After a year of half of leaving our land in mixed-species leys, we have some very visible improvement to our soil: an encouraging sign that make us feel that we are at least halfway on the road to recovery. The photos above show the difference 18 months of clover-based green manures can make.
The 2015 photo was taken in early April as we were ploughing the furthest block of our second field. The pale colour of the soil is notable – and this was a photo taken during ploughing, not several days after, so that is the colour of newly turned-over soil rather than sun-baked dried-out soil. The smell was also notable: the soil smelled rotten. The photo shows other vital evidence: a darker layer of green waste compost added in 2014 that had not been decomposed.
This is all evidence of soil that has become anaerobic, i.e. starved of air. This is about as bad as it can get for organic growers. Unlike non-organic growers, we don’t rely on synthetic fossil-fuel derived fertilisers to feed our crops. We depend on a well-structured bio-active soil, full of organisms (bacteria and fungi in particular) that make nutrients available to our crops, and including a healthy balance of air and water in there too. When a soil becomes anaerobic it’s a vicious cycle of negative effects: soil organisms cannot function and therefore cannot break down organic matter or provide nutrients to plants; the soil is compacted making it hard for crop roots to penetrate; all in all, soil life and crop yields plummet.
With the help of drainage contractors, it took us most of 2015 to find out the cause and full extent of the damage. As we said in our last post in July 2015, we discovered that it had been caused by a utility company blocking up our drains, but even at that stage we hadn’t realised the full extent. It was only by autumn 2015 we learned that a total of 14 acres had been affected – that’s two thirds of our land.
Since then we have been doing two things: regenerating our soil and fighting for compensation from the utility company. As the 2017 photo above shows (taken in almost exactly the same spot as the 2015 photo), our soil has improved enormously: dark, friable and with a much-improved structure. It smells right too – earthy! This improvement is due to (i) our drains being cleared and unblocked, (ii) subsoiling machines that broke up the worst of the compaction, and (iii) the long-term green manure that we sowed.
Our fight for compensation, however, continues. It’s been well over a year since the cause and extent of the damage was laid bare. How much longer do we have to wait? How many more years does our business and our livelihoods need to suffer?