Save our soil

February 26th, 2014

Last week I went to a talk at my local history society by a local (Warwickshire) farmer, Graham Robson who recently retired after 80 years in the business.  Both his film and the subsequent discussions were very thought-provoking. He took us through the dramatic changes in farming methods, crop selection, machinery and financing that had taken place in his time. It became clear to me that many of the changes he experienced also affected the small scale farmers that Practical Action works with in the developing world.

He stressed the importance of the soil – it’s a farmer’s basic raw material and maintenance of its structure and quality is essential. Many modern farming methods combined with more severe weather conditions pose a threat to the food security of the UK and the rest of the world as Robert Palmer shows in his paper in ‘Soil use and management’.

When Graham Robson learned to farm, he ploughed with two shire horses.  Today, even a small tractor has 50 horsepower and the weight of this machinery on the earth compacts the soil, making is less permeable to rain.  So water runs off more quickly making flooding more likely.  Coincidentally, just that morning I’d read George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian  voicing similar concerns.  And this image clearly showed just how much of our precious soil is being washed away to sea.

Martha's early crop suffered from heat stress

Martha’s early crop suffered from heat stress

Such problems are not confined to the UK.  Small scale farmers around the world face suffer from soil erosion. In Zimbabwe Practical Action’s food and agriculture programme has developed some successful conservation farming techniques. These include planting in stations to enable targeted feeding and watering of crops and  inter-cropping with ground cover plants such as pumpkins and melons to protect the soil from the heat, reduce run-off and increase infiltration.

Martha Sibanda from Gwanda in Matabeleland participated in training in these techniques and was delighted with the improvement in  her crop yields:

“Crop cover is important for moisture conservation and reducing soil loss. What I want to do is to use a combination of practices which is why I have a dead-level contour, use basins and inter-cropping to try and maximize moisture conservation,” she said.

Martha's crop after using planting holes

Martha’s crop after using planting holes

The innovative use of podcasting has enabled these agricultural techniques to be communicated more widely by extension workers

For farmers in the UK a tractor with caterpillar tracks is available which does less damage to the soil surface.  Currently, only very large models are available but soon, Graham hoped, a similar one would be developed to suit small scale farmers.

The UN’s food and agriculture organization have designated 2014 the International Year of Family Farming.   Small scale farmers around the world face similar problems, so it’s important that we work together to share information on some of the solutions.  

2 responses to “Save our soil”

  1. Jim Middleton Says:

    Hi Amanda

    An excellent evening with Graham. One of the biggest problems is development, roads estates and worst of all motorways. Drains are put in to take the rainfall into the ditches runs into brooks and into rivers and off to the sea. This water has got to be given the chance to drain into the local area. Look at our own village enlarge the driveways, patios installed. Many of them do drain into the gardens but a considerable number drain straight onto the roads
    I served my uni training milking cows all over the country for 8 or 10 years and finished up vending cigarettes. A little different retiring in 2000.

    Sincerely Jim

  2. Amanda Ross Says:

    Thanks, Jim. There has been plenty innovative development of permeable surfaces for driveways etc – but developers must be prepared to specify them or the planners require them. If the development across the A45 goes ahead we should make sure this happens.

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