Enriching our soil for a sustainable future

David Gardner, Innovation for Agriculture

28 April 2016

Enriching soil organic matter is one of the great challenges facing farmers today. Maintaining and improving soil is vital to protect the long-term value of agricultural land. It is great to see The Crown Estate taking a lead in addressing this issue, through Project Soil.

The Crown Estate has joined forces with Innovation for Agriculture to host a series of free workshops for farmers on its estates to explore how they can improve soil quality. I am partway through a tour of nine locations across England, delivering these interactive sessions called ‘Enrich Your Soils’. We’re delighted with the turnout and response from farmers, who have welcomed the opportunity to hear the latest thinking on sustainable soil management, debating the pros and cons of different techniques.

So why does soil health matter? Intensive management practices over recent decades have degraded our soils. Soil organic matter has declined and there has been increased soil compaction as we have used ever heavier machines. Soil science has been neglected. Indeed, some specialists believe that our soils have aged 5,000 to 10,000 years over the last 50 years. It has even been suggested that there are only 100 more harvests left in our soils. The current status quo is truly unsustainable.

I look forward to a near future where earthworms are viewed as affectionately as bees as a key indicator of the health of our countryside! ”

David Gardner of Innovation for Agriculture

There are also other environmental challenges relating to soil management, such as erosion and diffuse pollution. In addition, the loss of carbon from our soil is making an unwelcome contribution to greenhouse gases – soils store 2,700 gigatonnes of carbon worldwide, more than the atmosphere and biomass combined.

As a farming community we have to learn how to build soil on a landscape scale and the focus must be on the conservation of the soil biology. The micro-organisms in the soil are the forgotten and neglected renewables. A typical arable field has micro-organisms living within it that have a combined weight equivalent to about 40 sheep per acre.

Whether it is through the use of green manures, changing rotations, reintroducing livestock or planting cover crops, the Enrich Your Soils workshops cover numerous ways to increase soil organic matter. Alongside conventional practices, we explore recent innovations in improving soil organic matter, including new approaches to direct drilling, new cropping systems and mob grazing. The introduction of catch and cover crops, as well as broadening the crop rotation and reintroducing livestock onto the farm, are all seen as opportunities to improve soil health.

Over the coming months and years, I hope we will be able to explore these issues further. Project Soil has the potential to help make a real difference to our farms. If we can improve the biology living in our soil and enrich soil organic matter, the benefits will include improved crop performance, greater flood resilience and stronger commercial results over the long term – for farmers, landowners and the wider society.

Further information

Project Soil