Something that I read about when I was in school in the 1970s ( a time when environmental issues were starting to come to the fore) was that deep ploughing and the use of chemical fertilisers were rendering traditionally rich agricultural soils infertile. Fifty years later, the process seems to have reached its conclusion in many once fertile areas, and now even agricultural research institutes are having to admit that the agri-business farming techniques that they have been recommending for so many years have led to an almost complete loss of humus and organic matter in farmed land – with the consequence that insects, soil fungi, various soil microbes, worms, and bacteria are no longer present in vast areas of cultivated land. Experts, switching from their previous complacency and denial that soil life had any significance at all, are now admitting that all land-based life on the planet depends on soil organisms functioning properly, and that our system of agriculture is a threat to all living creatures.  So, what is to be done? The answer might partly lie in the appropriate use of mulch.

Understanding What is a Farm, and What is a Farmer.

A modern idea of a farm is an area of land that is being exploited commercially so that it yields food products that can be sold off the farm for money; some of that money can then be used to buy industrial products (fertilisers, chemicals, machinery, fuel, etc.) that are used to induce the land to yield another crop the following year – a process of steadily reducing soil fertility in the quest of short-term profits, and, therefore, a sort of headlong rush towards disaster and ruin.

Another idea of a farm is that of a self-sustaining unit that receives sunlight, air and water from the wider world, and with these resources grows in wealth and fertility from one year to the next, supporting an ever-greater diversity of life, in all its forms, within itself. In this view of a farm, each element – the fields, the trees, the crops, the birds, the insects, the buildings, the farmer, etc – is just one small part of a larger whole. For a human being, it can be quite therapeutic to think of a farm in this way: the farm is a self-sustaining unit within the natural world, and the farmer one of the creatures living in it.

Self Healing

When one sees the farm as an organic whole, it makes sense to try to restore depleted land to health by encouraging those natural processes that are still functioning (at least to some extent) to regain their full strength, rather than to bring in material from outside.

In practical terms, this can involve designating part of the land available as the crop area, and the rest of the land as the mulch-producing area. The mulch area is cut, and the material piled on the crop area. In really depleted agricultural land, vegetation might be very sparse indeed, but one collects what one can: as time goes on, the undisturbed roots of the plants in the areas that you are cutting start to regenerate a living culture in the soil, and the amount of mulch produced increases. At the same time, the cultivated areas become richer in organic material due to the mulching, and crop yields start to improve. The farm re-develops its own distinctive eco-system of fungi, microbes, insects, worms, etc. As fertility returns, different creatures find that the improving conditions give them what they need to complete their life cycles, and they become re-established on the farm. The cultivated areas, and the cut areas, share the same culture of fungi, insects, and microbes, which helps the mulch to be more readily assimilated into the soil of the crop fields. Over time, the ability of crop fields to break down the mulch and absorb it into the soil increases, and thicker and thicker layers of mulch can be applied. The mulch fields also gradually improve, wild flowers start to reappear, and these in turn allow different insects to become re-established on the land, and these may help limit population levels of crop ‘pests’, and also help to support a diversity of birds.

When you have enough mulch, you can apply it so thickly to the fields that all weed growth is stifled over the winter months, making the work involved in preparing the ground for the next crop in the spring much simpler. Excess mulch can be forked off and stacked up; it will continue to decompose over the summer, to give a rich compost which can be worked into the ground in the autumn.

Who is the Expert?

When you work some land that has been commercially farmed, you discover that the term ‘topsoil’ no longer applies to agricultural lands; deep ploughing has turned the topsoil, which may have been built up over hundreds of years of careful husbandry, deep underground so that it has died and disappeared. This, combined with the use of agricultural chemicals, has rendered the soil in fields inert – devoid of organic matter and soil organisms. I don’t believe that anyone actually set out to intentionally do harm and kill the soil in this way. Agricultural ‘reforms’ over the past few hundred years have been driven by commercial pressures (perhaps combined with greed in some instances), and short-termism, with people not taking into account the long-term consequences of an indiscriminate use of machines and chemicals to generate a short-term increase in yield. Scientists, teachers in agricultural colleges, government workers, and people working for agricultural-supply companies have all been caught up in the process of needing to generate commercial profits from the farming industry in order to justify their salaries. As a result, none of the people working in these professions is qualified to be termed an independent ‘expert’: anyone who challenged the prevailing ideas found themselves out of a job and marginalised. That is why it is a mistake to expect any common sense to emerge from the agricultural industry. Instead, we can each become an expert in our own right by taking appropriate action on our own land, being guided not by commercial pressures, but by what feels like the right thing to do in the circumstances with which we are faced.

I have found that the use of copious amounts of mulch allows a new layer of topsoil to be created; it is a process that takes several years, but over time it is possible to see a transformation taking place as life returns to the soil, seeds are able to germinate in it again, and plants start to thrive. It is a practical solution to what should be regarded as one of the most pressing problems of our time.

Gareth Lewis