Feeding the soil: Orchardist’s recipe for biological farming

Terms like biological farming and regenerative agriculture are increasingly being used to encourage farmers to integrate soil life and environmental thinking into their decision-making.

But for bio-friendly practices to gain traction, farmers need examples from other farmers to appreciate how these concepts can be applied.

One innovative farmer who has been experimenting for the past twenty years is Manjimup orchardist Jeremy Price. For the past three years, Mr Price has been managing the 15 hectare Valley View Organics apple orchard owned by Newton Brothers. He says it’s only been over these few years that he has begun to fully understand the importance of soil biology.

“Getting the mentality that we aren’t just feeding the tree or the plant or the pasture – we are feeding the soil, we are feeding the organisms that live in the ground. Once I understood that, it made a big difference.”, said Mr Price.

Like any other innovative farmer, his program is continually evolving. But his observations over the 2017/18 summer suggest he is hitting the mark.

“I am seeing better tree health and a superior fruit quality and size.”

Mr Price has always monitored soil and leaf minerals and rectified imbalances with certified organic inputs. But in addition to this he is applying a simple system using compost and compost extracts.

“We put compost out at four cubic metres per hectare in late autumn and at the start of the growing season in September. It doesn’t look like much but there’s good biology in quality compost. The rain washes the biology into the soil. I’ve been amazed at the difference it can make. The pasture was dominated by kikuyu, but now medics and especially clovers are taking over.”

Mr Price says that sourcing a good quality compost is crucial. In his opinion, a lot of composts on the market have ‘had the life cooked out of them’.

In addition to applying hard compost, Mr Price uses compost extracts to keep building soil biology.

“Extracts are made by taking a portion of compost and washing the biology off into water. We use a 1000 litre tank with the top cut off and a big tea bag that holds 15-20 kg of compost. Vermicast can also be added to the bag for diversity. The biology in the compost is then gently washed of with a hose for about an hour.”

Some farmers use round stainless steel tanks with a paddle inside which gently keeps the water moving. Stainless steel is easier to clean to ensure hygiene is maintained, which is an important consideration.

“We take about 60 litres a hectare of the compost extract and mix it with 10 litres per hectare of fish hydrolysate, half a kilogram of seaweed powder, which is dissolved before being added to the tank, and three kilograms of powdered potassium humate. We put it out at a rate of 500 litres a hectare with the rest made up with non-chlorinated water.”

The rates used mean that only one kilogram of compost is used to spray one hectare with extract.

The sprayer and other equipment used in the process is thoroughly cleaned before use to avoid contamination, particularly if fungicide has been used recently.

But rather than spraying, Mr Price connects the mix straight into the irrigation valve and applies at low pressure, which he thinks could benefit biology. After application, he runs the irrigation for about an hour to wash the mix into the root zone without washing it through the profile.

Mr Price tries to be as active as possible with the extract during the warmer months.

“In orchards we start in early spring when trees blossom and send out their feeder roots. Ideally, you would do it every two weeks for the first two or three applications and then go monthly. Regular amounts more often is better than a large amount at any one time.”

An alternative to making compost extract is brewing compost tea, but this process is more complicated.

“You need to aerate the water for 12 to 24 hours and add feed into the tea as it is being aerated and the biology is activated. If it goes anaerobic, all the food (e.g. seaweed) gets used up and the biology ends up perishing.

“With a compost extract, food for the biology is only added to the extract at the time of application. It’s a simpler process without the risks”

A fascinating video on this work is available by clicking the link below

This project is supported by South West Catchments Council’s Regional Landcare Facilitator Program, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

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