Replenish the soil (& feed everyone!)

On this page..

  1. Soil: an incredible new science, but we are learning how to feed the world
  2. Take the pressure off soil by growing other food technologies
    1. Restorative ocean farming
    2. New aquaculture feed grown on land
    3. Eating insects for more efficient protein
  3. Biochar is the ultimate soil repair kit
  4. Feed cows grass, not industrially grown corn
  5. Objection to Polyface farms: but their chickens and pigs eat industrially grown feed! A reply.
  6. Rotate cows and crops!
  7. A possible new strategy: perennial grains that don’t require tilling


1. Soil: an incredible new science, but we are learning how to feed the world

Soil is an exciting new science where astonishing breakthroughs are just beginning to occur. I am likely to tinker with this page some more over the coming years simply because of the startling new developments in our understanding of soil, and how agriculture interacts with it to either destroy or renew.

“We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” – Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1500s”

In many ways the ground beneath our feet is as alien as a distant planet. The processes occurring in the top few centimenters of Earth’s surface are the basis of all life on dry land but the opacity of soil has severely limited our understanding of how it functions…. However, perspectives are beginning to change… Interest in soil is booming, spurred in part by technical advances of the past decade.”
Science, June 2004.
For more see Energy Bulletin

The agricultural solutions I am most interested in have permaculture systems thinking that bring the soil back to life, but do it on an industrial scale!


2. Take the pressure off soil by growing other food technologies

Prevention is better than a cure, so what other aquaculture, ocean farming and desert farming technologies could provide us with abundant food and take the pressure off our farmlands? What else is on the horizon for food?

Restorative ocean farming: Bren Smith developed an open source plan for operating kelp and oyster and shellfish farms which could ultimately feed the human race several times over! See my page, “Saving the oceans“. If we ate more seafood, we could take the pressure of the land. If we perfect the kelp to vat-grown artificial meat mentioned on that page, then we can have abundant protein without any grazing, and can reforest grazing lands.

New acquaculture feed grown on land: Australia has pioneered a new form of aquaculture feedstock. Traditional aquaculture food trawls the oceans for by-catch to munch up and feed to captive fish, which is destructive to the oceans. Australian scientists have studied and captured the marine micro-algae and organisms that prawns eat in the ocean. These can be grown on land tanks, or in the same prawn pond in the half-year off-season. The organisms are harvested and dried into feed pellets for the prawn season. Half the world’s seafood is farmed, so if we eventually replace destructive by-catch with land grown pellets, both oceans and farmlands may get a chance to recover as this is dense protein production. This particular feed increases the size of prawns and keeps them so healthy that more prawns can be grown closer together. The prawn grow 40% larger and are healthier, increasing profitability!

Eating insects for more efficient protein.  They don’t even have to look like insects, but can be processed into protein bars or stuff you can cook up better than tofu. Insects are an ancient delicacy, high in protein, and convert biomass feedstock into protein much, much more efficiently than cows. This uses far less land to create vastly more protein, and they can even eat restaurant scraps. It’s called Entomophagy and could be the next great agricultural revolution. See this TED talk for a 5 minute summary:

Or this hour long BBC Documentary for more.

3. Biochar is the ultimate soil repair kit

With nearly magical properties, biochar is so wonderful I have had to dedicate a whole page to it. Please take your time to watch the TED talks I list there. In summary:-

  • Biochar is agricultural and forestry waste that is cooked up in a low oxygen environment (and is not wood ash that you might get from slash and burn farming).
  • When added to the soil, biochar reduces soil fertiliser requirements by actively sucking in nutrients, storing them for plants and stopping the rain washing nutrients out into rivers.
  • Biochar encourages microorganisms to grow and tiny fungi to multiply through the soil. It’s like the coral reef of the soil, providing a home and backbone for every tiny soil organism and fungi to grow. When the fungi die they release nitrogen into the soil, and then new fungi grows.
  • Normal compost degrades and evaporates the carbon back into the air, but biochar stores half of the carbon permanently in our soils (from centuries to even thousands of years).

In summary: we should add sustainably sourced biochar where-ever possible, from croplands to grazing meadows and even to deserts we are trying to green!

4. Feed cows grass, not industrially grown corn

Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm (wiki) mimics the way cattle ‘mob, move, and mow’ in the wild to maximise grass health for maximum cattle health. Regular farms get about 80 cow-days per acre (which could feed 1 cow for 80 days, 2 cows for 40 days, or 80 cows for 1 day: you get the picture), but Joel gets 400 cow-days per acre using this method. In other words, he can grow about 4 times as many cattle on healthier land. And this without industrial fertiliser to force the grass to grow, or worse, grow industrial corn to shove into cattle that don’t really like eating corn in the first place! (That we then inject antibiotics into because we packed the cattle too close together ankle-deep in manure in gigantic, disease breeding cattle yards!)

Here is Joel Salatin at TED 2012

And here is Michael Pollan talking about Joel Salatin in 2010

Straight from the wiki:

“Salatin bases his farm’s ecosystem on the principle of watching animals’ activities in nature and emulating those conditions as closely as possible. Salatin grazes his cattle outdoors within small pastures enclosed by high-tech, electrified fencing that is easily and daily moved at 4pm to ensure that the animals always have fresh grass; grass has had time, about 100 days, to mature and grow tall, which increases levels of starch. Animal manure fertilizes the pastures and enables Polyface Farm to graze about four times as many cattle as on a conventional farm, thus also saving feed costs. The small size of the pastures forces the cattle to ‘mob stock’-to eat all the grass.

In addition his chickens are housed in portable coops that follow 4 days after the cattle, when flies in the manure are pupating; the chickens get 15% of their feed from this. The chickens while finding the pupae distribute the manure across the field.[3] Salatin’s pastures, barn, and farmhouse are located on land below a nearby pond that “feeds the farm” by using 15 miles of piping. Salatin also harvests 450 acres of woodlands and uses the lumber to construct farm buildings.[4] One of Salatin’s principles is that “plants and animals should be provided a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness. Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig is a foundation for societal health.”[5]

Portable coopMedia Attention

Polyface Farm was featured in the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan as exemplary sustainable agriculture, contrasting Polyface Farm favorably to factory farming. An excerpt of the book was published in the May/June 2006 of Mother Jones magazine. The farm is covered in the August/September 2008 issue of Mother Earth News. [6] Pollan’s book describes Polyface Farm’s method of exemplary sustainable agriculture as being built on the efficiencies that come from mimicking relationships found in nature and layering one farm enterprise over another on the same base of land. In effect, Joel is farming in time as well as in space—in four dimensions rather than three. He calls this intricate layering “stacking” and points out that “it is exactly the model God used in building nature.” The idea is not to slavishly imitate nature, but to model a natural ecosystem in all its diversity and interdependence, one where all the species “fully express their physiological distinctiveness.” [7]

The farm is also featured in the documentary film Food, Inc.[8]. Polyface Farm is a participant in Humane Farm Animal Care‘s Certified Humane Raised and Handled program.”

I like the thinking behind this Joel’s work! It seems a little bit more expensive than regular meat, but at this stage I side with Joel’s response to this question. Mother Jones asks the hip-pocket question:

I asked Joel how he answers the charge that because food like his is more expensive, it is inherently elitist. “I don’t accept the premise,” he replied. “First off, those weren’t any ‘elitists’ you met on the farm this morning. We sell to all kinds of people. Second, whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy. That always gets their attention. Then I explain that, with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water—of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”
via No Bar Code | Mother Jones.

5. Objection to Polyface farms: but their chickens and pigs eat industrially grown feed!

  • A concerned peakoiler might point out that Joel’s pigs and chickens eat industrially grown feed. The chicken and pig manure fertilises his fields. No wonder he grows such amazing grass for his cattle! It has industrial inputs, disguised as his chickens and pigs.
  • This used to concern me until I started researching how we were going to recycle phosphorus (above).
  • How are we going to grow our crops again? Nitrogen is not a problem when abundant nuclear energy can just suck it out of the air. Phosphorus and potassium will be recycled out of our sewage.
  • The sewage itself might even have NPK topped up from the oceans: we’ll still be fishing (sustainably).
  • So the NPK from sewage and local council rubbish compost goes to biochar reinforced fields, grows the crops which feed the chicken and pigs which both feed us and provide manure for Joel’s fields.
  • And the grass? It feeds the beef, whose cow-pats then give the chickens 15% of their protein through natural maggots (and avoids 15% of that industrial chicken feed we are worried about).
  • And then the pork and chicken and beef all feeds us: which we flush down the toilet, which feeds the crops which feeds the chickens and pigs and cows and feeds us again.
  • The efficiency of this system is staggering. It is estimated that about 80% of the phosphorus we put on our fields is never really utilised by the crops we grow. It seems to me that biofarming increases soil utilisation of NPK to account for all that extra biomass in these fast growing soils.


6. Rotate cows and crops!

Do you remember from history how in the later middle ages we used to let fields lie fallow to build up nitrogen in the soil? Then we learned to plant nitrogen-fixing crops in between growing our desired crops, and this is crop rotation. But what about rotating cows and crops? What about sending cows through after harvest to munch on the stubble? Cam McKellar explained to Landine (October 2004) that he:-

  • Used electric fencing to gradually move cattle through sorghum and corn stubble after harvesting
  • “We’ve flown barley over the corn and sorghum before and that keeps something growing in the soil to keep a house going for the microbiology, the cattle go through they eat that out,” he said.  “They then with the hoof action are breaking up that stubble which is very hard to do so otherwise and then as quickly as possible we’re getting another crop in it.”
  • 300 cattle add 4 tonnes of wet manure a day
  • Makes the soil softer, eliminates deep soil tilling which is a “brushfire for the soil” and kills microbiology
  • Worms grow
  • After just a few years it has reduced his chemical inputs by 1/3rd
  • Aiming for higher: “”If I can cut my fertiliser and chemical man by 90% that’ll be a push in the right direction which hopefully will cut my fuel, which hopefully will cut my seed, which hopefully will give the bank man a bit of a shock too,” Mr McKellar said.”
  • Regarding crown rot disease: “”We believe part of the story involved fungus, soil beneficial fungi that live in the soil,” farmer John Kirkegaard said. “These fungi can help to compete and reduce the level of crown rot in the soil,” he said. “We’ve found these beneficial fungi trichoderma they’re called, we found higher levels of trichoderma in soils following break crops of canola compared to other break crops like chick pea and this was associated with lower levels of crown rot and higher yields in wheat following canola. “We believe that maybe part of the reason the disease levels were lower and we’re now really trying to see if there’s any opportunities to increase the level of trichoderma in the system.”  (Eclipse note: biochar produces extra fungi and so could help in the war against crown rot disease).

In this 2014 TED talk, Thomas Rippel shows how biochar can be composted with cow dung to produce all the fertiliser we need to grow our crops.

Radio National also investigated an Australian ‘green cow’ movement where cows were allowed to intensively graze certain patches of field, fertilise it, and then move on to graze the next patch of field: while increasing soil biodiversity and health and this having spin-off effects through the local kangaroo and bird populations.

Other References

Wiki on Soil conservation
Wiki on Soil erosion
Australian Academy of Science — Feeding the future – sustainable agriculture
News: Positive agriculture news at Worldchanging and enter “agriculture” in the search field

7. A possible new strategy: perennial grains that don’t require tilling

Wes Jackson is a man who knows what he is talking about. He is very aware of the rise and fall of civilisations due to soil depletion. He was the President of The Land Institute. He was born in 1936 on a farm near Topeka, Kansas. After attending Kansas Wesleyan (B.A Biology, 1958), he studied botany (M.A. University of Kansas, 1960) and genetics (Ph.D. North Carolina State University, 1967). He was a professor of biology at Kansas Wesleyan and later established the Environmental Studies department at California State University, Sacramento, where he became a tenured full professor. He resigned that position in 1976 and returned to Kansas to found The Land Institute.

According to the Perennial grain wiki:

The 2005 Synthesis Report of the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment program labeled agriculture the “largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity.”[4]Perennial grains could reduce this threat, according to the following logic:

  • Most agricultural land is devoted to the production of grain crops: cereal, oilseed, and legume crops occupy 75% of US and 69% of global croplands. These grains include such crops as wheat, rice, and maize; together they provide over 70% of human food calories.[5]
  • All these grain crops are currently annual plants which are generally planted into cultivated soil.
  • Frequent cultivation puts soil at risk of loss and degradation.[4]
  • This “central dilemma”[6] of agriculture in which current food production undermines the potential for future food production could be escaped by developing perennial grain crops that do not require tilling the soil each year. No-till technology enables short-lived (annual) crops to be grown with less intense tillage, but perennial plants provide the most protection for the soil.[7]

This author also contributes some interesting first hand experience, and while documenting some failures of their own trials, still remains hopeful.

Imagine corn, wheat, or rice that comes back every year without saving seed, tilling, or replanting. Such crops could have a tremendous impact in restoring degraded farmland, rebuilding soil, and sequestering carbon while providing humanity with the staff of life.

The dream of perennial grains is getting tantalizingly closer. Today there is more hopeful news than there was even just a few years ago. In 2009 the First International Perennial Grain Breeding Workshop gathered researchers from all over the world. Land Institute research director Stan Cox proclaimed “we will look back on this workshop as the international launching of the perennial grain revolution.”

Perennial grains include cereals (grass seeds), legumes (dry beans), and oilseeds. In this article I’m focusing just on what’s happening with perennial grass seeds, though in the book I’ll be addressing all three categories and many more.

When compared with other perennial staple crops, perennial cereals have their pros and cons. Their big advantage is that they are basically familiar. People already know how to harvest, process, cook, and eat them. Existing equipment and infrastructure needs few if any changes to handle them. There are perennial cereals under development for almost every climate, from the northern plains to equatorial highlands to salty tropical delta farmland.

Unfortunately perennial grains are still a decade or more in the future, though thanks to the visionary work of the Land Institute and others, we are already decades closer to achieving that goal. There are a number of breeding challenges, whether one seeks to “perennialize” existing annual crops or domesticate wild perennials.

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