If people are shocked when they hear that 10 million hectares of land are abandoned every year due to soil erosion, then they might be heartened to know that there is a stronghold of farmers and experts passionate about the solutions and who are working hard to improve the health of soils. Around 200 of these people were at the Soil Association’s 2015 Soil Symposium.

A nematode under the microscope

A nematode under the microscope

The annual Soil Symposium gathered together farmers, future growers, soil scientists, experts and some actual soil organisms, for a day of lively discussions on farming practices, which if widely taken up would provide solutions to limit widespread soil degradation.

The Soil Association is firmly rooted in the premise that sustainable agriculture starts with soil life. Dr Elizabeth Stockdale, a soil scientist from Newcastle University, giving advice about the conditions needed for keeping nitrogen in the soil, noted that, “We have to work with a whole zoo of organisms in our soils to get the nitrogen out of our legumes.”

There are a wide range of innovative solutions for improving soils, from contentious new technologies such as biopesticides, to principled organic methods of growing diverse grass leys and using livestock to build soil organic carbon. In 1977 at a conference in Switzerland, the founder of the organic movement in the UK, Lady Eve Balfour, recommended most fundamentally:

“Adopting techniques that maintain soil fertility indefinitely; that utilise, as far as possible, only renewable resources; that do not grossly pollute the environment; and that foster life energy (or if preferred biological activity) within the soil and throughout the cycles of all the involved food chains.” 

In her opening speech, Helen Browning, CEO of the Soil Association, urged farmers to consider that soil should be given the same care, respect, nurturing and protection as we would give to our children. Browning also made the point that even though there are farmers dedicated to stewarding the soil, committed action from the government is also needed. The Soil Association is calling for an increase of 20% in soil organic matter over the next 20 years and urges political leaders to use all the opportunities and resources they have to secure the future of our precious soils. The UK has a legal obligation to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, and a 20% increase in soil organic matter would be a significant contribution towards achieving this target.

Soils need field research

Farmers and growers at the event were keen to catch up on the latest soil research and innovation. The Innovative Farmers scheme, part of the Duchy Future Farming Programme, brings groups of farmers and researchers together to carry out field labs. These research projects bring scientific rigour to farmers’ and growers’ field trials and help them answer questions they have about their methods. For example, Iain Tolhurst uses a large amount of woodchip compost, approximately 200 cubic metres annually, and wanted to know how well it performs in comparison to commercial peat-based growing substrates. Since Defra aim to phase out the use of peat in all horticultural systems by 2030, it is essential to identify effective, locally available and affordable replacement materials. Anja Vieweger and Iain Tolhurst presented the findings of the Woodchip Compost Field Lab at the Soil Symposium with the conclusion that, “woodchip compost can successfully replace commercial growing substrates.”

Soils need new farmers

The Soil Symposium offered pragmatic ways to invest in the future of soil. One of those ways is by building a new generation of soil stewarding farmers. In order to reach the target of 20% soil organic matter increase, there is a lot of hard work to be done by an ever-dwindling number of farmers who are aging – therefore young people must be involved. The Soil Association’s Future Growers scheme enables this new generation of farmers to acquire the relevant knowledge and skills to do this work, in what is now recognised as the gold-standard training in organic horticulture. The two-year paid apprenticeship scheme matches enthusiastic growers with organic host farms and combines farm-based practical work with structured seminars and field visits to exemplar farms.

Louise Coombes and Liam Wood, two Future Growers graduates, gave positive feedback on their experiences, commenting, “We got a lot out of the Future Growers scheme and thought it was excellent. We have both moved on and had the confidence to start our own business, Bengrove Market Garden. The Future Growers scheme certainly played a big part in this.” But they mentioned that one of the challenges of the scheme is finding enough host farms for the number of interested apprentices. The Soil Symposium gave a chance to profile the scheme and for nine current apprentices who attended, a chance to learn more about soil, exchange experiences and network with fellow farmers and growers. Jolke de Moel, a Future Growers apprentice at Abbey Home Farm in Cirencester reflected,

“Farmers tend to be a passionate and knowledgeable bunch of people, and just as we celebrate the diversity in nature and plants and believe they make the whole stronger, so I also believe in the value and celebration of a variety of opinions and points of view.”

Busy farming lives mean that these valuable opportunities for knowledge exchange between farmers, especially including young farmers, are unfortunately rare. Even less common are events that invite exchange among a diversity of approaches to farming including organic, conventional, permaculture and biodynamic.

Soils need political support

Kerry McCarthy

Kerry McCarthy

Kerry McCarthy, shadow secretary for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, speaking at the Soil Symposium also made the point that current government agriculture plans read like a business plan and do not take into consideration either the environment or public health. She commented that,

“To separate farming from the natural environment on which it depends and to ignore farmers roles as custodians of our countryside and to look at food and farming from a purely economic viewpoint and nothing more, is not the way forward.”

The support of Defra is urgently needed to ensure that UK soils are in good enough heart to withstand the many demands which will be placed on them in the future – to feed a growing population within the context of climate change and dwindling natural resources.

The Soil Association is boldly stepping ahead and already preparing the ground, but will government help to amplify these efforts to put soil first?

Photographs: Soil Association

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