Turning marginal land into fertile soil

20 01 2018

Since having my soil epiphany brought on from doing the NRM Small Farm Planning Course, I have been arguing with people who keep banging on about how we have to abandon meat eating to ‘save the planet’….. I disagree.  It’s just another silver bullet, as far as I am concerned, and they simply don’t exist…….  sure, most people might eat too much meat, but for anyone to tell me that marginal land can be turned into crop land, and easily at that, just riles me up……  they obviously have no idea what they’re talking about, nor do they have any experience at doing this.

As I have said before, it took me ten years at my last project to convert that marginal land into something capable of feeding two to three people. Making compost by hand, even when using your own humanure, takes years. And while you are waiting for the soil to improve, you have to buy food from some unsustainable source or other….

From where I sit, we probably have a couple of years of relatively ‘normal’ times left.


Matt smoothing out the terrain

2020 is when things will get suddenly worse, never to improve again. Even if I’m out by as much as five years, it makes no difference at all. The scale of the problem we face is totally out of control.

My current wwoofer, a vegetarian Frenchman who eats non stop (I liken it to livestock eating all day long because grass is useless food…) believes likewise. Even though I am teaching him the hard way how much work is involved!


Unloading another tonne and a quarter of compost

When Glenda was still here, I took her to Hobart to pick up a load of compost (about 1250kg, they are very generous cubic metres down there!) and on the way back, I suspect, the thermostat started playing up making ute I overheat on the big hills between here and there….  I could not even get my market garden close to finished without fossil fuels. Certainly in the time constraint I am feeling every day, as I get older, and 2020 gets closer as the clock ticks away….

I even had to get my neighbour to come back with the excavator to level off the soil we moved at the last Permablitz last year. There’s no way my back would have handled doing it by hand with a shovel. As I keep saying……  the power of fossil fuels.


Adding sheep manure

The soil on the second half of the garden, without the advantage of all that black stuff full of decomposed cow manure we scraped off the drive 18 months ago, was even more marginal than what I started with on the first half. I’ll have to get another four loads – five tonnes – to finish the middle section that still needs doing. Plus I will have to drive god knows how far to get another tonne of Calcium rock to amend the pH of the soil to something veggies will grow in…….

To be sure, the feeding of grain to livestock is pure madness and only done to maximise


Tilling it all in with chickens and the rotary hoe

profits. The meat derived therefrom is not even healthy, as it’s full of Omega 6 fatty acids that cause chronic inflamation.  Is it any wonder so many people are sick with diets like that which all the shops supply to unsuspecting consumers……

George Monbiot’s latest effort is what got me started on this – even though I feel the need to chronicle the improvements happening on the Fanny farm. Monbiot writes

When we feed animals on crops, we greatly reduce the number of people that an area of cropland can support. This is because, on average, around two-thirds of the food value of the crops fed to livestock is lost in conversion from plant to animal.

Of course he’s right….  we should not be feeding crops to animals that are perfectly happy to eat grass! The problem is industrial agriculture, not meat eating. And he’s wrong calling his article “Eating the Earth”, because what we are in fact doing, is eating fossil fuels, and that’s not even close to the same predicament.

And finally, here’s a short video of what two of my neighbours have achieved after attending the above mentioned Small Farm Planing course.



27 responses

20 01 2018
Barry Kirkwood

Agree. But I have experience with a no-dig garden of small area that provided all vegetables save potatoes for four people with little labour and only small amounts of additional compost and fertiliser once established. Plus very little water required. Sorry if this is vague, I started with no great expectations and kept no records. Also had favourable climate (soft Mediterranean) and adequate rain.
And remember that in the old days the Australasian quarter acre suburban lot was an economic unit, people had veggie gardens, kept chooks, fattened lambs before Xmas, caught fish etc.
Am not making a counter argument, but do consider there is potential for much more local food production with modest inputs. Would be interesting to have systematic data from urban and suburban allotment agriculture in EU and UK. Have heard that the UK became 60-80% self sufficient for food during WW II.
Also consider the experience of Singapore where I understand they doing extensive work on vertical gardens and the like.
As I say, agree with your view, but could be potential for food production in the suburbs.

20 01 2018

You can get lucky and have class 1 soil….. it does exist! But I’m not talking about gardening, I’m talking about farming…… When I gardened the first time at my last project, I initially got good results with trying, but the following year was a disaster, I had spent the soil in one season.

20 01 2018
Diana Roslyn Tod

I had some good, deep soils on my 15 acres in Gippsland, but also some very poor clay soil. The property had spring fed dams, so abundant water, luckily.
After 10 years, *all* parts of the property (except wetlands) produced A-grade avocado trees, among other tree crops. In the first few years I did make compost for the trees with the tractor from prunings from 1000 tagasastes + litter from calving sheds of a neighbouring dairy farmer + manure, but for the last 8 years, all I used was mulch – coarse, woody tip mulch 20cm deep, applied in late summer so the winter rains could help the soil microbes, with a a bag of gypsum and liberal sprinklings of blood and bone under the mulch. In only two years, the mulched soil, even the poor quality (pale grey) clay, was deep, rich, black humus. I came to believe that compost was not the best way to”make” soil. This is demonstrated in the film “Back to Eden” which mirrors y own experience in Gippsland.


Of course, the mulch I applied was brought by truck, as it is in the film,but theoretically, one can grow one’s own woody mulch….

21 01 2018

Hi Diana, this is all quite true, but it al takes time… as you say, 10 years. The Gippsland is quite reknown for being good quality farmland if I recall correctly… I’d love to know what classification your souil started out as…. and avocadoes need heaps f good soil. I remember killing quite a few in Qld by planting them in my clay. Initially, I would dig a hole a couple of feet deep and diameter, fill it with good stuff and plant. As soon as the roots hit the clay, they would keel over! The one I left there was planted in a hole two metres all around, full of compost etc which I later mulched with pigeon pea litter (which won’t grow in Tassie) I wonder how it’s going now….

I’ve tried hard to grow tagasaste. and have finally managed to get two bushes growing among the oak trees I’ve planted. I don’t know why I’m having so much trouble with those, others around here don’t seem to.

20 01 2018

Hi Mike,
Isn’t most/all live stock in Australia (I’m talking sheep and beef) essentially naturally-fed rangeland production? I know (and concur) with the arguments about grain/corn fed beef etc, but I guess my query is, does this apply to Australia?

20 01 2018
Barry Kirkwood

Another thought known since ancient times: Rotation of crops. Do not know exact procedure but was something like one year grazing (=manure), one year crops, one year lying fallow. I know practically nothing about agriculture, but isn’t one of the problems with modern industrialised agriculture is monoculture leading to soil depletion, then requiring factory fertiliser etc.

20 01 2018

I think you might be right, but I have no idea what proportion of livestock is grain fed here……

20 01 2018
Rob Mielcarski

If there’s no fossil fuel to manufacture nutrients or to transport nutrients from offsite to replenish the nutrients you remove by selling produce at your local market, what is your plan for keeping your soil healthy? Every farmer is going to be wrestling with this difficult issue.

The history of how we almost ran out of natural fertilizers like guano, just before Haber & Bosch invented a method for converting fossil energy into fertilizer is very interesting. It seems we just barely dodged a bullet. Not clear how we will dodge the next bullet.

20 01 2018

Yes it is a conundrum…… and it is the reason we need lots of animals!

20 01 2018
Rob Mielcarski

Agreed, and fewer people.

21 01 2018

Absolutely…….. the problem is not too many animals, it’s far far too many people..!

20 01 2018

Sell produce from home and put in a composting toilet in the sales area. Make it mandatory for buyers to leave a donation. No net nutrient loss is the aim.

20 01 2018

What irks me about Monbiot is that he doesn’t realise, a) that grazing animals have always been part of the life on this planet, and b) we already have a population problem which will only become worse if we take animals off the land in order to grow more plant crops for people. What we need is a balance of grazing animals and people. not less grazers and more people! Someone ought to send him some info about Joel Salatin’s work.

20 01 2018
David Veale

I think your assessment here is spot-on. Not only do livestock provide far more dense sources of nutrition or allow us to utilize marginal farmland (which is most of it, once the irrigation and chemical fertilizers cease), but they provide what will again be the only reasonably large source of fertilizer. Even then, livestock manure sources will be inadequate. Humanure and kitchen composting are laughably inadequate (and I speak from experience).

I’ve been practicing fossil free (mostly) ag for about a decade now. My biggest concern is that I’m about the only one (and that includes large Amish communities nearby), and that the increasingly common climate hiccups will render my farm unable to support livestock (draft horses in particular) for a year. That’s all it would take to destroy my own abilities. With no neighbors producing in a post fossil-fuel world, I simply wouldn’t last long. If our communities aren’t preparing, then we’re not prepared ourselves no matter how hard we try.

21 01 2018

Are you saying the Amish use chemicals David?

21 01 2018
21 01 2018

On our property, the animals have been the only reliable food source. Cattle, in particular, I describe as ‘magic’. I mean, they walk around, turning otherwise useless grass into meat, requiring almost nothing from us. Magic!

Mike, have you found, as I have, that a lot of the permaculture ideas don’t hold up? Lots of things don’t work, but that doesn’t make good books or get lots of clicks, so you have a survivorship bias in the permaculture ‘literature’ that shows just lots of easy abundance, and none of the problems or failures.

22 01 2018

I agree up to a point.
A lot of permaculture depends on nutrient recycling for it’s permanancy.
If you take out the nutrients in the form of vegetables you need to replace them via manure, preferably the manure of what ate the vegetables.
Most of the time people will not compost their leavings, or local regs prohibit it.
I am unable to do humanure.

The sewage systems of the west have done a lot to remove disease vectors from urban locations, but have also stripped cropland etc of natural fertility. Having stripped cropland of the nutrient, the sewage systems largely dump it into the ocean creating other problems.

We have a long way to go to correct the nutrient cycle and are unlikely to get there until the collapse, then it will be too late.

23 01 2018

Quite right….. if I was in charge, I’d ban flushing toilets! My problem of course is that I have to put the nutrients in the soil even before I can recycle them.

21 01 2018
Respect Silence

Using marginal land is the same panacea as colonizing other planets, i.e. always seeking to increase supplies rather than conserving what’s already known. Just another facet of growthism and denial of limits.

21 01 2018

That’s simply inaccurate. as MOST land is marginal. That’s the whole point of the article I wrote. If anything, more and more marginal land is used for growing non meat production.

21 01 2018

Hi Mike, further to my query about the nature of sheep and beef livestock production in Australia – a little research this morning:


“Grassfed meat comes from animals that have only grazed on grass. They feed on a range of different types of grasses, depending on climate and region. In Australia, cattle and sheep are predominantly grassfed and account for, on average, approximately two-thirds of overall beef and sheepmeat production.
Grainfed meat comes from animals which are fed grass for most of their lives and then transition to grain-based diets for the remainder of their lives. The number of days during which they are fed a grain-based diet varies.
In Australia, grainfed animals are typically fed grain for the last 70 to 100 days of life. This type of feeding is also called grain finishing. Use of grain finishing depends on market requirements and seasonal conditions and represents, on average, a third of total production.
Grain feeding which involves 300 days or longer on grain-based diets represents a small percentage of overall production and is used to produce meat for niche markets only.”


“Why the PNAS environmental costs of beef report does not relate to Australian beef production
The study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) on Tuesday, 22 July 2014 was exclusively undertaken on United States beef, dairy, pork and chicken production. It does not relate to Australian production.
The Australian beef industry notes that:
• The study exclusively deals with animal protein production in the United States. The grain-fed system in the US is quite different to the grain-fed industry here, where cattle spend only 10-15% of their lives in feedlots.
• It is incorrect to draw conclusions about Australian animal production systems based on this one US study. Life cycle assessment of carbon footprints are specific, local and variable.
• In Australia, even “grain fed” cattle spend most of their lives grazing grass. At any one time, only around 2% of Australia’s cattle population is in feedlots. This is very different to the US.
• In Australia grain fed to livestock is either ‘feed grain’ quality, or grown solely for livestock consumption. Cattle are not consuming grains that humans can eat.
• In Australia very little water is used for irrigation in beef production. This is different to the US system studied in the PNAS paper.
• Using arid land for grazing cattle may actually be positive in Australia. See conservationist Dr Barry Trail talk about this at TEDx. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JW7tZ4JPqEI”

My own meat consumption is mainly kangaroo these days but it is interesting to consider the (probably) unique characteristics of livestock production in Australia…


21 01 2018

Thanks Sam, that is very interesting and educational…… when are you coming to Tassie?

21 01 2018
Dennis Mitchell

I live in a dairy heavy agriculture area. I’d guess three out of four fields raise cattle feed. Only one out of ten gets eaten directly by humans. A vegan life style would go a long way to decreasing our footprint. Then again, a vegan on an airplane seems counterproductive. It feels like we can find plenty of reasons to not change and very few examples of people, living the change. Arguing with people actively trying to save the planet by cutting down their use of resources does not seem like it makes much sense. Maybe we should be trying to stop planes from flying and cars from driving. Actual change that if we had done it thirty years ago would have made a difference. Now we are all just screwed.

21 01 2018

Do you know what sort of feed they’re growing? Out of interest, where do you live?

21 01 2018
44 south

I’m farming eight acres half way down South Island NZ at a thousand feet. It grows grass and trees just fine but vegetables need a lot of extra nutrients. I subdivide with fruit and nut trees but will always keep a lot of pasture, not least because when things start to burn a hard grazed paddock is not a bad place to be!

21 01 2018

I see you’re one degree further south than us….. and I concur about the fire issue. Though veggies don’t burn too well either.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s