I’ve just got back from participating in the Living Soil Forum as part of the Youth Future Project’s Summer of Soil, a 5-week multi-disciplinary programme designed to inspire a collaborative movement committed to rebuilding and maintaining living soils. It was organised by a group of young people who believe that increasing the fertility of the world’s soils is the key to building more sustainable food systems.
The venue for the gathering was Jana, a community – actually more of a village – situated an hour’s drive south of Stockholm. It is Sweden’s main centre for work based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner.
The atmosphere of the conference reminded me very much of the early Cirencester conferences on organic farming, which we organised in the 80s and 90s. The majority of those attending then, and here in Jana, were under 30, but with enough older people (like me now!) to create an atmosphere of generations working harmoniously together, their collective attention focused on the future.
Fresh from our 40th anniversary party at Bwlchwernen, I shared my insights about a chapter of soil stewardship that spans over 40 years, and the insights I derived from it. These included a fundamental belief that it really is possible to produce food without using artificial inputs, whilst at the same time building the fertility of the soil, as evidenced by our modestly, but nevertheless, steadily increasing yields.
I also admitted however, that although I intellectually understood the importance of building soil fertility many years ago (I heard myself mentioning this in the 1984 ‘On Your Farm’ interview with Tony Parkin, featured recently on this website), the full significance of the responsibility that all farmers have to maintain, and preferably increase, the organic matter and fertility of their soils, has only really dawned on me at a deeper level in the last couple of years.
The fact that it has taken me that long to ‘get’ something which is apparently so obvious might sound a little depressing. But I had the impression from all the young people milling around Jana that they have somehow already absorbed this critical understanding of the soil – this urgent need – in a way which cannot be fully understood, like some kind of inherited memory from a generation long before them. How else could it be that people this young would decide to hold a week-long conference on this theme?
I also shared with the participants an interesting observation from 2013. We sowed five fields of oats and peas in March, all intended to be turned into cow muesli for consumption by our dairy herd. However, even though exactly the same mixture was sown across the farm, the ratio between oats and peas varied dramatically between the different fields.
This must have something to do with the different soil conditions, perhaps including the pH (or soil acidity) which was rather low in one of the fields, the one that had hardly any peas at all. But in another field there were hardly any oats and it looked almost as if the field had been sown with peas only. I had to admit that I had no idea what was going on, but I thought it was a good illustration of how little I actually know about what’s going on in my own soil, even after all these years.
What I do know is that I intend to devote a sizeable chunk of my energy during my remaining period of occupancy on our Welsh hill, to doing everything possible to nurture and build the fertility of the soils.
As described in previous blogs, this includes restructuring our grazing for the dairy cows along holistic pasture management principles; improving the drainage; mole ploughing (a kind of sub-soiling to make channels in the soil that assist the passage of excessive rainwater into drains); the use of herbal leys (additions to mixtures of grass and clover); and all the other subtle management influences, many of them to do with timing, which arise from regular and direct observation whilst walking the farm whenever I am at home.
These insights, derived from literally walking on the soil, have become one of the most nourishing parts of my life. There is something about feeling the ground beneath your feet, sensing the way in which the soil yields or otherwise to your footfall, noticing the diversity of plant life, the presence of birds, the atmosphere of the fields and translating it where necessary into what a grower-friend once described to me as the ‘ache of urgency’ when something needs to be done, that is entirely timeless and unites all members of the global food producing community.
The other really exciting outcome of the event was a discussion arising from my theme suggestion in an open space workshop, about the need to develop a global network of ‘beacon farms’ which demonstrate sustainable practise, thus capitalising on the world’s most important agricultural educational resource – the food producers themselves.
Photograph by Ari Moore
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