Episode 237. Nature Always Bats Last

This is The ChangeUnderground for the week ending 9th of November 2020.

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

We must realise, I think, how little we know. Compared with 3.8 billion years of evolution, no-till/no-dig farming is, at a scientific, measured and data collected level, about sixty years old. A major part of no-dig is the use of cover crops and they have been known about in ag for much longer. The combination of ground covers and no-dig though is a newish thing.

All this came to light for me whilst listening to an interview with a fella named  Dwayne Beck. A youngest son with no hope of receiving the farm, he studied ag engineering. One of his first journal articles was published in 1964 covering his no-till pHd work from 1960-1963. So he’s been in the game for a long time, in human terms. It seems from listening to him, that humility is one of his character strengths. Especially humility in the face of Nature. To-day’s title, Nature Always Bats Lasts is a quote of his.

He was referring to the fact we can create all kinds of hypotheses around no-till, no-dig and biomimicry but when push comes to shove Nature always has the last word. He, and for that matter I, chuckled when explaining his meaning. 

There are so many variables in a teaspoon of soil, let alone across a garden, field or a paddock. Knowing what to measure, what to change and where to look for explanations is fraught with difficulty. That is why in the last episode, 236, Iliad down the three guiding principles I’ve gleaned from regen, no-till, no-dig reading material and practical, hands in/on the soil experiences I’ve accumulated. 

Just to re-state them:

  1. Keep the soil covered.
  2. Living plants are better than mulch but mulch will do until things start growing.
  3. Diversity above ground leads to synergies Underground between bacteria, fungi and a variety of roots.

Point 3 jumped out when I was YouTubing across the interverse and came across the Johnson Su bioreactor. This is a compost making machine and so much more. The classic hot pile is brown and green material piles in layers, wetted down as each is placed into the pile. It is then turned from time to time to maintain heat and bacterial growth.

The Johnson Su system used thoroughly soaked wood chips in a cylinder made from weed mating or something similar set on a pallet to allow air infiltration from below. Before the chips are piled into this perforated pipes are set up right in the cylinder such that there is never more than eighteen inches, 45cm between these and the edge of the cylinder.The wet wood chips are loaded into the cylinder and the pile left alone. A couple days later those perforated pipes are removed allowing airways into and through the organic matter. It will heat up but once it drops below 26 degrees C or about 80 degrees F, about a hundred compost worms, red wigglers are tossed onto the top. The pile is never turned.

From what I can work out, this system takes longer to complete than a standard hot compost but it is heavily laden with mycclea. Why? Because it’s not turned. This gives the myccelea time to grow and stay intact. And this is the great advantage of the Johnson Su system. The claims for the compost so made seem too good to be true so I’ll be building one in the next little while and will report back on the process and the end product.

The other catchphrase to come out of Dr Beck’s interview was a throw away line that triggered a chain of thought.: Organic farming is tradition, no-till is science. The no-till work being done around the world, the regenerative work too are both pointing at a thing I’ve been questioning, as a thought experiment so far, in my own mind: Do we need to rotate crops? Surely if we’ve set the soil up with correct bacteria to myccillia balance, can we not grow the same crops in the same place, the way we do with apple orchards, for instance. The rotating of crops may just be a tradition held over from when the farming systems included a year of fallow, that is, left open to the sky with no crops growing on it. The continual cropping idea is not just to grow the same thing year after year but to do so into some sort of perennial cover crop. The one I’ve seen work is clover. The methodology involved glyphosate to kill off 8cm strips through the clover field and plant maize into the dead clover. Now I’m not going to use glyphosate on anything but maybe “beat-a-weed” side dressed with lime to balance the pH after the acetic acid has done its job? “Beat-a-weed” is basically just a relatively strong vinegar that’s sprayed onto weeds to strip off the leaf’s protective cover and allow the plant to dehydrate. It only works with at least four hours of sunshine but it does work. I’ve tested it on the driveway weeds. 

And, of course, Fukuoka used flooding of his rice paddy to kill off his clovers for long enough to get his rice seedlings established. There is some form for this type of growing. Equally, Fukuoka grew rice every year in the same paddy without rotations so there may well be something to it

It’s a bit late for this summer and sourcing white clover is proving to be a pain as its importation onto Tasmania is subject to quarantine charges and prohibitions. Yet I have it growing in the pastures here so it must be available somewhere but as I say, too late for this year’s growing season. I’ll look to have some for next Autumn and hopefully get it established over the winter.

Back to the idea that “Organics” is tradition. I’m certainly not attacking the organic movement. It was crucial in standing up to the tide of industrial ag that’s swept the earth since WW2. I think it held a light for those looking for and needing “another way”. Equally the certification only tells consumers what wasn’t done, no chemicals, no GMOs and so on. Maybe it’s time to drag the Organic Movement, kicking and screaming into the regenerative age, maybe.

I think so long as we all follow the regenerative principles above of no bare soil and the more diversity the better, whatever we call ourselves can be a matter of personal choice!

And with that let’s always remember to ensure our soil work will: Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

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




Growing a No-Dig Garden on Udemy


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World Organic News

email: jon@worldorganicnews.com

Dwayne Beck


Episode 236


The Johnson Su System


Masanobu Fukuoka



Dr Christine Jones ~ Amazing Carbon



4 per 1000



Diploma in Sustainable Living at the University of Tasmania


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