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The ‘magic’ of soil: what is the importance of soil in agriculture, and what can farmers do to protect it?

The magic of soil: what is the importance of soil in agriculture, and what can farmers do to protect it?

Healthy soils are at the heart of ‘agroecological farming’. Farming as part of an agroecological system means producing food and looking after land in harmony with nature. Without nourished soils, it would not be possible to farm in an agroecological or organic way, as these soils underpin sustainable food production that is crucial to addressing the climate, nature and health crises.

That’s why farmer Denise Walton feels so passionately about looking after the health of her soils at her organic farm, Peelham Farm. As a seasoned organic farmer with an extensive background in agroecology, she knows all about soil functionality and its vital role in food and farming. We caught up with her to discover what she thinks are the most important features of sustainable soil management, and how farmers can take steps to prioritise healthy soils on their land.

Peelham Farm is a brilliant example of how, when put into practice, agroecology can support healthy soils. Is this the main reason you farm in a nature-friendly way?

Learning about ecology and working with nature has always been my path. I have a postgraduate degree in Landscape Ecology, and worked as an ecologist where I surveyed nature in action across the UK. I remember once being commissioned to survey Northumberland National Park and map out the habitats, and saw first-hand while walking many hectares the difference in the effects between intensive and nature-friendly farming methods. So much had already been destroyed, including woodland that had been around since well before the sixteenth century… it really made me appreciate how crucial restorative farming practices are.

Because of my background, when I started farming I immediately opted to do it agroecologically and locally. I knew enough about ecology and wanted to practice it, and my husband had already been working for a local farm so we knew the community and could sell directly to them.

Denise at work at Peelham Farm.

As time has gone on and as science has advanced, the need to farm in an agroecological manner has proven even more important than we originally thought. Understanding the functionality of carbon, soil and nitrogen has been so eye-opening: this relationship is absolutely the core of our existence, so farmers really need to focus on keeping their soils healthy to enable carbon cycling. Agroecology is also crucial as it ‘feeds’ the life in the soil itself… something else that wasn’t clear back in the day. While studying at university we worked on sterilised soils, and it was assumed by many that soil had no life. Over time we have of course realised that soil is home to millions of living things. It’s the source of life, not a source of life.

Why do farmers have such a big role to play in protecting our soils, and how can they make sure they do so effectively?

Roughly 70% of the UK is farmland. As farmers we have control - even if we are tenants or contract farmers - of this incredibly important resource in the UK and globally. We can make a huge difference because we have the land. Obviously this is affected by a lot of things, principally the market, but we have the control and the impact. It’s really important that we take that responsibility seriously.  

Farmers first need to understand the soils on their land, conducting reliable soil assessments that look at everything from the soil organic carbon to its microbial biomass in every field. You can only value what you know, and you only know what you understand, so start by testing what’s there.

Once you know the condition of your soils, consider how you can adapt the way you farm to serve it better - how can you make a difference? Everything in nature and everything on your farm is connected, so think about how you can adapt your existing processes to serve your soils’ health… particularly if you have livestock. Farm animals can be incredibly useful agents of agroecological benefit. You can feed grain-free livestock only on grass and manage their grazing patterns to control parasites and boost soil health. Pastures  can be renovated and resown to make them more biodiverse, too, benefiting soil structure and the nutrient needs of your farm animals (as examples).

Soil testing machine

This machine has a soil corer that goes through the buggy floor to test the soils beneath.

The key is to farm using your land’s natural assets, most of which are free! Don’t be afraid of making a change. It takes time to adopt a new mindset, and it’s a constant evolution. But you can start with what you have today and see excellent results. We’re constantly seeing the effects of treating nature as an ally on our farm, not a hindrance to production… and it’s amazing.

What are the main benefits of healthy soils to a farm, and how can you tell you’re doing a good job of maintaining them?

The first clue is in the health of your livestock and crops. Are they growing well? If you have healthy soils, you’ll see the proof in your produce which will show signs of sustained and robust growth. That’s why, if your grasslands or crops are demonstrating signs of stress or illness, the first thing you should do is test your soils to see what’s happening below ground. Nurtured soils underpin your farm’s entire production – they sustain all of it.

Healthy soils are also crucial to crop and grass resilience and fertility. If your soils are low on organic matter, they’re going to erode, particularly with unexpected and aggressive weather patterns from our changing climate, e.g. heavy ‘rain bombs’ or high winds. Organic matter binds soils and makes them strong, protecting them against adverse elements. Whereas badly maintained soils will get washed away and won’t come back for hundreds of years, which will have disastrous ramifications for food production.

There’s a huge amount of biodiversity in the soil that supports the ecosystems at play on your farm, too. At Peelham Farm, we have several species of bird that live here that depend on soil invertebrates which, in turn, depend on livestock dung to survive. The relationship between our soils and these birds can sometimes be quite nuanced and complex. Our livestock grazes on grass and browses trees to produce healthy, natural dung, which in turn fertilises the soil and contributes to the amount of invertebrates within. Most waders, e.g. Curlew, Lapwing and Snipe, feed on these dung-specialist invertebrates… so if our cattle didn’t eat a natural, nutrient-filled diet to produce quality dung for our soils, certain types of bird wouldn’t be able to eat! This is a great example of the role soils play in natural processes and food cycles: it’s the baseline of all nutrient-dense food for a range of wildlife.

Soils at Peelham Farm

A closer look at the soil at Peelham Farm.

What are your key takeaways for farmers exploring agroecology?

The nature-focused processes at play at Peelham Farm are doable and scaleable. We haven’t done anything groundbreaking, and we want other farmers to feel empowered and to realise that they can (and should!) consider ecology in the way that they work, too. By working with nature, we’ve improved the resilience of our profit margin, we’ve cut back on inputs and reduced the number of tractors we use, for instance. We’ve also developed plenty of short food chains. It’s all very doable. That’s the keyword, here – doable. None of it is easy, but it’s not about that. It’s about farmers working together to create a sustainable food system, and realising that the power is in our hands and that we can do it.

I would suggest beginning by focusing on ecosystem function and carbon cycling on your land. Carbon sequestration is important, but we will never put back into the ground what we’ve taken out, so we need to look at the capacity of habitats to cycle carbon (such as woodland areas) and work on building those on our land.

Dung cannot be undervalued, either. We need healthy dung on healthy grass on healthy soil to maintain above and below ground biodiversity. On that note, grazing livestock plays a critical role on farms and they need to be thought of more centrally in agricultural systems (including arable), through practices such as mob grazing and outwintering.

Grazing cows at Peelham Farm

Happily grazing away!

Again, these changes are all doable – particularly now. When we started farming organically decades ago, there was much less science to support and provide focus for our work. More and more emerging research is proving the value of agroecology and the importance  of working with the environment in mind, so now is the time to start experimenting. We know it’s not simple – we have had several moments where our bank balance got a little precarious, and we took some big risks. But when it works, it really works… and it’s not just working for you. It’s working for the long-term health of people and the planet. It’s farming for the future.  

At the Soil Association, we’ve identified seven actionable ways that farmers can start sustainably managing the soils on their land – read them here.