Whilst we have been exploring aspects of sustainable Agroecology for a number of years, it took awhile to gain traction and understand how to engage at scale.

Arbuscular Micorrhizal Fungi on a wheat root

There are many nuanced areas, one that has captured my particular attention, like many farmers, is how to harness the incredible potential of Arbuscular Micorrhizal Fungi.

Looking at the roots with my microscope, however, it became clear that whilst my wilder ground, margins and hedgerows were looking well populated with AMF, the ‘productive’ ground was less so. This wasn’t really a surprise in the early stages of my regenerative transition, as we now know conventional management practices and inputs are pretty hard on fungi, and conventional wisdom suggested that with sensitive management, populations would recover. Monitoring the ground however it became clear that natural repopulation was going to be hard indeed.

Again, modern conventional wisdom would suggest that one can just buy one’s self out of the problem by applying one of the many ‘biological products’ available on the market. … Observation again shows, at least in light ground like mine, that it’s not quite that easy. Effects can be localised, short lived and nuanced. The thing that has become clear is that when we are dealing with ‘biology’ we are dealing with living things….. with life! Like larger organisms (for example dogs, cats and even children) we need to look after our microbes if they are to survive and deliver effect. We also need to be aware that they might respond differently to different contexts, conditions and environments and deliver unexpected effects.

This may be a challenge if we are still wanting to deploy simple tools out of a bag or bottle, but if we can change the way we look at the problem (the cliched paradigm shift) it becomes a stunning opportunity! In short, I’m finding that we must embrace complexity if we are to harness it! After all, it is complexity and diversity which have driven the evolution of the incredible global ecosystem of which we are all so privileged to be both part and product.

I acknowledge that this approach raises some exciting challenges for all of us. Whether we are farmers, scientists, consumers, regulators or educators, it can be uncomfortable dealing with complexity, especially when we have become used to living with artificial systems that seek to impose predictability and order on the way we live. Whilst I’m the first to acknowledge that many of these frameworks are incredibly important in society, the lens of history shows that they will eventually fail to be effective if they are unable deal with complexity. This is is why a competent exception management system is such a critical part of any effective governance legislative or management framework.

Ironically, as humans, we have evolved an incredible tool between our ears for the management of complexity. Whilst we frequently use our brains to create the illusion that we are able to simplify complexity, if we enable them, our brains have evolved to enable us manage it. One might even suggest that after three and a half billion years of development this should not really be a surprise!

So, back to my patchy AMF! Having spent some time thinking through my challenge from the perspective of the microbes and actually watching how they respond to what I am doing, I am coming to some conclusions (actually these, of course, are technically a mix of observations and hypotheses as they haven’t been ‘proven’ … but you follow my drift!)

  • The conventional management practices we had been using were interfering with the AMF populations. This is visibly less pronounced in the uncultivated margins rather than the fields.
  • Natural Repopulation of AMF is taking longer than originally expected. Having done a bit of reading, this is possibly less surprising; AMF reproductive bodies form under the surface of the soil… so are less likely to just “blow in” especially since I am now trying hard to maintain ground cover to prevent erosion!
  • It seems that the historical methods we had been using to terminate host crops have not been enabling the AMF to sporulate (form spores) effectively before they too expired… thus breaking the AMF Cycle.
  • The effectiveness and impact of most of the biological inputs we apply is dependent on a complex combination of how, where and under what conditions they are applied.

Whilst these observations and hypotheses are just that, they are supported by enough logic and relevant literature for me to adjust my management approach on the ground. At a practical level:

  • We are thinking of our biology as livestock and biological indicators rather than as mere inputs. We keep an eye on them and respond to observed issues on (in) the ground in the same way we manage livestock.
  • We seek to optimise conditions for any biology using a wide of tools including grazing strategies, seed mixes, mindful cultivation driven by observation.
  • Any observations that might warrant further detailed scientific investigation are noted and discussed with appropriate experts, on occasions, these have triggered formal research projects.
  • Given the short but varied timeframe of many microbial lifecycles, on farm observations provide the tactical insights required to support many of our operational decision cycles. They may also provide insight into areas that would warrant further examination.

In summary, we have a simple information framework where we conduct the ‘quick and dirty’ observation, experimentation and adjustments that drive daily activities and enable operational decision making but try to capture any issues warranting further examination for the relevant specialists.

There are great opportunities associated with harnessing naturally complex systems, by adopting a simple observation based approach this doesn’t need to be difficult or complicated on the ground.

When I step back and view Mindrum as an agroecosystem, I see a complex web of interconnected and often interdependent organisms. It’s easy to forget that we are a part of it. Everything we do, don’t do, or fail to do can have an impact. We can choose how we interact with it, but if we don’t, it will continue on without us.

This is a conversation I want to be part of!