Straight Line Thinking and the Way of the Wiggly Worm

Straight Line Thinking & the Way of the Wiggly Worm

Straight Line Thinking and the Way of the Wiggly Worm

by William Castle of Shropshire, UK

About twenty years ago I used to help out on a small farm which was rented by a young couple who were just starting out farming. The eighty acre holding belonged to the County Council, who had bought farms in the 1930s when farmers were going bankrupt and farms were cheap, specifically to give young people a start in farming. Graeme and Vivienne were lucky to get the tenancy of this farm, because although the idea behind these farms was that the tenants should move on to a larger holding after a few years, with the changes in farm economics many farmers continued to live on these starter farms all their working lives, so an opportunity like this was rare. But it wasn’t just luck that secured them the tenancy; Graeme and Vivienne had already laid the groundwork of their future success, both of them having learnt their trade at agricultural college and by working on a number of different farms.

When I first went there, the couple had been on the farm for about 3 years, most of the land having been through the conversion period for it to gain organic certification. They had a small flock of Lleyn sheep (originating from the Lleyn peninsula in north Wales) a couple of cows and calves, some young goats in a big open fronted shed and a flock of laying hens. On the arable land they grew wheat, oats and potatoes. It was because of the potatoes that I was there, either to drive the tractor and trailer next to the harvesting machine in October, or to help put the potatoes over the riddle to grade them for sale during the winter months. In the first few years on the farm Graeme and Vivienne had managed to do this job on their own, Graeme using a potato fork to put them on the machine while Vivienne picked off the damaged or misshaped ones, but when I was there to help pick off the unsalable potatoes, everything went more quickly; Graeme could put the potatoes into the machine faster, and when the sacks were full I could move them while the others continued working, instead of having to stop the machine as they used to do. When they were growing fewer potatoes, doing the job on their own was a sensible decision, but once the farm became busier, and with a good market for the potatoes, it then made sense to pay me because the job went twice as quickly.

Although I did not have any spare time on the farm, there were plenty of signs that the farm was still in development – the old hedges and fences weren’t in very good order, so the sheep had to be kept in with electric fencing, most of the hand tools were new and there was little evidence of time being spent to make the place look more attractive. Nor were there any old chicken houses, piles of scrap metal or discarded machinery in odd corners overgrown with stinging nettles. In fact there was very little machinery at all, because they had only spent money on the necessities. Because of this, the whole place had a spartan appearance which made it quite bleak, especially in winter. But where it mattered, things were altogether different; the machinery they did have was well looked after and kept under cover, the animals were clean and healthy, and small hedge plants had been planted along the field boundaries. In the pastures there was a good stand of grass and clover, not just a pleasure to see, but also part of the fertility building process that the farm was going through to gain organic accreditation.

I only worked for Graeme and Vivienne for a year or so because we moved to the other side of the country, and a little later they moved onto a larger farm. The area where I now live is mostly dairy farms, having soils which are on the heavy side and with enough rain to keep the grass growing from March to October. A hundred years ago the making of Cheshire cheese was a big thing in this area, but although the farms had a lot of cows by the standards of the day, many had apple and damson orchards and some arable land to grow wheat, or oats and peas for the cows, and pigs to consume the whey left over from the cheese making. By the 1950s, cheese making on farms had largely stopped, and in order to avoid a repeat of the 1930s experience which had nearly led to the country’s starvation during the war, to encourage agricultural production the Government introduced a minimum price for many farm products, including milk. With the new cheap chemical fertilisers, tractors and fuel, and a guaranteed market for every gallon of milk produced, it seemed sensible for dairy farmers to increase their number of cows, get rid of the work horses, to go for higher yields and by doing so, earn more money. To maximise the number of cows, the obvious solution was to put the arable land down to grass, and simply buy in the concentrates. By the 1980s the ‘success’ of dairy farming meant that Europe was producing too much milk, so all dairy farmers were given a milk quota, and then the quota was gradually lowered to reduce the so called European milk lake. Local farmers had now become dairy specialists, and to maintain their incomes, the logical next step was to buy or lease extra quota to maintain their output of milk. Unlike other European countries who redistributed quota from farmers who were retiring, in Britain retiring farmers could sell their quota, so just like on the stock markets, there developed a trade in something that did not really exist.

As dairy famers’ costs increased, the drive to produce more increased, so farmers bought or rented extra land and extra milk quota, often borrowing money to do so, and built bigger sheds to house the cows in winter and new milking parlours so the cows could be milked more quickly. Then the Government abolished the minimum price for milk and the guaranteed market, so farmers had to find someone to buy their milk, and instead of forming new farmer led co-ops, the existing co-ops were rapidly bought up by the supermarkets, which have been steadily reducing the price they pay. In recent years many farmers have been losing money on every litre of milk they produce, so many have taken the understandable next step and sold all the cows, and some have sold the farm too.

This sort of tale will be familiar to many farmers over much of the world. Although the details will vary, a common thread is that when farmers made these seemingly rational decisions, they probably did not feel like they were fundamentally changing the way they farmed, but at every step they lost some of their flexibility and independence, and gradually exchanged a balanced system of farming for an input/output system completely dependent on outside forces. In the process, the natural system of interlocking cycles was exchanged for an industrial system, a straight line mentality which only places value on the difference between income and expenditure.

What has got lost along the way is the concept that farming is using knowledge, intelligence and toil to produce food from the soil – the fundamental basis of agriculture. In fact the word ‘agriculture’ [from Latin] literally means the culture or cultivation of fields, but just as we use the words ‘cultivate’ and ‘culture’ figuratively, to include music, art and literature, so did the Romans. So agriculture does not just mean the tilling of the soil, but also the promotion, development and nurturing of the health of the whole web of interactions which is the farm, including the cultural practises [whether scientific, mechanical, artistic, historical or social] of the art of farming.

Straight Line Thinking and the Way of the Wiggly Worm

When thinking about a balanced way of farming, because a farming system is a web of interactions, no matter where we start to look, we eventually are led through the whole system; but since it is the centre of all good farming, the best place to start is with the soil.

About the same time that I was working for Graeme and Vivienne, as part of an organic farming course, I was lucky enough to attend two days of lectures given by Dr. Vic Stewart, who had recently retired from the University of Aberystwyth as a soil scientist. Dr. Stewart’s speciality was earthworms, the most forgotten type of livestock on the farm. One reason why we tend to forget about worms is because they are out of sight, and because compared with our work of digging, pulling implements through the soil or sowing a crop, their work is slow. It is therefore difficult to appreciate the effect they have – on how easily the soil is to work, on its capacity to admit air, lock up carbon, and hold water and nutrients; all of which affect the conditions for the other soil organisms and the plants we grow.

When a plant grows, the tips of the roots grow into the spaces between the particles of soil – the pore space. The root tips of grass are 1/10 mm [100 microns] in diameter, so for the root to grow, it must have a series of pore spaces of at least this size for the tip to grow into. Once the root is in this space, the osmotic pressure within the root is so great that it can push the soil apart, but it can only do so once the root tip has got into that pore space. This pore space of 1/10 mm is typical of what you would find between particles of course sand, and also happens to be the size that allows water to drain from saturated soil quickly enough to let in sufficient air to keep even sensitive plants alive. Most soils however, are not just sand, but consist, in part, of much smaller particles – the roughly spherical particles of silt and the flat plate-like particles of clay. Because these particles are smaller, so are the spaces in between them, so you might deduce that it would be impossible for root tips to grow in clays and silts, and therefore that nothing would grow in these types of soils –which is of course not true.

On sandy soils, up until about 80 years ago, it was common in Britain to add marl, which is calcareous clay, a relatively small amount significantly increasing the soil’s ability to grow plants. To visualize such a soil, imagine the particles of sand as the size of oranges, with the clay as lentils filling some of the gaps in between. Because the particles of clay are flat, a thin layer of moisture allows them to stick together, just like moisture between sheets of greenhouse glass, so a soil like this has some big pore spaces which are often full of air and into which the roots grow, and some smaller spaces between the clay particles which hold moisture. On clay soils by contrast, adding sand does nothing to help the poor drainage, because there are always enough clay particles to fill all the spaces between the particles of sand. This is why heavy clay soils are so difficult to work, relying on cracking due to frost, wetting and drying, or carefully timed cultivation to create cracks large enough for roots to penetrate.

On loam soils, those which contain a mixture of sand, silt and clay, the ability of the soil to retain moisture whilst draining excess water is partially dependent on relative proportions of these three particles, – or how much of the space between the oranges is filled with peas [silt] or lentils [clay]. But there is something else that happens too, because not all the particles act as individuals, some of them are stuck together, creating bigger particles –or granules. Even when a soil contains a small proportion of sand, when these granules are present, the soil not only contains the large pores between the granules which allow the water to drain, but also smaller pores within each granule which hold water and nutrients. From a plant’s point of view, this is the best of all worlds. The way plants draw water from the surrounding soil is into the tiny root hairs, which are generally about a millimetre long and thin enough [7 microns] to go into very small pore spaces, but they cannot draw water from more than about 2 mm away. Given the convenient connections in natural systems it should come as no surprise to learn that these granules are the ideal size for this to happen. Although these granules are stable in water, so if you put some soil in a cup of water for a few minutes and swish it around a bit they stay intact, they are also transitory, the soil bacteria breaking them down to their constituent parts. But they can also be destroyed by squashing them between a finger and thumb.

The old time farmers would describe soil with a high proportion of these water stable granules as being in ‘good heart,’ and they knew that the best way to create such a soil was to put it down to grass. The conventional explanation for this process was that it was the grass roots which caused the soil particles to stick together, so producing the ideal crumb structure, but what Vic Stewart’s many experiments showed was that it is not the grass roots, but the activities of earthworms which was the causal factor in creating these granules- ‘by ingesting soil and fresh organic residues, they bring organic stabilising gums into intimate contact both with the soil particles on which they are to act and with the lime they secrete from a special gland within the digestive tract.’

Nonetheless, it is still true that a long grass ley promotes good soil structure, so it follows that worms must like those conditions. Obviously when under grass they are not being disturbed by cultivation and are not getting chopped in two, [you do not get two live worms if you cut one in two!] but they also have other preferences – they do like rye grass, but not fescue, they like lime but don’t like concentrated chemicals [including lime in heavy doses], and above all they like a regular supply of fresh organic matter.

The organic matter is the source of the glue which sticks the soil particles together and provides some of the nutrients the plants need, but it is the worms that put it in the right place, either on a tiny scale by mixing it with the mineral part of the soil as they eat it, or on a larger scale by bringing the organic matter from the soil surface down to lower levels. This is important because as the plants get bigger they need additional water and nutrients, so unless there is no competition from neighbouring plants, the roots have to grow deeper. Root growth is triggered by the presence of nitrogen and phosphate, [unlike potassium which the plant can move around to where it is needed], so for the roots to grow downwards there must be some nutrients lower down. This deep rooting tendency is the reason why crops on worm-rich soils tend to survive drought better than soils which are exposed to soluble fertilizers, which encourage root development near the soil surface.

Because worms are always there, we might think we can just let them get on with it, but when faced with a hard pan or waterlogged soil, they will simply wiggle off in the other direction. Nor are they going to do very well on land that is regularly sprayed or treated with soluble fertilizers. Rather than just hoping the worms might be happy, another approach is to think of yourself as a farmer of worms, and actively encourage them; by rotating crops including a period under grass, ideally grazed, to return crop residues, and to add lime when needed in small amounts over a few years rather than a lot all at once. When we start to see things from a worm’s point we also have an additional incentive to avoid driving over wet land, keeping animals out too long in winter, using rototillers, or over-cultivating land [a common outcome of using power harrows for autumn sown cereals]. Although this might seem like we are limiting our choice of what we can do, if we tread a little carefully today we will see the benefits tomorrow. So if we don’t seal the soil surface by poaching, then there is an entrance into the soil for the air as the water from heavy rain drains away. The land then can dry out and warms up more quickly in the spring, so the grass gets a head start. When we apply lime we not only create a better ph for the plants, but via the worms’ activity, increase the water retention and the drainage of the soil, and allow the uptake of some micro nutrients which will benefit the plants and the health of animals which feed on them. When the land is in good heart, the plough will pull more easily so we will get more done in a day and we can get onto the land sooner because the soil is dryer. Because the land is more friable it will need fewer cultivations before sowing, which will save more time and energy, and be less damaging to the worms. In the warmer soil seeds will germinate more quickly, so you may be able to get a weed strike in before sowing, or have crops ready for sale a week or two earlier and a longer growing season to grow bigger crops, and so make more organic matter for the worms to incorporate into the soil. And so the beneficial cycles continue.

I can’t remember ever discussing worms with Graeme and Vivienne, but the farming practices they were following were giving the worms and themselves a good start. With the exception of the goats, their farming enterprises did not seem unusual, but they were well planned to provide a variety of income from different sources, to productively provide work throughout the year, and improve the land.

Their choice of sheep rather than cattle as the main grazing animal meant they could start with relatively few and quickly increase their breeding stock whilst getting a return from the sale of lambs within a year of the ram being put in with the ewes. Their choice of breed was well judged, because especially when selling into a market where you have little control of the price, the most important factor for profitability is how much lamb you sell compared with the cost of keeping the ewe. Being a small sheep and with a lambing percentage of about 200% the Lleyn was a good choice, the closed flock avoiding the complications of introducing disease when buying in prolific crossbred ewes to breed with a meaty ram. If they had started with beef cattle they would either have had to spend a significant amount of money buying mature breeding cattle, and still have had to wait three years for any income, or have bought their breeding stock as calves and have waited even longer. Instead they reared young goats for a goat dairy where they used to work, capitalizing on their experience and a good relationship with their former employer and avoiding the capital expense of buying livestock. By having the goats at home the work could easily be fitted in with their other tasks whilst providing some income and adding fertility through the manure produced. However, with the ultimate intention of having a beef herd, you have to get some cattle at some stage, so the two cows were a small start.

To sell the products of the farm a number of different approaches were taken; the organic grain was easily sold at a good price as the supply was limited, and the potatoes went every week to a company who supplied a supermarket chain, the large quantity being too much to sell directly to consumers. The eggs from the hens however, were all sold at the farm gate or to small local shops, the trips to the shops being an opportunity for this couple who were new to the area to build up relationships whilst making sure their customers were happy. In contrast with the other livestock, hens have a very quick return, each hen then making £10 [about $16] each year, the work of feeding them, collecting and distributing eggs often being done with a young child in tow. By the time I worked there most of the lamb was sold as ready jointed half or whole lambs, building on contacts made, amongst other things, through the sales of eggs. With their marketing, as well as with the stocking and cropping on the farm, they went for diversity, content to sell some things in bulk, which gave time to maximise the return on lamb and eggs which they could sell all year round, on products where the quality was not just in the product itself but in their relationship with their customers.

Within the terms of conventional ‘wisdom,’ the straight line thinking of reductive economics, this little farm was an aberration, which many would cursorily write off as being unrealistic and uneconomic. I can well imagine Graeme and Vivienne being given advice to get a job and work the farm at weekends, putting all the land into continuous arable cropping. Instead they chose to wiggle their own way in the opposite direction, avoiding some impenetrable obstacles whilst steadily chewing away at the others, mixing up the raw materials of a neglected farm with a little money, their knowledge and hard work. At a glance, this farm was nothing special, small and insignificant, a mere worm cast in a very big field; but by working in their chosen manner, this young couple were creating a dynamic little environment which was beneficial to the plants, the animals, their family, and to their neighbours and community.