When I say 'earth' what I really mean is soil. I know they are not strictly the same thing but I was quite proud of my clever title. Like almost all farms we have unhappy soil and unhappy soil makes for unproductive soil.
Big, industrially efficient farms (particularly arable ones like the one pictured above - not our farm!) tend to have sick, dying and dead soils as a result of some hardcore mechanical and chemical abuse.
From walking the land with a keen eye for plant distribution and by listening to our feet I'd say 90% of our pasture and hay meadows are suffering from selective overgrazing, surface compaction and depleted organic matter. All these problems tend to re-enforce each other. When clay soils like ours become low in organic matter, they are prone to compaction by livestock (and machinery) and compacted soil struggles to accumulate organic matter. This means plants grow less and over grazing is more problematic resulting in loss of organic matter and compaction and on and on.
So how do you fix it? If only it was as simple as in the garden. Unless you have a serious rabbit plague then over grazing shouldn't be a gardeners concern but lack of organic matter and compaction are both gardening issues to which there are fairly simple solutions – chuck in a load of compost and don't walk on your beds.
One garden solution is a variation on Sepp Holzer's 'hugel bed'. Our latest creation was a by-product from reclaiming a large area of brash and rotten wood where we intend to grow some chickens. It was a hard days slog but pretty simple.
First off, remove the turf, put it to one side and have a cup of tea. Then dig a great big hole saving all the top soil (at last! a decent use for the 1 tonne dumpy bags we've been hoarding). When we were about a foot into the subsoil (3 ½ ft down in total) we had another cup of tea.
Having dug a large hole, the next stage is to fill it back in again. First in goes anything organic you can find. For us this was the rotten wood pile; tree trunks at the bottom and branches, twigs and brambles on top. Then we scoured the garden for old pots and hanging baskets full of weedy compost, any old weeds, a rotten hay bale, some woodchip etc.
With the hole nearly full we shovelled the subsoil back on top followed by a bit of topsoil then laid the turf back on upside down. At this point we're back at ground level with a couple of feet's worth of topsoil left over. We then made a simple frame to hold the above ground stuff together and filled it with the remaining soil and a couple of carloads of partially rotted manure (one of the benefits of having a herd of cows). No real attention to detail needed and no careful mixing in of the dung – that's what worms are for.
Final touches were a sowing of white clover seeds to form a ground cover and light dusting of wood chip to keep in the moisture and confuse the sparrows (they do like clover seed). In time, as everything composts under the bed, we should be left with over 4 feet of very rich topsoil. We'll probably put beans in first but everything should have settled enough by Autumn ready for planting asparagus (if that's when you're meant to plant asparagus crowns – must check that one!)
The bed construction process I have just described is inverting the soil to incorporate organic material, or as farmers call it – ploughing! Ploughing, as you may know, is not something we are generally in favour of as it is classic case of agricultural short term benefit at the expense of long term damage. Rather the same as borrowing money with no clear plan on how to pay it back. So what makes our hugel bed so different?
Well, it's partly a matter of scale. With only 80 square feet of bed to deal with we could source enough organic matter to add it in huge comparative quantities. To do that across the farm we would need about 50 years worth of dung from our cattle and fell a quarter of our hedgerows. The big difference, however, is how the one-off construction process forever changes our behaviour. Although it will take a few years for the soil to recover from our brutal forking, as a raised bed, it will never be trampled by wellies or wheelbarrows again. Planting a perennial crop like asparagus means the soil won't be dug or turned for at least 25 years and the ongoing process of mulching will mean a year on year increase in organic matter rather than the reverse.
So, what we need to do with our pastures is change our practices to slowly reverse the process of degradation rather than search for a quick fix. The quick fix, however, is always so alluring. Something we tried last year in one of our fields was a bit of machinery called a sward lifter. It's a bit like a subsoiler but is apparently specifically designed for breaking up surface compaction in pasture. We don't know if it worked as the following day we found one of the Old Boys (remember them?) merrily flattening the field with a 30 ton heavy roller....such is life.
Clearly the first thing we should do to alleviate compaction and get things moving is to stop driving machinery on the pasture unless absolutely necessary. This should be easy but for the two old farmers perpetually trundling around in their tractors using them as geriatric mobility vehicles. Maybe next year we won't be able to afford red diesel...we live in hope.
Rebecca and Tim write a regular BLOG on permaculture and farming for Pm online.
For information on Sepp Holzer's many innovative gardening and farming techniques see Sepp Holzer's Permaculture