We’ve said it before, but we cannot emphasize it enough: You cannot buy - nor grow - good food until you can first identify good food. And good food can only come from good soil.
What better way to kick off the week than by visiting our first pilot project, Noah’s Forest located in Ta Kwu Ling, to discover and measure up some good soil. The one and only Ms Josephine Mak, founder of Homeland Green, regenerative agriculture educator and soil health expert took us to her classroom (the piece of land that is) and together with four Homeland Green volunteers and two farmers, we listened in awe to what Ms Josephine had to say. She helped us see right through the ocean of misinformation put out by e.g. food manufacturers, informed us about the way forward and the simple processes of testing soils and crops. Yes, YOU can test your own (supermarket/wet market) fruits and vegetables yourself with one simple tool, a Brix Refractometer. But before you rush to get your hands on a Brix Refractometer, let’s first discuss how to identify good soil.
The first tool that was whipped out was the penetrometer, a soil compaction tester. Unfavorable soil compaction is a serious concern for many farmers and could easily reduce crop yields by 10 percent and can lead to water and soil quality degradation. We tested the soil compaction by sticking a stainless steel cone with a driving shaft and a pressure gauge into the soil, in order to somewhat imitate the route roots can take to develop deep into the soil. For this particular piece of land, we were able to push the penetrometer all the way into the soil, meaning roots can grow very deep and strong, and water can easily be absorbed. Ms Josephine said for some organic farms, the steel cone only goes in ⅓ of the way, meaning the soil at that point gets compacted, the roots cannot grow deeper and will turn sideways, negatively affecting the quality of the crop.
For the second measurement, you’d need a good pair of eyes. Remove any weeds and expose a patch of soil (20x20cm) and start counting the amount of living things you observe. It would be acceptable if you find more than five different species. We found a spider, two different earthworms, many ants, a small cockroach, and some other, to us, unidentifiable living things, which means we passed the test of >5. For test #3, we used a tubular soil sampler to extract about 30 centimeters of soil from about 20-50 centimeters deep. Even this deep down we were able to identify the decay of the leaves and roots that have become organic matter over the years and its carbon sequestration potential (high).
The MicroBIOMETER & Brix Refractometer
Next up was the MicroBIOMETER, a method of estimating the (microbial) biomass of soil bacteria and protozoa so that the user can quantify the natural fertility of the soil and the compost. After collecting and sifting moist soil from near the plant root zone, water and extraction powder is added so that we can use a small mixer to quickly dissolve this into a nice mini-smoothie.
This was then transferred to a piece of paper and while that had to sit for 20 minutes, we moved on to the Brix Refractometer! We took some leaves from the weeds, put it in a garlic press and placed the extracted drops right onto the Brix Meter. Brix is a measure of the percent solids in a given weight of plant juice, this is a combination of sucrose, fructose, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, proteins, hormones and other solids. Brix varies directly with the plant’s quality. A poor, sour tasting grape from degraded soil can test <8 Brix. But a delicious, juicy grape grown on a regenerative agricultural piece of land can test >24 Brix.
What more do you want? Directly measure the quality and taste of what you’re buying at the point of sale. A higher Brix measurement also means the higher the efficiency of photosynthesis and thus having a higher potential to sequester carbon into the soil. Our poor weeds only tested about 5 Brix, so we do not recommend eating them or even using them alone to sequester carbon...
After the fascinating results of the Brix meter it was time to check the results from the MicroBIOMETER. The piece of paper produced a pie chart with different colours, and through the app on our phones it told us, as Ms Josephine indicated from the very beginning, this piece of land was bacteria dominated (74%) due to the weed coverage for over 20 years.
The fungi-to-bacterial ratio from the sample is therefore "F:B = 0.4 : 1". Each piece of land, forest, or pasture has a unique soil composition with different proportions of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms. The differences are due to different soil composition, vegetation, climate factors, as well as land management practices. Organisms reflect their food source, so in soils where bacteria is dominant over fungi (like it was in this soil), nematodes (microscopic roundworms) that eat bacteria are more numerous than nematodes that eat fungi. In soils where regenerative agriculture is practiced, the proportion of fungi vs. bacteria increases over time, therefore earthworms and arthropods are in abundance.
All of this is to say that farmers CAN keep control of their soil when they realize it’s just a fertilizer problem.
If we grow our food in such a way that is digestible to us, which likely wouldn’t be digestible to pests due to our complex digestive systems, then both beneficial bugs, pests and humans can live harmoniously if only we learn to grow regeneratively. Different pests feed on different kinds of plants specific to their bacteria rich diets, and whether they have soft bodies, or hard shells will already inform us of their diets. So while we’re growing foods for human consumption, we should also look after the diet of pests! Unfortunately, this is where the knowledge gap comes in, as farmers are taught to specify exact types of insects for the purpose of using insecticides to kill them off. And even when farming organically, organic farmers are taught to add ‘organic’ fertilizers to increase the levels of nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium in the soil to get rid of pests, bacteria or weeds.
But regenerative farming agrees with nature in that all symbiotic relationships between photosynthesizing plants, soil microorganisms and living creatures can be of benefit to one another in the ecosystem. And we MUSTN’T kill one in the hopes that it would benefit just another.
The more we listened, the more we recognized parallels between the human body’s immune system and that of the soil’s microbiome. Soil is the digestive tract of the ecosystem, the gut lining of the earth. The majority of our body’s microorganisms live in our gut and are vital for the digestion and absorption of nutrients. The way we feed our gut microbiome with dietary fibres, fermented foods and probiotics to help support our immune system, metabolism, reduce disease risks and even to foster good mental health; is in fact, very similar to the way soil needs a balance of nutrient-rich compost, fermented compost teas, cover-crops and companion crops to build good soil organic matter.
Everything in life is about balance.
And what we learnt via this first field trip is that good farming is incredibly contextual. Much like eating nutritiously is contextual to each person’s body profile. In contrast to industrialized food and agriculture, regenerative farming does not ‘cure’ by dousing toxic weed-killers and insecticides onto the soil. It listens, observes, and seeks to understand what preventative nourishments are needed to allow all ecosystems to thrive together.
Thank you Ms Josephine for all your insightful information, Homeland Green volunteers for showing us how to perform these tests, farmers for your experience, and Vienna for your hospitality and your willingness to implement this in the future. This site visit is meant to be a baseline data collection exercise to develop a small piece of land left wild for 20 years into a crop-growing field and therefore not an assessment of the existing condition of a 'farm'. The data we collected will help us make informed decisions about soil and plant management practices to be adopted to ensure a good start for the farm.