Words like: “perrenial polyculture,” “regenerative agriculture” and “permaculture” all evoke a sense of doing things differently, or new techniques in the farming world.
But, really, they mean mimicking nature in order to restore an original better state.
That state or condition really is a healthy soil beneath whatever is growing on the surface of the land. Need I add that healthy soil means healthy plants and animals and healthy people.
Constant tilling of the land has for some cultures and regions built soil. A friend who grew up in Holland speaks of he fact that there was no topsoil after the seawater was removed from behind the dikes.
But careful tilling in of crop residue and planting green manure crops and plowing them in actually creating top soil six feet deep. They plowed three-feet deep, and then plowed the next three thus creating the six feet of soil over a long time. Ultimately how sustainable this situation is I don’t know but if carefully replenished, probably a good long time.
The classic story of sustainability in farming, written by an American soil scientist who visited China, was Farmers of 40 Centuries; or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea, and Japan (1911). That is 4,000 years of sustainability in food production.
Of course all this is threatened by population explosion and the availability of “modern technology and chemicals.”
We can only hope that the “Soil Health” movement can present its case to farmers the world over.
Sustainability practices have been shown to be profitable for farmers. I think here about a major study of organic farming done by Cornell University a few years ago.
A speaker very much in demand on the soil health topic is Gabe Brown who farms 5000 acres in North Dakota. His name is synonymous with “cover cropping” his style. Gabe farms grain crops and grass crops and has 350 mother cows and grazes twice that number of yearlings.
He says soil health and plant diversity go hand in hand. He keeps the ground covered at all times. He often seeds as many as 25-35 species of four main plant categories: broad leaf and grass, both warm season and cool season. He maintains that even 15 species will speed up biological time by 15 years in only one year.
That won’t work here a little further north you might say. Gabe Brown’s response is that no cookie cutter approach exists. You just have to just try adapting the concept to your area.
He says: “the greatest roadblock to solving a problem is the human mind.” The problem being the reduction of natural (sustainable) fertility in soil, often measured by the percentage of organic matter in the soil. As soil is used, it can lose this black carbon.
Each one per cent increase in organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 U.S. gallons of water per acre. Drought is therefore resisted.
According to Brown, tillage (plowing, disking etc.) destroys carbon, soil life, structure, infiltration and water holding capacity.
He prefers to seed directly into existing crops and perennial pastures with a no-till seeder to approximate nature’s original diversity of up to 140 species on the Prairie grasslands.
I would love to have him here to give us some ideas about building fertility into our soils without reducing their health. Ideas anyone?
David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which is starting at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake this January.