November 2017 at Wark Farm
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Right now, in amongst a whole raft of things which are all about planning, developing the business and the future, it’s happily anomalous that my interest in the very basics, the soils that underpin all this enterprise, is stronger now than it’s ever been over the 14 years I’ve been wandering about this place. Through the various evolutions and revolutions the farm has been through of course much thought has been given to the foundations, we are organic farmer after all and audited by the Soil Association (we’ve just passed our 11th annual inspection) so we’ve played with many ideas, worked on improving soils, taking the ecological approach and matched grass species to the site, experimenting with a greater variety of plant types and used muck and compost as judiciously as our limited stocks will allow. The damage to the soils was one part of our decision to cease rearing pigs here a few years ago. We’ve taken areas of soil out of food production and put them into wildlife production where that is a more appropriate use of the land.would find dead mice and rabbits tails in my trouser pockets may have shortened the odds on the first to an observant punter.
Having arrived at this place, I am left looking at the core of my food producing land and thinking deeply about where next for our soils if they are to continue to produce sustainably for us (including financial sustainability) and play their part in a food chain that is less impactful on our planet. Almost in a state of agony, on a farm scale, the options seem painfully few. Farming in a non-organic way there are more options for worrying less about the soils or, as someone I was talking to about my ideas on soils said recently, a bag of fertiliser covers a multitude of sins. It’s possible to grow plants in almost any media if we give them the right nutrients; we can grow plants in petri dishes, in water, in air… we are starting to do the same with meat. Passing no comment for today on the good and bad aspects of these systems, as an organic farmer we have to look ‘at our sins’ or our soils; running the farm on a nutrient intravenous drip is not an option. If the soils can’t hold, manufacture, accumulate and release the necessities for agricultural plant growth, we’re a bit stuck. So we must have a functioning soil. A biologically functioning soil. It’s that simple. And mind bogglingly complex.
One of my preoccupations over the last year or two has been about the amount of air in the soil. A functioning soil in this context is an aerobic soil. I could draw you a map of the farm now, from my head, of where there is more of less air in my soils. My sins are on display. So I’ve started experimenting with ways of changing that. It’s a year now since my first intervention, playing around with very simple machinery (that I have primarily for control of creeping thistle) to introduce more air into some less functioning soils. The initial results are interesting and positive. The aim is not to be continually intervening in the soils, but to kick start them into a positive biological cycle (perhaps assisted by careful selection of plant species) where they can enhance themselves and only intervene again as issues arise (such as machinery compaction). We’ll see. I’m applying for some charitable funding to further the experiments with some more sophisticated equipment and more controlled experimentation, here’s hoping, it would be great to move into a new level of soil care.