Healthy soil is crucial for sustainable agriculture
A rich soil provides everything for sustainable and economically viable farming and livestock breeding. A poor, depleted soil needs inputs from outside.
This too can be economically viable, but the farmer becomes dependent on chain parties who supply these imports. Moreover, the model is finite because the substances needed are not inexhaustible.
Healthy soil provides everything for a healthy crop
Healthy soil life provides all the minerals and services the plant or crop needs to grow. This is a natural process that cannot artificially be made to happen.
But if you feed a plant artificially with dissolved nutrients, i.e. with artificial fertilisers, you sideline the soil life that provides these services. That soil life decays much further if you then reduce biodiversity with monocultures and squeeze the air out of the soil with heavy machinery.
The natural cycle is therefore by far the most attractive. It keeps the soil healthy, leads to sustainable management of the farm and makes the farmer less dependent.
The story of a regenerative bulb farmer
Flower bulb farmer John Huiberts found himself in 2013 in a situation he had partly created himself. His land no longer had a functioning soil life.
The soil contained very little organic matter and was highly compacted. It suffered from winderosion, there were hardly any insects and birds, and the ditches were polluted with washed-out nutrients and chemical residues.
“In February 2013, we started more sustainable flower bulb cultivation in our farm. It had become clear to us over the previous years that not all diseases and pests could be controlled by chemical means. Diseases kept rearing their heads again and again. It was time for a different take on bulb cultivation.”
Below, we take you through the journey John took, which is also the starting point of Co2l Farming. Every situation is different and every farm is different from another, but the essence and principles are the same.
New construction and recycling
“It started with a course in soil biology. This made it clear to us that there is a better way to healthy high quality produce. Working with nature instead of sidelining nature.” – John Huiberts
Supplemented by sunlight, rainwater and CO2 from the air, a plant in healthy soil has all the materials and resources at its disposal to grow.
The plant is eaten by an animal or other organism, which uses some of this plant material to grow in turn. What it does not use, it defecates and urinates out. This returns to the soil.
This is essentially the cycle of life, of which soil life is a part. It sounds simple and in essence it is. You could divide it into two sections: new-build and recycling. Below, we look at this in a little more detail.
The energy source of life is the sun. Together with CO2 from the air and rainwater absorbed by the roots through the soil, sunlight enters the leaf of a plant.
Inside the leaf, the chemical process of photosynthesis takes place, forming hydrocarbons. Energy is stored in these compounds between carbon and hydrogen.
This makes them valuable energy carriers as well as building blocks. All organic matter – all living matter – is composed of these hydrocarbons (sugars) and draws energy from them.
Each plant has its own soil life
The plant releases some of these sugars to the soil via its roots to feed soil life. The plant does this for a reason. In doing so, the plant can send signals to stimulate the very soil life that the plant itself needs, to make the structures it is composed of, such as proteins, cell walls, DNA, fats and starch.
Each plant species needs its own types of soil life. Diverse mixtures of plants therefore create diverse soil life with a diverse supply of minerals and trace elements. It makes soil life infinitely complex.
A handful of healthy soil contains more life than there are people on earth. With this soil life, the plant builds itself. It is nature’s new-build department.
Animals and other organisms eat plants. They use the materials and energy that make up the plant for their own growth. The animal defecates and urinates – and eventually dies itself – thus returning the used material to the soil.
There, this material is further broken down by soil life into nitrogen, minerals and trace elements and made available to soil organisms and new plants.
In each step, some energy is thus used. The organic material that remains is therefore relatively rich in minerals.
In the natural system, soil life is thus the connecting link between the plant and the minerals and trace elements in the soil. It is nature’s recycling department.
So part of the soil life lives from decomposing and processing organic matter. Another part extracts energy from the roots and reuses the decomposed material to supply it to the plant.
In this sense, soil life performs a bridging function. It breaks down material into a kind of raw material. With energy via the roots – exudates – life is formed from these again.
So in nature, all material becomes available again for plant growth and is constantly replenished with new material. This offers further advantages:
- Soil life gives structure to the soil with the organic matter. This allows air – oxygen – to enter the soil, which soil organisms need to live. Air also releases nitrogen into the soil, which soil organisms can bind.
- In addition, the open structure of the soil can absorb and retain a lot of water. Rainfall is generally irregular, just think of the alternation between dry and wet summers. It is therefore important that the soil itself can absorb as much water as possible and retain it for as long as possible.
- Finally, the structure of the soil prevents erosion, the process by which soil particles blow away or wash away.
- If nutrients are part of organic matter, they cannot leach out or disappear into the atmosphere.
Challenge: how much can you extract from the system without impoverishing the system?
This natural process, which is perfectly capable of sustaining itself without human intervention, changed with the dawn of agriculture.
By draining material and disturbing the soil structure every time to make a new seedbed, the system impoverished rather than enriched itself. Moreover, in the nineteenth century we found out that you could feed plants with dissolved nutrients. Fertiliser was born.
Hyper-efficient agricultural system...
With the invention of artificial fertilisers, we became dependent on finite amounts of phosphate and potash, and nitrogen production takes a lot of finite amounts of fossil energy.
Sure, agriculture became more efficient and produced higher and higher yields, especially after World War II. Food became cheaper and prosperity increased for more and more people.
We have now reached a point where we can produce food without using the functions of the soil, without really needing the soil anymore. With that, mainstream agriculture has become substrate cultivation. The plant is fed directly with soluble nutrients and protected with chemicals against diseases and pests.
...with a hefty downside
But the downside is now also well known. Unhealthy and damaged soils, greatly reduced natural functions, pollution, pests and diseases.
We have fallen into a classic trap: depletion of the natural system. This was already happening in ancient times, at the local level, where soils gradually began to salinise due to constant ploughing and irrigation. Now it is happening at a global level.
So the challenge we now face is the question: how much can you extract from the system, without impoverishing the system?
Rebuild, recycling and newly build
For nature’s recycling department to flourish, it is important to return as much organic material as possible to the system. In addition, it is a matter of making the new-build department function as well as possible.
“Our basic principle is: healthy soil gives healthy crop”, – John Huiberts
Working with instead of against nature
When John found himself in the situation as described above, he decided to change course. Working with nature, instead of against nature. He took the following measures:
- Always covering the soil with a diversity of living plants is the best way to start up soil life. Immediately after the bulb harvest, John sows green manures. He puts the bulbs under these and when the bulbs are almost out of the ground, John mulches the green manure, covering the soil and feeding it with the residual material from the green manure. Once the foliage of the bulbs has grown, other plants grow again.
- In addition to the exudates – the substances a plant sends into the soil as a signal to soil life – and the organic material from the green manure, John feeds the soil with compost and bokashi. He adds a variety of natural materials to maximise nutritional value.
- While the bulbs are growing, John sprays various natural extracts, which he makes himself from, for example, nettles or shrimp remains.
- John lifted the compaction in the soil with deep-rooting green manure. To prevent the machines from compacting the soil, John has fixed driving paths next to the beds.
- John works with a broader cropping plan. After several years of bulbs, which are interspersed according to their nutrient needs, John sows green manures, mixtures of cereals, beans and peas and, for example, bird seedlings. These crops also rebuild the soil, providing a home for all kinds of insects and birds. This further increases diversity, which increases resilience to diseases and pests.
- John hardly ploughs anymore. If he ploughs, then very shallowly. John has also resolutely stopped using fertilisers and chemicals. Most regenerative farmers are also phasing this out gradually.
Resilient and stable system
Every crop has specific vulnerabilities. In conventional agriculture, this is solved with fertilisers, chemicals and mechanisation. Regenerative agriculture is about exploiting specific opportunities aimed at making the system more resilient and stable.
In John’s case, this resulted in a turnaround to sustainable, regenerative and also economically successful farming.