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Ecological food production

Month

April 2017

“We are trying to get agriculture away from the extractive economy and into the renewable economy.”

Wes Jackson – http://modernfarmer.com/2017/03/wes-jackson-the-land-institute-kernza/ – talks on the subject of agriculture and a 10k year year problem. This is exactly what I tell people when they see the field i’m working with. I’m trying to grow grain without ploughing or digging. I’m finding it darn near impossible (to use a phrase an American would be used to) to find a growing solution that doesn’t require planting annually, and all that goes with this process; sprouting the seed or vernalisation (the process of a little moisture and then a period of cold to make the seeds heads appear later on), clearing the ground, drilling or broadcasting. If you leave your field, like I did, to the life then you’ll be facing the prospect, if you have planted complementary plants well, of a carpet of plants, ironically most of them being perennial. How you get your seeds down to the soil, past the leaves and shoots, is a challenge. Then you have the problem of the seeds being crowded out. I also had the problem of the seeds being eaten by mice, slugs and snails. In the end I had to plumb for scything and a light till of about 2 inches then broadcast sowing and another run over the ground with the rotivator. This took me five days on one acre. Because of the work involved my strategy took another sharp turn: I elicited the help of two organic local farmers to plant about four acres each. If I had perennial grains I wouldn’t need to undertake this process at all…..

We cannot carry on this myth of western farming – this is the one where our food is better grown under tight control by farmers using synthetics as they produce higher yields. Conventional, AKA synthetic farming, has for 10k years sped off in the wrong direction. Thank goodness there are people like Wes Jackson treading a different path. This project, grain of truth, is part of that different breed. Our products wont be like Wes’s as we are growers not breeders but we will support perennial grain breeders when ever they have a product for us to try. In the meantime we will plant heritage grain populations, heritage grain, heritage vegetables and fruit and nut bushes and trees – as much perennial as possible. I’d also like to find a use for dock, chicory seeds and burdock plants.

Most of my plants are in now. The new Blacktail mountain water melons have been sprouted – ‘Blacktail Mountain’ was developed by plant breeder Glenn Drowns of Iowa when he was a teenager in 1977, and time after time it beats all the other early watermelons in trials – it is widely acknowledged as one of the earliest varieties available.’ and i’m already salivating about the Irish sweet million Tomato’s im growing again this year. (Sourdough toasted bread with garlic, basil and Toms).

60 years and our soils are dead!

In the UK, and therefor by default the whole Agribusiness dominated western world, our soils are dead, not in 60 years (recent United Nations FAO report), but already. Unless you’re privileged enough to live near a farmer with long term vision, long enough to see the harm synthetic (AKA conventional) farming could possibly do to the land, anything that lives off the soil and anything that eats things that have been grown in the soil – that just about applies to every one of us! – you’ve been absorbing the death of soils for 50 years or so. Therefor I state that most soil and most food is dead! Not in 60 years but NOW.

Lets think about this. Slow down, allow yourself to taste the food you put in your mouth. Take some time to absorb the flavours (sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami) focus on your feelings elsewhere in your body as the food is swallowed and digested. If it isn’t caked in sugar or fat it probably tastes of very little, (but, hold on, what about all those E numbered flavours. They have taste, yeah! like some food company hocus-pocus). Unless you eat food grown by a farmer with vision; a focus on taste, not on yield, then your experience will be of bland un-nutritional food. If you are a subsistence farmer, like I am, your goal is to have lots (yield) of great tasting food (back to the soil). Here is the crucial bit. If the soil you are using (befriending) is alive! then it will imbue flavour in the things that grow in it. The soil connects to our, and the animals we eat, bodies and those bodies to its many parts. How can I possibly say that the most of the soil, in the western world, is dead?

Don’t take my word for it. “We must move away from viewing soil merely as a growth medium and treat it as an ecosystem in its own right.” Environmental Audit Committee of the British House of Commons. Agribusiness (AKA synthetic farming) doesn’t much care for ‘living’ soil, to them soil is a growth medium. The dead soil (AKA growth medium) I inherited when I rented land off the Dartington estate in Devon, UK can only be described – apart from dead – as a medium, soggy in the winter and hard and cracked in the summer. I quickly set to work in improving the soil. In the first year; I planted millions of seeds that mingled and embraced the existing seed bed, I imported and distributed 300 ton of organic matter (all locally sourced unwanted material – Old thatch, garden clippings, wood chip, sawdust, leaf mould, felled trees and paper) and most importantly I embraced Nature and abandoned any links with agribusiness.

What did I do with all this material? I built raised beds and inside these beds layered the paper, sawdust and thatch to suppress the amazing and resilient Buttercup and Dock and beat down the march of the couch grass. I then drove around and collected manure (Thank you Kate and Jack at Lower Sharpham Farm and the Mare and Foul sanctuary at Littlehempsten) and had leaf mould picked up from the Dartington gardens and dumped in piles, that I spread around a little, on the field by a local farmer. All this was to build a fertile layer for precious seedlings, trees and fruit bushes.

I am doing all this work because the soil was dead; In Sept 2015 I dug eighty holes and found two limp and lifeless worms, I noted no beetle life, little bird life and the soil itself was squashed, cloying and still. I planted 50 leaks and cabbages which either just withered and died or stayed pretty much the same size for the next 12 months. Fifty percent of the 50 fruit bushes I planted died, their leaves turned bright yellow (as if they had seen a plant ghost) and then died. I knew as these signs emerged that I needed to focus on the health of the soil and my importing of organic matter began.

I’m writing about this because Its not 60 harvests, as the UN report says, until our soils are depleted, in the vast majority of cases they are already depleted. If they are depleted then we need to work to regenerate them and this work should begin now. Lets all rent a field and do what I have done?? Lets look at the numbers. I.e. If I have imported 300 tons of organic matter on to 4 acres of dead soil extrapolating this to 1000 acres and then the whole of the UK’s agribusiness land what does the number look like? This number is somewhat unimportant as its so vast. We are never going to have enough material, on this scale, to import and make our soils better. So…. We have one solution, no options: We wait for nature to help us. This will take seven to 10 years I suspect, depending on its connections to LIFE – to other healthy soils.

This means that when we finally wake up, to the absurdity of eating chemicals made of oil, toxic to our bodies and to a farming and food industry that grows and sells us food that makes us fat – because it has NO nutritional value and only serves to volumise us – and disease ridden, we will have a transition period. This transition period will last 10 years. No UK grown food for 10 years, unless you live near an enlightened farmer of course or you grow your own.

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