In PM92, Matt Dunwell, from Ragmans Lane Farm, and Juanfran Lopez explored the fascinating world of minerals in the soil beneath our feet and described how to make biofertilisers. James Aitchison is an organic cider apple grower from Herefordshire. He currently farms 23 hectares (56 acres) with 14 hectares (35 acres) of bush fruit and five of standards. He owns 18 of those hectares (46 acres). Inspired by Ragmans’ pioneering work, he attended Jairo Restrepo’s biofertiliser course at the farm in 2016 and set off on a new learning journey …
I started growing cider apples conventionally, as no one could tell me how to do the job biologically. I wanted to plant apples in about 2002, but was put off by being told the only way to grow commercial cider apples was conventionally as they were a monoculture and prone to pests and disease. Seven years later, I was ready to make the compromise as I was desperate to make our smallholding viable.
My first planting was heavily hampered by my own ignorance and bad advice from industry representatives and so had some quite severe problems with mildew that persisted for the first three years despite a regular fungicide spray program. Though I didn’t know it at the time the problems were largely due to mineral deficiencies not corrected at the time of planting. In desperation to find another mildew treatment, I was advised to try spraying potassium bicarbonate which I did in addition to the conventional sprays. This worked amazingly well as it not only broke the mildew infection cycle, but also addressed a significant potassium deficiency that had become evident in scorched fruit. Now having an apparent cure for mildew, I hassled any agronomist I met with questions about scab treatment. All I was recommended was elemental sulphur in one form or another with the caveat that it alone was not enough. It wasn’t. Further inquiry led me to nutritional growing and a course with Graham Sait. Although this did not directly answer my needs it did inspire me to continue my search, fortified by a much more compre-hensive understanding of mineral associations and plant tissue growth.
With the satisfaction of a vastly increased understanding, I searched the web for another course to take my knowledge to the next step. I came across Ragmans Lane Farm and Jairo Restrepo’s second teaching trip to the UK. I did not know it at the time, but I had arrived, and feeling sure about its importance I signed up for a full week and elbowed the time from the busyness of life. Jairo gave me not just the tool kit, but a more in depth understanding of microbiology, biochemistry, and agricultural and industrial chemistry (his career started as a pesticide designer). He inspired me to make biofertilisers.
Discovering the farmyard chemistry Jairo had to offer was truly liberating. With this knowledge I now make simple straight fungicides, a Viscosa mix (an enriched version of Bordeaux mix) and calcium polysulphide (marketed elsewhere as biosulphur).
I produce my own phosphite by reburning CalPhos (burnt bone meal) with sawdust and potassium hydroxide to produce calcium silicate and potassium phosphite (phosphorous trioxide and pent-oxide).
I collect leaf mould and brew up the microbes on bran and molasses to add to the nutritional sprays which are tailored to different growth stages. These are anaero-bically fermented with minerals added progressively which are chelated by the microbes.
I make Bokashi, a fast-fermented compost ready in 15 days and apply it as a microbial inoculant. As I use large amounts of whey, molasses, seaweed, fish hydrolisate, pretty much all ingredients you could eat, there is no need for rubber gloves, a face shield or a respiratory mask (due care is still needed as some ferments are quite acidic). Basalt rock dust is a core ingredient in most concoctions as a key to remineralising soils and feeding plant growth with trace elements.
The benefits are numerous. Firstly as is often reported of biological agriculture, it puts the interest back into the job and the fun as you learn how to feed your crops with the help of Nature, not chemicals from a bottle. The thrill of self-education and of reaching the edge of scientific knowledge is also a big one. Any spare time is spent reading and researching, rainy days are eagerly anticipated and new sources of information are celebrated. As each link of the chain falls into place, knowledge and understanding fill and grow within, and in due course I discovered that I have something to share with others.
The bottom line also gives you joy. My spray program costs about £320 per hectare (£133 per acre) as opposed to a conventional program costing in the region of £600-1,000 per hectare.
Juanfran explains, “It’s a common-sense technology, and the benefits combine with land management from others. It can be scaled up from the backyard up to biofactory. There is also a relatively low investment in equipment and ingredients. Making the products gives farmers self-reliance and self-confidence and helps them to understand them.”
Problems, Limitations and Challenges
These are all of a practical nature. The kit you need is often not commonly available and adaptation and ingenuity is required to produce inputs on the scale required. For instance, to mix bran, molasses and leaf mould very thoroughly is easy, but very time consuming by hand.
I will be trialling a cement mixer this year.
To manage sprays in 220 litre (48 gallon) tubs is easy but in 1,500 litre (330 gallon) tubs is more logistically challenging. Even filling the sprayer becomes a task as lifting 15l to 80l (3.3 to 17.5 gallons) of five different ingredients into the sprayer some five times a week to maintain cover on 16 hectares (40 acres) of trees is enough to bring on repetitive strain injury. Not to mention the issues with putting various viscous materials through a filter, pump and nozzles at higher volumes and lower pressures than is usually required …
Juanfran adds, “From a social perspective, a limit is the acceptance by people to use ‘new’ techniques that are yet to be proven in temperate climates, but are widely used in South America, Spain, Australia and, more recently, Africa. There is also a challenge to adopt new ways of land management.”
It all requires a bit of creativity and ‘out of the box’ thinking, but this is surely the joy of farming. I would encourage anyone to give it a go, but I would also advise them to check out Jairo Restrepo’s course at Ragmans Lane Farm, his book The ABC of Organic Farming. JADAM Organic Farming: ULTRA Powerful Pest and Disease Control Solution, Make all-Natural Pesticide, The Way to Ultra-Low-Cost Agriculture by Youngsang Cho is also a seminal text. Without some hands-on experience it would be difficult to assimilate the knowledge and expertise to work with microbes in this way.
This approach takes the farmer out of the hands of the Big Five pharmaceutical companies that control the supply of most agricultural inputs. It puts clear water between the oil industry and food production, breaking the power they exert with sprays, fertilisers and patented seed. The nitrogen and phosphorous chemistry they foist on farmers is the same that produces fertilisers, weed killers and explosives, and there is a clear link between munitions and plant protection products.
There is an overwhelming need to re-empower farmers and remineralise our food, to take back control from agribusiness that would see us in debt and ill health. Biofertilisers are a key element in regenerating our agriculture and society away from fossil fuels and towards a more equitable, more nutritious future.
James Aitchison was interviewed by Chris Evans who runs Applewood Permaculture Centre in Herefordshire with his partner, Looby Macnamara. For more information, see: www.applewoodcourses.com For more information about Ragmans Lane Farm, see: www.ragmans.co.uk