Recently I was walking through the grounds of an agricultural field day. It had been raining and so it was difficult to walk around. But it wasn’t the mud that caught my attention, it was the smell. It wasn’t what I had been used to when it came to wet soil. I remember back when the smell of rain on warm soil had that lovely earthy smell. It smelt fresh and vibrant. This soil was far from that.
My mind went back to a similar incident many years back down on the West Coast. My farmer client was buying another block of land next door to his farm and wanted my opinion on it. As usual I took a spade with me because in my experience there is nothing like a physical assessment of the soil. Soil testing gives one perspective but physically digging down and having a look tells another story. At first sight it was a great farm, well-watered, nice green grass, and plenty of shade for the cows. Then we started to dig to have a closer look at the soil structure, root depth and soil life. The first aspect that took my attention was the smell. It was rotten!! Now I have grown up on a farm so I know that if something smells bad it is because it is dead which turned out to be correct. The soils were compacted and water-logged, and while the property was still growing grass this was only because it had been fed regularly with fertiliser. In fact it was like a hydroponics system with the soil simply providing something to walk on. The farmer asked me “can this be changed?”, to which I answered “yes, of course it can be remedied but not instantly”. Just as it took time to get to this sad state, it will take time to return it to health again.
Compacted soils are the result of soil particles sticking together because there is nothing else in the soil to keep them apart. When things deteriorate to this point very little air remains within the soil and the root structure of the plants finds it difficult to penetrate down to an optimum depth. This in turn results in a poor feeding system for the plant and difficulty in taking up water in a steady sustained way. The plants either get drowned in water or they dry out quickly resulting in the need for irrigation.
Healthy soil needs to contain approximately 30% air which allows water to go through the soil structure and not simply pond on the surface. It also means that there is room for organic matter to be incorporated allowing water to be stored in sponge-like material in the soil giving the plant the best possible chance to survive. All this miracle of nature happens when the correct fertiliser RATIO is applied and JUST AS IMPORTANTLY WHEN THERE IS BIOLOGICAL activity. Science tells us that there are at least one million distinct species of microbe in New Zealand soil. Scientists have identified some of these and know what functions they perform.
At Fertilizer New Zealand we have taken some of these species and multiplied them and placed them into a solution in which they can survive for transportation. This is the VITALIFE and M-POWER range of products. They are designed to put life back into the soil and create humus and organic matter which is vital for soil health. With a bit of help from us the life which is missing in the soil can be made whole again.
Give nature a go
Arden Andersen is an American doctor (twice over) – a doctorate in soil science, and a medical doctor. A soil scientist and agricultural consultant first, and then a physician. He specializes in nutritional management, and advises farmers in “building biology” to optimize the energy environment of buildings, houses and livestock facilities. He has taught a variety of classes on such subjects as soil and crop management, and agricultural radionics. He has written agricultural books (“The Anatomy of Life and Energy in Agriculture” and “Science in Agriculture”) and has produced video courses in ecological soil and crop management and agricultural radionics. He has also written “Real Medicine Real Health” drawing on his wide-ranging expertise to share a vision of healing based on creating a sound body through solid nutrition and a healthier environment, rather than expensive “magic bullet” pharmaceuticals. He claims people have many more options for the treatment of disease than mainstream medicine would have them believe.
Andersen believes the world must move beyond “conventional agriculture” to “biological agriculture” or, as he terms it, “nature”. He spells out what he perceives as the essential difference. Conventional agriculture views nature as a linear system, or the whole being equal to the sum of the parts. Scientists take one aspect (the nitrogen needs of plants, for instance) and believe they can research that one variable in isolation. Once they discover the answer, they then know what to do; in this case, how much nitrogen to give a crop. Thus, we have the various agronomic specialities, such as soil science, entomology, horticulture etc., all existing within the overall agricultural structure and each researching its own questions.
Biological agriculture, or nature, however, is non-linear – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. To view any one aspect of nature, you should consider all other variables. Only then can you make conclusions.
Have you heard any of this before? Fair chance, if you’ve been talking to anyone at Fertilizer New Zealand, or reading anything about us. Our philosophy is built around our recognition that for farmers to grow the best crops and grasses, and to grow the healthiest animals, their soils need the right balance of nutrients. To achieve this balance, we must analyse individual soils to assess the overall state of balance. Only then can we work on correcting specific imbalances. Sounds very much like Andersen’s nature and biological agriculture, doesn’t it?
Andersen’s “Real Medicine Real Health” book is interesting in this context too. At Fertilizer New Zealand, we see a logical link between soil health and human health. We correct imbalances so that all the necessary elements and nutrients are present in the right balance. Such a soil is a healthy soil; a healthy soil grows healthy crops and healthy animals; and these crops and animals yield healthy food that helps develop healthy humans.
By and large, most of New Zealand’s agriculture-based industries are smallish businesses run by people who have close connections with farmers and have farmers’ interests at heart. They should, otherwise most farmers wouldn’t deal with them. But when you get to the national and multi-national giants, especially the big chemical manufacturers, it’s a different story. These companies operate on a much larger scale, and individuals are much less important to them – a dissatisfied farmer will not show up on a balance sheet. They also put a lot of resource into trying to mould and direct public opinion. They promulgate the traditional message that farming is economically feasible only with the use of chemicals. They pay hefty sums to researchers to test products before marketing, and it’s fair to say they now put a lot of effort into safety considerations; some of them are buying seed companies to breed plants that can tolerate their chemicals. But many farmers, and the public at large, are calling this traditional science and technology to task and asking if there is a better approach – a more holistic approach along the lines of Arden Andersen, and Fertilizer New Zealand.