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The potential of natural agriculture

The potential of natural agriculture

In this exclusive guest blog, Matt Dunwell, owner of Ragmans Farm, an organic farm in the Forest of Dean, explains his innovative approach to soil fertility and system health. 

A course led by Jairo Restrepo last year at Ragmans Farm introduced us to a new philosophy of system health, based on building healthy soils.

This had a profound effect on the farm, and led us to set up a full time research post to develop these principles for temperate climate agriculture. 

Our Research Manager, Juanfran Lopez, is six months into a three-year programme and this blog is predominantly about his work here at Ragmans.

Collecting baseline data - taking soil samples in our orchard

Our research goal is to gain expertise in making soil amendment preparations. We will then measure the effectiveness of these biological techniques on system biology and mineral balance on plant-soil health and growth. Over the last six months we have put in place a series of soil and plant tests and taken baseline data.

We are testing for pH, salinity, conductivity, a wide range of trace elements and also available nitrogen. A key feature of our approach is to test for a range of bioindicators with different methodologies – physical, chemical,  biological and chromatography. This is often lacking in conventional analysis, but critical as the techniques we are using are based in natural metabolic processes. As farmers and growers, we need to explore ways to measure and understand these processes in far greater depth.

Analysis of samples by Reams analysis using La Motte equipment

In addition to this, we are developing a high quality range of preparations and techniques such as biofertilisers, aerobic teas, mineral chelations, mychorriza, chromatography, lactic acid bacteria, and native microorganism reproduction. The objective of this practice is to reproduce and encourage the local microbiology, as bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, algae and protozoa working in a complete harmony in a healthy environmental system (forest, farm or even animal and human system).

Whilst it is tempting to try to produce a range of products for sale, we are wary of claims that certain microbe mixes are ‘silver bullets to be used in the same way as chemical fertilisers or herbicides. We believe it is more important to get a good understanding of the science behind this approach, and then for farmers to tweak them into individual requirements or situations, thereby having a positive impact on the farmer´s autonomy and viability and hopefully reaching a broader scale.

The beauty of soils – different samples from the farm dried and ready for chromatography

An example of how we can work through these preparations can be seen at Ragmans currently.  We have in the past sampled our soils and found them lacking in certain trace elements.  A conversation with any good soil lab has then furnished us with the trace elements needed, normally in the form of salts – magnesium sulphate etc. These are supplied and put out onto the land with a spreader. 

The addition of trace elements in this way can be ineffective as both the soil and plant are looking for elements in a bioactive form – ie easily digestible. For this reason sometimes the addition of trace elements can be disruptive and almost always there is waste.

When we make biofertiliser on the farm we build a biologically active system using fresh cow manure that has the gut flora and fauna of a ruminant. To this we add various ingredients – including molasses, yeast, and native microbes from the forest soil.   A ferment takes place into which we can place trace elements in minute quantities over a period of three or four months.  These minerals are cycled through countless generations of microbes becoming more and more biologically available.

When the preparation is ready we spray onto the leaves and soil thereby feeding the system through the plants that in turn will feed soil microbes with essential micro nutrients. Applying nutrients in this way has profound implications when addressing the problem of diminishing global supplies of key macro and micro nutrients facing agriculture. 

This is a basic example of our approach as taught by Jairo Restrepo. We are only beginning to understand the potential of natural agriculture, and there is very little knowledge at all of this work in temperate systems.