Farmers are so often locked into an ever-escalating armory of rescue chemicals, in an attempt to maintain yield and profitability. In fact, the global statistics reveal a remarkable trend. Each year, we introduce more chemicals into the equation, and yet every year there is an overall increase in pest and disease pressure. This is actually the definition of “unsustainable”. We can’t keep pouring on more and more, for less and less response.
I teach farmers how to escape this downhill slide. They learn how to maintain profitability, while increasing sustainability. I reach out with heart and soul to farmers and consultants across the globe each year. The great joy of this work comes when attendees are inspired to make meaningful change. This is a story of a talented English Agronomist and an accomplished Cornish farmer, and their Nutrition Farming journey.
William Iliffe - Birth of a Trailblazer
William started his own company, Kernow Agronomy Pty Ltd, in 2013, at 25 years of age. He has developed this independent consulting company into a major player, while also managing the growing logistics of a large, Cornish vegetable growing operation. William has a strong following across Cornwall and beyond, working with growers producing brassicas, zucchini, (or courgettes, as they are known in the UK), field crops and cut flowers. His client base includes an increasing array of large-scale growers disillusioned with static yields and growing input costs. Will is an impressive example of a new breed of agricultural consultants who have recognised the frailties of a symptom-treating, extractive model, and are exploring a regenerative, more productive alternative.
William attended one of my UK seminars, four years ago. The science immediately resonated. He describes that initial impact:
“The message made perfect, logical sense. The concept of working with nature, rather than constant fire fighting, seemed to have a stronger scientific basis than what we had all been doing. The current model involves the ever-increasing application of chemicals, many of which have been shown to actually reduce the plant’s own ability to fight disease. The concept of building cell wall strength as a protective barrier, and buffering that barrier with the retention of wax layers on the leaf surface, seemed like common sense. Similarly, feeding the plant the exact mix of nutrients it required (based on crop monitoring), seemed like “an obvious, but widely under-used strategy”.
William then decided to host an evening seminar in the Cornwall region, and it was a measure of his credibility and agronomic skills that he was able to attract 65 of the largest vegetable and potato growers in that intensely farmed region. In fact, some of the attendees at that event reported that it was actually the first time that the cream of Cornish farming talent had ever been all together, in one room.
Following the success of that first talk, and the strength of the grower response, William agreed to co-host a 4-day Certificate in Nutrition Farming® course at Warwick University. This event was attended by several Cornish producers, including Nick Dymond and his wife, Jacqui. Twelve months later, Nick wrote me this letter to describe his experience.
This email is long, long overdue, but perhaps now is the most poignant time to contact you and say a heartfelt "thank you".
I can't believe that it was only about 12 months ago that I went (rather half heartedly if I'm honest) to an evening talk you gave, that Will organised in a pub down at Hayle in West Cornwall. Boy! am I glad that I went!! I've since described it as my "Damascus Road moment"...I guess that we all have to have one sometime. I came away excited at the prospect that there is another way. I had always been interested in the organic approach. I felt the considerable skills of some of these growers are often dismissed in our conventional farming world. However, I'd always been bothered that organic farming will never be affordable for the millions....let alone the two billion who are currently malnourished or starving.
After that first talk, I was filled with an almost evangelical zeal to talk to anyone and everyone about your approach. Everything made complete sense. I'm not academic in any way (fortunately I've got Will), yet there was a simple logic to what you were explaining, that even someone like me could grasp. So much of what you were explaining was within easy reach, and I realised that apart from living in a high disease pressure region, so much else about our soils and rotation was ripe for the Nutrition Farming approach.
I had no hesitation in signing up to the four days in Warwick University, along with several others from Cornwall. That Warwick event added all of the detail I needed to start practising the principles of Nutrition Farming. I found the course really accessible. I admittedly got a little lost in some of the more technical presentations...probably aimed more at agronomists than growers. However, there was so much invaluable information and I came away with something, from every step of the course. Here are some of the practical ideas I implemented when I got home:
We slashed our use of Glyphosate. When we are forced to use it, we are only using it at a 1 litre per hectare rate. We combine it with the suggested fulvic acid + citric acid mix. We have seen great results, with much less chemical.
We decided to not allow any of our sub-let customers to use power harrows. They are now obliged to use our minimum till methods.
We decided to take potatoes out of the rotation due their extractive nature and high fungicide requirements.
We committed to a zero chemical, vs reduced chemical, vs full chemical, wheat trial....I'm sure Will's kept you posted on the amazing results!
We have been carrying out a zero till (strip tillage) trial on Spring Barley with two different drills.
Finally, I have been spending time with other farmers to try and explain what we're doing and why we're doing it. I share your belief that Nutrition Farming is all about sharing with your fellow growers.
and so it goes on.....!
My wife Jacqui has completely got into your health and wellbeing advice. We have adopted simple changes like baking with spelt flour, rather than wheat, slashing sugar, cranking up the allotment and only eating seasonal vegetables. This has all contributed to the four of us enjoying really good health, for which we are so grateful.
Finally, I have one important question.
"How can the man in the street help the biggest challenge facing humanity today. The challenge of climate change?"
I know that there are some obvious answers ...drive less/ holiday less/LED light bulbs etc, etc. However, when it comes to the real nitty gritty of carbon sequestration, through building organic matter in soils, is it really just down to us farmers?
Graeme, the main reason I ask relates to my home region. Here in Cornwall, we have some amazing outdoor theatre companies that attract so many young people. These groups constantly try to intertwine important environmental messages into the material they perform. I would love to see your soil health/planetary health message more widely dispersed. It's easy to get farmers excited about soil health, but the general public, children...now there's a worthy challenge!
I've taken more than enough of your time. Thank you both (Moira included) for the positive changes you've helped us make.
Thanks again for everything,
Best wishes to you both
Concept Testing - The Proof is in the Paddock
Nick farms 1000 acres near Truro in Cornwall, growing arable crops and farming pigs. He has practiced minimum till for the past 8 years, growing winter wheat and barley, along with maize, grass and brassicas. He minimises disturbance with tools like a McConnel discaerator and a KRM cultivator drill.
The greatest challenge farming the “wet West” are the mildew and Septoria issues that tend to run rampant. Nick was spending £250 – 270 per hectare on chemicals alone and the yields were not justifying the increasing investment. Nick describes his situation: “We aim for a top yield of ten tonnes per hectare but we only achieve this around 15% of the time. 7.5 tonnes is break even, so we are finding it increasingly difficult to make a margin.The chemical costs keep rising and profitability is about the total cost involved in your end result”.
Nick had come to recognise that firefighting with chemistry is not sustainable. He is concerned about ongoing soil degradation and the impact of these chemicals on consumer health. A central concept in the Nutrition Farming approach involves a recognition that disease or insect pressure is never an accident. There is always a reason, and the root cause most often revolves around minerals, microbes and humus, and their intimate interplay.
There was a common sense logic in the concept of boosting plant nutrition to enhance plant resilience, so Nick teamed up with local independent agronomist, William Iliffe, to devise a 30 acre wheat trial where this ‘logic’ could be field tested.
The trial involved a Septoria resistant wheat variety called “Graham”. It was divided into chemical, biological (reduced chemicals with a nutrition focus), and zero chemical (where nutrition had replaced the chemicals). It was a big call to attempt zero chemicals in a moist region renowned for extreme fungal pressure.
In fact, the standard chemical program involved a total of 14 chemical applications during the crop cycle, including inputs like chlormequat, chlorothalonil, tebucinazol, prothioconazole, fluxapyroxad, epoxiconazole, metconazole, benzovindiflupyr and fluroxypyr. My goodness, how do you chemical blokes wrap your head around these six syllable words when placing an order, I struggled merely writing them!!
The biological/nutrition hybrid involved just 5 chemical applications dovetailed with appropriate nutrition. The zero chemical option involved the complete replacement of chemicals with prescription nutrition. The appropriate nutrition was determined by regular plant tissue testing throughout the season, combined with comprehensive soil tests, where the optimisation of ideal mineral ratios defines the action plan.
The NF Inputs
The Nutrition Farming inputs used in both the biological and the chemical-free, nutrition-based trials included BAM™ (Beneficial Anaerobic Microbes), Farm Saver® Manganese Fulvate, Dia-Life Organic™, Fast Fulvic™, Trio (CMB)™, Photo-Finish™, Triple Ten™ and Tri-Kelp™.
The total cost of the Nutrition Farming trials was restricted to £200 per hectare to provide an extra £50 – 75 profit per hectare, should the trial prove successful.
However, both Nick and Will were quick to recognise the bigger picture. When we develop a program that builds soil health, rather than compromises our core business capital (the soil), the outcome is far more profound than a single-season profit boost. Growers can expect to see ongoing improvements in every aspect of their operation, for years to come. They will increase both passion and purpose along with profitability, and they will experience more fun in their farming enterprises.
The zero chemical approach out-yielded the full chemical strategy in this trial, and this has encouraged Nick to extend the trial next year to include 200 hectares of wheat. He will grow 100 hectares of reduced chemical and 100 hectares of zero chemical wheat. He has made this call, based upon the dominant sentiment amongst fellow growers in his region. They struggle with the idea of zero chemical protection in such a disease-prone region. They feel more comfortable with the fallback option of a fusion, best-of-both-worlds approach.
The yield outcome delighted the duo. The 9.2 tonnes per hectare, achieved in the zero chemical/full nutrition plot was much higher than the pair expected. The chemical plot yielded 8.7 tonnes per hectare, but the 7% yield drop was just the beginning. In the absence of the normal growth regulators (applied to avoid lodging), the zero chemical wheat was much taller and yielded 25% more straw. There was no lodging because stem strength was boosted with copper, silicon and potassium, as part of the Nutrition Farming strategy. An Australian study has confirmed that organic matter (humus) is the single most important determinant of farming profitability. 25% more straw literally means significantly more humus, if the straw is not removed, and the appropriate biology is present for the humus creation. The biological/nutrition hybrid trial was also worthwhile, producing a yield higher than the chemical control with an obvious saving from reduced chemical inputs.
Mode of Action
The eight NF inputs used in this trial may not be familiar to all readers. Here is their rationale or mode of action:
BAM™ (Beneficial Anaerobic Microbes) – Multiple strains of Lactobacillus are combined with probiotic yeast, Purple Non Sulfur Bacteria (nitrogen-fixing, immune elicitors), fermenting fungi and Actinomycetes. This potent blend stimulates plant growth whilst converting organic matter into humus (a perfect adjunct to ensure the humus conversion of all of that extra straw!).
Dia-Life Organic™ – Silicon-rich diatomaceous earth is micronised and liquified to provide a versatile, user-friendly source of silicon, to boost stem strength, photosynthesis, plant immunity and cell strength.
Triple Ten™ – A foliar fertiliser containing over 62 ingredients, including major minerals, chelated trace minerals, numerous plant growth promotants, amino acids and a photosynthesis enhancer called triacontanol.
Trio (CMB)™ – This foliar feed features the only two major minerals that are not present in Triple Ten™, due to compatibility issues. Here, chelated calcium and magnesium are combined with a little extra boron. A Triple Ten™/Trio (CMB)™ combination, in any nutrition program, covers all bases.
Tri-Kelp™ – This synergistic combination of three seaweed varieties, in a powdered concentrate, has been shown to outperform any single species liquid for less than one third of the cost. It is foliar-applied at dilution rates of just 1 gram per litre so it is tremendously cost-effective. It can also be used as a seed treatment for less than AU$1 per hectare.
NTS Fast Fulvic™ – This fulvic acid is a high quality, proven performer to increase fertiliser response, chelate trace minerals and boost root and shoot growth. (Note: This product has been superseded by NTS Fulvic Acid Liquid™).
Photo-Finish™ – This is a second source of soluble silicon boosted with a range of plant growth promoters and natural growth hormones.
Farm Saver® Manganese Fulvate – This is an absolute essential, wherever glyphosate has been used. Manganese boosts seed formation, the waxy protective layer, photosynthesis and plant immunity. Glyphosate kills the organisms that make this mineral plant available (manganese reducing organisms), so it is important to compensate.
Take Home Message
This 30-acre Cornish trial compared a full chemical approach to a zero chemical alternative. The chemical-free option delivered an impressive 9.2 tonnes per hectare, which represented a yield increase of 500 kg per hectare over the conventional. This extra yield was achieved at a lower cost, so the combined effect was an increased profitability amounting to £150 per hectare. This is before we factor in the 25% increase in straw and the associated humus building potential.
Farmer, Nick Dymond and dynamic independent agronomist, William Iliffe, combined in this important trial to demonstrate the potential of a Nutrition Farming approach. They have sparked tremendous local interest amongst growers seeking a way to escape the hamster wheel of yield maintenance with increasing inputs, more disease issues and reducing soil fertility.
If you have any queries about the trial, William Iliffe has kindly provided his phone number and welcomes any calls: +44 7817760147. For any queries relating to NTS products, please contact NTS on +61 7 5472 9900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.