Life in soil and light farming

Above: Dr. Christine Jones spoke of the aggregate as the fundamental unit of soil function during the field trip portion of the workshop. Jones said, A great deal of biological activity takes place within aggregates and this is fueled by liquid carbon.

by Lucie Roy

Morinville was one of seven stops in Alberta for Australian soil ecologist Dr. Christine Jones. Jones is on a tour of the Northern Hemisphere with her workshop and field day on Amazing Carbon and the Fundamentals of Soil. Jones is an internationally renowned ground cover and soil ecologist and is an active participant and supporter of an Australian movement into a Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme.

“Agriculture is mostly about food, but something is fundamentally wrong,” Jones said. “You would need to eat twice as much meat, three times as many fruit and four to five times as many vegetables to get the same amount of minerals as available in the same food in the 1940s.”

An Australia study showed the average mineral depletion in 28 kinds of vegetables from the 1940s to 1991 shows a copper decline of 76 per cent. The same study shows a calcium decline by 46 per cent, iron by27 per cent, magnesium by 24 and potassium by 16 per cent.

jones2Similarly, a Canadian study found dramatic declines in the nutrient content of produce grown over a 50-year interval up to 1999.

Jones said the average Canadian spud lost f57 per cent of its vitamin C and iron, 28 per cent of its calcium, 50 per cent of its riboflavin and 18 per cent of its niacin during that period.

“The story is the same for all 25 fruits and vegetables analyzed,” Jones said. “The Canadian data showed that nearly 80 per cent of the foods tested showed large drops in their calcium and iron content, three –quarters showed significant decreases in vitamin A, one-half lost vitamin C and riboflavin and one third lost thiamine.”

Jones said the double whammy is the nutrient decline coupled with chemical residues.

“How can it be that we are using more and more high analysis fertilizer in conventional farming and getting fewer and fewer nutrients in our food,” she asked. “But we do not see the same nutrient decline on high yielding crops grown in biologically active soils. Indeed, we see the opposite.”

Jones said researchers are also at a loss to explain why protein levels in grain is falling when the rate of nitrogen application has increased several folds over recent decades. Levels of calcium and iron have declined significantly in food while these minerals are abundant in most soils. Dilution and soil depletion are not the causes, she emphasized.

“The problem is that plants can no longer acquire the minerals and trace elements they need from soil,” Jones said. “Fertile topsoil is a product of photosynthesis and microbial re-synthesis. It is photosynthesis, not soil, that forms the base of the pyramid of life.”

Prior to 1940, the importance of life in the soil was clearly recognized. Scientists were undertaking research into mycorrhiza fungi and free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the 1890s. Both of these microbes are plant-defendant. In fact, most soil microbes are plant dependant. That is where they get their food. There can be no life without soil and no soil without life. Plant nutrient acquisition is 85 to 90 per cent microbially medicated. Without microbes, plants would starve unless we fertilize them. It is plants that feed the microbes with liquid carbon.

The liquid carbon pathway is photosynthesis, translocation to roots, transfer to soil and humification. Jones went on to describe how humans interfere with that process. The important principles of soil health and living groundcover were covered.

“Whether you produce milk, beef, lamb, wool, cotton, grain, sugar, nuts, fruit, vegetables, flowers hay, silage or timber you are first and foremost a light farmer,” Jones said. “And the two rules for light farming are build photosynthetic capacity and enhance photosynthetic rate. Building topsoil is a biological process.”

Jones said farmers and landowners can increase the capacity by having green plants all year round as far as climate allows.

The new face of agriculture would be a crop direct drilled without herbicide into dormant perennial groundcover that enhances plant microbial association and improves rates of biological nitrogen, stimulate the nutrient cycle, makes it easier to sequester humified soil carbon and promotes formation of new topsoil.

Grazing management diversity is encouraged with desirable species of plants grown in a rotational grazing method with short and long rest periods. Jones said the benefits include one hundred percent ground cover, a huge increase in diversity of perennial plant species, an improvement in soil nutrition and microbial activity, and an increase in soil organic matter, increased water holding capacity, no need for artificial fertilizers and reduced chemical use.

Farmers have to use a transitional period to convert from a chemically intensive system to soil biology as it takes time for soil microbial populations to re-establish.

More than 30 attended the workshop and field day at the cultural centre. The field study took place behind the centre where various plants were dug up and Jones spoke of their root and demonstrated how the aggregate is the fundamental unit of soil function.

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