An Intimate Evening with Matthew Evans | Loose Produce

Cover photo Matthew Evans at Loose Produce

September 4, 2023 | Whadjuk Noongar Country

A small crowd of about twenty people gathered on Monday evening at the organic retailer and café Loose Produce in Victoria Park to share an intimate evening with renowned author, Matthew Evans. Evans, a former chef, and food critic, who now owns and operates Fat Pig Farm in southern Tasmania, is an accomplished author with more than a dozen books to his credit. His 2021 title, Soil by Murdoch Books, inspired Tim Overheu, soil scientist and Director of Agriculture Resource Management and Assessment in the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) to organise the event to launch Evans’ DPIRD-funded 12-day speaking tour of WA’s south-west and Wheatbelt.

Matthew is an engaging speaker, and he took his captivated audience right back to the start to share where his passion and curiosity for soil began. He shared two pivotal stories. The first, as a food critic, he recounted eating a salad in the most expensive restaurant in Australia in 2003. Yet it was the taste of lettuce directly from a local grower that got his attention. The grower’s undressed lettuce leaves tasted far superior to what he sampled at the exclusive restaurant. This experience aroused his curiosity – why does some food taste better? He was inspired to learn to grow food and eventually led to the purchase of his farm.

Matthew shared an early experience on his farm with broad beans. He noticed that some bean plants were tall, yet others were noticeably smaller, and the tall-short pattern repeated with some regularity. Despite being grown in a similar place with the same rainfall and sunshine, clearly some plants grew much better than others. This piqued his interest in soil. Was something happening in the soil that accounted for the differences he was seeing?

His eureka moment came when he discovered that soil is a living organism and healthy soil is teeming with life. One teaspoon of healthy soil contains over 10 billion organisms, more than there are humans on planet earth. Matthew shared an expert examined his soil under a microscope. Compared with healthy soil that teems with organisms that obscure the sand crystals, his soil paled in comparison with only a few organisms to be seen scattered among the obvious grains of sand.

Matthew became very interested in soil and eventually took the idea for a book to his publisher. Despite his enthusiasm his publisher was not convinced. He had to find ways to make soil interesting to his publisher and ultimately, his readers.

Soil has 3 components:

  1. Physical – soil structure and geological composition
  2. Chemical – soil chemistry e.g., salinity and acidity and
  3. Biological – soil organisms.

For his book Matthew chose to focus on soil biology. He shared with his audience several interesting stories and facts about soil.

About 98% of the calories we consume come from topsoil. Yet, alarmingly, each year we lose topsoil approximately 100 times faster than it’s made. In Australia it’s estimated we lose 2.9 billion tonnes of topsoil annually. Giving this a WA context, if an iron-ore train was filled with lost topsoil it would fill a train long enough to encircle the world 15 times.

It’s estimated 25 – 33% of atmospheric carbon came from soil. We need to look after our soil to not only grow food, house and clothe us but to prevent further carbon loss. Yet soil is part of the solution to mitigate climate change. Soil can store 4.5 – 6.0 times more carbon than in all the plants and animals combined which in turn increases soil water holding capacity to improve drought and flood resilience.

Healthy soil contains 10,000 species of bacteria most of which we know very little about. David Sands, a scientist working on wheat blight, hypothesised that the bacterial species that caused blight might become airborne and eventually fall to the ground with rain to infect new crops. Matthew shared the humorous story of Sands flying in a plane with his arm out the window holding a petri dish to capture airborne bacteria. Although he gave himself frostbite Sands proved his theory. Not only did the bacteria come down with the rain, they cause the rainfall, a process called bio-precipitation. Thus, the richer the soil biology the more rainfall it will cause via this symbiotic cycle of soil bacteria aerosol release and bio-precipitation.

A teaspoon of healthy soil also contains kilometres of fungal hyphae that facilitate the movement of nutrients in soil. Plants communicate via the chemicals they release from their roots into soil. A plant needing nitrogen sends out a chemical signal and the hyphae respond and will trap microscopic nematodes in specialised loop structures. The hyphae literally suck the nitrogen out of the nematodes and deliver it along the hyphae back to the plant.

Matthew shared an amazing fact to demonstrate how bacteria can communicate. The bobtail squid hunts prey in mudflats in the moonlight. To avoid casting a shadow on its prey and alerting them to the danger, the squid glows or rather the bacteria inside them glow in a process known as bioluminescence. However, to avoid being seen during the day the squid squirts out most of the bacteria which stops them glowing. The remaining bacteria then multiply during the day until they reach a threshold number at which point, at night they all start to glow again. He used this fascinating fact to show that bacteria have an ability to ‘count’ and make decisions en masse based on their number known as quorum sensing.

Matthew came full circle to end his talk to speak about photosynthesis. This remarkable process takes carbon dioxide and water absorbed through plant roots and converts them into carbohydrate, namely sugar, using the energy from sunlight in chloroplasts. About 70% of this sugar is used to feed the plant for its own structure and growth, while the remaining 30% is dribbled from its roots into the soil to symbiotically feed soil organisms. Plants also exude 100,000 other chemicals into soil and these chemicals communicate with the hyphae, microbes and other plants. This array of chemicals and the communication between plants and microbes forms the basis of nutrition and, taste.

The evening finished with a question-and-answer session with the audience. Matthew was asked a key question: what can we do to improve our soil?

Matthew shared several suggestions:

  • Don’t dig – this weakens topsoil, promotes carbon loss and destroys fungal hyphae that plants need.
  • Apply compost and manure topically – microbes can come to the soil surface to get what they need.
  • No bare ground – cover all bare ground with mulch, straw or similar.
  • Leave green plants in the ground – to retain soil carbon don’t pull out old plants, instead, cut them off at the surface and plant next to the ‘old’ roots.
  • Increase plant diversity – the benefits to soil increase with a diversity of plants.

It was an entertaining and informative evening. At the end Matthew was asked what did he discover about taste? He concluded with: “it is the soul of the farmer that determines how they treat the soil and how the food will ultimately taste”.

The 2023 Matthew Evans Regional WA Tour is funded by the Western Australian Government’s Agriculture Climate Resilience Fund, supported by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development in a collaboration between Perth NRM, RegenWA, the Institute of Regenerative Leadership, Certified Organic Biodynamic WA, Gathered Organics, Loose Produce, Merredin & Districts Farm Improvement Group, Wheatbelt NRM, Northern Agricultural Catchments Council, Midwest Food Industries Alliance and Galloway Springs.