You could hardly fail to notice that any root veg you have in your veggies bags will inevitably have some soil attached. The exception being spuds as they are coming from a winter clamp and would have been harvested from the ground way back in September when things were drier and warmer. Root crops in the ground tend to collect the most soil but we try hard to leave as much as possible in the field, we really do not wish to give our precious soil away. It is our working medium; without soil there would be no life as we know it on planet Earth. Soil has given us and made us what we are, it is a most remarkable material largely ignored by the humans that depend so much upon its powers of life and sustenance.
I do not recall learning anything at all at school about soil, maybe if I had made it to agricultural college I may have learnt a little, but until recently the subject has been largely ignored by the establishment. A few odd post-war souls realised that there was something worth thinking about and from those early beginnings the Soil Association was born and the subject became the interest of the “strange soil fanatics.” Chemical science reckoned it had all the answers to food growing and soil would be nothing more than a rooting medium into which chemical nutrients could be dumped.
I became aware of soil at an early age playing in the garden. It was a handy thing to have around, mixing with water extended the opportunities tenfold, and its physical properties became legendary as a way of messing up ones clothing. But it was not until I started to grow food that its real potential and importance dawned on me. Working on a dairy farm during the early seventies alerted me to the damage that was being wrought upon the land in the form of noxious chemicals and physical mechanical damage. Soil was being abused across the land at an unprecedented rate. Agriculturalists had missed its point entirely and treated it with contempt and disrespect. Some countries even refer to it as “dirt” something to be avoided or cleansed. Soil was just something to be abused and it was being lost at a horrific rate from some parts of the world, especially where the land was being aggressively tilled. Two places come to mind – the central part of USA, Oklahoma and The Fens in East of UK.
Oklahoma was the scene that enabled Steinbeck to write the novel “Grapes of Wrath”, a heart rendering story of failed farming family and a quarter of a million people leaving their homes and farms during the 1930s. Driven out by the dust storms that destroyed successive years of crops, the banks needed their money back and all but a few became bankrupt. But this was not a novel, really.
It was a true account of desperate farmers who failed to understand the consequences of bad land management. They forgot about the soil and the soil blew away to another place, destroying the crops in the process. Farms in Oklahoma never recovered from this man-made disaster. Some farmers struggled on defying nature until irrigation was installed during the seventies; that changed everything for a couple of decades that is. Irrigation allowed a dramatic increase in yields and security against drought, so agriculture was intensified.
The effect was short lived as the farmers were now heavily in debt to the banks yet again; paying for the “improvements” bled them dry. So once again farmers walked away from the debts and found work in other parts of the US and huge tracts of Oklahoma were once again turned into worthless deserts. What remains now are a very few huge companies farming the land but they are fighting a loosing battle against the increasing frequency of drought and the ever growing need to pump more and more water from the diminishing reserves of the underground aquifers.
Now returning to our homeland, the agriculturally fertile but very new land in East Anglia, most has only been farmed since Victorian times having been drained from marshland. The scene during the War of large sorties of planes leaving airfields there, on their way to the bombing raids in Germany, culminating with the disgraceful attack on Dresden.
You may wonder what the connection is here with these horrific events and soil? Well as the pilots flew over the fields of East Anglia it was noted on many occasions that huge dust storms were to be seen. Sometimes this would cause pilots problems with finding their airfields. These dust storms were very similar to those featured in “Grapes of Wrath”, but with two differences, East Anglian (Fenland) soils are largely comprised of peat, they are the best soils we have in the UK, as most of our soils tend to be very old and quite poor. Because they are peat soils they are very light, fragile and easily blown away.
And the other difference with Oklahoma is that when fenland soils blow away, it really does mean away as they end up in the adjoining sea, lost from agriculture for ever more. This process of soil loss continued in a serious way right up until the 80s when soil management plans were implemented to reduce the losses. But by this time the damage was done, in some places more than a metre depth of soil had been lost in less than 100 years.
So the preservation and management of soil is totally dependent on agriculture and the way it operates. We at Hardwick devote much of our efforts to ensuring that what we have under our feet is looked after in the best possible way. To pick up a handful of soil is to experience the most biologically active material on the planet. Without exaggeration healthy soil will contain many billions of different types of fungi and microbes all with a very specific and vital roles to play somewhere within our eco-system.
This year is the “International Year of Soil” and we are going to celebrate this with a series of seminars looking at soils and hope that you may be able to join us at some point in the calendar.