Agriculture does not have to deplete the soil.
A few days ago, I found myself deep in the throes of a conversation with a friend about soil health. This conversation began with me excitedly sharing the news that my kitchen was now officially producing food for red wrigglers. I was terribly excited because while my balcony garden could not boast an endless vertical soil profile, vermicomposting was here to save the day. This little garden could be supplied with all the nutritional goodness it needed.
My friend, on the other hand, is part of a regenerative farm’s ecosystem. He has dedicated most of his adult life to learning about regenerative culture and soil health was especially on his mind that day. See my friend, let’s call him Thaks, has been collecting heirloom seeds and plants for many years now. One of the seeds he talks about with his chest is a variety of maize whose colours are much like a dark hued version of the rainbow. The most delicious maize I have tasted yet, too!
A little backstory. Thaks’ farm is bordered, on two sides by farms whose owners practice conventional farming. Every season, along with seeds, they bring home loads of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and a variety of other ‘cides’. Their intentions are pure. They want to see their crops grow to maturity and harvest as much as possible. That way, they can make back the money they invested. Sound business minds. One major issue has been that every year, they need to invest more towards fertilisers because the soil just isn’t what it used to be.
From across the fence Thaks, who prefers companion planting and other soil friendly methods to control insect and pioneer plant populations over chemical ‘solutions’, often finds himself somewhat disadvantaged by his neighbours’ well-intended actions. The crops planted along the outer edges of his farm do not do as well as those further in. While this phenomenon saddens, it fails to surprise. Often, after pesticidal or herbicidal spraying occurs at the neighbours, he finds dust-like evidence on the surface of these plants. Over time, he noticed that even when little to no spraying happened next door, the plants at the edge never seem quite as vibrant as those closer to the centre.
About two years ago, when the army worms devastated most maize farms, he had planted the ‘rainbow’ heirloom maize variety. A week after the worms arrived, all the maize was looking quite hopeless and in our conversations he sounded almost apologetic that this time there would be nothing to share. Then, about two weeks in he made a peculiar observation. The maize stalks in the middle of the farm stood taller and stronger than he had anticipated. They still bore the marks of an ongoing battle with the army of worms but they also looked quite strong. The same could not be said of those closest to the fence. Most of them were destroyed. It was the first time it really occurred to us both just how negative the effects of agrochemicals can be.
For the last six years, Thaks has sought out seeds that are not chemically treated as well as organically grown seedlings to add to his forest of a garden. Instead of using herbicides, land is prepared for planting by spreading a thick layer of dry grevillea leaves. It sits for a week or so then another is applied. This is then followed by planting a few creeping and ground level herbs that spread easily. After this, typically, the three sisters (maize, beans and pumpkin) go into the ground. Between the guilds more herbs, vegetables and different grains go. Establishing themselves amidst all these are medium and big fruit trees. Most of which have either passion fruit, chayote or a bean variety making their way up their trunk. This may sound chaotic to most but this was the thing that saved the maize at the centre from total annihilation.
Between the heavy mulching, companion planting and focus on soil health, the maize had access to nutrients that ensured they bounced back easily. We had spoken about the possibility that since the agrochemicals were barely making it to the inner parts of the farm the soil ecosystem was a thriving collective of microbiota, nematodes and bugs. Add to it that any piece of that farm had different root systems providing the soil with a variety of nutrients as well as efficiently aerating it. In addition, all these plants shed their leaves every so often. The robust soil this maize was planted in ensured quick and easy regeneration of its cells and it was showing! Above ground, the flowering plants were a warm invitation to different kinds of ladybugs, birds and insects that fed on the worms and their larvae. Companion planting also increased the distance between grasses.
While all these factors contributed greatly to the maize’s recovery, it was the soil’s health that held the truth. It was the main difference between the two groups of maize. The soil at the edge did not have nearly as many earthworms and bugs in it. I checked. This was a major indicator of how healthy the soil was. While the loss was unfortunate this episode served to validate the practices that went into establishing such healthy soil and, therefore, plants.
When we allow ourselves, it is easy to see that agriculture does not have to deplete the soil. If anything, to harvest high quality produce it takes high-quality soil and if we will listen, the soil is readily telling us just how to build its profile.
Article by Kai.retu
Kai.retu is an explorer of regenerative culture and food systems design as well as a member of the Route to Food alliance.