The case of the radioactive wheat field

It’s been an interesting time on Twitter recently, after a tweet from The Soil Association appeared a couple of days ago. Here it is,

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I’m going to ignore here the overall message the SA is trying to promote, about glyphosate being horrible and trying to get it banned. What I saw when I looked at the photo was something that jumped out and slapped me around the face – why are the colours so totally out of line with reality? I replied to this with a tweet saying that it was not fair to use a doctored photo to try and make a point, and it all went from there. If you’re interested, the whole thread is here. Frankly it could have probably been left at that, except that first the SA’s own Twitter account, and then that of the SA’s Policy Director, Peter Melchett, insisted that the photo was not altered, and that there was nothing wrong with it. Personally I can’t stand that sort of myopic view of something so obviously wrong. So here we are.

Why I’m not entirely untrustworthy

I think I need to spend a bit of time establishing my bona fides for this particular article, as it’s such an emotive subject in the farming world. Firstly, before I was a farmer I was a professional photographer. I ran a small business and we had several other photographers who worked for us. I used to edit all the photos that come through the company, which was over 100 weddings each year, so around 120,000 to 150,000 photos in a year, and getting towards a million in my ‘career’. I’m far more skilled as a photo editor than as a farmer – which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has seen me farming. The company still exists, although the name changed after I left. This is what our wedding website looked like back in 2008.

Next up, I don’t think I’m anti-Organic. I spoke at the ORFC this year, and whilst I was there I went to a talk chaired by Peter Melchett, where my head was turned about the increased levels of Omega 3 fatty acids in Organic whole milk. Ever since then I’ve bought it for my kids. We also get our veg from Riverford, who are Organic. As it happens I don’t buy because it’s Organic, but I don’t have a problem with it at all.

Photos from my house, how exciting

Photos from my house, how glamorous

I also don’t just do this pedantic photo picking with the SA, or with people I don’t like. See here for an example of where someone on the opposite side of the fence from the SA, Agrovista, used some equally absurd photos to make a point.

Finally, I’m not just picking on the SA because I don’t agree with their position on glyphosate. I think this is pretty well illustrated here where I am arguing against a journalist from the Farmers’ Guardian who thinks Chris Packham should not be able to voice his (negative) opinion of glyphosate in public. And although I am not an Organic farmer, I do not believe the ‘conventional’ system is right, either for us as farmers or the environment. I’ve gone on record saying this many times, and frequently give talks about it as well.

So, with that out the way, let’s get on to the photo.

The photo

First of all, it needs to be pointed out that this picture is a stock photo, which was not adjusted in any meaningful way by the SA themselves (they have adjusted the saturation and brightness, but it’s minor). The picture is available for sale here, and I have bought a license so that I can legally use it in this blog post. Here’s a copy of it, straight from the iStockPhoto download.

crop spayin wheat field

It would be interesting to have access to the original, un-editied, version of this picture to show the differences, but in a nut shell, the colours have been changed on most of the wheat by adjusting the hue, and the contrast has been heavily increased in all areas apart from the middle quarter, running horizontally (i.e. the sprayer itself). If I had to guess, I would say the clouds and right hand side of the photo have been selectively burnt as well.

What makes this so obvious, is both the psychedelic colours, and the fact that they change across the picture so abruptly, as shown here:

A: Right in front of the sprayer here, the wheat is a normal colour B: Here is is bright yellow/verging towards green C: Getting close to red in this bit D: Now in to bright orange

A: Right in front of the sprayer here, the wheat is a normal colour B: Here it is bright yellow/verging towards green C: Getting close to red in this bit D: Now in to bright orange

Let’s put these colour changes into perspective now, by comparing the correct colours directly with the incorrect:

Even Stevie Wonder can tell something is up here

Even Stevie Wonder can tell something is up here

And here’s the last photo I’m going to put up. It’s one I took of our combine at harvest, getting near to finishing a field (of oats as it happens) off. There are two sections of crop left to cut. One I have left in the correct colours, the other I have changed (using hue, saturation and contrast only) to match what is shown in the photo used by SA, which they claim to be perfectly natural. See if you can tell which is which.

I'd say it's 50/50

I’d say it’s 50/50

So there we have it. To finish off, I would like to make the point that the photographer has done nothing wrong by processing his picture in this way, that’s just how he wanted it to look. That’s fine, and I’m sure it’s a coincidence that it happens to look as if they sprayer has caused the discolouration, especially in the cropped version used by the SA.

What is not Ok is to use the picture to illustrate a serious point, and then try and pretend there is nothing wrong it with. Out of interest, I put the picture into Google Image Search and it seems to be used exclusively by web pages illustrating how nasty glyphosate or GMO crops are. So although it was probably not made intentionally to look bad, clearly it is being used for that reason by these guys – claiming it was the only photo out there is not a valid excuse here I’m afraid.

Please Soil Association, do yourself a favour and change it for something that isn’t a cartoon.

Day 69(ish) – Some data & final thoughts

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This is roughly speaking where I’ve travelled. It’s a little abbreviated in Brazil since that got too complicated to map easily. My time in South America is almost up, but there are a few more things to say, and random pictures to insert.

This lunch on my first visit was exceptional. Why don't we cook beef ribs?

This lunch on my first visit was exceptional. Why don’t we cook beef ribs?

I met a guy from Embrapa yesterday who is running a program near Brasilia where they are comparing conventional and Organic dairy grazing systems. It’s only been going for three years, and I haven’t seen the data (he will email it to me apparently), but they are finding hugely more efficient fertiliser use under Organic management. At the start of the trial both treatments were given the same amount of NPK fertilisers. In the conventional system these came from urea, triple super phosphate and potassium chloride. The Organic sources were animal manures and soft rock phosphate.

"Old town" Montevideo, Uruguay

“Old town” Montevideo, Uruguay

In each of the three years there has been a 20-30% yield penalty (measured by tonnes of dry matter produced per hectare) with the Organic management. However, the critical point is that every year the conventional fertiliser must be reapplied in the same amounts, whereas the Organic field is maintaining its yields with only what was put on at the beginning of the trial. How long will that go on for? Who knows, but already after three years it’s a very interesting result. Whether it could be more profitable to grow crops like this, even without an Organic premium, I couldn’t say; it’s going to depend a lot on the value of the land you’re farming. But it does make you wonder how much of the artificial fertiliser we apply is just being wasted.

Do you ever get the feeling you're missing something?

Do you ever get the feeling you’re missing something?

At a previous Embrapa meeting I was given some scientific papers to take home, and have only just had a chance to read them. One is particularly worthwhile, it’s called “Integrated crop-livestock system in Brazil: Toward a sustainable production system”. The data comes from a 16 year experiment comparing these treatments,

  • CSConventional System using disc cultivation, growing soybeans with a winter cover crop
  • NTSNo-Till System, growing a soya and maize rotation with winter cover crops
  • ICLSIntegrated Crop-Livestock System growing two years of soya & cover crop and two years of pasture
  • PPPermanent Pasture
Lack of water isn't normally a problem in Brazil (lack of power to move it can be though)

Lack of water isn’t normally a problem in Brazil (lack of power to move it can be though)

Here are some of the results that I think are notable. I’ve tried to keep it slightly readable.

  • “the ICLS system treatment yielded soybean production that was greater than or equal to that of CS and NTS. This higher efficiency of ICLS system may be related to availability of P in organic form” – this tallies with the experimental results found by Embrapa Cerrados
  • “Systems with livestock grazing had significantly greater MWD [this is a measure of how stable the physical soil structure is] compared to other systems (ICLS: 4.12mm, PP: 4.93mm, CS: 2.19mm, NTS: 3.18mm) … Ultimately, soils with greater aggregation characteristics are considered of better quality than similar soils with weaker aggregation, mainly because TOC [Total Organic Carbon] becomes physically protected in stable aggregates.” – see the famous Slake Test
  • “Concentration of TOC, TOC storage, and POC stock were increased under grazing by livestock at the following order: CS<NTS<ICLS<PP … The labile fraction of organic matter was also greater in ICLS and PP, than in NTS indicating greater energy flux in the soil system. Greater SOM lability was attributed to the presence of the forage, which adds a greater amount of organic matter to the soil than cropping alone. Moreover, there is a continuous exudation of substances from grass roots to the soil during growth which is stimulated during grazing.”Not very surprising. But it must be noted that of all the systems, it was the NTS which actually lost the most carbon overall. CS was stable, and the other two increased.
  • Total microbial activity was greater in the order you would expect, PP>ICLS>NTS>CS – I’m paraphrasing here a bit.
  • “Density and taxonomic richness of the invertebrate macrofauna [i.e. worms, beetles etc] community in soil differed among management systems. Lowest values were observed in CS, while ICLS was equivalent to that of NTS and PP and greater than that of CS … Soil macroinvertebrates perform numerous essential functions, including decomposition, nutrient cycling, SOM mineralisation, soil-structure modification, atmospheric-composition regulation, and biological control of pests and diseases.”I think it’s fairly obvious by this point what direction this paper is heading in…
  • Hold on, this is a long one: “Weed community analysis showed that areas without pasture and grazing generally accumulated more weed mass than areas that were periodically or continuously grazed. The area of soil covered by weeds was 87% greater in CS compared to the average of the other treatments. Generally, areas that were continuously or periodically grazed by livestock had fewer weeds than areas where only grain crops were grown. Livestock grazing also affected seed germination: weed seedlings from treatments that included grazing took longer to germinate and emerge from from the soil surface. Regardless of the presence or absence of tillage, crop-only systems exhibited larger areas of soil covered by weeds.” – Phew. I’ve never actually seen this information in a scientific context, and the figure they come up with (87%) is huge. Very interesting.
  • “Occurence of Rotylenchulus reniformis [a parasitic nematode pest] differed significantly among management systems, with a much larger population in CS [1500x more than the next highest]”
  • “In years with ample rainfall, soybean production was equal in the three grain-production systems. In years with poor rainfall distribution, with water deficits, ICLS and NTS exhibited smaller productivity losses compared to CS. In 2010/11, for example, CS yielded only 60% of crop production in other systems.” – No big shock here, there’s a reason all the really dry places in the world have gone to no-till. Although it’s amazing they get droughts here when it rains perhaps 1500mm in the growing season. In the tropical heat it doesn’t take long for it all to evaporate.
I'm not usually a big fan of visiting churches, but these two in Brasilia are easily the best I've ever seen

I’m not usually a big fan of visiting churches, but these two in Brasilia are easily the best I’ve ever seen

I’ve found this to be a useful paper, and to me it suggests that the oft-heard fear that having animals in a system is a drain on nutrients/soil fertility is not just unfounded, but actively wrong. Now who wants to lay some water pipe?

I seem to remember there was a cat photo in the last Australia blog too?

I seem to remember there was a cat photo in the final Australia blog too?

It’s certainly been an interesting trip, but I think I’ve run out of steam. The problem is that I’ve seen enough of the details – just look at how different the first blog posts from NZ are – and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find novel concepts. Particularly here in South America, the diversity in farming methodologies seems very limited, and largely defined by what area/climate you happen to be in. There could be two explanations for this: lack of imagination, or perhaps the farmers are more switched on to the research, and unlike back at home, they are all doing the “right” things already. It’s difficult (impossible) to tell, but I haven’t found the Gabe Brown/Coin Seis sort of guy who is trying something totally different… Well I do actually know one, the problem was that he refused to let me visit! The others are probably hiding somewhere not telling anyone about it. That’s a job for a future traveller.

It’s been great fun, but this may be the last Nuffield post. Ciao.

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Day 65 – Bokashi bacteria brews

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Fazenda Malunga is the biggest producer of Organic lettuce in the whole of Brazil. There are 200m people here, but I don’t think many of them are into Organics just yet. Still, the farm is a big operation, with about 120ha of land in total, 45ha of which is the main, original, block. As well as growing lettuce, which accounts for around half of their production, they also have tomatoes, beetroot, cucumber, coriander, okra, bell peppers, radish (plus some more, I didn’t take notes, oops).

American lettuce - aka Iceberg

American lettuce – aka Iceberg

Because it is an organic farm, they need to get nitrogen from somewhere. [I don’t get this about the Organic movement: it’s fine to mine phosphorus from the soil – rock phosphate – but mining nitrogen from the air – urea – is forbidden.] Some of this comes from leguminous green manures that are grown as every second or third crop, and the rest is comes as compost from the farm’s 70 cow milking herd.

Organic farming does not use chemicals (?). Sulphate buildup can be a problem in these soils, as all of the nutrients they use come in sulphate compounds

Organic farming does not use chemicals (?). Sulphur buildup can be a problem in these soils, as all of the nutrients they use come in sulphate compounds

So although I don’t agree with some of the principles of Organics, [or for that matter think it represents what the customer believes the are getting], we should still be able to learn from how they farm. The over-riding philosophy here is that a healthy plant will fight off disease by itself, with less need for artificial inputs. I’ve written before that farmers are often reactive rather than proactive, and this is made much easier by the way a lot of problems can be solved, in the short-term at least, by opening a bottle. This type of farming is the complete opposite.

These tomatoes are ready to harvest 10 weeks after planting

These tomatoes are ready to harvest 10 weeks after planting. One of the major problems is too much heat; the greenhouse have very little ventilation so that insect pests don’t get in, but this makes them HOT. Brazilians seem to like their tomatoes a bit greener than we do

The main plant nutrition comes from the green manures, home made compost and bought in peat, all of which act on the soil. In addition, they use a lot of foliar sprays, and fertigation (mixing small amounts of fertiliser with irrigation water) to add trace elements. The foliar potions are Bokashi recipes, ranging from straight mineral blends to some which have molasses added to stimulate microbial life. One particular additive, called Compost Aid, is used when they have lost the bacteria off the plant leaves (I don’t know what might cause this). It gives a quick boost to get the bugs back colonising the leaf surface, which doesn’t allow space for too many bad ones to come in and cause problems.

Native microbe powder

Native microbe powder

One of the most interesting things they were doing was living in a sealed plastic barrel, which was full of a damp sandy mixture, smelling a bit like fermenting beer. It was made by taking some of the native soils from out in the bushland, and adding extra carbohydrates as a food source. The top is then sealed and it sits around for a couple of months stewing, before being put into big tea bags and bubbled around in a water tank to extract the goodies. Now it’s ready to be sprayed on to the plants.

I like the idea of this – the native microbes are obviously going to be the best adapted to the local conditions. I’m not so sure about sealing the lid and making the whole thing anaerobic, as that’s not a condition generally associated with healthy plants. At least not the type that we want to grow. The other problem might be that they seem to be thinking almost exclusively about bacteria, and not much about fungi. That could easily be a case of local conditions being different to ours, but if you believe Elaine Ingham, most of our soils are severely lacking in fungal biomass.

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After a quick carbo-loading session (rice, cassava, beans, pasta & potato on the same plate) it was off to a different farm for the afternoon. It is run by a father and son team of Japanese Brazilians, and until three years ago they were a crop-only operation. But then compaction and soil borne disease problems started to appear, and they thought it would be a good idea to experiment with some cattle and rotational pastures. But this is Brazil, and a small trial means 100ha of irrigated Mombasa grass, and 1,200 head of cattle. It’s too soon to draw any conclusions from what’s happening here, but it’s safe to say that grass grows a bit faster here than at home:

A two month old catch crop of Brachiaria grass

A two month old catch crop of Brachiaria grass