Tolly’s Rambles: Save our Soils SOS

This year 2015 has been deemed to be “The International Year of Soil”. Although, unless you have an intimate relationship with the fragile fabric that protects us from the fire within, you may well have missed it.

Hardly anybody noticed that 2014 was the International year of Biodiversity, so these events hugely important to us as farmers tend to be rather less sexy to Joe public. Or maybe the powers that be just don’t care enough to flag them up.

It has taken millennia to create this ultra-thin layer of slowly decomposing material mixed in with a selection of ground up rocks and various other pieces of detritus. But this tiny part of Mother Earth is the very part that has enabled us to grow, thrive and become (in our minds) the dominant species. Without the soil on the Earth we would still be swimming around the oceans with fins for legs.

Since we began to inhabit the Earth and develop agriculture we have exploited the soil. During our early days of planet occupation the impact was negligible, nature was able to keep up. Gradually, as we got cleverer at food production, the pressure on soil became greater, until finally with mechanisation and industrialisation we decided that food production at any cost (to the Planet) was OK and poor soil got totally hammered.

The most disconcerting part of this act of gross vandalism is that almost nobody noticed or cared, during the post-war years. A few lone souls decided that things were so bad, some action was needed and The Soil Association was formed. But despite its best efforts, the message to save our soils was largely ignored. Conventional agriculture was in denial and the mantra was “feed the world”, we will find ways of doing this without soil. To me this is a seriously dodgy tactic. What if we don’t find ways to feed the world without soil? As to do so consumes vast amounts of energy and the food is devoid of nutrition, who would desire to live in such a way?!

I, along with a small band of other concerned farmers, have spent most of my working life trying to improve ways of growing food without messing up the soil. Clearly this can be done. It is not actually that difficult, once you understand how soil works and we are keen to spread the word. Recently we have attended some meetings with large scale conventional farmers who have finally seen what they are doing to their soils and decided that enough is enough and that they are going to have to do a lot to get their soils back into good condition. Their main concern has come about as a result of static yields and soils that are increasingly difficult to work. Once the organic matter has dropped to a low level soils become very poorly structured requiring large energy-hungry machines to smash them into submission. This costs money and as cereal prices have dropped from the heady highs of a few years ago suddenly soil gets important.

So we hope that this interest by conventional farmers will spread across the whole of conventional agriculture and that it will be supported by government policy, anything to improve soil and our relationship with it has to be good.

The big conventional farmers talk as if they are feeding the world. In fact they barely manage to feed 30% of the world. It is the small local and subsistent farmers that produce 70% of food and this fact is now being recognised by the “We Feed the World” campaign. And the other day I had the privilege of being photographed by David Rankin in his London studio as one of the 70 farmers from across the world that are to feature in the publication. So please take a look at the video and support the campaign. Save our soils before it is too late.

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