Episode #55 Building Soil: Healing the Earth: Feeding Humanity – Regenerative Farming with Navona Gallegos
What if we had a way to draw carbon out of the air, heal our ecosystems and feed the world? We do: It’s called Regenerative Agriculture and the understanding of how we do this is key to a flourishing future. But we need to listen to the land first…
Navona Gallegos is an ecologist and farmer working to transition desert back into grassland in the arid Southwest of Turtle Island. She works and educates on the intersection of clean water, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and nutrition: soil.
Navona’s passion is decolonization and she sees building soil as the keystone that allows us to step into right relation with our surrounding ecologies, access more of our innate capacities, and create a culture that truly meets our needs.
Manda: So Navona Gallegos, welcome to Accidental Gods podcast, and thank you for calling in all the way from New Mexico. I bet it’s warmer there than it is here, but that wouldn’t be hard. I think probably the South Pole is warmer there than it is here at the moment. But I gather in all your wonderful warmth and New Mexicanness, this that you have just bought a farm, is that right?
Navona: I have.
Manda: Tell us about your farm.
Navona: So it’s a small farm, it’s 15 acres. It’s on the Rio Ojo Caliente, which is about an hour north of Santa Fe. Yeah, there’s a wetland and river area. And then there’s an area below the Acequia, which is our ditch system, that’s more grassland. And then there’s another level a little bit higher, that’s a very dry desert land.
Manda: And how has it been farmed up till now?
Navona: So I feel really lucky. I feel like this land really called me in, because the person who was there for the last two years is a friend, and he was growing hemp before that. It was left fallow for many years. And the long history of it was that it was part of a Spanish land grant hundreds of years ago that got subdivided and subdivided into smaller and smaller chunks, over the last couple hundred years.
Manda: But it’s not been drenched in industrial chemistry, which is very good. OK, so we’ll come back to that in a bit because it sounds amazing. And I would really like to know why growing hemp is a good thing. But before we do that, let’s explore a little bit about Navona, and how you came to be the kind of person who would want to buy a farm in New Mexico. So what’s your background with respect to agriculture, regenerative agriculture and ecology?
Navona: So I’m a native New Mexican. I was born in Santa Fe, and my ancestry is mostly Iberian Spanish and came to this land that’s now called New Mexico on both sides of my family in the 1500s. So I have deep roots in this land and different parts of New Mexico, some east, some more central. And I grew up riding horses, and ranching. My family had a cattle ranch, and so I was introduced to the Quivira Coalition and regenerative ecology, holistic management, regenerative grazing, pretty early on in life. So that’s always been there. And I’ve always had this appreciation for tending land. New Mexico’s this really brittle environment, it’s so beautiful and rugged here and as climate is changing. Over the last 20 years, I remember 20 years ago expecting monsoons from July through August, every afternoon at four o’clock. It would pour and now it rains… last summer, I think we got three or four rains during that period.
Manda: Oh, my goodness. So it’s gone from daily to monthly, more or less.
Navona: Pretty much.
Navona: Yeah, it’s changed a lot. And so you can really see… it’s so dramatic here, how quickly land use affects the whole landscape.
Manda: And we want to talk about regenerative agriculture, but I’m interested in the politics of that because for me that climate change is here. It’s it’s happening on our doorstep. Is that the impact that it has for people in New Mexico? Or is it too politically too much of the third rail for that to be the case?
Navona: You know, it’s funny because it’s readily obvious to a lot of people. There are some amazing folks, the Healthy Soil Working Group here based in Mexico, they’re starting to work across the US, and they were able to pass some legislation last year called the Healthy Soil Act and it’s to make a budget for doing regenerative soil health practises on different lands, which is awesome. And they said they had to take the word carbon out of everything. They couldn’t say a word, in order to get it.
Manda: Is this coming down from Trump, or is this just locally it was just too toxic?
Navona: Yeah, it was local. And New Mexico is not… we’re sandwiched between Texas and Arizona. And so it’s a lot more moderate and science based than either of our neighbours.
Manda: Gosh, that must be fun. But better than not being moderate science based. So yeah, okay.
Navona: Yeah. We’re working with what we’ve got.
Manda: You have a really good grounding in what regenerative agriculture is, and I think it’s part of, one of the core and key features that we’re going to need if we’re going to pull ourselves away from the cliff edge to which carbon may be pushing us – because we were allowed to say carbon here. I’m going to say it again for the fun of it. Carbon. There we go. We can do this if we all understand what it is, how it works, and how we can do it. And I’m hoping that you are the person to explain that. So just a tiny bit more about Navona. You did a degree in ecology, am I right?
Navona: I did, yeah. I went to the University of Virginia and I studied terrestrial ecology, and focussed on land use ecology.
Manda: And was that a holistic ecology programme? Was it designed to bring you to a regenerative agriculture mindset, or did you have to layer that on afterwards?
Navona: Yeah, the latter. It’s amazing. I thought it was a good programme, and it was rigorous. And most of what I’ve learnt about fungi, especially I have learnt after graduating, and especially from Elaine Ingham, she’s really the soil microbiology guru at the moment.
Manda: Ok, and we’ll put a link to to her pages on the show notes. But for the people who probably aren’t going to be able to afford one of her courses, can you give us an outline of how regenerative ecology or regenerative agriculture, what it is and how it differs from what the mainstream may have thought and maybe moving away from, I hope by now.
Navona: Yeah, I use the term regenerative ecology rather than regenerative agriculture just because I think that we need to step into thinking of ourselves as part of the ecosystem that we’re in, rather than the agricultural approach of setting aside some part of Gaia to produce food just for us. Because it hasn’t worked. And we can see, I just learnt recently the Sahara in Africa is the area where farming began in Africa.
Manda: Yeah. It didn’t used to be a desert.
Navona: I think agriculture is really borrowing from our future, and we’re running out of credit there at this point. There are all these practises like tilling that create a disturbance, and what happens when you till is you break up all the mycelium, all the fungi connexions and all the aggregates, these glues that create structures in the soil, and the bacteria who are in the soil sense this disturbance, which is a lot like what happens in our biome if we have a stress, a stressful atmosphere, if you have a lot of cortisol in our biome and then things that were symbionts become parasites, and start eating the host and trying to reproduce and jump ship.
Manda: You mean in our own personal gut biome and body biome, that if we’re stressed then we get an overgrowth of the wrong bacteria, is what you’re saying?
Navona: Exactly. And the same thing happens on a large scale in soil. And we can think of soil as the the stomach of the earth.
Manda: So ploughing it is the equivalent of blasting ourselves with steroids?
Navona: Pretty much, because we break up all these connections and that sends a signal to the bacteria in the soil that the ship is sinking, and it makes all this stable carbon. And I can talk about that more, how it becomes stable and fungi available, and the bacteria will eat it up, and there’ll be this big flush of available nutrients. And we can imagine how our predecessors and river valleys would see this flush of plant growth, especially the earlier successional plant growth, which is the grasses that we use for our grain crops. And I’ll talk about succession more, too. So it’s this sort of short term boost. And what it’s doing is it’s destroying these hundreds and thousands of year old structures in the soil, that allow nutrient cycling at a pace that allows sustainable plant growth.
Manda: Right. So the old way is we plough the land, and then we get a bit of a frantic overgrowth from whatever we sow, which is mostly grasses. But over time the soil erodes, and then we have to either go somewhere else, or try and create artificial circumstances that will grow as if the soil were as good as it used to be, which is why we’re using artificial fertilisers. Is that more or less where traditional farming is at?
Navona: Yeah, basically. And it’s interesting calling it traditional farming because this know, so-called conventional way of farming is only a couple hundred, and really more like 70 years old,
Manda: But not if the Sahara is where agriculture started? Then that didn’t do very much good for the soil, where it started. So we weren’t piling on fertilisers then, but we were obviously creating soil loss a very, very long time ago, right at the start of the what we might call loosely the agricultural revolution.
Navona: Yeah, I think I was thinking of synthetic fertiliser input type agriculture, but yeah, for the last couple of thousand years at least.
Manda: Yeah, OK, so so up to date, the synthetic fertiliser style of agriculture is the one that is still hegemonic around the world. It’s the one that we’re still trying to impose on people who haven’t take it on board yet. And it’s the one that people are still arguing for in Western industrial semi-agricultural nations. So given that that is destroying the soil, and also my understanding is that it produces plant growth that looks big and produces good yields if all you’re measuring is the tonnage, but the actual nutrient value of the plants that are produced is massively reduced, even compared to 100 years ago before we started using the fertilisers. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Navona: Yeah. So I think at this point I should dive into what soil is.
Manda: Yes, good idea,
Navona: Because then once we understand what soil is, then we can see how food plants and animals have who eat those plants, how the nutrient content is different, and why. So soil is not the same as dirt. Dirt is just the mineral. We can think of soil as a combination of four different components. The first to be the mineral, which is sandstone clay. The second is organic matter, which is bodies of plants and animals and other organisms. And then aggregates, which are these glues that fungi and bacteria create that make structure in the soil, so that gas can move through the soil. And then there are the organisms in the soil: fungi, bacteria, nematodes, protozoa, plant roots, micro arthropods, macro arthropods, spiders. You can think of an arthropod as an insect, basically, and they’re tiny ones that you can’t see with the naked eye. And then some you can see, all the way to the ones we see every day. And then the fourth part of soil that we think about are the abiotic factors like the chemical and physical factors that are dictated by climate, altitude, temperature or rainfall. And those abiotic factors are very much dictated by the soil organisms. So when we’re working with soil, we’re working with the organisms. And we’re not trying to get rid of the so-called bad organisms, but we’re creating the conditions for the good organisms to do what they do, because they are the ones who bio terraform the soil to allow gas exchange, to allow water to soak in. They’re the ones who are really dictating what’s going on in the soil. So there’s a lot of emphasis in conventional or traditional agriculture on working with the mineral and adding different amendments and things, and it’s sort of a racket because any teaspoon of this mineral dirt anywhere on the planet, there are all the necessary minerals for plants to grow.
Manda: Yes, but also I’m surrounded by farmers who have soil tests done once every couple of years. And then the guys tell them what to throw on the land. So why are they not picking it up if it’s there?
Navona: So what’s happening is that those minerals might be there, but the biology that allows us as in animals and then also plants to take up those minerals isn’t present. So that’s where fungi comes in. We can have terrestrial life because of fungi. Fungi do this amazing magic where they strip atoms off of rocks and turn them into bioavailable nutrients. And so, yeah, we wouldn’t be here talking about this without fungi, and the way they do that, would be different ways. The main way that fungi do this is through mycorrhizal Funchal relationships, mycorrhizal fungi are the fungi who partner symbiotically with plant roots. And they absolutely need a plant host. They don’t survive without living plant roots feeding them. They partner with plant roots and make a physical connexion either inside of the root, inside the cell wall or around the root like a sheath, and they trade. So the plants photosynthesise. They draw carbon, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They do photosynthesis, they turn that carbon into sugar and carbohydrates and plants will feed anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of the carbon that they draw from the atmosphere to their mycorrhizal fungal allies, and trade them for water, for macronutrients like nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and also micronutrients like boron or magnesium. And if we don’t have these allies, then they’re not getting those micronutrients at all.
Manda: I think this is really important, that the plants cannot take in the minerals and the nutrients that they need, and that then we want to gain from them by eating them, if they don’t have this relationship with the mycorrhiza that works both ways. And am I right in my understanding that it’s principally those mycorrhiza that build soil in the times where we think we want to draw carbon from the atmosphere and turn it into soil? They are an integral part of doing that?
Navona: Absolutely, yeah. Mycorrhizal fungi are responsible for most of the carbon sequestration in old growth soils. Most of that carbon is in mycorrhizal fungal bodies, like the actual fungi, or in these structures that they make, like humic acids, which are these incredibly long, complex carbon structures that science doesn’t fully understand yet. Here at the Los Alamos labs, they’re studying them because these lattices defy our understanding of physics. At the moment, we don’t understand how these lattices of carbon can transport gases the way they do.
Manda: But they’re an integral part of what healthy soil is.
Navona: Yeah, and they so these humic substances are emergency food, and and carbon storage. And so they’re food for fungi. So fungi create these long chains of carbons.
Manda: Right. Right. So like a squirrel burying nuts, they’re creating these things so that when there’s less sun, they can still survive.
Navona: Yeah. And so there’s this flux of carbon, you know, that’s always going on with respiration and photosynthesis. But then once carbon enters these substances, and other big aggregates like that, it becomes stable and it’ll just stay there in the soil for thousands of years. And that’s how we draw carbon out of the atmosphere.
Manda: Ok, so it genuinely stays there. Because I was under the impression that it was part of a cycle, that it would come in and then it would be transformed into something else, a new plant or new fungus or new bacterium. And that would then be cycled through and then it would be released back at some point quite soon. But what if it is thousands of years? Then if we build soil depth now, it’s going to stay there. It’s not a short term proposal.
Navona: Yeah, yeah, exactly. There are different estimates of how much carbon we can sequester per acre per year. And really what a lot of people are saying, like Dr David Johnson talks about this, that really our potential for carbon sequestration is nearly infinite, because we can keep going deeper with soil, and we keep going up.
Manda: So, yeah, we’re not ever going to have too much soil. It’s not like we’re going to reach a ceiling. I suppose if we get to the level where the atmosphere peters out. But it’s not going to happen because the atmosphere will move outwards, as if we could just grow the Earth by a centimetre all the way around, we would have solved our carbon problem.
Navona: Yeah, yeah. I mean, a centimetre, or I just read a paper that said there’s some places in Australia where they found 40 metres of soil.
Manda: Wow. 40 metres of soil. That’s astonishing.
Navona: Yeah, I’m from the Great Plains on Turtle Island. We had, you know, three, four metres of topsoil before colonisers came and started.
Manda: And now now it’s a dust bowl and there’s nothing pretty much.
Navona: And all that soil is, either has volatilised into the atmosphere…
Manda: Or gone down a river into the sea. Ok, so what we want to do is help these mycorrhizal fungi. And they make symbiotic relationships also with bacteria. Fungi and bacteria in the soil are in relationship as well?
Navona: They’re definitely in relationship to everyone. You know, everyone in the soil is in relationship. The mycorrhizal fungi are mostly, you could say in direct relationship with the plants, but there are other fungi that we think about as well, and those are the decomposers of the sacrifice, and we’re the ones who are able to turn lignin, the woody structures and trees and straw and things. So straw is cellulose. Bacteria can decompose cellulose and there’s some bacteria, very few, that can decompose lignin. The fungi are able to decompose lignin, and that’s why we don’t just have piles of lignin on this planet.
Manda: And why we grow mushrooms on dying trees or dead trees.
Navona: Yeah. And so all of that decomposition, or we could even think of it as composition because they’re turning often these smaller molecules into larger molecules going on with all the decomposers, the bacterial decomposers and the fungal decomposers. And so they’re very much in relationship. They’re exchanging nutrients, and eating each other. Bacteria are constantly eating fungi, fungi are taking bacteria, and just backtracking to how we turn mineral dirt into into something that’s bioavailable, they’re small class of plants. It’s about 10 percent of plants that we call successional species, or often they’re called weeds. And obviously we know that ‘weeds’ doesn’t mean anything.
Manda: Yep, they’re just plants that are growing where we don’t think they ought to be growing. But yes.
Navona: Yeah, so these plants have these fungi inside of their cells. So rather than the mycorrhizal fungi that are on the root systems, they have fungi inside of their cells that create acids that they’ll ooze into the soil, and they can strip atoms off of rocks. And so in these really disturbed systems, where we’ve decimated all the mycorrhizal fungi, the weeds, so-called weeds, are actually the most nutrient dense plants there.
Manda: Right. So can you walk us through what happens when somewhere like the Great Plains on Turtle Island, which had four or five, however many metres deep of soil, and people come along who don’t understand how to maintain that, and manage to turn it into a dustbowl, what is it that we do that stops that soil from being living and from growing? That means that we end up reducing it virtually to nothing? Besides ploughing, because it can’t be just ploughing?
Navona: Yeah, so mostly we’re attacking the plant roots, because that’s really where the soil building starts, is with plant roots. So plants are like the puppet masters, and they know exactly what nutrients they want and need when they want them. And we’ve never been able to guess what they need, based on… it’s very crude when we’re adding fertilisers. But, so the plants are dictating which fungi grow where, which bacteria grow where, and then which protozoa and nematodes, which are microscopic animals, come and eat those fungi. And then when the plants take up those nutrients from the nematode and protozoa, anyway, this whole cycle is going on. And if we till, we break up all the mycorrhizal connexions, and if we overgraze, which is the main other culprit of soil degradation on the plains, especially in grasslands, basically the more if we overgraze, then plants just don’t have the photosynthetic parts above ground to feed the roots. And so they would shrink.
Manda: Right. So then you end up with the grasses that can survive with very, very tiny roots, which over here tend to be grasses, which are pretty grim when you’re trying to graze horses. Is that the same with you? You end up with short rooted grasses when you should have very, very long rooted things?
Navona: Yeah, definitely, yeah. There’s this relationship with grasses and grazers, where grazers are being moved by predators and a biodiverse ecosystem. Then the grazers will take one bite of a grass and that triggers the grass to know, OK, so I need to send more nutrients into the into the root system. If you cut off about 30 percent of the top of your grass, then it’ll send a flush of nutrients into the root zone, and that’ll just jump start nutrient cycling. But then if that grass gets three more bites and is tiny, then it just doesn’t have the photosynthetic parts to do that. And the root system will just die off, and become short enough to reflect how short it is above ground.
Manda: Ok, so under holistic grazing principles, or if we just left everything to itself, the grazing animal, whatever it is, would take a bit of a bite. The plant would have a stress response, presumably, do its nutrient cycling so that it could grow back to where it was, and the animals would have moved on because there are mountain lions or tigers or whatever, making sure that they’re not all grazing the same grass day after day after day. So the grass gets to grow up, and it gets to send really deep roots, right, right, right down. Pictures I’ve seen are showing roots two or three metres deep in some species. So they’re going down to the rock layers and able to bring up the rock bound minerals that they need. Have I got that right?
Navona: Yes. Yeah, definitely. Yeah. And grass grasses do form mycorrhizal relationships. And there are just these massive, used to be these massive mycorrhizal nets, all across all these grasslands.
Manda: And that holds the soil depth against floods and winds and everything that might be turning into dust and taking it away.
Navona: Yeah, because the main thing that happens in living soil is that you have these glues. And so if you have a hillside that has been overgrazed or ploughed or both, usually compared to a hillside that has living soil, when it rains, all that rain is going to just wash all the soluble nutrients, all the dirt and minerals that aren’t held in these glues off of the line. That doesn’t happen. And on the one that does have living soil, it’ll just sink in. And often in soil is like a sponge for water. And that water often won’t even make it to the bottom of the hill.
Manda: So the ability of your land to soak up water then becomes quite an important index of the life in your soil.
Navona: Yeah, and it’s also filtering that water, too. So right now we’ve got water that’s full of nitrogen fertilisers, and just tons of other soluble nutrients washing into our waterways and then creating algal blooms. But the soil will actually, aggregates in the soil will catch those soluble nutrients. And so what you get at the end of either underneath the soil seeping into groundwater, or if you’re on an incline, going into surface water like a pond or something, what you up with is a very clean water if you have living soil.
Manda: OK, and we want clean water, definitely. So given that we are where we are, and agricultural practises for however long have been creating dirt rather than living soil, how can we begin to reverse that process, create living soil and draw in carbon from the atmosphere?
Navona: The good news is that Gaia is on our side on this one. In a way we don’t have to do anything. If we stop messing with the system, it’ll start moving through succession, which is… a very crude definition of succession is just the process of species structure change and an ecosystem over time. And basically what’s happening is you go from less biodiverse, less nutrient cycling, less nutrient density to more nutrient density, more biodiverse, more carbon sequestration. And what that looks like is like a totally new agricultural field to an old growth forest. That’s sort of the trajectory, especially in temperate regions.
Manda: But we kind of want to feed people in the middle of that, because we’re not going to persuade people to do this if they think they’re going to starve as a result.
Navona: Yeah, and so the thing is, if we just leave it alone, it’ll become old growth forest or whatever climax community can happen there. But it’ll take thousands of years, which is why regenerative agriculture or regenerative ecology, we can move that succession along in the course of four or five, ten years, depending on rainfall.
Manda: Ok, so how would we do that? Have you had your 15 acre farm ,or I read of somebody the other day, had twelve hundred acres in Brazil that had been completely just devastated by overgrazing. How would you set about returning it to something that’s got living soil, and is of net benefit to the overall ecosystem?
Navona: So I think the steps that we go through are: the very, very first step is to stop and listen, and to acknowledge the consciousness of the organisms and the beings that are there. Because they hear you, you know, and they’ve often been ignored or trampled by humans, and so there’s this sort of interesting process where they start to hear you like, oh, really? OK, we’re on the same side. And it’s really magical, what happens after that, If you really, you know, set intentions and listen, and I think that there’s a lot of biodynamic farming where there’s tons of intention setting, and they get really great results. And just from a biological point of view, I think a lot of what biodynamic farming is doing is not is not what’s actually happening there. I think the intention setting is what’s the magic.
Manda: Really? You think burying the cows’ horns and things might be less important than the intent with which you bury the cow’s horn? Am I hearing you saying that?
Navona: I think so, yeah. Yeah, burying the cow’s horn with their organs in it and stuff, and that basically you’re creating a bacterial flush in a small area, and we want fungi. Yeah. So I don’t think that that input is it really what’s changing those systems. And another tenet of biodynamic farming is that they leave it alone a lot more than other farming practises. So I always want to just emphasise listening to the Land noticing what’s going on here. Like, that’s the first step in any permaculture approach, is just to observe and listen and notice what water’s going, notice where erosion is happening.
Manda: Hang on a second, before we go to the next step, how long, if I had just bought 15 acres somewhere and I was wanting to do this, how long would you recommend that I sit with the Land and listen to it?
Navona: So my intention is to spend three days listening. And then I’m going to start interacting, but the listening process never ends. We’re watching for feedback, and noticing what happens, and we have this urgency to growing food and to building ecosystems, but there is definitely something to be said for slowing down, because we can go in with these ideas and do a ton of terraforming, and moving, and then there’s always something we haven’t thought of.
Manda: Yeah, but the land would probably have shown us if we’d taken the time to sit and look at it and be with it.
Navona: Yeah. And so if we can slow down, rather than think that we’re going to build a farm in a season ,and think that we’re going to really build it over five years, then ultimately we’ll be much better off.
Manda: And then presumably there’s a difference between whether you’re going to have holistic grazing, which you will explain in a moment as part of your Land, or whether it’s going to be simply crops. Not that that’s necessarily simple, but could you talk us through both options of that?
Navona: Sure. Well, one of the tenets of really robustness in any system, but especially in ecological systems, is diversity. So every single organism, every different species is doing something different. There’s different nutrients, they have different needs, and the more biodiversity we have, the more redundancy. We have some new so-called past in the past. But if some new species comes in and starts to wipe out another species, then we have all these other folks who are doing similar nutrient cycling, making other things available. So anyway, that tenet of diversity applies on all the different scales, whether we’re talking bacterial, or macro-fauna.
Manda: So diversity builds resilience, is accurate.
Navona: Exactly. Whether we’re planning on growing vegetables, or not wanting to introduce grazing animals like cows or goats, you still want animals present because everyone is contributing and you’re not going to have a healthy ecosystem without animals, period. Also you’re not going to have a healthy ecosystem without any part of the trophic level. Like if you take out the protozoan nematodes, even if you have the fungi and bacteria, it just won’t work. I want to just backtrack a little bit because there are these steps to getting the animal and the plant diversity present. And so the first is to address your water and where it’s going. So notice if the water is eroding in areas, if it’s pooling up in areas. And mostly what we’re trying to do is slow it, sink it and spread it,
Manda: Slow it, sink it and spread it.
Navona: So slowing it as water is moving over the surface before we have living soil, it’s just taking all of the mineral, all the little plants, everything out with it. And so if we can just slow it down, just the velocity, then we get much less erosion.
Manda: By building little dams? Or how would you slow it?
Navona: Yeah, so this is where I think permaculture is spot on with the swales and the dams and different water works like that.
Manda: Ok, bringing about beavers I gather has happened quite a lot in the UK and they’re creating extraordinary new wetlands in the places where they’ve been reintroduced, just by building really quite small, by beavers’ standards, dams. So I’m guessing you can’t do that everywhere. But it’s really exciting where it’s happened.
Navona: That’s so cool. Yeah, yeah. We’re working on beaver reintroduction around here and it’s a bit of a struggle because people have this idea of property ownership and. Or resistant to beavers, which is too bad, because beavers are absolutely a keystone species and hook up the entire ecosystem around them. We can do the same thing. Not exactly the same thing that beavers do, obviously, but we can do something similar by making little dams and by doing swales and slowing that water. And then once that water sinks in, then it provides the moisture for plant growth and then for fungi, for bacterial growth and starts nutrient cycling. Yeah, so the first step is just to address your water and then one thing we want in any system is no bare soil, ever. Ever. So basically, we’re trying to meet our own needs by growing food, and clothing and shelter, and we do that by meeting the soil organisms’ needs. And so they need cover from the UV rays from the sun, mulched, also allows water to stay longer, doesn’t evaporate as fast. It makes this little temperature cushion where the temperature fluctuation isn’t as great and so the organisms can thrive that are there. And it’s also food. And so, again, we’re thinking diversity. So we want a diversity of mulches. We want lots of different wood chips from different types of trees, hardwoods and softwoods. We want different straws, hays, you know, kitchen scraps.
Manda: Ok, I’m imagining doing that here, and then fending off an entire city’s worth of rats. But other than the kitchen scraps, that’s sounding really good. So this is also, presumably you can do living, mulches as well as…
Navona: Yeah. And so ideally, what you want to end up with is one hundred percent photosynthetic groundcover, so one hundred percent ground covered in different plants. And then if there’s any bare spots, you cover that with mulch, and hopefully within a couple of seasons or less, you’ve got grasses and other plants growing through that, and that becomes photosynthetic cover. Yeah. And so again, we want diversity in all the plant groups. There’s this tenent, or maybe you’ve heard of the three sisters.
Manda: Yes, I have. But I guess quite a lot of our listeners won’t. So please tell us.
Navona: So the three sisters are these three plants: corn, beans and squash, that a lot of native people here in the Southwest traditionally grow together, literally right together in a little clump. And the beans climb up the corn, and the squash is there sort of as ground cover. And when we’re talking about diversity in our plants, corn, beans and squash is much closer to a mono crop than to the diversity that we’re hoping for. But I think of it as this little technology that’s been handed down because corn is a grass, squash is a forb, and beans are legumes. And so that’s the key to how we want to approach planting. We want grasses, forbs and legumes. Together, so the legumes to fix nitrogen, or rather they feed soil bacteria to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, and they’re the only ones who can do that. So if we don’t have legumes, then we’re not getting that nitrogen from the atmosphere. And the forbs are also cycling nutrients, and making other things available. The grasses are doing the same, and grasses are also good at accumulating phosphorus. And then we have the mycorrhizal fungi connecting all three. And they’re getting to trade phosphorus for nitrogen, for magnesium. And the corn, beans and squash are three sisters, I think of as sort of this, we don’t literally just want to do corn, beans and squash, but we want to use that as like a blueprint for the classes of plants we want to plant. So we want, like, you know, 15 plus types of grasses, 15 plus types of forbs, and forbs are just leafy plants. So forbs are easy to cover for.
Manda: OK, things that we tend to eat quite a lot of. And so I remember reading Gabe Brown’s Dirt to Soil and he had something…I named my little patch a ‘chaos garden’. I’m not sure if he called it that, but he basically just went out with handfuls of seeds and threw them around. And then when his wife wanted something for dinner, he just went out and cut whatever was ready and generally speaking, had no idea what it was going to be in advance, which must have been an entertaining culinary challenge for Mrs. Brown. But it sounded really exciting. But it was on a garden scale. This is not on a farm scale, where you were having to individually gather each individual plant separately. So if you’re on a farm scale, how do you get this level of biodiversity in a season?
Navona: So are you asking how do you manage this level of biodiversity for convenience, or how do you how do you get this biodiversity?
Manda: Both. How to get it, and how do you make it at least financially breaking even?
Navona: Yeah, so the latter gets a little complicated as something we each have to figure out. But getting that biodiversity on a farm is really the same thing. Like we for the last two years, we farmed 10 acres and we pretty much did what you were talking about, which is just broadcasting tons of different seeds, just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Yeah, and it was a lot of work to harvest, but we didn’t spend any money on any fertiliser, any inputs whatsoever.
Manda: Wow. And did your soil improve by any of the metrics that we would measure? Water retention or soil depth, or any of those things or was it not long enough?
Navona: Yeah, so we took a soil sample before we got started and then a soil sample in the fall and we increased our soil organic matter one percent, which is actually one percent, doesn’t sound like a lot, just as a number floating around. But we’re usually talking about like one to three percent organic matter.
Manda: So this isn’t one percent of its original value, it’s one percent of the total content of the soil. So in effect, you’ve doubled it. If it was one percent before you added another one percent, that’s 100 percent increase in your organic matter. That’s extraordinary, actually, because most farming systems are reducing organic matter year on year. So to be able to increase 100 percent is huge.
Navona: And it was simple, really, like we just got lots of different seeds of lots of different types of plants and broadcast them and then did a ton of mulching and our usual watering, and and then we just explore. You know, we’ll just set aside a day to work with the hemp you have to go through because we’re growing hemp for CDD, so you have to go through and find the males. So as we are doing that and just walking down these rows looking for the the males in our hemp crop, we’re just also making note of where the squash are, where all the different folks are, and just harvesting stuff as they come up, which is fun.
Manda: Yeah. So just because I’ve been finding this fascinating and I apologise if anybody listening isn’t, but I’m trying to imagine doing this. So you were broadcasting random seeds, but you knew you definitely had some hemp in there and then you have to cover it up or you have here, certainly we would have every pigeon within a 20 mile radius would be on our field eating the seeds, and then it would be dead for the rest of the year. So you cover it up with something that’s deep enough that the wildlife that feast on seeds isn’t just having all its Christmases and birthdays come together.
Navona: Well, that did happen a lot. What’s going on here? You know, we have to share, basically. And so especially in the southwest where we’re in, really, really… you know, we’ve had miles of just dead dirt around us, and then we start a little patch to life. We don’t eat a lot of it. So, I mean, for garden scale, we tell people to plant 40 some squash plants if they want a couple squash plants.
Manda: Yeah. And so I’m also interested, I remember listening to a webinar at some point, I think it was Dan Kittridge, saying that the spinach grown nowadays in industrial systems had something like three percent of the iron content of the spinach when we were kids, certainly when I was a kid, the kind of Popeye, eat your spinach, it’ll make you fit, spinach. Because what we’ve done is pour fertilisers on that, get the plants to grow. But they haven’t built the relationships with the mycorrhiza and the fungi that go down and and bring up the other minerals and present them in a bioavailable form. So I’m wondering, when you did your mass scatter, and you were getting doubling your organic matter in the soil, were you also getting more nutrient density in the vegetables and other things that you harvested?
Navona: Yeah, definitely. Especially year two. And fascinating to see what seeds germinated year two that didn’t germinate the first year.
Manda: Oh, interesting. OK, you think they’d lain dormant or do you think they’d come in?
Navona: Both. But there was some that lay dormant that would include the you know, they do this quorum sensing where they sense what bacteria and other nutrients, they sense what’s in their environment.
Manda: As a seed? As this little hard thing in the ground is sensing what’s there and deciding whether or not to germinate?
Manda: So, holistic grazing. Can you describe if you decided you wanted to bring in grazing animals as part of one of your rotations, what holistic grazing is and how it works?
Navona: So first of all, I think consent is really, really important. And so sometimes, and I appreciate the results of a general grazing, but I’m not nuts about the model of owning a bunch of cows, and selling them and feeding them. And so I really need to shift away from that, but that said, there are some folks who are working with cows and goats and horses in a really beautiful way. So I think it’s doable, and I’m really interested in figuring out how to do that more, and how to teach that. So ruminants, which are basically I mean, you can spot a ruminant because they have two toes. And so they have this other organ, the rumen that’s full of bacteria that breaks down plant matter in a totally different way than horses do. And so horse poop and cow poop is going to be a different type of innoculate. And you want both. So basically what it’s like for the animal the system is in. Like what they call mob grazing, or basically the idea is high intensity, short duration. So you want to come in as if it was a stampede of buffalo. They’re being moved by wolves who are following them for months across the plains, and so the buffalo don’t want to spend too long in any one spot. And so they come in for a few hours, or a few days, and ideally take one bite of most of the plants and they trample about 50 percent of the plants. So a lot of what’s happening in that grazing situation is not so much grazing, but trampling, and just getting the cellulose and the wood from bushes and stuff onto the ground where it can decompose.
Manda: And they’re also urinating and defaecating and trampling that in too. I think that’s quite important, is that you’re getting a lot of recycling, and you’re getting the bacteria from the rumen.
Navona: Yeah. You’re getting this inoculation from the bacteria that and fungi do come through their guts and then they fall off their hair and some of the birds that follow them. And so we’re also getting diversity from other ecosystems that they’ve come from.
Manda: So you have to have the right number of grazing animals, and you have to be able to move them around an amount of Land that’s going to be big enough that you don’t have to come back until you’ve got more grass, which will change. And are you building a community supported agriculture system where whatever you grow goes into the local area? Because that’s one of the big things we’re doing here, is trying to reach people by going, would you not like to eat food that was growing on Land you could walk across? Does that work for you?
Navona: It does. We have a really robust farmer’s market. Situation throughout New Mexico and then we’re also interested in doing CSA, the community supported agriculture where people can can pay, and can also come volunteer or put in some time, get a box every week.
Manda: And we have found during lockdown, loads of people wanting to volunteer, partly because it got them out of the house, but then discovering that there was a sense of meaning in growing food that they did not have in their office job, and really not wanting to go back to the bullshit jobs that they were doing before, when there is an alternative, or could be an alternative of really being part of something that feels so primal as growing food that people can eat. Are you finding that at all?
Navona: Yeah, definitely. And I think that this model of, you know, just scattering lots of seeds and we’ll sort of keep track of, you know, we put these species out on this terrace and, you know, in our DNA, we’re foragers, and we have this dopamine system that really works well for finding food and then searching for more. And we feel compelled to search for more. And it gets really, really fun.
Manda: Yeah, you get your dopamine hits from that instead of Facebook and Twitter. So much healthier.
Navona: Yeah, people love it.
b So final question, and this is purely my thing. I have also watched various YouTube videos about the Johnson-Su bioreactor. So this is David Johnson and his wife who’ve created something that I definitely works in New Mexico. I keep thinking about building one here and thinking I’m not sure it’s going to work, because it is very damp and cold here. But it’s essentially a tower with mesh on the outside, and a very specific ratio of pipes through the middle. So you get oxygen everywhere. So it’s a well aerated, it’s an aerobic system. And in the beginning, he said, he used to fill it with all kinds of exciting things like, you know, cow dung and hay and straw. And now he just puts leaves in it. And he leaves it for a year. And by the end of that year, he said they were getting bacteria that they hadn’t seen for over 100 years. They were getting bacteria that could eat through gold. They were getting an extraordinary bacterial biome, which if you then spread it on the Land at the rate of I think a pound per acre would utterly revitalise dead soil, which sounds so exciting. And I love the idea of getting bacteria that you hadn’t seen for over 100 years. But because you live in the place where David Johnston is doing this and you probably have greater knowledge, are you also getting fungi in that system that you’re then broadcasting on the soil, or is it just a kind of bacterial kickstart?
Navona: No. So the Johnson-Su Bioreactor is my favourite and it’s really fungal, great biodiversity, very fungal.
Manda: So interesting. So thank you for sharing such an extraordinary wealth of fascinating information. If everybody listening to this were able to in some way help a local community supported farm become more regenerative, then we would begin to transform the world. And I think for people listening, knowing that it is possible to build soil and draw in carbon from the atmosphere so that farming becomes carbon negative instead of a huge, huge source of our current carbon excess, is a real incentive for everybody to get to it. And you produce food that’s alive. And so much better for you than anything that you could get that’s been in an industrial farming system. One of the one of the other factoids that Dan Kittridge produced was that most vegans these days have to take cobalt supplement because for vitamin B12? I think, and that we should our plants should have enough cobalt. It should be perfectly possible not to need to take supplementation. It’s just that we’ve never let them get to the point where you’ve got the systems where the roots are able to gather the cobalt up that they need, and the boron and the magnesium and the manganese and everything else that they need. So we can just produce food that is actually good for us, instead of the kind of empty pulp that we’re producing in the industrial systems. I think this is a good idea. Navona, over to you for final words.
Navona: Oh, I’m really excited about regenerative farming, regenerative ecology, because I think that our society is going to change so much as we start to shift this way, not just in the way that we grow food and relate to Land, but also just the idea of having populations of humans who can really reach their full capacities and full potential, spiritually and emotionally and physically, because they’re well nourished with all these macro and micronutrients, and imagine what we can do and we can really use our whole systems, our brains for max potential.
Manda: Yeah, and when we’re an integral part of the web of life instead of constantly battling against it.
Navona: Yeah, and I think what is going to be some momentum, like we’re in this early phase of pushing this boulder. But as more and more people start to do it and more and more people start to eat this nutrient dense food, I think that it’s going to really take off, especially because a lot of our decisions are based on our intestinal flora. Our bacteria and fungi are the ones who are dictating a lot of our food. And I think that once we are eating from these biodiverse systems and we have those voices inside us, that we’ll be drawn to it even more.
Manda: That’s such an interesting idea. One day we’re going to do a podcast just on that. But in the meantime, thank you so much for coming on to Accidental Gods. And I hope your new farm is absolutely abundant and flourishing and wonderful and soul healing. Thank you.
Navona: Thank you so much.
Manda: So that’s it for another week, and for this year. Huge thanks to Navona for bringing us such a fertile, expansive, inspiring vision to carry us forward into 2021.
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