By Tim Lawrence
Much of what I have learnt about soil comes from doing a two year apprenticeship at Stroud Community Agriculture and the influence of one of the farm team there who recently passed away, Ute. Digging couch out of the field with Ute was an exercise in plant observation, reading the landscape and soil craft; turning the cow pats into the straw bedding in the barn was a class in compost making and soil life.
For her, soil, soul, and society were intertwined – a rich and fertile view and practice.
Soil and animals
When talking about Growing Soil in the British Isles, we have long depended on the cow and its dung, whether dropped in the field or made into manure through composting with straw in the barn.
Bio-dynamics clearly articulates the importance of the cow and its manure within its agricultural view, principles and practices. This is an insight that can be lost in modern debates about farming and the role of animals that can just see the commodities, meat and dairy. For example, Stroud Community Agriculture had cows primarily for soil fertility; the farm's core business of growing vegetables depended on tonnes of quality manure. Meat was a secondary concern.
Taking the cow as central aspect of traditional agriculture also opens up a useful understanding or vision of the British landscape. Our landscape has primarily been shaped by the cow, sheep and horse. This has had a profound influence in shaping our communities and culture. For centuries, the forest has been cleared bit by bit, the soil exposed and then tamed through the use of horse, cow and sheep.
The patchwork of green and gold fields that covers this isle and the very fabric of British society have been grown with the toil, grazing and dung of animals.
Soil and petro-chemical agriculture
This has changed dramatically in the last seventy years with the widespread use of tractors and chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides. Petro-chemical agriculture has changed our interaction with soil and agriculture from one of living relationships with all their complexity and reduced it to the mechanical cause and effect of a factory/machine. Soil, agriculture, plants, animals, eco-systems, communities and culture have been undermined and eroded.
From the perspective of soil (soil life), farm animals, crops, and the wider farm habitat petro-chemical agriculture is a litany of abuse and neglect. The linear logic of cause and effect, petro-chemical input and maximised output, has severed so many of the positive feedback loops and relationships of traditional farming.
This mechanistic view and industrial approach is even widespread in organic farming. The pressure to mechanise and industrialise is high with the value of food as percentage of income being so low.
Soil and relationships
I don’t want to romanticise the past, nor do I want to overly focus on the cow; my point is the importance of relationships in growing soil, healthy animals (inc. humans), plants, communities and cultures or ecologies.
In terms of growing soil, the cow is amongst one of many creatures that is good at converting plant leaves into compost – organic matter that is stable and can be stored in the soil, or used to improve soil structure and texture, or feed soil life. We could equally talk of worms.
Soil and Plants
Let’s talk about plants though. Plants can tell us so much about soil life and characteristics, they can be great indicators of what is going on in the soil, whether it be nutrient levels, compaction, soil type, air or moisture content-capacity.
Through observing and building relationships with the plants, particularly what you might call ‘weeds’, we can learn most, if not all, of what we need to help foster and nurture soil life. Let us not forget trees either. They are protectors of the soil as well as growing it, be it at ground level or vertically as bark.
Seeing bark as soil - growing soil - can tell us a lot about the importance of trees and forests, and how quickly soil and fertility can be lost with their removal (more obviously in hotter climates). Plants act to grow soil all the time, whether it be docs with their tap roots or bind weed or nettles or brambles or vetch.
There is so much to learn about green manures and natural plant succession (rewilding) in growing soil, and maybe even society too!?!
Protecting our soil
Yet all this talk of growing soil is somewhat academic or futile if we continue to put so much of our soil (particularly in and around urban areas) under tarmac, concrete, and brick.
We need to stop it.
We depend on our soil for our sustenance, our very existence; both soul and society.