Meeting on soil fertility and rotations at Yatesbury Farm, Calne 20 October 2010

Charles Dowding

27 May 2011

Charles Dowding reflects on a recent seminar that brought together growers using organic, bio-dynamic, permacultural and Shumei systems. While there are several differences between these approaches, it is striking that all are founded on a deep respect for the soil.

Through the Soil Association, a fascinating evening was arranged by Aina Kitagishi and Ben Raskin, to debate some different ways of improving soil fertility, and the role of crop rotations within that. We started with a tour of the plot on Richard’s farm where Shinya Nakamae is growing vegetables the Shumei way; using mostly home saved seed and no manure or compost, believing that soil can revitalise itself without additions from outside.

At the moment the soil is in an excellent loamy, fertile state, after grass. Shinya uses a rotovator to clear weeds and create his seedbeds. Vegetables growing at that time were tomatoes in the tunnel – unwatered for a month and extremely sweet – some excellent and mostly clean brassicas (they had been covered with mesh), and leeks that were small and eaten by caterpillars. The plot was laid out in blocks with areas of weed in between and there is a beautiful shrine of Mount Fuji in the middle, decorated with marigold flowers for the occasion. To one side was a pile of cleared vegetable residues which Shinya said he is not using for compost.

Also in the polytunnel were some recently planted carrots and onions, with the aim of having seed that is naturally pure and attuned to that place and soil, possessing the correct energy for stimulating healthy growth. The tomatoes we saw were of seed saved for five years at the previous Shumei farm in Essex. It was almost frosty by this time, with a clear moon rising, so we moved indoors for an excellent supper provided by many Shumei people who had come from all over the country, also a delicious apple tart prepared by Charlotte Gantlett.

The presentations

After the tour we moved upstairs to begin our debate. I began with an outline of organic ideas, emphasising the use of compost to improve fertility, starting from the work of Albert Howard. Revitalisation of soil through good compost is at the heart of organic growing; until the word organic became general in the 1960s, produce sold by the Soil Association founders in the 1940s and ‘50s, was called ‘compost grown’. I explained how I am increasing fertility on my soil with imported compost and animal manure, all on the surface and with no cultivations.

Iain 'Tolly' Tolhurst followed with a visual presentation of his organic gardens and fields, where fertility is maintained in a carefully thought out nine year rotation, during which green manures such as clover are sown under establishing vegetables, or are autumn sown after harvests. Tolly uses alfalfa to raise minerals from deep in his soil, and he also makes compost from wood chips delivered by a local tree surgeon; after a year of being turned twice-monthly this is good enough to use for potting. He emphasised a desire to be truly sustainable and without reliance on external inputs, and has some impressive figures to show the low energy consumption of his operation at Hardwick, near Reading.

Our third speaker was Richard Gantlett, whose land has recently been certified as Demeter standard. He spoke with enthusiasm about the possibilities of biodynamic preparations and showed pictures of soil before and after their use, with a change from pale colour and thin roots to a much darker, root filled soil – all within a year. I have to say that I have not noticed such a dramatic change from using preparation 500 myself, but I was not starting with a poor soil. There is a lot of powerful evidence to back up the success of biodynamic methods, and Richard told us of his tractor driver commenting on the soil becoming more crumbly and easier to work, since the preparations have been used.
Mike Feingold was next, who outlined the core beliefs of permaculturists, which resonated with the other talks given. However, his presentation was largely theoretical. There was no detail of how to achieve equivalent harvests, for example, when following his recommendation to grow perennial instead of annual plants.

Finally we heard more about the Shumei system, and I quote here from a booklet we were given at the end. “Natural Agriculture does not use manure but does use compost composed of leaves and grasses from the surrounding vicinity to keep the soil moist, soft and temperate, rather than as a nutrient. It also teaches that nature has its own way to revitalise itself, therefore additives are not necessary. The soil has all the nutrients needed for healthy crops and the condition of the soil improves on its own”. Another Shumei belief is that continuous cropping of the same plant is better than rotation, because soil organisms can then adapt to whichever plant is continually grown. Growing with gratitude and building a strong and deep relationship with plants and the soil is also stressed. I found that all the Shumei people were extremely friendly, but few were fluent in English and it was frustrating to have such a liunguistic limit on discussing ideas.

The discussion

In the debate which followed the five talks, everybody agreed that respect for the soil’s health was of fundamental importance. Yet the actual practices to reach this goal, as we had just witnessed, are so vastly different. It was really excellent for farmers and growers of such different outlook to swap notes in this way and I think we do it too little. For example, earlier in the day I visited Tolly’s land and came away really impressed from seeing how green manures can be grown when an operation is not too intensive. There is the significant bonus of not depending on imported fertility. On the other hand, I wonder about the value of green manures for more intensive and small scale vegetable growing.

Perhaps we need to know more about the use of compost teas, which require little raw material and whose preparation is less esoteric, but more labour intensive, than the biodynamic preparations. The latter were further explained by Richard Thornton-Smith, the Demeter symbol inspector for Great Britain. I certainly feel that organic farmers and growers can learn a lot from biodynamic ones. Their preparations require very little raw material and can be applied on vast areas with reasonable speed, as demonstrated by Alex Podolski in Australia, with amazing results. His work has been the inspiration for Richard Gantlett.

Richard talked passionately about humus, that mysterious colloidal crumb which is the holy grail of any one seeking healthy soil and plants. The early organic pioneers referred to humus a lot, but you hear the word quite rarely nowadays. However, I found one of Richard’s comments especially powerful, that “humus is at the height of a continuous process of becoming”. In other words, it is the fluid and ever changing pinnacle of successful farming and growing, appearing when soil is tended correctly. It is the sum of a process that can always be improved and requires our continual attention.

In contrast to this, permaculturist Mike offered relatively less consideration of the soil. It would have been interesting to have eaten a meal that evening from his system. Nuts, fruit and I am not sure what else would have replaced the stew, sandwiches, potato cakes, sushi rolls and cakes, which all come from annual plants. Perhaps these questions relate more to lifestyle choice than to ways of farming and managing soil fertility. The evening was a reflection of both: instead of an argument about different ways of managing soil, we took part in a reassuring demonstration of the considerable common ground that is shared by the many different ways of farming and growing.

Thank you again to Richard and Charlotte Gantlett for hosting, and to the Shumei network of Great Britain for introducing their system of farming.

Charles Dowding is an organic grower and writer, well known for his books on 'no dig' gardening systems, as well as a member of the Mother Earth editorial board.  

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

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