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4 actionable ways to keep your farm’s soils thriving

4 actionable ways to keep your farm’s soils thriving

It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of soil.

Not only does 95% of the food we eat come from this vital resource, but by contributing to the carbon cycle, storing water and more, soil also supports a healthy climate and acts as a source of protection against drought and flooding.

As stewards of the land, farmers have a big role to play in managing the health of our soils. One of the ways they can do this is by following the principles of agroecology and working closely with nature on their land. We spoke to farmer Joe Rolfe of RBOrganic for his top tips on using nature-friendly methods to protect and nourish his land’s soils while keeping farming productivity high. Here’s what he said.

Tell us a bit about RBOrganic...

RBOrganic is a dedicated organic vegetable growing business based in North Norfolk. We have a small team that focus solely on producing organic carrots and potatoes in a sustainable way. The business has been farming organically since its inception back in the early 2000s, and has since that time been farming in partnership with two large fully organic estates in Norfolk.

As long-term tenants on these estates, we have been able to work together and establish a diverse rotation that focuses on sustainability and improving biodiversity. Both estates have invested in ring main irrigation systems which enables us to water our vegetables throughout the summer months to improve and produce the best quality and yield. One of the many benefits to working as part of a long term plan is the ability to focus on reducing weed, pest and disease cycles while actively improving soil organic matter and health, at the same time as creating a commercially viable rotation for all the stakeholders involved.

Why are healthy soils so important?

Fundamentally, without soil you cannot grow! It produces nearly all the food for humans and animals, so it’s absolutely core to everything we farmers do.

What’s also important to understand is that soil health and soil organic matter are linked, so building on this relationship is a big part of organic farming. Well-maintained soils that are high in organic matter are crucial for defending your farm against common (and often costly) issues such as pests and disease. By putting in the work to make your soils healthy, you can save money, avoid using inputs and benefit from thriving crops. Anecdotally speaking, we generally don’t see big disease issues at RBOrganic, and it’s directly because we follow measures to keep our soils healthy. It’s such a reliable way to keep your farm resilient.

Considering the crucial nature, as well as the food production advantages of, healthy soils, it’s vital that farmers implement the best soil management strategies they can on their land. You don’t have to take major steps to get started – ‘attention to detail’ improvements are good, such as farming more closely with trees, reconsidering the crop density in your fields and more. You can also:

1. Start a rotational grazing system (if you have, or can borrow, livestock)

It’s common knowledge that grazing animals have a vital function on farms, as their manure can be used to fertilise fields and make nutrition more available in your wider rotation. There’s really no replacement for it. Though you can apply some micronutrients to your land, such as salts and magnesium, these are only low-level measures that don’t adequately substitute having a good amount of manure to use.

Do plan ahead with this practice. When we’re producing vegetables, we need to factor in a gap between applying manure onto our fields and growing crops for human consumption - a protocol set by our customers. Manure is the basis for this growth, as it supports higher levels of organic matter which gives your crops what they need to flourish. 

2. Change where your produce grows regularly

At RBOrganic, we don’t grow our produce in a particular field more than once every seven years to ten years. So, for example, one year out of seven we might use a field for carrots, and then for the other six there will be a focus on putting different plants there instead. There might be barley, grass, clover… whatever is judged to be the best choice to:

  • Build organic matter in the soil
  • Break disease cycles
  • Mitigate pests
  • Suppress weeds
  • Reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss

… in-between growing more crops. This approach ensures that we continually build on our soil health without impeding on farm productivity, while also making sure that we don’t create a monoculture. Monocultures are dangerous as they’re bad for biodiversity and great for pests and the large-scale transmission of diseases. With careful planning and by changing where we grow our plants and cover crops, we keep these issues at bay.

For instance, if we detect carrot fly in a particular field one year, rather than persisting with growing carrots in the same area the following year, and encouraging larger numbers of them to repopulate, we’ll aim to grow something different there instead and put our carrots in a field that’s at least one kilometre away (as carrot fly cannot travel that far). Making your growing patterns diverse keeps your land strong and your soils healthy.

3. Grow cover crops to nurture soil health

We try to make sure that our soils are never left bare, and that includes growing cover crops over the winter when we’re not growing food for human consumption. By making sure there’s always something covering the soil, we:

  • Prevent erosion
  • Keep nutrient levels high
  • Suppress weeds
  • Can be a food source for livestock

Cover crops like clover can also ‘fix’ nitrogen into the soil. Furthermore, they are a great, natural source of food for the livestock in your rotational grazing system, so there’s a lot of benefits to growing them.

Again, careful planning and preparation are key to making cover cropping a success. As with other plants, particular pests like particular cover crops, so make sure you change what you grow frequently to break pest cycles before they happen. Use your fields strategically and avoid creating monocultures! In root crop production we have to watch out for slugs and wireworm particularly, and have been working on some trials specifically targeting these pests.

In terms of the best types of cover crop for your land, that will be totally dependent on your location, soil type and so on. If you’re not sure where to start, reach out to other nature-friendly farmers in your area to see what they’re doing. The solution will be close to hand. Currently, we’re using radishes, mustard, vetch and a bit of clover, and are growing them together or separately depending on what we’re planning on using the field for, what the soil needs and other factors. So, tailor your choice of cover crops around:

  • Your geography
  • Your soils’ current requirements (soil testing techniques may help you to figure this out)
  • The type of land you’re working with
  • What you’re using the cover crop for (to build organic matter? Feed your grazing animals over winter? Or something else?)
  • What’s recently happened in the field you’re planning to grow cover crops in (have you had a pest outbreak, for instance? Can a particular cover crop break its lifecycle?)
  • What you’re planning on growing in the field you’re planting cover crops in (can you plant anything that will help?)

4. Work closely with nature wherever possible

This essentially means implementing as many agroecological practices as you can. As well as supporting healthier soils with high levels of organic matter, you can use ecological relationships to address specific problems your land might be facing. Currently, we’re doing quite a bit on pest control through the introduction of beneficial insects to our farm, by increasing the amount and diversity of habitats that they live on, using ‘beetle banks’ to get them into our fields and more. Building up these ‘good’ beetle levels is preventative – it means that we have them in large enough numbers to deal with pests early enough so that they don’t gain in scale and cause a lot of damage. This has worked very well in a controlled environment for us so far.

On that note, being preventatively-minded is a huge part of being a successful organic and/or nature-friendly farmer when it comes to looking after both your crops and soils. You want to foresee and eradicate problems before they happen, so that you don’t have to react to them instead with, for instance, artificial inputs (which of course, can damage soils). Once more, knowing your land well, the geography of your area and the particularities that come with growing certain crops will all help you to make informed decisions about what steps to take to stop problems appearing on your farm in the first place. These cautionary measures might not always work, but the more that you experiment with and follow them, the better off your farm will ultimately be.

Any final thoughts?

Remember that healthy soils are key to managing water levels on your land as well. This is actually really important, as the amount of water going in and around your crops (and the different environments it creates) impact on the condition of what you grow. So, for example, in potato production, if there’s too much humidity in your planting area, you might experience increased disease risk such as blight. But if you don’t have enough water, you run the risk of scab growing on the skin, which our customers don’t want. Therefore, considering water levels in-line with healthy soils and the other measures listed above is crucial for a smooth production process with reliable outcomes.

Ultimately, it’s possible for you to implement nature-friendly methods on your farm, no matter what you're working with - and that goes for all farmers. You just need to really understand the nature of your land and what’s available. Take the time to truly get to know your soils to manage them in the best way, and get everything working together… because when it does, the results speak for themselves.