Earlier this month Innovative Farmers joined forces with Agricology, an online platform filled with resources for agro-ecological farming techniques. We came together to host the first 'Muddy Boots Innovation Bar', part of the ORC producer conference. At the end of an inspiring day, farmers and researchers got together to discuss their farming challenges. Part problem-solving, part knowledge-sharing, the session aimed to find solutions the old fashioned way - over a beer!
For Jasmine Black it was also an unconventional introduction to her new role as Field Lab Administrator. We asked Jasmine to tell us a few tales from the Innovation Bar.
With drinks in hand, participants grouped around tables with headings like ‘Soil Health’, ‘Livestock Health’ and ‘Pests and Weeds’. Introductions and discussion began flowing…
Personally, it was great to take a bit of a back seat and absorb both the varying issues and extensive knowledge of these farmers. Sat on the ‘Soil Health’ table, we discussed everything from tea bags to soiling undies! Having a background in soil science, I was well aware of the ‘tea bag test’, but it was interesting to hear how farmers could use this simple method to test organic matter decay, and thus microbial activity in their soil. This progressed to rumours of a farmer burying his underpants for the same purpose and suggesting we have an underwear decay competition at different farms across the UK!
Much of the discussion centred on the benefits and restrictions of ploughing versus min-till. Although minimum tilling seemed popular within the group, there were concerns about the compaction of subsoil layers due to the weight of the machinery. The jury is still out, but everyone agreed that the decision to plough should be weighed carefully against soil health.
We then moved on to how to deal with couch grass. On our live Twitter feed we had some interesting feedback about using pigs to tackle the weed. A photograph of a field, half grazed wih pigs, half not showed the pigs had reduced the prevalence of couch several years later. While pigs are going to cause disturbance to the soil, the group thought planting leys could work as a restorative practice. Could this be a topic for a new Innovate Farmers field lab?
Over at the 'Pests and Weeds’ table, the group agreed that unfortunately no ‘silver bullet’ solutions really exist. The discussion focussed on systems based approaches and touched on homeopathy for livestock health and the use of Rudolf Steiner’s marriage of philosophy and practice. The farmers discussing soil health admitted that any help for the future was welcome, be it technological advancement or re-using techniques that may have been lost and forgotten. But either way, it needs to be backed by evidence. Knowing that a farmer has taken a risk to do something, and has seen great results was seeen as the most powerful and persuasive argument to follow suit.
While discussing the issues of soft rush expanding into fields and the possible causes, I realised just how important this kind of exchange is. A current Innovative Farmers field lab is assessing the problem of rushes and some of the group were unaware of it, but after our discussion can look up the field lab findings and find more resources and support on the Agricology site.
I'm hoping to be able to set up more of these Muddy Boots Innovations Bars at other events. I certainly learnt a lot from this one though, both about current farming challenges ... and unusual ways of disposing of old pants!
Let us know on Twitter if you would like to add anything to these ongoing debates, or if you've got an idea for a new field lab you can speak to me or Research Manager, Kate Pressland.