Organic farming prevents floods

From earthworms to beavers, paddy fields to Pickering, there are some longer term nature-based ways to start to cope.

“Organically managed soils show approximately seven times more earthworms and twice as high infiltration rates as soils on conventional farms.

"Employing crop rotations with forage crops (for example clover or grass) and catch crops, as well as an optimal supply of organic materials, results in a higher humus content in organically managed soils.

"These results on soil structure and infiltration rates are visible within three years.

"Substantial support for organic farms is justified, to pay for a service provided by the farms to the community.

"Support for organic farming could be an efficient measure to counteract anthropogenic soil consumption which contributes to flooding dangers.”

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because I wrote these words on this page in 2009.

I was quoting German researchers who published a peer-reviewed paper on the subject. So what’s changed since then?

Well, in planning and policy terms, not a lot, unfortunately.

Nevertheless, it is still the case that better soil quality on farms equals more water retention.

This is not to suggest that organic farms don’t flood; because they do. But the best organic farmers work the soil below as much as what’s above, and we all benefit.

But any other farmer can use the same techniques.

A 2011 US study on maize fields in Texas suggested that if even half the State’s maize farmers grew cover crops and used other soil building techniques, 71 million litres of water would be stored.

Many other benefits would accrue, including weed suppression, better drought yields, carbon sequestration, with less mineral fertiliser needed.

Land use is important, whether organic or conventional.

A more recent cost-benefit analysis of a watershed in Normandy, France, cautioned against the loss of dairy farmland to cereal farmland.

Monocultural maize posed a greater flood risk, the researchers said, such is its negative impact on soil.

Farms in general and hill farmers in particular offer potential for rain water storage, using agroecological practices.

At the recent Oxford Real Farming Conference Colin Tudge made four main suggestions.

Plant deep rooting perennial plants, and trees.

“Once (and in some countries, still) it was standard practice to plant trees at the tops of hills to stem the flow of water from the top and to prevent erosion” He also pointed to the benefits of trees in rows, in particular as practiced in agroforestry.

 “Ground-cover and contours help a lot. If fields are not left bare, and if the land is ploughed at all, it should be around the contours of the hills, rather than up and down.”

Taking a pointer from terraced paddy fields, he says “Swales (barriers) can be made along the contours with straw-bales or logs, or stones covered in earth.

"It may be possible to create ponds, sometimes permanent ponds, on the upward side — good for wildlife, and a reserve against future droughts.”

“The soil can be made more spongy, able to hold far more water, just by increasing the organic content, which of course has many other advantages too.”

More broadly again, it’s not just about the farm but the landscape. Where is the river catchment management and sustainable land use planning?

The Yorkshire town of Pickering offers some inspiration. Short on funds to build walls, it built leaky dams of logs and branches in brooks above the town; added bales of heather in smaller drains and gullies, planted 29 hectares of woodland, and built a water storing bund.

This formerly flood-prone town survived the recent floods, The Independent reported..

Flooding and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent.


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