Lessons from COVID Pandemic | Turning conventional thinking about soil on its head

Cover illustration by Rachael Balsaitis on Pinterest

What matters most?

By the end of March almost all our plans for 2020 were shelved. Our trip to Spain in October to walk the Camino de Santiago (The Way) was the last thing we removed from our 2020 schedule. We held out hope that maybe our much anticipated pilgrimage to walk the country of my great grandmother’s ancestors could still happen. When Spain’s COVID-19 numbers started spiking again we knew our expedition would not happen this year, and probably not even next year. With all this unexpected time on my hands, I pondered what matters most to me. My thinking was surprisingly clear even without the meditative effect of walking hundreds of kilometres under Spanish olive trees.

‘We must change our relationship with nature’

Early in our lock down in WA, I listened to primatologist and anthropologist, Dr Jane Goodall, speak on a Business Chicks All Stars webinar. I can still hear her words resounding in my head and I have repeated them many times since. Dr Goodall said, ‘We knew this pandemic was coming and there will be more pandemics, and worse, if we don’t change our relationship with nature’.

Good soil health, good gut health

Responsibly choosing what to eat and exercising social distancing suddenly made food shopping a precarious activity. A simple visit to the supermarket might cut my life short. Many times I’ve asked myself what difference will I make before I die and return to the soil? Leading American regenerative farmer, Joel Salatin gave me the answer. Joel opened farmer Michael Kilpatrick’s Growing Farmers webinar series . He said that our soil microbiome and our gut microbiome are a mirror image of each other. Good soil health, good gut health. Good gut health, good immune system. COVID-19 will be a much less of a problem for us according to American Endocrinologist Dr Zach Bush MD, if we have a robust immune system. Sounds straight forward. Growing our own organic vegetables will improve our soil health, our gut health and our immunity. Transforming the front lawn became the COVID-19 project.

Transforming sand into soil

Living on sand dunes, like much of Perth’s urban sprawl, meant we had to make our soil. We mixed a lot of compost, charcoal and bentonite clay into our sand to make loam. We added sheep manure and covered the plants and seeds with lupin mulch. We started a worm farm. Our two front gardens are now full of grevillea’s and other flowering native plants, olive trees, and an assortment of fruit and nut trees plus several vegetable garden beds packed to overflowing. Now, gratefully, on sunny mornings the birds’ dawn chorus almost drowns out the traffic noise. At lunchtime when we go outside for a garden break we hear the bees buzzing, happily gathering nectar and pollinating as they go. By early September (Djilba is the Noongar season name) we have already eaten organically grown potatoes, carrots, peas, broccoli, silver beet, lemons, pumpkin, oranges and lots of herbs. Our tomatoes are ripening and our zucchinis are flowering. With our careful stewardship, the sand is becoming healthy productive soil and our trips to the supermarket are a lot less frequent.

Networking the soil

My recurrent thoughts of my imminent demise have thankfully subsided. Instead, transforming Australia’s soil health is now at the forefront of my mind. Australian soil scientist, Dr Christine Jones, recently spoke about our south west soil on a Blackwood River Catchment webinar. I am a fifth generation farmer’s daughter, my family name dates back to 13th century Cornwall in England where our family farm is still productive. I learned something surprising from Dr Jones. I did not know it’s the plant roots that create healthy soil. She said what happens under the earth’s surface matters most. Her research shows that the roots of lots of different types of plants form soil networks. The soil networks contain carbon-aggregates that feed off atmospheric carbon and transport essential nutrients to the plant. They also help absorb and retain water in the soil. High soil moisture means drought resilience and healthy, vital plants to feed our gut microbiome. The additional benefit, which is significant, is carbon sequestration. Sequestering the carbon back into the soil helps reverse our current atmospheric carbon overload and creates an alternative income source for farmers. Regenerative agriculture creates gains everywhere.

Circling back to farming

I left our family farm in South Canterbury in the mid 80s when agribusiness was really ramping up in New Zealand. I loved the land and hated that we were increasingly farming with chemicals and pharmaceuticals. I felt the interdependent connection between nature and humanity was slipping away. At 17, I was already sick with an endocrine system disorder and I had no language to express my grief at what was happening to my health and to the health of the land I loved. I made my way to Australia for a health-giving life. A global history making pandemic woke me up with a jolt. Unexpectedly, in 2020, happily living on Whadjuk Noongar Boodjar I circled back to farming using regenerative practices.

My assignment is planet health

I am making it my assignment to ensure we all understand the connection between soil health, our own health and the health of the planet. If we don’t change what we are doing, the UN experts are telling us we have 60 growing seasons left before we are unable to feed ourselves. Without healthy topsoil we will starve. I am clear that diverse plant networks and not monocultures like grass, wheat and rice is what we need in Australia to transform our depleted dirt into generative soils.

Regenerative farmers will make the difference

I agree with Dr Jane Goodall: we must change our relationship with nature. Regenerative farmers from around the world like Joel Salatin, Gabe Brown (From Dirt to Soil, 2018) and Australia’s own Charlie Arnott and Di and Ian Haggerty will help us all make the difference to mission critical planet health.

I invite you to join with me to cause a revolution in how we feed the world and engage with nature. Connect with me if you want to be part of Project Soil Regeneration.