I must start with a warning, and a bit of a confession…..these posts are not going to offer simple, crisp and easily understood solutions.  I can offer some complexity, contradictions and inconsistencies, many of which still need to be unpicked.  For me, these are instructive as they define the challenges with which I am wrestling….but its not going to be pretty!
I have recently been involved in a fascinating debate about how to simplify sympathetic food production models so that people can understand them.  I appreciate that this is important in marketing terms, but I’m afraid I’m not going to attempt this, I think we need to acknowledge the complexity and work with it (even though we may not completely understand it!).  Society has become used to oversimplification of complex issues.  This works in some areas, but not in others; we ignore natural complexity  at our peril. Artificial simplicity doesn’t help – especially when it forms the basis of strategic decision making or worse, grand strategic policy.
Nature is a complex set of systems and there are a range of different doctrinal approaches that have evolved to support sympathetic agriculture in a range of contexts.   I have been exploring a number over the past few years, trying to pick the useful threads and to rationalise the inconsistencies between them.  Having thrown a lot of doctrine about, there are several threads which resonate with the system we are developing at Mindrum.  Possibly confusingly, they are not completely doctrinally coherent, but each offer pieces of the jigsaw that seem to make sense here.
I am in my second year of formal conversion to Organic Farming and the Organic Farming model is pretty central to what we are doing, however what we need to achieve is both wider and deeper than the Organic Farming framework, it involves a complete change in the way we think about farming, a paradigm shift.  
One of the best known agricultural systems, Organic farming, has developed over the 20th century, uses sympathetic methods and natural inputs to produce or process food in a way that benefits soils, ecosystems, animals and people.   A number of rigorous certification frameworks exist to give consumers confidence that food marketed as organic conforms to the the appropriate standards.  The Organic framework brings with it many advantages, but also a number of challenges.  For me, its strength lies with the set of core principles which underpin the doctrine.  Whilst I wholeheartedly support these principles (I won’t quote in detail here – they are widely available on the squinternet), I have found the Organic management system doesn’t provide all the tools I need so I have been looking wider.  One of my biggest challenges is to pick coherent threads from each discipline and to ensure that they do not compromise each other.
One of my biggest challenges has been to understand what is actually going on in context.  Everyone is talking about soil health and soil biology, but it was becoming clear that very few people are actually looking soil biology in the eye on a daily basis.  Perhaps not surprisingly,  I am yet to meet an agronomist who has access to a microscope (I acknowledge this is probably a reflection on my network rather than the profession in general!!)  In attempt to understand more about what is actually going on under my feet, I started going down the Soil Food Web route, as this provides a fascinating, real time, window into what is going on in the soil, blow by blow. 
The Soil Food web is a fascinating approach, both at a conceptual level and as a practical intelligence framework for understanding what is going on in soil.  I must confess that now the doors are opened, I couldn’t run things without it.    Coined by Dr Elaine Ingham, the Soil Food Web explains how a healthy soil ecosystem works in a naturally functional system, with different (trophic) layers of organisms cycling nutrients to provide the nutrients that plants need in the way that nature designed the system.  For me, it provides a practical window into what my soil is doing at any point in time.  It involves understanding the biological conditions that particular crops or products need and  looking at soil through a microscope to understand where the gaps are, and how to create these conditions at a farm scale.  I will cover this in more detail in a different post, as it is rapidly becoming my principle operational (soil) intelligence framework at Mindrum.
Once introduced to the production of specifically tailored compost and compost derivatives, by the Soil Food Web, I became fascinated by the wider possibilities of locally produced natural inputs to create conditions for a functional soil and its associated food web.  This brought me to Korean Natural Farming.
Korean Natural farming (KNF) is an approach, codified in the 1960s, which harnesses indigenous microorganisms to enhance output and soil health without the use of herbicides and pesticides.  Like the Soil Foodweb it is based on an understanding of the the needs of the target crop or product, but focuses in much more detail on understanding the stage of growth of a particular crop.  KNF is a fascinating discipline which has evolved over the past 60 years and enables farmers to create soil amendments and biological interventions on a farm scale.  Many of these amendments involve catching the local biology which exists and then propagating that to deploy on a farm scale.  This provides incredible flexibility and complements both Soil Foodweb and Organic processes.
One approach that must be mentioned here is regenerative farming.  Regenerative  farming is a very general suite of approaches. that focus on regenerating a healthy soil through a range of techniques.  Regenerative farming draws some criticism in that it is a very broad school with a wide range of practices, some of which (e.g. the use of herbicides) directly conflict with some of the other disciplines.  Some of the regenerative tools, however, do make sense and fill gaps in my tool box.  Principle of these in my particular context is paddock or mob grazing, an approach which seeks to mimic the grazing habits of naturally ranging herds of herbivores, being managed (tightly grouped) by predators.  Mob grazing involves giving grazing livestock access to relatively small areas of grazing for a short period of time , then moving them on frequently so that the paddock has a longer period of time to recover.  This provides all of the benefits that livestock bring to grazing (fertility, stimulation and removal of diseased vegetation) but then lets the grassland recover in a natural way as it would had the herd moved on. This has been very successful here, both in terms of productivity and diversity.
Following my previous post about the way that the management disciplines in agriculture represent concentric rings, we have the organic principles acting to affect food production at the physics/chemistry interface, with Korean Natural Farming very much Playing on the Chemistry/Biology interface.  The soil food web is centered effectively on the Biology layer, though provides an elegant window into all the other layers.  Processes like paddock grazing and organic prescriptions act on the outside layer; agriculture (agricultural practices). 

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We are only a few years into this journey, and are learning day by day, but it would appear that we are beginning to build a functional toolkit, and the ground seems to be responding. I will touch on some of the approaches and challenges in more detail over coming weeks. In the mean time, it is a fascinating, if sometimes hair raising trip, and I’m rather heartened that so many of us are on it, albeit following slightly different paths!

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