Episode 224. Fractional Farming

This is the World Organic News for the week ending 27th of  July 2020.

Jon Moore reporting!

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

This week we are delving into a little theory. A thing I call fractional farming. It applies to gardens as well.

Fractional farming is a way of understanding the process of life creation. If we can retain the free energy of the sun in varying forms on the land of which we are custodians, then we are given the opportunity to increase our sunlight credits. As each unit of feed passes through an action – digestion, composting, plant growth – we are able to add more of the sun’s radiant light to our store of organic matter.

Sunlight energy is predominantly held on farm as soil, it follows then that the more actions we can include in our processes prior to sale or transfer from the farm, the better we will be able to enrich the soil under our care. If we assume it takes 100 units of sunlight in all forms to grow a hectare of wheat, for example, and yet only 50 units of sunlight falls upon that hectare in a growing season, we have two options to make up the difference. We can purchase the 50 extra units needed as chemical fertilisers, which are no more than modified ancient sunlight in the form of hydrocarbons, or we can store up units of sunlight as organic matter and include these in the process.

After the wheat is harvested we have captured sunlight in both grain and straw. The straw can be used as bedding where it absorbs manures and urine and is then returned to the soil, or it can be simply spread about the land where it was harvested and will break down. By using it as bedding first, we are adding more captured sunlight to the soil by combining it with the animal manures.

To further save sunlight in organic matter, we can grow green manures or create animal manures. Green manures are plants grown traditionally to be turned into the soil with a plough. Alternatively they can be slashed on the surface or grazed off. After all the quickest way to concentrate sunlight is to pass it as vegetation through the body of an animal. The more times sunlight is cycled through animals, the longer it lasts and the more available this energy is to maintain the cycles. The cycles themselves become self sustaining webs of life.

Whenever we combine vegetation with animal manures we are creating habitats for beneficial bacteria and fungi. The more complex the habitats, the greater the diversity equalling greater retention of sunlight. So the longer and more complex the rotational cycle in an enterprise, the greater the savings in energy inputs and the greater the types of energy expressions. This creates a soil more suited to the growing of a cash crop.

Let’s look at a possible set of cycles.

Buying a bale of hay, feeding it to the goats and capturing the droppings makes the dung available to grow maize. The stover is then fed to the goats and corn heads ground and fed to the sheep with the result being more dung collected. This dung is then used to grow vetch. The vetch is grazed by the goats and then over sown to oats.

Meanwhile the sheep are feeding on pasture and returning their dung to that soil. The oaten straw is returned to the soil that grew it and the grain fed to the goats. More dung from the goats. All this time the goats are producing milk and sheep growing fleece. Both species are also reproducing and providing meat. The maize, vetch, oat area is now oversewn to peas and pasture and the cycle continues. Meanwhile part of the pasture the sheep were on is used to start a new maize crop utilising the dung of both sheep and goats.

The system is continually growing by this process of energy capture.

So how is this possible in a closed system? We have a closed system – the earth, with an outside energy source – the sun. Provided that we can wait for and can create a return that has high economic and low sunlight value we can set up a self sustaining system that can actually provide almost infinite dynamic stasis. We will not be buying in sunlight, we will be providing converted sunlight energies in complex, varied forms and reducing on farm energy usage.

The role of humans in this system is to monitor, maintain, redirect and harvest.

The cycle described above has but two species of stock. If we add more species the system becomes more complex and hence more efficient at trapping and cycling the sunlight. Limits are imposed upon this system by outside factors:- volume and delivery of sunlight at the location, water availability and soil pH, to use just three.

Soil pH and trace elements can be adjusted. In the case of trace elements, by either feeding it through animals or spreading directly on the soil. pH can be adjusted over time with applications to the soil or plants can be selected to suit the current pH; a better, less expensive, method. Vermicompost and its  various teas will sweeten the soil and bring it to a neutral state, over time.

Given sufficient sunlight, water then becomes the determinant with water availability a key limiting sunlight fraction. By retaining and recycling the water as we do the other sunlight equivalents, the decision on which cash rich, energetically low product to produce becomes more important. Following the rotation above, the soil will develop a greater water holding capability. However it is important to note that adequate water must be available at the beginning of the implementation of the system. This is not the available water, per se, but the maximum usable water that will be available in the driest of years. Will the product selected flourish in these dry years? If so, will it also flourish at the other extreme?

Sunlight and water availability are two major limiting factors in the setting up of any system. To decide the right mix of crops and stock is the first task of the food producer. From then on, all is experimentation and observation. Indeed as the climate variations increase over time, the cash crop too may vary. What matters is the stability of the system. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the more complex a biological system is, the more stable it appears to be. Monocultures bring pests, polycultures less so. 

Hence the importance of diversity in our plants and animals. 

Remember  if we put in the ground work now, we can all change the world, even if its only a little bit to start with, we will begin the process of: 

Decarbonising the air, recarbonising the soil!

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.



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