The magic under our feet

Jun 20, 2023

By Emilie Savary

Wave Hill Farm is a mixed regenerative farm in South Devon, striving to build soil and community while growing real food. With an approach rooted in permaculture and agroecology, the farm is run by John & Emilie with the precious help of WWOOFers & volunteers, interns, share-farmers, friends & neighbours and crucially, a mob of highly trained & specialised ecological engineers, the Easycare sheep. 

As a mixed farm, April is possibly our busiest month. While the signs of Spring are everywhere, this time of the year rarely feels fully out of Winter’s embrace, both within and out. This year the cold and wet weather created particularly challenging conditions for us as we sometimes struggled round the clock to protect and nurture newborn lambs and delicate seedlings. Thankfully, like always, the rain and the storms finally passed, and the lambs have grown. Full of life’s joyful energy, and of course full of themselves, already they race around the fields in small excited gangs, too busy to pay any attention to the increasingly panicked calls of the ewes – while us human mothers have at least years to prepare ourselves for this teenage independence, the poor ewes have merely weeks.

And so it is that with Beltane we have finally been able to embrace the beginning of Summer and leave behind the darkness of winter. It has felt like a long time coming this year, which is perhaps why everyone on the farm, both us human and our non-human kin, seems to be welcoming the warmth and sunshine with equal relief and delight. There is this sense of collective bliss shared by all the animals, a soft awakening as we all shake off the last of the Winter and allow ourselves to open and blossom. 

This primal awakening runs deep within us and within all life, right down to the soil under our feet, rising like a drumbeat. As new leaves grow and unfold all around us, photosynthesis ramps up and thus accelerates the pace of the age old song and dance between plants, microbes and ruminants, symbiotically developed and rehearsed over millions of years. With all this rain and water in our landscape and now the sun shining, this is a land of plenty. And so Nature, always the generous host, doesn’t hold back. Glorious abundance rather than minimalism is her rule here, omnipresent in the land with the most incredible shows of blooms in trees, woodlands and hedges – a competition only in beauty.

This is happening beyond our eyes too. At least half the carbon produced by a plant through photosynthesis is surplus to the plant’s own immediate growth requirement. This “liquid carbon” is thus shared with the soil microbiology as root exudates, essentially sugars, fuelling invisible raves and building communities and micro habitats around the plant’s roots. Depending on soil conditions and the plant’s individual requirements, it will sometimes even invite specific members of the underworld Kingdoms to join the party, seeking particular trades or functions. And so a plant cultivates its own rhizosphere, a sort of external stomach that cleverly ensures all this cycling and trading of nutrients is happening right where it needs it most, by its roots. As ruminants eat these and feed the soil through dung and trampling of plant material, they stimulate not just the soil microbiology through direct feeding but also trigger an even bigger release of root exudates, essentially sending soil life into a flurry of activity. One by-product of this ecological frenzy is the agglomeration of these short-chain sugars into much more stable longer-chain humid acids or humus, essentially driving carbon sequestration.

This is how Nature builds fertility without oil-based fertilisers and machinery. This is also how we traditionally farmed with Nature before we invented short cuts. It forms the basis of the Ley farming system, whereby crops are grown for a few years before the land is put back into pasture in order to rebuild soil health and fertility without inorganic fertilisers – making such practices essential for organic farming systems. Not only do ruminants like sheep and cows drive this process of recovery and fertility building but at the same they upcycle nutrients from grass & tree fodder, which our bodies cannot otherwise process, into nourishing by-products.

As farmers and growers our job is to respectfully harvest some of that glorious solar energy that cascades down through the trophic levels, courtesy of our plant and animal kins who have learnt to use it much better than we have. So this magic under our feet is what inspires our work here at Wave Hill Farm, especially in the context of the climate emergency we find ourselves in. It is what fuels the fire in our bellies. With Beltane only just behind us as I write this I hope that you too are embracing your inner fires.

Big thanks to Emilie Savary for this beautiful article and for the gorgeous photos.

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