26th May 2022

Soil research and BRIX testing @ Treflach farm

Developing an experimental growing space at Treflach

Pushing ahead with what might turn out to be quite an ambitious plan, but we are building a research project which we are running at and in partnership with Treflach farm. It will of course overlap with our permaculture design course coming up in April/ May and will provide a focus for study, research and design. So far Jeremy and Callum, from the farm team have been preparing for this project and we are nearly ready to begin the next phase.

We have identified an area that we are able to use, it is close to the main pig houses, and so far it has been fenced off and for the last 2 weeks a team of highly trained pig specialists have been preparing the ground for us.

I was very inspired by the presentation at the Oxford real Farmer’s Conference by Perrine Herve-Gruyer. She is behind Ferme du Bec Hellouin, a profitable 40-acre organic farm, growing 380 varieties of fruit, vegetables, herbs and medicinal plants and supplying some of France’s top restaurants.

Since 2006 she and her husband have transformed what was an unimpressive, rather tired looking holding in Normandy into one of the most iconic and successful permaculture farms in Europe.

Looking at the picture it is a text book of permaculture application. Embracing diversity, folding in edges, trapping water, building paths and interconnections. Emulating the complexity and dynamism of the natural world. To be truly permaculture it has to reflect local needs, be resourced from local materials and powered by flows of energy harvested from within the system itself.

Permaculture is not a template, it is an approach which can be applied, flexibly, appropriately, proportionally and reflecting the needs and values of the communities around it. Animal plant communities included in that thinking.

Ferme du Bec Hellouin pre 2006
Here it is in 2020

Treflach farm have allowed us to use an approx 30m square of their land to begin to explore at least one of the key elements of the farm design and something that Perrine waxed lyrical about in her presentation, and this was their mandala garden, something which I understand was developed in the early stages of the proejct.  I was very inspired this as well as the learning journey they have clearly been on and I have also started to see links as to how this can be used to help us explore our next set of ambitions.

The inital design
Remodelled in 2013

Mandala gardens, based on simple repeating patterns is one of the elements which caught the imagination of the South Sudanese farmers we worked with in 2018 so I was really interested to hear Perrine talk about there’s and how that had evolved over time.

Their first version was based on concentric circles and although it looks fantastic their experience was it was hard to manage. Once populated with plants and shrubs it was hard to see produce or things needing attention and also access was restricted by the shape of the raised beds. As I understand it in 2013 they remodeled it to the version on the right and found it greatly improved.

Advantages they found were that when standing in the middle you can easily see the whole of each of the beds, it is really accessible and striking and attractive.

Based on this I have been inspired to suggest to Treflach that we might explore something similar. There are some clear reasons as well which I also want to explore here.

The design would give us 20 beds , in 4 quarters, and the intention is work with slightly different approaches in those sections to produce some test results which we can study, earn from and teach about on our permaculture courses.

  • Biochar applications inoculated with different mediums
  • Zero tillage and minimum tillage
  • Integration of chickens/ chicken tractor
  • Incorporation of vermiculture
  • Other approaches

Clearly if we begin with a uniform, pig-ploughed garden, then we slowly treat each of the quarters with different approaches we can generate some interesting data. we will grow veg for the farm, all of which will be organic and we expect the highest quality, but we can also explore some of the more subtle variations between the plots.

Testing the soil

Doing accurate soil testing can be a little expensive, depending on the laboratory and the detail of the response needed.  There is a really interesting development that my colleague Dr Westaway has been researching into and that is BRIX testing.

I am learning about this myself but the principle sounds invitingly simple. Instead of testing the soil in all its myriad of complexity, you can test the quality of the resulting food. The test itself identifies nutrient density. Essentially it is a refractometer, that analyses the light shined through the juice of the food to be evaluated and from that  a value can be identified.

The better the soil the better the nutrient density of the resulting crops, and this can be by as a much as a factor of 6. So, yes all carrots are not the same, how they are grown and the quality of the soil they are in is what dictates the quality of the resulting food. This insight seems essential, as the focus on food production is always based on quantity not quality. Also appearance, taste and so on also turn out to be very significant factors in revealing the true quality of the food produced.

The intention is to link with academics in different circumstances and compare notes on the various results we are getting. I am really keen to share with this our Africa colleagues in permaculture also. Initial findings reveal it is complicated and there are many factors involved however, what does seem to make sense that if it is microbial and fungal life in soil that is the vector for nutrient transfer then it is the more complex, less disturbed soils, with high microbial and fungal activity that can produce the best results.

These are all of course themes and ideas we will be exploring on the PDC starting 26th April, we are busy preparing for that now.

What is Brix ? Brix is the measurement in percentage by weight of sucrose in pure water solution.

When used on plant sap it is primarily a measure of the carbohydrate level in plant juices. The instrument used to obtain a brix reading is the refractometer. Refractometers come in two basic styles, optical and digital. Both types work great. Here is how a refractometer is used: squeeze out some sap from a plant, put 2 drops of the juice on the prism, close the prism cover, point to a light source, focus the eye piece, and read the measurement. The brix reading is indicated where the light and dark fields intersect.

High Brix Foods Have Greater Carbohydrate Levels and a greater Greater Mineral Density.

This is central to my post doctoral research, food quality gives such a huge insight into soil quality, and that is also central to carbon sequestration within the soil. Oh and thanks to Steve for making up this quote, i will certainly improve on it soon
Dr Elizabeth Westaway
# Research, nurition, Africa, Wales
Fungal associations at a root hair level, hugely expand fertiltiy

Integrating chickens

We are also collecting ideas how to integrate chickens in to this system. Could the garden have an integrated chicken tractor, in at least some of the garden area? As much as I like the idea I am aware of the impact on land that even a few chickens can have, they work all day and it is an energy that if unharnessed becomes destructive, but also that energy could be an engine to drive nutrient cycling and pest control on the plot. The idea of a chicken tractor is a simple concept with many variables. A big consideration also is that we are very vulnerability to fox attack, it has certainly happened before. and our system will need to consider that aspect also.

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