A diversity of life in the soils was promoted by everyone. In Thierry Vrain’s experience, after an entire career as a soil scientist in American / Canadian academia, the diversity of life in the soils, even the idea that soil was alive, had been a revelation.
“If you want your plants to be healthy, you need all these microorganisms to poop manure to feed the soil!” he said. “There’s no difference between cow and horse manure and that of microorganisms; it’s the same thing. They’re releasing the minerals that the plants need.” The damaging effects of glyphosate (“roundup”) on the micro-biological life of the soil, and similarly on the human microbiome, is what led had him into becoming a committed campaigner against its use.
Steve Jones had also had a previous career in the world of “big ag”. “I was a commodity breeder for over 20 years and my job was to make everything the same… No one on this panel wants everything the same, I don’t believe! I got out of that system about 12 years ago…” He went on to describe the potential of landrace crops, like the bere barley we work with at Bruichladdich. “We have a room here [in Washington State University’s Bread Lab, outside Seattle] with 8000 lines of ancient, heirloom and heritage. We improve them though! We’re interested in making it better, making it different, which is how it was originally designed, right? We’re breeding Bere to be black purple and blue. Everything we do is on a population basis, so we develop in essence, new versions of landraces…”
Why does he do that? One of the reasons is “The climate isn’t just changing, it’s chaotic! The way to deal variation and diversity of the climate, is variation and diversity in our fields.”
There was talk about diversity of planting. David at Spirit of Yorkshire distillery described how they had recently direct drilled their winter barley; Steve Jones of the Breadlab agreed that winter types were a “strong part of the rotation” that keeps the soil active.
There were many similar accounts of different crops, like legumes, or rye, being planted alternately, helping the soil’s fertility. Richard Gantlett of biodynamic farm Yatesbury House described their system of herbal leys that mix 23 different species, “Different species do well in different years, or in a different part of the field to another species. And so the diversity is almost like an insurance policy from the point of view. And that creates the life and the healthy energy in the soil which then feeds the following crops.”
How does that work, exactly? No surprise, it’s about carbon, which is the backbone of all organic chemistry, and therefore all living things, plus many useful molecules like carbo-hydrates, proteins, etc. Thierry explained, “Carbon holds the water. The more carbon you have in the soil, the more crops, the more cover crops, the more water you have, and the more nutrients to feed the life of the soil.”
David Thompson had an interesting bit of research to relay about water retention, from his position above the Humber estuary, where drainage and flood risk is on the radar. A recent project with Yorkshire water showed that 1% organic matter in a hectare of soil holds 30 tonnes water; so if that amount could be raised every year (like at Richard’s Yatesbury House farm), it could really make a difference. Said David, “We can think outside of a bottle of whisky, we can think outside of growing the crop, we can think about the whole environment when we’re doing these sort of techniques.”
Richard puts his success at raising his soil’s organic matter content by 0.25% a year down to the cows that are part of his mixed farming approach. They feed on the herbal rich diverse pastures that are the winter cover crops, helping to recycle the nutrients, and returning or “sequestering” significant amounts of carbon from the plants back into the soil. Another angle on diversity there.