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Writing on the landJames Flint

James Flint
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John Richard Granville Stevens — Granville to everyone who knows him — is standing in the field behind his farmhouse, showing me his roots. While he’s doing this, I’m thinking about Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Settlement”.

Farmer Granville Stevens standing in one of his cover crops. [Photo credit: JAMES FLINT]


In the story, an explorer is given a demonstration of torture and execution called, appropriately enough, the Harrow. A baroque device constructed of steel needles and ribbons and glass pipettes and tubes, the Harrow writes the message deemed most befitting of the condemned person’s crimes — literally, their sentence — into the victim’s flesh, over and over, again and again, going fractionally deeper with each pass, so that it takes a full twelve hours for them to die. And this, Granville is telling me by pulling up plants and showing me their entrails, is pretty much what humans have been doing to the living soil season after season, decade after decade, by carving it into lines with the plough.


We’ve been doing this for a very long time: one of the constellations is named after the device, for goodness’ sake. And in the old days, when the plough was drawn by horse or cow and its use didn’t involve heavy doses of pesticides and herbicides, it wasn’t so very damaging. But now the sky is telling us the plough’s time is up, and if we’re not going to suffocate the earth and all who walk upon it, we need to change the way we write upon the land.


Granville and I grew up together. As a teenager, I spent my summers helping him and his father with the harvest on their cereal farm. I remember those wheat harvests; they’re one of the major features of the sepia summers of my childhood. When I worked for Granville’s dad, John Sr, back then, his farm was one of the largest in the Midlands. He was working with a wealthy investor who’d made a lot of money in mail-order kitchens and together they expanded the farm from the homely 500 acres of mixed land use that was (and still is) the family patch to several thousand acres of corn, barley, oats and rape, much of which was very high-quality grain that itself was sold onto other farms as seed.


When Granville’s father and the investor died within few years of each other in the 1990s, much of the extra land was sold off to form the Heart of England forest and the farm shrank in size again. Granville took stewardship of the place and started to work out how to make it generate sufficient income to support a wife and growing family.


The first thing he did, in a move that will be familiar to farmers right across the country, was diversify. Sensibly combining his love of a good pint with a need to obtain a regular income he leased some of his barns to a couple of brewers who wanted to try their hand at making a quality craft beer. Their experiment proved a success and Purity ales are now sold in bars and supermarkets across the country and no doubt abroad as well. If you haven’t tried them, you should — they’re very good.

Spernall Park, Upper Spernall Farm, Warwickshire. It took farmer Granville Stevens seven years to grass this field like this, after decades of monoculture crop rotation had destroyed the soil. [Photo credit: JAMES FLINT]


He also started to landscape some of the land adjacent the farm into a something of a park, a setting for marquees that could cater for weddings and other events, another handy little earner. His wife Nell, a keen rider, stabled horses and gave lessons. And together they re-introduced some livestock — badger-faced sheep and long horn cattle — with an eye on selling some quality pasture-fed meat.


The mainstay was still cereal farming, however, if rather less of it than before. And one thing that Granville noticed, as he tried to continue the farming practices of his father, was that he was having to use four times the chemicals to get the same yields from the crops that they’d got on the farm back in the 70s and 80s. It was the same when trying to grass the sweeping field that would become his park. It had been a classically farmed wheat field for as long as he could remember but grass just wouldn’t grow on it: it took about seven years of failed attempts before he could get the seed to take.


“My father’s generation mined the soil,” Granville tells me, bluntly. “Decades of growing a small number of crops on a schedule of ploughing the land once the harvest was done, leaving the ground naked for a season, and then spraying it with herbicides to remove weeds before planting the next year’s crop had done a huge amount of damage.”


A healthy soil, he explains, contains about 45% minerals (sand, silt and clay, in descending order of particle size), 25% water, 25% air (the air and water existing in the pore spaces), and somewhere between 1 and 8% “soil organic matter”. This last bit is a living ecosystem containing billions of tiny organisms from protozoa and fungi to worms and beetles and a veritable jungle of species in between and it’s absolutely crucial not just for growing plants but also for carrying out soil’s other major environmental purpose: sequestering vast reserves of carbon.


This is because the trillions of tiny creatures that inhabit the soil ecosystem eat carbon to survive. They source it from decaying vegetal and animal matter and from the carbohydrates made by plants from the carbon they suck in from the air and exude as sugars from their roots. While they search for, ingest and digest these sugars the denizens of the soil respire just as we do by inhaling oxygen and breathing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, a fair bit of which is also immediately recaptured by the leaves of the plants directly above them. Another chunk of the carbon they eat gets buried in the soil simply because they trap it in the structure of their own bodies as they grow or just excrete it, a process of mineralisation which also heavily involves the huge mycorrhizal networks of fungi that lace the earth and which makes the crucial elements nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus available, in the end, back to the plants.


This living ecosystem is as complex as a coral reef and when considered globally it cycles and stores more than three times the amount of carbon that’s present as a free gas in the atmosphere (you can see the seasonal effect is has on those gaseous carbon levels in the two images below). And this entire ecosystem could not exist without plants, as those plants are the conduits by which the carbon it relies upon for food is piped down from the sky into the earth.

Carbon dioxide dispersion (in red) in the northern hemisphere after a winter and of emissions…

… and once plants have grown during spring and summer [Source: NASA]


As well as cycling or burying carbon, In the process of going about their daily business the members of this hidden community create particles or “aggregates” that form the spaces in the soil in which air and water will get trapped. Properly aggregated soil can also absorb a tremendous amount of water, soaking it up and holding it like a giant sponge. Heavy rainfall is absorbed by soils in winter and gets held inside the land, percolating only slowly through it to rivers and other watercourses by which time it is, or should be, thoroughly filtered and running clear. All those pore spaces in the aggregates that are now well suffused with water come in very handy in the summer when the temperatures go up and droughts replace the rains. Now they’re ready for plants to send down roots to find them, roots that exude more carbohydrates for the ecosystem and ingest those handy minerals on their way to having a drink.


When the land is ploughed, however, the aggregates that hold the water are minced up and compacted, along with all the organisms that live inside them. Initially this actually increases activity in the soil organic matter, as the ploughing churns vegetal matter into the soil and makes more carbon food available. But without plants above to absorb it the carbon respired as a result of the feeding frenzy escapes straight into the atmosphere. And while plants find nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus quickly for the first few years of heavy tillage, the fungal networks that help produce these minerals have been sliced up by the plough as well, so the stocks of them are not replenished. This is what Granville meant when he said that ploughing was mining the soil. This is literally the case. The plough allows plants to pull out the minerals, while destroying the ecosystem that puts those minerals back.

Vetch roots with health soil aggregates, Upper Spernall Farm, Warwickshire [Photo credit: JAMES FLINT]


The roots that Granville is showing me as we tramp across his field, belong to vetch and chicory. Chicory sends a long tap root up to a metre deep into the soil, what Jay Fuhrer (of whom more below) calls a “highway”. Vetch, by contrast, has lots of root nodules that bunch nearer the surface and are good for fixing nitrogen. He bends again to point out the seeds on the cover crops he’s growing in this field: a carbon-rich tapestry of buckwheat, forage wheat, mustard and sunflowers. “It’s important to get the mix right,” he tells me.


When it’s time to plant his cereal crop, in this case winter wheat, Granville will spray the cover crop once with a herbicide to kill it off. He’d rather not use any herbicide at all – overuse of herbicides to keep ploughed fields free from weeds is another practice that has seriously degraded soils all over the world and caused all kinds of other pieces of environmental damage besides. But the cover crop has to be removed somehow and even organic farmers will have to burn tractor diesel mowing it, an approach that itself can be problematic (for those who’d like more information on organic no-till farming and the situations in which it’s likely to work, there’s a very useful article here.)


Whether sprayed or mown, instead of removing and then ploughing the roots into the field to clear it as his father would have done, Granville will leave the dying plants to lie where they fall, so that his new best friends – bacteria – can get to work. As they digest the rotting plants the bacteria will break them down so that other members of the soil ecosystem can start to eat them too.


For the system to work it’s crucial that the dying cover crops offer a ratio of six parts carbon to one part nitrogen. If the mix has too much carbon in it the bacteria will draw nitrogen from the soil to help them digest the rotting stalks and leaves, nitrogen that then will need to be replaced artificially with a chemical fertiliser. And spreading unnecessary chemicals on the land is one of the things we’re trying to avoid here, both because of the long-term environmental problems spreading these chemicals creates and because of the short-term costs of the machines and people and fuel required to spread it, costs which farmers, already working to incredibly tight and uncertain margins, can do without.


Once the process is underway the winter wheat is then planted — “drilled” — right into the digested cover crop.  The detritus that it grows through protects or “armours” the land against the weather, especially rain. It turns out that rain is very damaging to soil if it falls on it directly. The impact of the drops compacts its delicate aggregates, reducing the soil’s resilience as well as its ability to hold water.

Next year’s seedlings growing through a sprayed-off cover crop, Rockhouse Bank field, Upper Spernall Farm, Warwickshire. [Photo credit: JAMES FLINT]


The aim of all this is to ensure a proper soil-armouring rotation is established that not only improves and maintains a healthy soil, but also renders even that annual spray of herbicides largely unnecessary as the cover crops themselves start to suppress even particularly pernicious pest plants like blackgrass and wild oats, species that tend to get a hold on land that’s been degraded by over-farming. A “meadow mix” of 10 or 20 species planted as a cover crop on a healthy soil prevents them from dominating and now, rather than being the only plants that can thrive in the harsh environment of a naked ploughed, sprayed field in winter on already degraded land, they are one plant among many and are not able to out-compete their fellows to the point where they become an issue for the farmer. As a result of which the “holy grail” of fully organic no-till farming comes a big step closer.


To educate me further, Granville gives me a book and gets me to watch a video on YouTube. The book, titled “Dirt to Soil”, is by a North Dakotan farmer called Gabe Brown, and is a first-hand account of how he turned the fortunes of his farm around using cover crop rotation techniques that he in turn discovered via the work of farmer and ecologist Allan Savory. The video is of a workshop by another farmer and soil researcher from that region, name of Jay Fuhrer.


Fuhrer’s mantra is that we need to stop pulling iron and start pushing carbon instead. He starts from premises that farmers know to be true — the environmental factors that help crops grow — and using straightforward and well-supported science builds a convincing case that the techniques in use for the last few decades have been working against that, not with it. Gabe Brown’s book does much the same job.

Pulling iron versus pushing carbon [Source: Dr. Don Reicosky via Jay Fuhrer NRCS Soil Health Workshop, YouTube]


What’s so compelling about both men, and the reason they have so many of their peers thumbing their pages or booking seats at their talks, is that they’re not suggesting that everyone need chuck everything out and start over. Change your crop rotation a bit, give up ploughing (a tedious job in any case), ease off the chemical sprays (saving yourself some money) and integrate your livestock more tightly into your crop management cycle… and better soils, higher yield, lower erosion, healthier rivers, higher profit margins and lower levels of atmospheric carbon are all yours for the taking.


The last bit about including animals in the rotation is crucial. Animals correctly grazed on the cover crops actually accelerate carbon capture and soil regeneration. How so? Because stressing plants through animal grazing makes them grow faster and more virulently and pull more carbon from the atmosphere and push into the ground, where it gets transformed into carbohydrates that feed the fungi and bacteria that in turn build the soil aggregates. And of course, the droppings from the animals also provide nitrogen and help feed the beetles, flies and worms nearer the surface that also help to build healthy soils.


It’s good for the livestock, too. Livestock raised on the rich dietary mix that a cover crop provides are far healthier than those fed on hay, grain or soy; they’re also happier and less stressed. As a result, they produce much less methane and have fair less need for antibiotics and other medicines. In other words, by farming this way you get both better crop yields and better meat yields. It’s a bit like rewilding, done seasonally.


Does it work? After we’ve been tramping round the fields for an hour or two, Granville asks me to look down at my feet. As noted earlier I spent an awful lot of my childhood in these fields and I well remember the heavy clods of clay-laden earth that would clump around my boots after just a few steps and make them difficult to lift – a sign, I now know, of compacted, overworked land. But today there’s hardly any clods on them at all, just a thin sheen of watery mud that will dry off and fall away after a short stroll down the road. The evidence is right there: in just a couple of years of experimenting with a cover crop rotation, Granville has already started turning the exhausted dirt his father left him back into productive, healthy soil.


James Flint is the author of Habitus, 52 Ways to Magic America and The Book of Ash. He’s served as Online Arts and Features editor of and General Manager of Telegraph TV, and from 2009 to 2012 he was Editor-in-Chief of the Telegraph Weekly World Edition. From 2012 to 2014 he was CEO of the online video marketing platform Videojuicer, and he is the co-founder of the health communications start-up Hospify.

His latest novel, Midland, was published in January 2019.


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