and workshops to gain knowledge. They aim to maintain ground cover year round so don’t spray top or spray out ‘weeds’. The end result is positive for the ecosystem, in addition to improved health outcomes for her family on the farm (less toxics) and for consumers, as their produce has better nutrient density.
Nick shared his family’s journey from concern about severe weed issues (rye grass and wild radish) to the present day. After adopting no-till in 2002, they are now using only a disc drill to put the crop in. Sowing millet, sorghum, cowpeas, lab-lab and sunflowers as a summer cover crop (the millet was difficult to establish initially but it is now naturalizing in many places), and they direct seed the crop into millet stubble with minimal soil disturbance. Purchased compost is used to make a compost extract sprayed on the paddocks. Many photos showed the changes seen on the farm.
Colin bought a small farm with lots of dock and sorrel and a pH of 3.8. He used a soil ameliorant in liquid form to kick-start and increase beneficial biological activity and he saw great results quickly. His pH went up to 6.2, his grassfed cattle were turned off 2 months early in August (with the processor saying they couldn’t be grassfed given their high MSA assessment) the rain now soaks in to the soil and he has earthworms and dung beetles galore. His cattle no longer chew at fence posts and tree bark. Collin said (incredulously) that Northcliffe had received no rain for 3 months this summer and that this is unprecedented and concerning. It was mentioned that farmers and farmers alone hold the keys to significantly reverse climate change and should really be paid to sequester carbon in their soils.
Rob felt their farm was going backwards using conventional agriculture, so undertook lots of learning about what could be done. Perennial pastures have been established, planned grazing implemented with their sheep, liquid biological fertiliser used on cropping land – all in all, replacing ‘bad’ with ‘good’ practices. There’s a focus on the water, mineral and energy cycles resulting in more sustainable methods where they feel better about the way they farm. While changes sometimes happen slowly, they happen. A panel question and answer session completed a very worthwhile day.
Farmers and gardeners wanting to know more about ‘teaming with microbes” can ring Bee Winfield on 97561408 or email her : firstname.lastname@example.org