Oliver Moore: Rich soil holds key to organic success

I visited a friends’s allotment in Clare recently. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the gardens were abundant, almost teeming with wildflowers as we approached.
Oliver Moore: Rich soil holds key to organic success

“There isn’t much food growing going on here,” I thought to myself, enjoying the glory of it all the same.

When we went to clear a bed of weeds, I put my hands into the soil. It was incredible. Varying shades of black and brown, clumpy, rich, very deep soil. It was a joy to hold and behold. And so very different to my own fledgling allotment, however neat and tidy it is.

“This place ’as ’ad tonnes of farmyard manure,” my mate told me in his Yorkshire accent. There weren’t many actual allotments here, but the application of this amount of the good stuff had certainly paid off.

A lot of food will grow here after all. Using organic growing techniques means using these and other inputs instead of fossil fuel dependent mineral fertilisers. Feeding the soil not (just) the plant has been a mantra of the organic movement for decades.

Globally, soil is a disappearing commodity, which has implications for our ability to feed ourselves. Some global stats to fix the mind:

10 - 20% of drylands and 24% of the world’s productive lands are degraded.

24 billion tonnes of fertile topsoil are lost every year.

The UN FAO predicts that there are about 60 years of harvests left, using current practices: the global amount of productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960.

And yet:

A fully functioning soil can store 3750 tonnes of water per hectare

Soils store more than 4000 billion tonnes of carbon. By way of comparison, the world’s forests store 360 billion tonnes of carbon

To mark the UN’s International Year of Soil the National Organic Training Skillnet (along with the Galway Garden Festival, Mayo Organic Group and Klaus Laitenberger) have organised a soils conference on Monday, July 6, in Claregalway Castle, Co Galway.

A range of speakers from the UK and Ireland will be in presenting. These include Dr. Elizabeth Stockdale (Soil Scientist at Newcastle University) focusing on exploring agricultural management and nutrient cycles.

Iain Tolhurst practices stockfree organic farming in south Oxfordshire. He also runs a box scheme from the 17 acre site, which he has grown on since 1976.

Clive Bright is a farmer based in south Sligo. His talk will focus on grazing long grass in a long rotation. Bright is inspired by what is called Holistic Planned Grazing, which, when coupled with monitoring soil biology, optimises performance.

Celtic priest Dara Molloy will present on spirituality and the soil. Using photographs and images, Molloy will trace the spiritual connection people have had to the soil from the earliest times, while also showing how this has been lost more recently.

Kilbeggan’s Pat Lalor will present on fertility building through rotations and green manures. Lalor, a founder member of the ICSA, farms both beef and cereals, while producing his own porridge and oat cookies.

“The foundation for the success of this enterprise, is rooted in good soil fertility, based on the use of farm yard manure and legumes, along with a sustainable rotation” according to Lalor.

Finally, two Clare-based speakers will also feature. Organic grower Jim Cronin will talk about “how every person can impact on soil” whatever the scale. Anita Hayes of the Irish Seed Savers Association’s presentation is on Soil, Seed and History, the story of Nicolai Vavilov’.

The programme then, is quite diverse, aptly enough. Soil is said to contain a quarter of the planet’s biodiversity after all.

* For more information or to book contact NOTS on 0719640688, email:

info@nots.ie or www.nots.ie

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