Tag Archives: worms

guy’s newsletter: worm love

It’s always good to start a new season and while we have respectable crops that will taste good, the plants are generally late, smaller and lack the vigour we expect at this time of year. As I walk the fields I’m not despondent but the grower in me is constantly asking, “why?”. The slow growth could be caused by low temperatures but I’m attributing the general lack of vigour to an ailing soil.

Organic farmers depend on the health of their soil, especially the communities of bacteria and fungi living around crop roots. Coupled with the activity of earthworms, these microbes are the stomach of the plant, breaking down organic matter to release the soluble nutrients our crops need to grow. There is also evidence that these symbiotic relationships help protect our crops from disease. Think about probiotics and the effect of antibiotics, a curry or too much beer on your gut and you’re getting the picture; no creature lives in isolation.

A healthy soil needs to breathe so its cavities (created largely by earthworm activity) must be open to allow the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. During last winter, the wettest in living memory, even our better drained soils were waterlogged for months. Suffocated like a patient struggling with pneumonia, many of the beneficial fungi and bacteria were replaced by species that thrive in anaerobic conditions. The soil takes on a foul sourness with the wrong microbes producing the wrong metabolites resulting in unhealthy plants.

It’s not a disaster; with drier conditions the good bugs will prevail, and I expect the later crops to be fine. However it has emphasised the importance of a living soil in time for the launch of our national earthworm survey, Riverford’s Big Worm Dig, designed with earthworm experts at the University of Central Lancashire. Children especially enjoy it so visit our website below for your free survey booklet.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I think I’ll go eat worms

As a soulful four-year-old, I spent a lot of time stomping behind the plough collecting the, “big fat squidgy ones” left wriggling on the inverted furrows. I probably should have been at playgroup developing social skills, but when my mum did send me I stole the tricycle and was found trying to ride home.

Worms might have been an eccentric interest for a pre-schooler, but I was in good company; Darwin studied earthworms for 40 years and sold more books on them in his lifetime than he did on natural selection. He reckoned just about all fertile soil had at some point passed through the gut of an earthworm. Interest has waned a little since 1881 but we are hoping to change that from this summer. Earthworms are vital to soil aeration, drainage and nutrient recycling and are also a very good visible indicator of the health of the wider soil community, including microscopic fungi and bacteria. Why should you care? Without healthy, active soils we would have little food and very little wildlife. What is good for earthworms is good for us and the planet.

Earthworms like moist, well-drained soils with plenty of organic matter. They hate synthetic fertilisers, most pesticides, excessive cultivation, compaction and extremes of temperature. Not surprisingly, you don’t find many in intensively farmed arable fields. Organic farming is better but we still need to develop methods less reliant on the plough to avoid disturbing our humble friends.

Despite their importance, very little is known about the UK earthworm population. To remedy this we’ve created an adult and kid-friendly survey with the help of Emma Sherlock, our semi-tame and highly enthusiastic boffin from the Natural History Museum. Yes, we want you digging and identifying. Visit www.riverford.co.uk/bigwormdig to get your booklet, and perhaps win a family holiday. I don’t recommend eating any worms you might find however.

Guy Watson

Tea, elixirs + faith

Despite studying natural sciences at university and absorbing all that Darwinian, evidence-based rationality, I like to think I am still an open minded man. When Raphs, one of our longest standing and more cosmically attuned members of staff suggested focusing positive energy on the artichokes using cups of aluminium filings and a copper wire I gave it a go (still awaiting results). I have sprayed my onions with liquid seaweed (seemed to work) and my cauliflowers with garlic extract (definitely didn’t) without any concrete evidence of efficacy. One winter I even tried to wade my way through the endless, unfathomable sentences of Rudolf Steiner (the father of biodynamic agriculture) in an attempt to get my head around why I should fill a cow horn with excrement and bury it for six months before diluting the contents and spraying them on my crops in the spring. I have not yet let the bloke from the pub, who claims to have invented perpetual motion, retune our tractor engines but I have bought him a drink; who knows, he might be a genius.

Over lunch today, John, our solid, sensible, Arsenal-supporting farm manager, told me he was spraying the drought-stricken celeriac with compost tea fermented from the worm casts. Reading through the bumph, it seems it will improve yield, root development, disease resistance, colour and even eating quality; a true elixir in the best tradition of a catch-all cure. My dull, reductionist training immediately asks; how will it achieve these remarkable results? By inoculating the soil with beneficial microorganisms it would seem. It sounds like total tosh to me but we will give it a go. As an agnostic in need of evidence, I have suggested a control area be marked off for comparison.

Organic farmers are wholly dependent on the health of their soil. That soil is such a rich and complex ecosystem; a myriad of relationships between hundreds of thousands of different plants, bacteria, fungi and invertebrates as well as water, temperature and the soil minerals themselves. Science has barely begun to understand this complex underworld so it would be arrogant and foolhardy to write off anything that works just because we don’t understand how or why. To deny the inexplicable would be to imply there is nothing new to learn. That would be dull.

Guy Watson