Illustration by Adam Q

Farming life: I sniffed the soil... and I liked it

All of us could do more to appreciate one of nature’s most valuable assets
December 9, 2021

At the door to 2021, when the year ahead held no prospect beyond two AstraZeneca jabs, I made a series of New Year’s resolutions here on the farm in East Anglia, from trying to be outside at sunrise and sunset—which helps the body’s natural circadian rhythm—to turning off the shower when applying shampoo or shower gel. I soon learned that being outdoors for sunrise in January at 8am, and again in the afternoon at a time when civilised society typically “takes tea,” was a lot easier than a boot camp reveille in mid-June at 4.40am, when even dairy farmers are bleary-eyed and semi-dormant.

There was, however, one resolution that throughout the year continued to inspire me and, if anything, became easier to keep. I resolved to touch the soil every day. While that might be unusual were my home an urban high-rise and my occupation a sedentary nine-to-five, I’m a farmer, so surely that’s something I do daily already? Surprisingly, the answer is no, it’s not. And so, I committed to touching the soil every day; be it the silty clay of our arable fields growing cereals or oilseeds, or the matted loam beneath our woodlands, or even the tilth from the small triangle of flowerbed by the back door.

There are many reasons to touch the soil. Some people report feeling more grounded (excuse the pun), others are transported from the everyday chaos to the peace and simplicity of the natural world, and still others just like getting dirt under their fingernails. Studies have shown that certain soil microbes mirror the effect on the neurons in our brains that drugs such as Prozac provide, possibly stimulating serotonin production and making us happier and more relaxed. For me, touching the soil can bring happiness bordering on elation.

On our farm, we stopped using the plough last century and we no longer till the soil. Our “zero till” system means that we sow the seed directly into the ground, which has many benefits: protecting our earthworm soil architects, natural drainage and the subterranean fungal labyrinth. This tillage-free farming keeps nutrients in the ground and out of the rivers; shields our topsoil from rain or frost and ensures that our soil biology is in the “Goldilocks Zone”—not too hot nor too cold, neither too wet nor too dry, too hard nor too soft.

My year has been shaped by its seasonal transformations. Saturated in January, set like iron in the freezing extremes of February, parched when our April showers failed to materialise—and while the rains came in late spring, the soil remained bone dry throughout the summer. With our transition to a regenerative method of farming, however, our soil has become more resilient and alive, and as we approached our autumn season of sowing, it was delicious. In fact, not content to just touch the soil, I’ve taken to getting right down and filling my nose with “geosmin,” the signature scent of healthy, moist, earthy, fertile soils.

This ode may sound like the ramblings of a maniac, but many farmers like me have fallen back in love with our soil, as we’ve adopted a more sustainable approach to farming concerned with calories, carbon and conservation, known as the “biological revolution.” We’ve moved away from the “answer in a can” farming of the confusingly named “green revolution,” which started after the Second World War and coincided with the mass production of artificial fertiliser and man-made pesticides.

My heroic grandfather was a “Dig for Victory” farmer, who was paid—by the government—to pull out hedgerows and plough hay meadows after the Second World War in the quest to feed the nation. My father was driven to replace many of those same hedgerows through the nineties and noughties. I just hope that today’s policymakers are awake to the importance of soil health and keep up with those farmers who are feeding both nation and nature, and protecting that most valuable national asset: soil.

Instead, some policymakers are following dead-end zeitgeists and popular metropolitan “movements,” that lean on highly processed goods air-freighted from distant nations. For them I have a message: wake up and smell the petrichor.