Case Studies

Case Study: Philip Fernandez & EIT Food

Case Study: Philip Fernandez & EIT Food 1600 900 Soilmentor

Case study – Soilmentor organisations:
Philip Fernandez at EIT Food (part 1)

EIT (European Institute of Innovation & Technology) is a body of the EU, working to drive innovation in business, education and research across Europe. We’re proud to be supporting EIT Food with Soilmentor, on one of their projects monitoring the impact of regenerative farming on soil health

EIT Food has created the Regenerative Agriculture Revolution project, aiming to support farmers to learn how to transition to more sustainable methods of farming. This began with a focus on the Mediterranean, as farmers in this region have been disproportionately affected by climate change, and conventional agriculture practices have exacerbated soil degradation and erosion, water scarcity, biodiversity loss and low yields in these areas. These environmental issues, as well as high input costs, have left many farmers struggling for financial survival. Aiming to revert these trends, EIT Food is supporting Southern European farmers to introduce regenerative methods, while measuring ecosystem improvements and spreading public awareness about the benefits of these methods. 

We are proud to have worked with the EIT Food team over the last year to create a bespoke soil monitoring protocol that is currently used across 75 farms in Spain and Portugal. 

We recently caught up with Philip Fernandez, Agriculture Project Manager at EIT Food, for the first part of a case study to learn more about EIT, and how they use Soilmentor.

EIT soil testing under ovine observation

Could you describe the project you are using Soilmentor to support?

Soilmentor is key to the project we’ve been developing at EIT, which is looking at how regenerative agriculture practices impact soil health. We’re advising and supporting 75 farmers currently, all of whom are being advised by regenerative agriculture experts. We need Soilmentor as a tool to allow us to monitor and record environmental and soil health improvements on these farms.

Soilmentor is key to us for three reasons:

  1. First and foremost, it’s a tool that helps farmers appreciate the importance of the soil in regenerative agriculture. This is a big mindset change – instead of focusing solely on crops and what goes on above the ground, it helps them to realise and appreciate what is going on below our feet, and to focus on what they can do to improve soil health.
  2. It’s also key for agronomists advising the farmers – another tool (in addition to physical, chemical and soil lab analysis) that they have to monitor progress. As it’s cheaper to use, and farmers can use it themselves, it gives a broader picture of the farm. Our EIT Food budget allows us to send one soil sample to the lab per year, per farm. Obviously these are diversified farms with different plots, so Soilmentor helps us to track progress on different plots on the same farm. This is especially important because by definition regenerative agriculture involves diversity – so we can’t treat a farm as just one soil sample.
  3. Third, at the level of EIT Food, Soilmentor helps to see if we are meeting our objective to make Europe’s food systems healthier and more sustainable. The tool also helps us to monitor whether what we are doing makes sense – whether the practice fits the theory, and to prove to EU tax payers that this is money well spent.
Soil testing with the EIT team

How does your project fit into the wider space that you’re seeing out there – and how are people responding to it?

In Southern Europe it’s a unique project. There are similar projects in other parts of the world, but it feels like we’re doing something that is pioneering and unique in Southern and Eastern Europe where we operate. 

I know there have been scientific studies done with a similar focus, and we do not claim to be carrying out a scientific study, but we know this project will be valuable. We’re trying to connect regenerative practices to improvements in soil health on many different sizes and types of farmland and ecosystems

It will be interesting to see if we can draw some valid conclusions – we’re not comparing side by side test plots, but if we can see across 75 farms, that in 60 there’s been a significant improvement in soil health and soil organic matter, I think that’s really valuable!

We’re aiming to build a community this year – there’s an enormous desire in these farmers who are transitioning to reach out and understand what other farmers are doing. Often regenerative farmers are viewed by their peers as ‘the crazy person in the village’, with messy fields and weeds everywhere. So they come to our training courses, and meet other farmers doing the same thing in different places. Emotionally this can be very supportive, and we’re keen on creating this community. Soilmentor also links to this with the new benchmarking function – even though it’s anonymous, it gives a sense that they are not alone, and it’s useful to be able to compare and look at how others are doing. 

Who has been using the app so far, and why, and what did they think about it? 

The main users have been the agronomists and soil experts so far. We’ve had a soil advisor travelling round to visit 65 farms across Spain and Portugal, conducting tests and using the same methodology and criteria for each, and adding all of this information to the Soilmentor app. 

There’s a lot of data on the individual farm accounts already, and as soon as we fully launch we’ll have farmers using it with their own logins. We’re about to release videos to be available on Youtube, which we filmed to show how to do each of the tests. We’re going to translate these into Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Polish. 

EIT soil advisor Iris taking baseline measurements

What are you most excited about with this project right now? 

We’re excited to see the potential of this tool. There have been two important milestones for us recently. 

The first was when we finished collecting our baseline measurements across all of the farms, and our soil health expert had inputted this information into each of the Soilmentor accounts. 

The second was when we started to look at all of this information, combining it with physical and chemical data from soil samples sent to the lab, and economic information we had for each of the farms, alongside visual soil assessments. Seeing all of these metrics in one place was really exciting for us

EIT baseline soil tests – root legume nodules & rhizosheaths

What are the next steps? Is there anything else you would like to share? 

The next step for us is getting these videos published, as well as collating information on each of the farm’s biomes and rainfall metrics so we can get started with using the Regen Platform benchmarking. 

We’re also excited to plan a webinar for all the farmers, to explain how Soilmentor works, alongside learnings from physical and chemical analysis provided by a member of our team.

We’re really proud to be supporting this inspiring project, with such wide-reaching aims and impacts. We admire EIT’s genuine focus on supporting the farmers on the ground with this project. The individual farmers are, as Philip put it, EIT’s “key stakeholders”.

We’re excited to continue our collaboration with EIT, and to see how the farmers get on with using Soilmentor after the official launch. Watch this space… we’re planning on publishing a second part to this case study as the project develops further!

The Journey to a Regenerative Mindset – ORFC 2022

The Journey to a Regenerative Mindset – ORFC 2022 2796 1478 Soilmentor

The Journey to a Regenerative Mindset

At ORFC 2022, we hosted a session digging into the mindset shift required to transition to regenerative farming. What changes are required as we shift our relationship to the land and landscapes and what does that feel like? What are the uncomfortable bits?

Inevitably in farming so many questions arise, how do you navigate this day to day? The regenerative journey takes many forms. It’s one of experimentation, adaptation, and openness to making mistakes. It is important to build frameworks that support feelings, to find freedom in uncertainty and learn how this change in mindset can lead to further thinking, such as on land justice, economic decisions, and societal equity.

Tune into our talk with Caroline Grindrod of Roots of Nature, Clare Hill of FAI Farms, and Sam and Claire Beaumont of Gowbarrow Farm below, to learn from their experiences in supporting this shift, and how this new mindset is relevant to life beyond farming.

Case Study: Clare Hill at FAI Farms

Case Study: Clare Hill at FAI Farms 1144 1322 Soilmentor

Case Study: Clare Hill at FAI Farms

Since 2001, FAI have farmed 1200 acres of Oxford University owned land in Oxfordshire, running a ewe flock, a suckler herd, egg laying hens and forage making land as well as hosting trial facilities for on-farm research. Clare Hill is the farm manager at FAI.

After noticing cracked ground in spring on fields that had suffered flooding in winter, Clare began focusing her attention on building more resilience in their soils, and decided to transition to a regenerative system.

Clare and the team at FAI have been using Soilmentor to collect a baseline of soil health measurements and biodiversity observations, so that they can monitor their progress over time, and see the benefits of their regenerative management decisions in real time.

FAI are collecting a lot of data in Soilmentor, and are able to send their soil health data to their clients, to demonstrate the benefits of their regenerative system. They have found Soilmentor is much easier than using spreadsheets as they did before.

Photo Credit: Ben Pike

Soilmentor is helping us to really see what’s going on with our soils, and it’s been amazing to have that instant feedback – no labs – just getting back in touch with the land. It’s given us an insight we didn’t have before, and it’s so simple with all the information in one place.”

“The first year of data collection is all about understanding the data and the processes, then we will be able to train others to monitor the benefits of the regenerative transition, starting with soils. Since changing our grazing we are starting to see many more butterflies, bees and birds, and we’re excited to see how this builds over time with Soilmentor”

Caroline Grindrod of Wilderculture helped to advise the new grazing system at FAI, which now involves much longer rest periods, with larger herds of animals grazed rotationally, to allow the grasses to grow longer and create better root systems in the ground.

Clare’s noticed that the cattle are now browsing much more, and will eat everything in their cell – nettles, buttercups, and the herbal leys: “set stocked animals become lazy and don’t try eating anything other than grass”.

We’re excited to support FAI’s soil monitoring journey going forward, and to see how their new grazing system changes their soil health results over time.

Case study: Peter & Henri Greig at Pipers Farm

Case study: Peter & Henri Greig at Pipers Farm 545 565 Soilmentor

Case Study: Peter & Henri Greig at Pipers Farm


Pipers Farm is a 50 acre permanent pasture family farm in Devon, with native-breed cattle and sheep herds. Peter and Henri Greig are the founders and farmers at Pipers Farm, and they also work to support an additional 25 family farms, to connect their customers with healthy produce that has been farmed with a focus on traditional, sustainable values.

Peter and Henri began mob-grazing three years ago to improve their soil health and increase the productivity of their grassland. When they first started mob grazing they noticed they were grazing the pasture too hard, so they’re now in the process of learning to optimise their grazing technique to leave more forage and allow a better root structure to develop.


Recording photos at specific sample sites on Soilmentor helps Peter and Henri to keep track of changes to their soil over time.

Soilmentor has given Peter and Henri a toolkit to stay in touch with their management journey, allowing them to monitor their soil health progress as they go:
 
“Soilmentor is an exciting revelation to us. It feels like we’ve opened a whole encyclopedia of wisdom, and we’re unravelling the ancient story of our land. Soilmentor has become our eyes and ears to monitor our regenerative farming journey, learning from nature as we go…
 
We got a good base line of soil health measurements last winter, and we’re excited to see how these might change after our efforts to increase resting periods in our grazing. The first holes we dug we realised our roots were very small, and we’re hoping to see our grass roots lengthen into the soil and improve our VESS scores”

The Greigs have been doing regular sward stick readings and recording their results in Soilmentor in order to optimise their mob grazing.
 
By tracking their forage with sward readings, they can monitor their DM/ha, and make sure they aren’t grazing their pasture too hard before moving their livestock on:


We can’t wait to see how the years ahead progress at Pipers Farm. Hopefully we’ll see the soils gain an improved structure and resilience as Peter and Henri perfect their grazing technique! 

Want to know more about Regenerative Farming? Here are our top resources!

Want to know more about Regenerative Farming? Here are our top resources! 595 596 Soilmentor

New to all this? These resources are a great place to start:
(scroll down for more in-depth info)

What is regenerative agriculture? 

Still not sure exactly what it means to be a regenerative farmer? This is a great Groundswell short video to get you up to speed;  the key messages of regenerative farming are laid out with interviews and animations.

Talk: Charles Massy – TEDx

Now you know what regenerative farming is, but how do you apply it? Charles Massy’s talk at TEDxCanberra “How regenerative farming can help heal the planet and human health” is an inspiring resource that discusses the wider impacts of an ecological approach to farming.

Talk & in the field: Nicole Masters – renowned agroecologist

Meet Nicole, who shares insights in this video on the regenerative agriculture movement in New Zealand. Find out about the importance of soil biology and the profitability of regenerative practises. Watch more of Nicole’s videos here.

Talk: Gabe Brown – Keys to Building a Healthy Soil

Gabe Brown’s lecture at the Idaho Sustainable Agriculture symposium is a great in-depth explanation of how regenerative agriculture methods keep soil healthy.

Youtube: Groundswell Agriculture

Our next stop is the Groundswell youtube channel, sharing recordings of facsinating talks from their past events. Word on the street is there will be new videos posted in lieu of this year’s cancelled show – so worth a subscribe to stay in the loop!

Podcast: Farmerama Radio

Our sister podcast – Farmerama shares new regenerative farming stories every month. The recent five-part series ‘Cereal’ is worth checking out – taking a deep dive on cereals, milling, baking, supply chains, and the importance of regenerating this system.

Youtube: Cotswold Seeds

The Cotswold Seeds Youtube channel has some great resources on the benefits of diversifying your rotation, and the amazing benefits cover crops and herbal leys can provide for soil health.

Ready to dive deeper into regenerative farming? Let’s go!

Articles, Audio & Video: Integrated Soils

There’s a great list of resources on Joel Wiliams’s Integrated Soils website – including audio clips, videos, and articles worth exploring to learn from Joel’s experience in soil health, plant nutrition and sustainable food production.

Farmer profiles, Research, Blogs: Agricology

Thirsty for more? Agricology is a knowledge exchange network, providing an interface between farmers, researchers and organisations. The Agricology site is bursting with innovative resources, with a focus on agroecological methods that are practical and sustainable.

Articles, Research & Podcasts: Sustainable Food Trust

Regenerative farming is all about healthy food. The Sustainable Food Trust website is home to a plethora of great articles and informative resources which aim “to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food systems”. The SFT podcast is also well worth checking out – including interviews with some key figures in sustainable farming and policy.

Podcast: Regenerative Agriculture with John Kempf

This is a brilliant podcast for anyone who wants to learn about the science and principles behind regenerative farming. A regenerative feast for the ears!

Research, Videos & Community: The Savory Institute

The Savory Institute is a great resource for those interested in mob grazing of livestock for the regeneration of grasslands. There are plenty of informative videos and information on regional holistic grazing hubs to connect with.

Innovative thinking: The College for Real Farming and Food Culture

The College for Real Farming and Food Culture aim to establish Enlightened Agriculture as the global norm, and to encourage complementary food cultures. Their website is full of interesting information about the college and its ideas.

Blog & Courses: Niels Corfield, Soils Advisor

Our resident soils advisor has a great selection of informative regenerative agriculture blogs on Medium – it’s well worth digging into this archive!

Courses: FarmEd

FarmEd is the centre for Farming & Food Education, with a mission “to accelerate the transition towards regenerative farming and sustainable food systems”. The website has some great resources to read up on, we particularly enjoy their seasonal wildlife updates!

Handbook: Regrarians

The Regrarians handbook is a positive, practical and pragmatic guide to regenerating human, plant and animal lives along with productive landscapes. The full text is paid for, but worth it!

Innovation for Agriculture

Innovation for Agriculture have a fab mix of resources covering regenerative farming, livestock, soil and water. In particular they share information from their Animals to Arable conference, which was all about integrating livestock into arable rotations to improve soil health.

What do you think, feeling up to speed now? Let us know if you have any resources to add – contact us

Will Godwin – Hampton Estate

Will Godwin – Hampton Estate 1440 1079 Soilmentor

The beautiful family run Hampton Estate is nestled in the sandy soils of Seale, near Farnham in Surrey. Most of the farmland is in woodland or grass and twenty years ago Guernsey dairy cattle grazed the estate. The family have since switched to a Sussex cattle herd and started producing grass fed beef to sell direct to their local customer base. Their cattle are raised on tasty grass and lovely Surrey sunshine! Hampton Estate are members of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and in the process of having their beef pasture for life certified. Pasture fed systems with good grazing management can be very regenerative for soil health. Hampton have started using Soilmentor to monitor and understand how soil health is changing across their farmland.

The estate has some very special gardens filled with hops! This speciality crop has been grown in the local area for hundreds of years, despite a lot of production being wiped out by a fungal disease called verticillium wilt. Many other farms gave up their hop gardens, but Hampton has maintained growing this traditional crop with high biosecurity measures. Their hops are used in three major breweries across the country. The infrastructure required to grow hops is extensive and to fit in with the natural landscape Hampton uses tall poles made of chestnut from their own woodland.

Hampton are developing their farm strategy around building soil health and improving their sward. Using Soilmentor they can create a baseline for where their soil health is at now and give them an idea of where they want to go. Growing good grass is essential for their pasture fed cattle and so one approach they will take is to increase species diversity and deeper rooting plants in the sward. This will increase their resilience in times of drought as deep roots can reach water and nutrients further down in their sandy free draining soil. A more diverse range of broadleaf plants and root systems will increase the potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and put it into the ground. Hampton is monitoring the % of different plant species and their density to see how this changes over time in their pasture fields. As they collect more information about their pasture with Soilmentor they will be able to compare plant species readings with soil structure and earthworm readings to see if there are any trends and links in their improvement.

“I’d been looking for a tool to monitor soil health just like this, I’d tried other tests but they were always so complex and involved lab testing. It’s great to have a set of simple tests that I can do easily myself.” – Will Godwin, Hampton Estate

We spent the day soil monitoring pasture fields under different management approaches with Will Godwin. Will is part of the estate management team and works very closely with Bridget and Bill Biddell who own and manage the Estate on behalf of the wider family. Heading out to the field with Will and Bridget was great fun and the excitement about digging holes and hunting for worms was palpable! Will had expertly crafted an infiltration rate pipe from a piece of drainpipe, sharpening one end to make it easier to get into the ground. He used an old water bottle with 444ml of water marked on it to ensure the exact same amount of water was used each time. An old dustbin lid made an excellent examination tray for the soil block and Bridgett didn’t seem to mind us using her freezer bags to collect samples for the slake test!

We started on a very sandy permanent pasture field grazed throughout winter by their steers and very poached up in places. On this field we found no worms at all! This meant Will recorded an earthworm count of 0 in Soilmentor and we all agreed this is definitely an opportunity to improve how the soil on this field is managed to increase earthworms for the next time it is monitored. Next we headed to a permanent pasture field being rested after grazing last year which had an abundance of wigglers, seventeen in one soil pit, and even a dung beetle popped its antlers up. At the time we didn’t realise it was a dung beetle, but took a photo of it using Soilmentor so Will could look back at a later date to identify the beetle. This field had a dense thatch of grass on the surface which slowed the infiltration rate down considerably. The third field we tested was a grass field cut every year for hay which had a few worms but an exceptionally fast infiltration rate. In addition to these fields Will plans to monitor two more pasture fields and one hop garden.

Going forward Hampton plans to start a new grazing system, to improve sward quality and soil health across the estate. Changes in the way the herd is managed and trying mob grazing to encourage tall grass and deep root growth are central to the strategy. Over in the hop gardens, although they cannot return the biomass from the hop plants back to the soil due to the verticillium wilt disease risk, there are plans afoot with Rob, their Agronomist, to plant green manure cover crops in between the rows of hop plants. Verticillium wilt only affects broadleaved plants and to avoid attracting it to the garden the cover needs to be a cereal to mitigate this risk, so rye and oats are good options. The cover crop will anchor the soil, protecting it from erosion, photosynthesising and putting nutrients into the soil.

Soilmentor will help Hampton monitor how their soil is changing as they experiment with new farm management approaches to improve soil health. For example, with a new approach to grazing the fields over winter, such as mob grazing, Hampton will hope to see an improvement in earthworms, sward density and soil structure. All of these are what we call ‘soil health indicators’ and are easily monitored using soil tests with Soilmentor. All the information Hampton collects using the Soilmentor app is visually displayed on their online account making it easy to look back at their soil health records and analyse how things have changed over time.

What are Will’s management objectives:

  • Improve soil health across the estate
  • Increase grass and broadleaf species
  • Understand best grazing technique to optimise grass growth

What is Will monitoring:

  • Earthworms
  • Infiltration
  • Slake (Wet aggregate stability)
  • VESS (1-5)
  • % of undesirables % of bare soil
  • % of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each

 

Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground?

Buy the app here and sign up for our newsletter

Are you a Pasture Fed Livestock Association member? Get a discount on Soilmentor, contact us or the PFLA for more info.

Chris Leach – Waddesdon Estate Farm

Chris Leach – Waddesdon Estate Farm 4032 3024 Soilmentor

Chris Leach is part of the Forestry Team at Waddesdon Estate in Buckinghamshire. Around 500 tonnes of wood is produced from managing the 450 acres of the estate’s woodland, half of which is used as fuel for the biomass boiler. Chris was keen to find an environmentally sound way to use the waste wood and saw the perfect opportunity to work with the Estate’s farming operation to combine the waste wood and farm waste to create compost. He will add bokashi to the compost which he hopes will encourage mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacteria in the soil. Chris is now working with all departments on the Estate, (Gardens, Stud, Forestry, Farm), to improve and sustain soil health.

By recording information on soil tests with Soilmentor, Waddesdon created a baseline starting point as well as a future goal for what the estate team want to achieve. Chris finds testing water infiltration rates most interesting as one of the estate’s aims is to increase the soils capacity to store water and make it more resilient to drought. Doing the VESS test has highlighted how much topsoil they really have and the difference between arable fields and permanent pasture.

Chris said “Generally the lack of earthworms across the whole estate was a surprise, we would love to see an increase. Soilmentor is so simple – it’s an amazing tool. I find the app extremely easy, I record soil test results on my phone and when I get back to office it’s all there in one place on the computer. It makes you look at things a bit differently, giving a wider picture, something to reference and understand how to improve. All Heads of Department can access the data online too so that now everyone is working together to improve soil health across the estate. We are always learning and want to share our knowledge for the present and the future. I spout regenerative agriculture at every opportunity, even when I’m talking to other parents at my son’s football matches!”

Chris’s management goals

  • Improve soil health and build regenerative farming system
  • Improve profitability
  • Reduce chemical inputs
  • Disturb the soil less

What is Chris measuring?

  • Infiltration rate
  • Earthworms
  • Slake test
  • VESS
  • Rhizosheaths
  • Field photo diaries

Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground?

Buy the app here and sign up for our newsletter

Hannah Steenbergen – 42 Acres, Somerset

Hannah Steenbergen – 42 Acres, Somerset 5184 3456 Soilmentor

Hannah Steenbergen is the farm manager at 42 Acres Farm , a 170 acre working farm and garden which is home to the 42 Acres Somerset Retreat Centre. Until this year much of the land was untended and wild, so there is an amazing amount of wildlife. Hannah’s plan is to create a small-scale diverse regenerative farm where they use minimal inputs, foster biodiversity and increase the fertility of the land.

“After we made hay the field was a buzzard playground! Hay making revealed all these small mammals. There’s amazing wildlife at the farm, we want to keep it that way whilst also bringing the land into production.” – Hannah, 42 Acres

On the farm she has introduced a small beef herd of Shetland cattle, which are 100% grass-fed and managed with ‘mob-grazing’.The garden, greenhouse and polytunnel are filled with delicious vegetables, salads and plants grown by Head Gardener Arek. There’s also a flock of Khaki Campbell ducks waddling around the garden and laying eggs. Hannah grew up on a biodynamic farm in North Yorkshire and is committed to following regenerative agriculture principles as she takes the 42 Acres farm forward.

The aim is to build soil health through clever grazing management with their growing number of livestock, moving them around the pasture regularly, ensuring grass has time to regrow and organic matter is continually incorporated into the soil. The farm is in a very wet area, so increasing the soil’s capacity to hold water is very important, that way they can prevent run-off and keep topsoil and nutrients on the land.

The Soilmentor app allows Hannah to monitor how the soil is changing, and if she is in fact moving towards her goals to build soil health at the farm. Her first soil tests clearly show where she started, and with testing every 6 months, she will quickly get an idea for how the soil is changing with each new farm decision and management practise put in place. Plus it can be fun! Hannah said “I particularly enjoy the earthworm tests, identifying the different types of earthworms is very interesting. The infiltration rate is also very interesting, it was completely different in our pasture vs roto-tilled veg plots. I feel like I’m understanding more about soils all the time.”

For Hannah it’s very important to become a financially viable small scale and diverse farm, with a social impact. As the farm is in its first year, Hannah and the team are figuring out what the land would be best used for, and the soil tests will give a good indication of things to try out. By monitoring and understanding the soil health now, she has taken important first steps to ensure healthy soils on the farm.

 

What are Hannah’s management objectives?

  • Increase soil health on the farm
  • Understand best grazing techniques and optimise grass growth
  • Maintain and increase biodiversity above and below ground

 

What is Hannah measuring?

  • % of undesirables % of bare soil
  • % of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each
  • VESS (1-5)
  • Earthworms
  • Infiltration
  • Plate meter

 

Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground?

Buy the app here and sign up for our newsletter

Getting started monitoring on our farm – Abby Rose

Getting started monitoring on our farm – Abby Rose 800 600 Soilmentor

 

Sunday morning early my dad and I went out to observe and investigate our soils on our farm in Chile. As you may know 2017 was a very difficult year for my family’s small farm as the mega fires in Chile consumed our farm, burning all our crops — olives and vines, just the buildings survived. Come November (Spring) it became obvious that most of the 8000 olive trees and 2ha of vines were dead or growing back from the ground. In terms of having a crop, it’s a bit like starting again.

Many of the old trunks stand bare, a reminder of what was there before the fire. The trees all starting again from the ground.

It is at times an overwhelmingly dire situation. But there is no point lingering on the negatives as this is what’s happened and mega fires are bound to happen again based on global trends, so we must rethink.

Where to start? The soils. If there is one thing I have learnt over the last year, it’s that soil health is the litmus test for the direction your farm is going in. For fire prevention we see two ways forward: Either we bite the bullet and plough between all the trees and build fire breaks around the whole farm (100m wide!?) — a disaster for soil health; Or, we make our 700ml of rainfall each winter go further and retain moisture on as much of the farm as possible, for as long as possible, allowing a green ground cover all year round. Neither sounds particularly easy, but as the realities of the changing climate and human impact on our landscapes intensify — we have little choice. So we are opting for the latter, as the first sounds like a barren nightmare.

To systematically observe our soils and document where we are at now we used Soilmentor, an app I recently launched, along with the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and soils advisor Niels Corfield. I’ve used the app on a number of other farms in the UK (read more about them here) but this felt like a seminal moment using it on our own farm in Chile for the first time. This app is just part of my commitment to ensuring smaller-scale farming businesses around the world thrive, building a more resilient future for us all. In an odd way, it felt very moving to have this tool support our farm, especially at this moment of so many unknowns! I can’t explain but when you go out and really observe the soil, something happens, you become immersed in a whole new dimension of the farm. This is why I think farmers such as IanFidelity and Tim have also been so excited using the app, doing the simple soil tests themselves — we are empowering farmers to take the ‘pulse’ of their soils.

My dad on a mission to measure our soils 🙂 The best looking olive trees still standing near our house!

Back to our farm. Doing the tests. We went to 3 fields and dug a hole as best we could at 3 sites in each field. At first it felt incredibly daunting looking at the different tests in the app. I am still learning about soil science, so many things I don’t know! How deep should we dig? How many samples should we take? How can we tell where the top layer of soil ends and the bottom one begins for the VESS (Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure) test? And in fact how can we determine aggregates* from clods* in this incredibly arid soil? Luckily many of those questions are answered here.

We gave it our best shot, followed the notes on the VESS diagram and gave the top layer of soil a slightly higher score than the bottom, determining it was just 1cm deep — that’s where almost all of the roots were and some evidence of aggregation. We had to use a hammer to cut down into the soil, so Spading Ease was definitely 1 (the worst). As we moved on to the next hole it got easier to assess VESS and by Sector 2 we felt confident scoring our soil. Here, in Sector 2, things were quite different, the top 5–6 cm were top soil and showed definite signs of aggregation but then beyond 6cm the ground was almost impenetrable. In Sector 7, we were amazed the spade went in easy after the initial top cm or so. It was completely different again, a crumb-like soil all the way down, quite red, but oddly little sign of microbial life or root activity.

For each VESS reading we took two photos of the soil, one before breaking it up and one after. Later this week I will be talking through the results and photos with soils advisor Niels Corfield in the UK to better understand what it all means and how we might move forward in terms of management. Pretty exciting that we can so easily share the state of our soils with an advisor.

Our rather clodd-y soil, almost no spaces in each clump and incredibly dry!

We brought back samples from each field and did a slake test, Sectors 1 and 7 mainly disintegrated but as expected those from the top layers of Sector 2 stayed glued together. I did question whether the slake test would work for such dry soils, maybe they wouldn’t break down because they are baked into shape…or they would disintegrate completely because they have no moisture in them to keep their shape? Always so many questions and variables. But as we looked over the tests 24 hours later it seemed pretty obvious. Only Sector 2 had any real sign of the soil being stuck together thanks to microbial and root slimes (good stuff!) — it stayed completely intact. Sector 1 disintegrated partially and Sector 7 completely disintegrated. An interesting indication that the light crumbly soil in Sector 7 probably isn’t thanks to great soil creation from plants and microbes but a combination of other factors in the short term (it was dug up most recently of the 3). But I’m not sure on this one so will be asking in the group convo what others think!

Slake tests for sectors 1, 2 and 7 after 24 hours.

The whole experience was rather brilliant, my dad and I in conversation about our soils, really looking and recording whilst we go. We now have begun to understand what we are working with and that the mechanism for living soils is not currently in action on our land. The next step is how to get that mechanism in action as soon as possible. Currently we are considering direct drilling with multi-species herbal leys, grazing lambs in Spring, or maybe chickens all year round. We also want to use compost teas to move the soil health more quickly, as a short term input. If you have any other suggestions please let us know 🙂

How will we test if things are getting better? Well if our VESS top depth begins to increase and the score goes up in the bottom layer, if we start to see rhizosheaths, if we have even one or two earthworms and if we have all 3’s on the slake test then we will know our soil health is improving — it seems like a huge challenge but we believe it’s possible. Let the work begin!

Soilmentor is now available for anyone to use to investigate and monitor their own soils — find out more here. Join a community of farmers working together to monitor our soils and improve soil health!

*A few soil words:

  • aggregation: Soil aggregates are clumps of soil particles that are held together by moist clay, organic matter (like roots), gums (from bacteria and fungi) and by fungal hyphae. The aggregates are relatively stable and vary in size. This means that there are spaces of many different sizes in the soil and these spaces are essential for storing air, water, microbes, nutrients and organic matter.
  • clods: Soil clods are clumps of soil stuck together due to compaction. They often have very few spaces in them and can be very large. A sign of not as good soil health.

Ian Boyd – Whittington Lodge Farm

Ian Boyd – Whittington Lodge Farm 2000 2667 Soilmentor

Ian Boyd is a farmer and wildlife photographer, who has been farming at Whittington Lodge Farm since he took it over from his father about 40 years ago. He sadly watched the wildlife decline significantly on his 700 acre farm as he grew monoculture cereals for 30 years. Plus his thin Cotswold Brash soils got worse and worse, the weed burden grew, and it became unviable to farm in that way. With the advent of Environmental Stewardship schemes about 15 years ago he realised that maybe there was a different way, maybe he could bring back the wildlife and have a viable farm business. His family bought some Pedigree Hereford cows to manage the grassland and wildflower meadows. It became a huge success, the land needed fewer inputs, soils improved, wildlife returned and people were very excited about how special the resulting beef tastes.

“I move the cows daily onto fresh grazing that has been rested for a couple of months. I love cows. You have to love cows if you are going to work with them every day. They are very rewarding, you do tend to end up living with your cows, but that’s all part of the joy.”

Now the whole farm has gone organic. For the cereals they plant each field in herb rich leys for 4-5 years before growing the crops for a few years and then back into herbal leys. The herbal leys are grazed by the 40 strong cow herd (with calves, yearlings and 2 year olds). “In order to restore the farmland wildlife, initially I thought it was all about insects. But I realised now that I had overlooked a complete link in the food web. Insects need healthy soils. So now we are trying to build up the soil health and soil organic matter, this is what we are using the herbal leys for.”

We arrived at Whittington Lodge in the Cotswolds on a very grey and damp day in August. A cheery Ian Boyd greeted us and immediately put the kettle on. At first Ian seemed very wary as I (Abby) told him I’d made an app that was going to help him monitor his soil health today. I don’t blame him for being suspicious, I am a British girl with a distinctly American accent, wearing leopard-print leggings and claiming that I had created an app that could help him out in the field. Who wouldn’t be suspicious!?

Ian only feeds his cattle on the pastures and herbal leys and is a certified member of the PFLA (Pasture For Life Association). This practice requires careful soil and sward (grass) management to ensure the animals always have something to eat out in the fields. This type of farming can also be extremely regenerative for soils, as the animals help to return critters to the soils and this practice is thought to have the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon in the soils.

Back to the misty farm – we all bundled into the trucks with our simple tools – a spade, a card-table, few trays, soil corer, garlic crusher and a refractometer.

First thing you notice when you get out into Ian’s fields is that there are wildflowers everywhere, the fields are alive with colour. We trundled over to First Hill, setup the card table and got to work. Ian downloaded the app on his phone, and we walked around the field counting the % of undesirables (i.e weeds), % of bare earth, no. of grass species, no. of broadleaves and more every 60 steps, Ian recording it all himself using the app.

By lunchtime Ian was so excited, all reservations abandoned, he was telling all the newcomers about how easy he had found the different visual tests Niels had put together, and that the app made it no trouble at all to record the results. I was thrilled at the turn around and his enthusiasm – It’s moments like this that make me realise bringing simple digital technology to the sustainable farming sector is so worth it!

“It was all pretty simple to do, something that I could do on a standard basis over a number of years to see if we can measure how our soil health is improving and build up a database of how our soils are improving over the years.”

Ian has already noticed some patterns by eye from some of his longest standing herbal leys. “Initially there is lots of clover, then as the years progress we get more and more grass coming through. I’m really looking to build up the soil health so we will get more grass, more growth from them. We are starting with some continuous arable soils, so there is a huge scope for increasing soil health and increasing amount of growth over the years.” Ian is keen to learn how he can best manage the herbal leys and grazing them to build soil health quickly and increase grass growth.

 

What are Ian’s management objectives?

  1. Increase soil health and insects/wildlife on the farm.
  2. Understand best rotation patterns and grazing techniques.
  3. Improve grass and legume growth so can have more cows and more winter grazing.

What is Ian measuring?

  • % of undesirables
  • % of bare soil
  • % of grasses, broadleaves, no. of species of each
  • brix % & fuzziness
  • VESS (1-5)
  • earthworms

Find Ian’s Farm on twitter @CotswoldBeef

Interested in using Soilmentor to monitor soil health and manage your farm both above and below ground? 

Buy the app here and sign up for our newsletter