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Coconut coir dust July 4th, 2021 by

Many years ago, I wrote one of my first articles, on “Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics” and published it in Humus News, a trilingual (Dutch, French, English) magazine from Comité Jean Pain, a Belgian non-profit association that has trained people from across the globe on compost making since 1978.

So recently, when one of our Indian video partners decided to make a training video on composting coir dust, I dug up my old article, and was pleasantly surprised to see that it still contained useful information.

Coconut coir dust or coir pith is the material that is left over after the fibres have been removed from the coconut husk. Coconut factories often have no idea what to do with this waste, so in many coastal areas in the humid tropics one can find heaps of this natural resource.

Whether economical or ecological motives are the driving force, in low external input agriculture systems in the tropics, farmers often use biowaste for soil conservation and sustainable land use.

While coir dust has negligible amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, making it a poor source of nutrients, it can store up to 8 times its dry weight in water. By applying a 15 cm thick layer of coir dust mulch around coconut seedlings in Sri Lanka, irrigation needs could be reduced by up to 55 %. In a pineapple coconut intercrop during the dry season, my coir paper reported that the top soil layer had a moisture content of 49 % under the mulch, compared to 10 % under a sandy ridge of the same height.

When coir dust mulch is applied to salt-sensitive plants care, has to be taken that the concentration of salt is not too high. The highest salt concentrations, though still low, are mainly observed in coir dust which is fresh and from coastal coconut trees. This salt concentration can be reduced by leaving the material in the rain, before applying the mulch in the field or nursery.

In a commercial tree nursery in Kenya, germination of cashew seeds is enhanced by applying a coir dust mulch. Besides, roots are not damaged after transplanting, thanks to the loose structure of the coir dust. Weeds in cashew plantations in India are suppressed by applying a layer of 7.5 cm of mulch in a 1.5 m radius around the trees. In Sri Lanka, this kind of mulch is mainly used in semi-perennial crops like pineapple and ginger. Coir dust mulch suppressed some of the world’s worst weeds, namely goatweed, purple nutsedge and the sensitive mimosa plant.

Besides suppressing weeds, coir dust mulch also helps to establish cover crops. Herbaceous legumes are often used as cover crop under coconut in Sri Lanka, but they are suppressed by weeds in dry weather. Applying coir dust tackles the weeds, but favors the leguminous cover crop during the dry season.

Coir dust consists mainly of lignin, a woody substance which is poorly biodegradable. About 90 % is organic matter and the C/N ratio is extremely high (> 130). The low pH of 4.5 – 5.5 offers an extra protection against biodegradation, as many micro-organisms do not survive once the pH drops below 4. Slow biodegradation of organic mulches has been recently more and more looked for, especially in the humid and sub-humid tropics, where fast mineralization of the organic matter and leaching of minterals are big problems. While coir dust can easily be applied as a mulch, the recently produced video suggests that it is better to compost the coir dust first when one wants to use it to improve the soil structure. The video shows how one can easily make one’s own organic decomposer that is rich in good microbes to break down the lignin.

Coir dust, being important to control weeds, improve soil physical conditions and increase water retention capacity, should be regarded as an important resource for soil conservation and sustainable land use in integrated cropping systems, and not as waste. The use of coir dust in the tropics, however, is not only hindered by a lack of knowledge, which the video aims to share, but is also seriously threatened as coir dust is increasingly exported to Europe where it is used as an horticulture substrate.

Further reading

Van Mele, P. 1997. Utilization of Coconut Coir Dust Mulch in the Tropics. Humus News, 13(1), p. 3-4.

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Coir pith – from waste to wealth

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 90 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a social media video platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Iron for organic pigs May 16th, 2021 by

Organic agriculture is on the rise, but as the sector grows and more farmers convert from conventional to organic farming, regulations are continuously fine-tuned. Finding a balance between animal welfare and the heavy debt burden many conventional farmers have due to past investments in modern pig houses is a delicate exercise, as I recently learned from my friend, Johan Hons, a long-time organic farmer in north-eastern Belgium.

“When some 40 years ago a neighbour farmer offered to let me use one of his vacant stables, I bought my first Piétrain pigs (a Belgian breed of pig) and started rearing. In those early years, I always supplemented iron. A few years later, Vera and I were able to start our own farm. We were convinced that organic farming was the only way food should be produced, so I gave my pigs the space to roam around in the field. Ever since then, they never needed any iron injections and they never got sick,” Johan says.

Iron is an essential mineral for all livestock, especially for piglets. Iron-deficient piglets will suffer from anaemia: they will remain pale, stunted, have chronic diarrhoea and if left untreated they will die. Worldwide, piglets are commonly injected with a 200 milligram dose of iron a few days after birth. Although this intramuscular injection is effective against anaemia, it is very stressful to the piglets.

In a natural environment a sow acquires enough iron from the soil during rooting behaviour, which she passes on to the suckling piglets through her milk. But most pigs in conventional farming in Belgium are raised on slatted floors and have no access to soil. Sows only have enough iron reserves for their first litter. Piglets of the second and third litter would already have a shortage of iron and become sick, unless given supplements.

Under Belgian regulations, organic meat pigs are allowed only one medical treatment for whatever illness. If a second treatment is given, pigs can only be sold in the conventional circuit and hence farmers do not get a premium price. With more conventional farmers eager to convert to organic to earn a higher income, members of Bioforum, the Belgian multi-stakeholder platform for organic agriculture, requested the regulatory authorities whether iron injections could be considered as a non-medical treatment.

As a member of Bioforum, Johan suggested an alternative: “When the sow delivers in the sty, I daily give her piglets a few handfuls of soil from the moment they are one week old. I put it out of reach of the sow, otherwise she would eat it, and continue doing so until the piglets are a few weeks old and allowed outside. Just like human babies, the piglets have a curious nature and by giving them early access to soil, they immediately build up their iron stores and immunity.”

For Johan caring for animals is knowing what they need and providing them with all the comfort throughout their life. This starts at birth-giving.

However, his suggestion initially got a cold reception at the forum, whose members also includes retailers. Most farmers who want to convert to organic do not have the possibility of letting their pigs roam on the land, showing the dire realities of conventional farms in Belgium, where concrete is more abundant around the pig houses than soil.

And however creative they found Johan’s suggestion to provide piglets with soil in the stables, this was not considered a feasible option. Conventional farmers have invested heavily in modern pig houses with slatted floors and automated manure removal systems and bringing in soil would obstruct the system. Adjusting such houses to cater for organic farming is an expense few farmers are willing to make.

Belgian authorities decided that, because of lack of commercial alternatives to iron injections, they would be temporarily accepted in organic agriculture, on the condition that the iron formulation is not mixed with antibiotics.

A sustainable food system is at the heart of the European Green Deal. As the European Commission has set a target under its farm to fork strategy to have 25% of the land under organic agriculture by 2030, it will need to reflect on how far the regulations for organic agriculture can be stretched, as well as on possible measures to support farmers to convert.

If left to the pigs to decide, they would surely opt for more time outdoors and less concrete around their houses, not a tweak in the regulations to declassify iron injection as a medical treatment.

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Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages on a diversity of crops and livestock, sustainable soil and water management, basic food processing, etc. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone from across the globe can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

An exit strategy April 4th, 2021 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Development projects often die when the money runs out. Many of these efforts often have no exit strategy in mind, but that’s changing, as I saw on a recent visit to Villa Taquiña, on the mountain slopes above Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Once an independent peasant community, Villa Taquiña has now largely been swallowed by the city of Cochabamba, but until recently, many farmers still managed to grow small plots of cut flowers.

When I lived in Villa Taquiña, years ago, if I caught the bus before dawn I would share the ride with older women taking huge bundles of carnations, gladiolas, and chrysanthemums to sell in the central market. But on my recent visit a local farmer, doña Nelly, explained that when Covid put a stop to big weddings and funerals, it wiped out the demand for cut flowers. Adaptable as ever, the smallholders turned to fresh vegetables, but there was a catch. The flowers had been grown with lots of pesticides. Now the farmers hoped to produce in a more environmentally friendly way, “so we can leave something for our children and grandchildren,” doña Nelly explained.

Two agronomists, Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza, from Fundación Agrecol Andes, are helping a dozen farm families transition to agroecology. The farmers plant broccoli, cabbage and other vegetables with seeds they buy at the shop. The seeds come dusted in pink fungicide, but the farmers harvest seeds from some of the plants they grow, and are now producing 80% of their own seed. If they need a fungicide, they can make sulfur-lime or Bordeaux mix, which are accepted by most organic agricultural programs. The farmers also plant basil, quilquiña and other aromatic plants among their vegetables to discourage insect pests. Many different plants are grown together; this is called intercropping and it also keeps the pests away. The farmers are also bringing their soils back to life by incorporating compost.

Although the plots are tiny (some farmers have as little as 700 square meters) with hard work even a small piece of land can produce a lot of vegetables. Then the problem becomes where to sell it. Folks could take their produce to the big market in the city, but they would have to compete with conventionally-grown vegetables brought in by the truck load. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers to work together. They often meet at doña Nelly’s house to package the produce with attractive labels. Besides saving on the costs of agrochemicals, these organic farmers have a close link with consumers, so they listen to what their clients want, and try to offer them a rich diversity of vegetables.

Belonging to a group also helps the farmers to reach customers who appreciate organic produce. In Bolivia the niches for organic food are still in their infancy, so producers and consumers need a little help finding each other. Alberto and Alex have organized the farmers with their consumers. Every week a group of consumers (including my family) gets a WhatsApp message with this week’s menu of what is on offer. We order what we want, everything from crisp vegetables to a perfect whole wheat flour to the best cactus fruit I’ve ever had. Two days later Alberto and Alex cheerfully arrive at our door with the produce.

Unfortunately, this is not sustainable marketing. Vegetable growers can’t always depend on the good graces of a project to sell their produce for them, but Alberto and Alex have an exit strategy.  They are organizing volunteer farmers and consumers to meet occasionally and inspect the farms, to guarantee that they are agroecologically sound. It is called the “participatory guarantee system,” (SPG) a kind of people’s organic certification. With time, Alberto hopes to make the marketing profitable enough that someone, perhaps the farmers themselves, will take it over as a private enterprise.  To that end, the farmers are organizing themselves into a legally-recognized association. Letting the farmers and the consumers get to know each other is also an innovation to make sure that we keep buying and selling.

I visit Villa Taquiña with two-dozen mask-wearing consumers, who were delighted to meet some of the farmers who grow the food we eat. One of those farmers, Elsa Bustamante, has an exit strategy of her own. She is feeding guinea pigs on the vegetable waste from her small plot, and she plans to start a restaurant featuring organic vegetables and homegrown guinea pigs. “You will all be my customers,” Elsa tells us. And then she serves up golden brown quarters of fried guinea pig on a bed of rice, potatoes and salad. The consumers love it.

Related Agro-Insight blog stories

The next generation of farmers

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Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, and her brother Pastor for letting us into their homes and their fields. Doña Nelly is the representative of the SPG Cercado. (Cercado is a province in the Department of Cochabamba. Cercado has only one municipality, which is also called Cochabamba, and it is the Department’s capital). The SPG Cercado is backed up by Law 3525, “Regulation and promotion of ecological production of agriculture, livestock and non-timber forest products” and by the National Technical Norm (NTN) which supports the participatory guarantee systems (SPG) which is used to accredit urban, peri-urban and rural groups of ecological farmers. The SPG Cercado works via an MOU with the municipal government of Cochabamba and the Fundación Agrecol Andes, with funding from the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation. Ing. Alberto Cárdenas and Ing. Alexander Espinoza work for the Fundación Agrecol Andes, in Cochabamba. A big thanks to them for organizing this visit, and thanks as well to Alberto for his comments on an earlier version of this story.

Scientific name

Quilquiña (Porophyllum ruderale) is a pungent herb used for making salsas.

Videos on the agroecological way to produce vegetables

Using sack mounds to grow vegetables

Managing black rot in cabbage

Managing vegetable nematodes

Insect nets in seedbeds

ESTRATEGIA DE SALIDA

Jeff Bentley, 4 de abril del 2021

Los proyectos de desarrollo suelen morir cuando se acaba el dinero. A muchos de estos esfuerzos les falta una estrategia de salida, pero eso está cambiando, como vi hace poco en una visita a Villa Taquiña, al pie de la cordillera andina, en Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Villa Taquiña, que era una comunidad agrícola independiente, hoy en día ha sido prácticamente tragada por la ciudad de Cochabamba, pero hasta hace poco, muchos agricultores cultivaban pequeñas parcelas de flores cortadas para vender.

Cuando yo vivĂ­a en Villa Taquiña, hace algunos años, si salĂ­a antes del amanecer compartĂ­a el micro (bus) con mujeres mayores de edad que llevaban enormes bultos de claveles, gladiolos y crisantemos para vender en el mercado central. Pero en mi Ăşltima visita, una agricultora local, doña Nelly Camacho, me explicĂł que cuando el Covid acabĂł con las bodas y los funerales bien asistidos, dio fin a la demanda de flores cortadas. Tan bien adaptables como siempre, los pequeños agricultores empezaron a producir verduras frescas, pero habĂ­a un problemita. Las flores se cultivaban con muchos plaguicidas. Ahora los agricultores esperan producir de forma más ecolĂłgica, “porque queremos dejar algo para nuestros hijos, y nietos”, explica doña Nelly.

Los ingenieros agrónomos Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza, de la Fundación Agrecol Andes, les están ayudando a una decena de familias en la transición a la agroecología. Los agricultores siembran brócoli, repollo lechugas, vainas y otras hortalizas con semillas que compran en la agropecuaria. Las semillas vienen recubiertas con un fungicida rosado, pero los agricultores guardan algunas de las semillas de las plantas que cultivan, y ahora están produciendo el 80% de sus propias semillas. Si necesitan un fungicida, pueden hacer sulfocálcico o caldo bordelés, que son aceptados por la mayoría de los programas de agricultura orgánica. Los agricultores también siembran albahaca, quilquiña y otras plantas aromáticas entre sus hortalizas para ahuyentar a las plagas insectiles. Cultivan una mezcla de muchas plantas diferentes; esto se llama policultivo y también evita tener plagas. Además, los agricultores están recuperando sus suelos, incorporando compost.

A pesar de que las parcelas que quedan son pequeñas (alguna gente cultiva sólo 700 metros cuadrados), con trabajo se puede producir muchas verduras. Luego viene el problema de dónde venderlas. Los agricultores podrían llevar sus productos al gran mercado, la Cancha de Cochabamba, pero tendrían que competir con las camionadas de hortalizas convencionales. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores para que trabajen juntos. A menudo se reúnen en la casa de doña Nelly para embolsar los productos con etiquetas atractivas. Además de ahorrarse los costos de los agroquímicos, estos agricultores orgánicos tienen un estrecho vínculo con los consumidores, y saben lo que sus clientes quieren y tratan de ofrecerles una rica diversidad de verduras.

Pertenecer a un grupo también ayuda a los agricultores a encontrar los clientes que aprecian los productos orgánicos. En Bolivia, los nichos de los alimentos orgánicos todavía están en pañales, entonces los productores y consumidores necesitan un poco de ayuda para encontrarse. Alberto y Alex han organizado a los agricultores con sus consumidores. Cada semana, un grupo de consumidores (incluyendo a mi familia) recibe un mensaje de WhatsApp con la oferta semanal. Pedimos lo que queremos, desde verduras súper frescas, una perfecta harina integral, y la mejor tuna que jamás he probado. Dos días después, Alberto y Alex puntualmente nos dejan una “bolsa saludable” (Bolsaludabe) de productos en la puerta.

Lastimosamente, este tipo de comercialización no es sostenible. Los horticultores no siempre pueden depender de la buena voluntad de un proyecto para vender sus productos, pero Alberto y Alex tienen una estrategia de salida. Están organizando a agricultores y consumidores voluntarios para que se reúnan de vez en cuando e inspeccionen las parcelas, a fin de garantizar que son agroecológicas de verdad. Se llama “sistema participativo de garantías” (SPG), y es una especie de certificación orgánica popular. Con el tiempo, Alberto espera que la comercialización sea lo suficientemente rentable como para que alguien, tal vez los mismos productores, se haga cargo de vender la producción de manera particular. Para hacer eso, los productores se están organizando en una asociación con personería jurídica. El hacer que los agricultores y los consumidores nos conozcamos es también una innovación para asegurar que sigamos comprando y vendiendo.

En mi visita a Villa Taquiña Ă©ramos dos docenas de consumidores con barbijos, que estábamos encantados de conocer a algunos de los agricultores que producen los alimentos que comemos. Una de esas agricultoras, Elsa Bustamante, tiene su propia estrategia de salida. Ella está alimentando a cuys con los residuos vegetales de su pequeña parcela, y planifica abrir un restaurante con verduras ecolĂłgicas y cuys producidos en casa. “Todos ustedes serán mis clientes”, nos dice Elsa. Y luego sirve cuartos de cuy fritos y dorados y aĂşn calientes sobre un lecho de arroz, papas y ensalada. A los consumidores les encanta.

ArtĂ­culos relacionados del blog de Agro-Insight

The next generation of farmers

En el frutillar de nuevo

Lectura adicional

Bentley, Jeffery W. 2015 “Flowers Watered with Beer.” Agriculture for Development 26:20-22.

Agradecimientos

Gracias a Nelly Camacho, Elsa Bustamante, y su hermano Pastor por recibirnos en sus hogares y sus parcelas. Doña Nelly es la representante del SPG Cercado. (Cercado es una provincia del Departamento de Cochabamba. Cercado tiene un solo municipio, que también se llama Cochabamba, el cual es la capital del Departamento). El SPG Cercado es respaldado por la Ley 3525, “Regulación y promoción de la producción agropecuaria y forestal no maderable ecológica” y por la Norma Técnica Nacional (NTN) que apoya a los sistemas participativos de garantía (SPG) a través de la cual se acredita grupos de productores ecológicos a nivel urbano, periurbano y rural. El SPG Cercado trabaja a través de un convenio entre el gobierno municipal de Cochabamba y la Fundación Agrecol Andes, con financiamiento de la Cooperación Italiana. Los Ing. Alberto Cárdenas y Alexander Espinoza trabajan para la Fundación Agrecol Andes, en Cochabamba. Gracias a ellos por organizar el viaje, y gracias a Alberto por sus comentarios sobre una versión anterior de este blog.

Vocabulario

El cuy es el conejillo de las Indias.

La quilquiña es una hierba con un fuerte olor usada para hacer salsas, Porophyllum ruderale.

Videos sobre la forma agroecolĂłgica de producir hortalizas

Producir hortalizas en maceta de saco

Managing black rot in cabbage

El manejo de nematodos en hortalizas

Insect nets in seedbeds

Redes contra insectos en almácigo

The next generation of farmers March 28th, 2021 by

Whether in Europe or in the global South, young farmers, unless they are born into a farm family, often lack three key things: land, finance and knowledge. But a new breed of farmers has risen, fuelled by passion to produce food in a healthy way, free from agrochemicals. Their journeys are often difficult, but with support from the community and by helping each other, they are heading towards a fairer and brighter future, as I learned this week on a revealing road trip.

Recently, I joined my farmer friends Johan Hons and Vera Kuijpers on their weekly trip to deliver and buy organic produce from wholesalers and fellow farmers to stock up their farm shop that opens from Friday afternoon until Saturday noon. Johan and Vera have been pioneer organic farmers in north-eastern Belgium.

“When we started some 30 years ago, it was just us and one other family who had a basic food packaging machine. Whenever needed, we could use their machine,” Johan said. In the meantime, the number of organic farmers has grown, and an amazing informal network is coming to life.

The back of the van is loaded with freshly harvested potatoes, a few crates of cabbages and leek seedlings that Johan and Vera had reared for the new season. Having left their farm before 6 am, by 8 o’clock we finished our first delivery. Biofresh, a main organic retailer, bought their potatoes. At the same time, we collect the produce they had ordered online a few days earlier. Vera guides me through the warehouse, explaining how the whole system works.

I see crates of organic pineapples from Côte d’Ivoire, bright mangoes from Ghana, ginger from Peru, fava beans, artichokes and oranges from Italy, and various local products, including their potatoes, amongst other things.

“At first, our name was mentioned on the label,” Vera says, “but they have now replaced our name with a number, so people no longer know who has produced them. I think it is to protect themselves from their competitors.” This may well be the case, but as we continue our road trip it dawns on me that the effectiveness of this strategy may only be short-lived.

As we load the van in the parking lot, Floriaan D’Hulster, a young fellow organic farmer whom we had met indoors 10 minutes earlier arrives. He has come to buy Johan and Vera’s crates of cabbages and hands over a little carton box. My curiosity triggered, Johan proudly opens it and shows little seed packages.

“This is from our group of farmers with whom we started to produce vegetable seed. The seed has been cleaned, nicely labelled and packaged at the premises of Akelei, the organic farm where Floriaan works, and will be available in our farm shop as of tomorrow,” Johan smiles. Their non-profit association “Vitale Rassen” was formalised in 2019 and regroups organic farmers across Flanders who produce seed under EU organic standards.

On to the next destination. Like Biofresh, Sinature is a wholesaler, but they also have their own greenhouses behind their warehouse. “We like to buy as much locally produced food as possible,” Vera says, “as that is in line with our philosophy and many clients also ask me about this.”

As we walk through the warehouse, Vera carefully goes over various lists. I learn that they are at the same time buying produce for other fellow farmers. “Many of us have started to sell our produce ourselves directly to consumers, whether at farm markets or farm shops,” Vera says, “and it is good to be able to offer clients a rich diversity of food on top of your own produce. As we have a van and a trailer, we provide this service to our fellow farmers against a small fee to cover our costs.”

At Bernd Vandersmissen’s farm I am excited to see how even in greenhouses, they successfully integrate crops and livestock. Two pigs are happily sleeping under a trailer in an area secured by a temporary electric fence. While the pigs feed on the green manure (a mixture of rye and phacelia), they keep the soil loose and fertile.

Many of the new generation of farmers have managed one way or the other to secure some land. To gain knowledge and become professional growers, the non-profit organisation Landwijzer has been offering both short and two-year long courses on organic and biodynamic farming for the past 20 years.

The remainder of the day we make various stops to buy and deliver fresh produce at some inspiring farms. As Johan and Vera are pioneers, they know everyone involved in the organic food system. Many of the new generation of farmers have also done their internship with them as part of their Landwijzer course, so they have a strong bond. By providing this weekly service, they also get a chance to chat with their colleagues and exchange ideas and recent news.

When I ask Johan how the new generation of farmers is coping with the purchasing power of large buyers that push down prices, he explains that price formation and market diversification are key aspects covered in the courses offered by Landwijzer.

A few days earlier I had an online meeting with one of the coordinators of the Fairtrade Producers’ Organisation from Latin America. To secure a living income, cocoa and coffee growers are also forced to increasingly look at income and market diversification. While the food industry may gradually come to realize that paying a fair price for food is needed to keep farmers in business, it is reassuring to see that farmers continue to innovate by pro-actively strengthening ties between themselves and the community of consumers. Belonging to a network may make a vital difference for new farmers, who often lack land and a family connection to agriculture.

Related blogs

Grocery shops and farm shops

Forgotten vegetables

Marketing something nice

Inspiring platforms

Access Agriculture: hosts over 220 training videos in over 85 languages. Each video describes underlying principles, as such encouraging people to experiment with new ideas.

EcoAgtube: a new social media platform where anyone can upload their own videos related to natural farming and circular economy.

Living Soil: A film review December 20th, 2020 by

Written with Paul Van Mele

In the opening scenes of the film, “Living Soil,” we see the Dust Bowl: the devastated farmland of the 1930s in the southern plains of the USA. Thirty to fifty years of plowing had destroyed the soil, and in times of drought, it drifted like snow.

As the rest of this one-hour film shows, there is now some room for optimism. Nebraska farmer Keith Berns starts by telling us that most people don’t understand the soil, not even farmers. But this is changing as more and more farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, begin to pay attention to soil health, and to the beneficial microbes that add fertility to the soil. Plants produce carbon, and exchange it with fungi and bacteria for nutrients.

Mimo Davis and Miranda Duschack have a one-acre city farm in Saint Louis, Missouri. The plot used to be covered in houses, and it was a jumble of brick and clay when the urban farmers took it over. They trucked in soil, but it was of poor fertility, so they rebuilt it with compost, and cover crops, like daikon radishes. Now they are successful farmer-florists—growing flowers without pesticides so that when customers bury their noses in the bouquet, it will be as healthy as can be.

A few scientists also appear in the film. Kristin Veum, USDA soil scientist, says that soil organisms are important because they build the soil back up. Most people know that legumes fix nitrogen, but few know that it’s the microbes in association with the plants’ roots that actually fix the nitrogen from the air.

Indiana farmer Dan DeSutter explains that mulch is important not just to retain moisture, but also to keep the soil cool in the summer. This helps the living organisms in the soil to stay more active. Just like people, good microbes prefer a temperature of 20 to 25 degrees Celsius. When it gets either too hot or too cold, the micro-organisms become less active. Cover crops are also important, explains DeSutter, “Nature abhors a mono-crop.” DeSutter plants cover crops with a mix of three to 13 different plants and this not only improves the soil, but keeps his cash crops healthier.

Nebraska’s Keith Berns plants a commercial sunflower crop in a mulch of triticale straw, with a cover crop of Austrian winter pea, cowpeas, buckwheat, flax, squash and other plants growing beneath the sunflowers. This diversity then adds 15 or 20 bushels per acre of yield (1 to 1.35 tons per hectare) to the following maize crop. Three rotations per year (triticale, sunflower and maize), with cover crops, build the soil up, while a simple maize – soy bean rotation depletes it.

Adding carbon to the soil is crucial, says DeSutter, because carbon is the basis of life in the soil. In Indiana, half of this soil carbon has been lost in just 150 to 200 years of farming, and only 50 years of intensive agriculture. No-till farming reduces fertilizer and herbicide costs, increases yield and the soil improves: a win-win-win. This also reduces pollution from agrochemical runoff.

As Keith Berns explains, the Holy Grail of soil health has been no-till without herbicides. It’s difficult to do, because you have to kill the cover crop to plant your next crop. One option is to flatten the cover crop with rollers, and another solution is to graze livestock on the cover crop, although he admits that it’s “really hard” to get this combination just right.

USDA soil health expert Barry Fisher, says “Never have I seen among farmers such a broad quest for knowledge as I’m seeing now.” The farmers are willing to share their best-kept secrets with each other, which you wouldn’t see in many other businesses.

Many of these farmers are experimenting largely on their own, but a little State support can make a huge difference. In the 1990s in Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay had an outbreak of Pfiesteria, a disease that was killing the shellfish. Scientists traced the problem to phosphorous, from chemical fertilizer runoff. Maryland’s State Government began to subsidize and promote cover crops, which farmers widely adopted. After 20 years, as Chesapeake Bay waterman James “Ooker” Eskridge explains, the bay is doing better. The sea grass is coming back. The blue crab population is doing well, the oysters are back and the bay looks healthier than it has in years.

Innovative farmers, who network and encourage each other, are revolutionizing American farming. As of 2017, US farmers had adopted cover crops and other soil health measures on at least 17 million acres (6.9 million hectares), a dramatic increase over ten years earlier, but still less than 10% of the country’s farmland. Fortunately, triggered by increased consumer awareness, these beneficial practices are catching on, which is important, because healthier soil removes carbon from the atmosphere, reduces agrochemical use, retains moisture to produce a crop in dry years, and grows more food. The way forward is clear. Measures like targeted subsidies to help farmers buy seed of cover crops have been instrumental to help spread agroecological practices. Experimenting farmers must be supported with more public research and with policies that promote healthy practices like mulching, compost, crop rotation and cover crops.

Watch the film

Living Soil directed by Chelsea Wright, Soil Health Institute

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