Never mind land, good soil matters far more

(iStock)
(iStock)

IT'S the time of leaf-fall. Across the road, our neighbour’s gardener is busy with the leaf-blower. On this side of the road, my garden service is following my request to gather all the leaves and strew them across the garden’s soil.

I now have two veggie beds plumped up with a thick duvet of leaves that just scream for Calvin and Hobbes to plunge into them and kick them up in a chaotic, joyful frenzy.

It took years for the garden service to really get my obsession with grass clippings and leaves. Then about three years ago, the business owner (that very rare thing, a black garden-service owner, and a very hands-on one too) stuck a fork into the soil and showed me the rich, deep colour: “Now I understand why you want this,” he said. “It is really good for the garden.”

When we bought this house, the garden was barren: a few shrubs dotted about a few ornamental conifers, a couple of strutting Indian Mynahs, and pale grey soil. I planted a jungle of indigenous shrubs and groundcovers, and let leaf and other litter lie where it fell, so that bacteria, worms and fungi could perform their magic, nourished and sheltered by the mulch.

Today, any spade full of moist, crumbly, dark soil will bring up wriggling earthworms diving to get away from the air and light; I have Crested Barbets raising babies in our tree and a fleet of Hadedas digging for grubs; weavers, thrushes, robins, mossies and many others join the dawn chorus; butterflies and bees dart around the flowering plants; and at dusk, bats swoop and dive through the fading light.

The house may be falling apart for want of handiwork, but the garden is full of sturdy life.

All of it is built on soil, on growing good, healthy soil. Nothing (aside from air and water) matters more: without decent fertile soil, land is worthless. And we are dirt-poor in South Africa: we have very little quality arable land: “While 12% of South Africa’s land can be used for crop production, only 22% of this is high-potential arable land.”

It’s amazing – and a tribute to them – that our farmers produce as much as they do, enough to feed every one of our 55 million people, although of course about a quarter of us still go to bed hungry at night: "'The problem goes beyond the production of food,’ says Professor David Sanders of the University of the Western Cape. ‘Issues that play a role are the distribution, affordability, and quality of food. […] Producing enough doesn’t mean it is accessible to everyone'."

But the population is growing and the soil is shrinking: we lose an estimated 500 million tons of sediment- a mix of soil and topsoil - every year, driven by both poor farming practices and the fact that “South Africa has some highly erodible soils, coupled with very erosive rainfall characteristics,” according to Professor Heinz Beckedahl at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Environmental Science.

Growing fertile soil 101

Which is why I believe that every South African who cares about our food security, now and in the future, should read University of Washington Professor David R Montgomery’s latest book, Growing a Revolution: bringing our soil back to life (WWNorton & Company). It’s a kind of manual for growing fertile soil through the principles of conservation agriculture.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the author is a professor; he writes in a very friendly and accessible fashion, laying out the three basic principles (don’t till the land; never leave it bare – always have a cover crop on it; and rotate a diversity of crops over many years) and showing how they’ve worked through practical examples.

And three cheers! One of those examples is in Africa, and our continent gets a mention a few times (I’m always deeply bothered when books about saving the planet or feeding the world just skip over Africa). “A number of studies in sub-Saharan Africa have reported better economic returns for conservation agriculture than for traditional practices,” he notes.

Can I underline that? You will not lose by doing this! I’ve heard of farmers who have made the switch locally; they took a hit for a couple of years, but then their production level rose again, even reaching higher levels than before.

Another Zimbabwean study “found that coupling the use of organic matter as soil cover with integration of legumes into crop rotation not only reduced erosion, but helped reverse declining soil fertility and increased soil organic matter”. Note that: it reduced erosion and built the soil.

Conservation agriculture also helps to retain water, to keep it on the land so it can soak into the water table and get taken up by fungi in the soil and the roots and leaves of plants – something a country in water crisis should be thinking about long and hard.

The urgent drive for food security in South Africa surely means we should develop policy around this. Many of our farmers have already taken the idea on board and are implementing conservation agriculture to different degrees, and that’s heartening. But should we not think of ways to incentivise more to join the effort?

Should we – both as government and as civil society – not support and assist new farmers to adopt practices that will conserve soil and water?

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

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