Reflections on the ORFC: Soil Bugs that Sustain us 
Tuesday, 2nd March 2021 by Larissa Young
Larissa at Springfield market garden

This blog post was written by Larissa, one of our new EcoTalent interns,  based on a talk presented by Tom Morrison, aBuckinghamshire-based Pasture for Life farmer, and Joel Williams, a plant and soil health educator, at the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January 2021.  

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Tom began this important talk looking at a lesson from history; what happens when we ignore life in the soil and cease to look after it. His example is North Korea in the 1990s, where a famine, caused mostly by a lack of livestock and crop rotation, and a reliance on chemicals halved the rice yields, killing 3 million people, 15% of the population. Although the soil had reached its tipping point and lost its resilience, it has slowly begun to recover in the last 25 years. There is hope, as North Korea’s rice yield begins to rise towards pre-famine levels.  

How has this been done? By minimal soil disturbance, soil cover, crop rotation and the involvement of livestock in farming practices.  

Tom then discussed a very different approach to farming, on his own farm, where he has pasture-fed livestock. This farming is better for the consumer, better for the cows, and better for the environment. All the carbon in the cows comes straight from the grass, which in turn, came straight from the air. Carbon and other nutrients flow from the grasses into the soil, helping to build a stronger, more resilient soil, while removing carbon from the atmosphere. 

While Tom talked about the benefits of livestock grazing for soil health, Joel started with plants. The basis of all our life, these plants are key to our health, and the soil's health. They start all of this through photosynthesis. Plants take in carbon from the air and use it as building blocks: they use it for their own growth, but also pass it down into the soil as sugar, amino acids, and lots of other vital compounds to keep the soil alive. There is a whole food web active in the soil, passing nutrients from fungi and bacteria up to worms and bugs, and around again.  

Why is all of this necessary? After Tom’s talk, it is hard to ignore the need for our soils to be alive. By living they are able to; improve the soil structure, recycle and store nutrients, hold onto water, detoxify pollutants and more.  

And then, the practical bit: how do we look after the soil’s biological life? We need to minimise any soil disturbance, maximise crop diversity, keep the soil covered, keep living roots all year round, and wherever possible integrate livestock into the rotation. 

And he finished with a quote by Steve Kenyon: “Modern agriculture grows plants from soil; regenerative agriculture grows soil from plants.” 

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Larissa Young, one of our two new EcoTalent interns is working with Sophie on our Hackney sites learning how to grow food, as well as exploring other work across GC and the Better Food Traders. She is no stranger to mud, having worked at Go Ape and the Spurs ground for the past few years. The EcoTalent programme is managed by Feedback and funded by the National Lottery Community Fund as part of the Our Bright Future programme.

Author name: 
Larissa Young