Thomas Fouhy Building Soil with a Stockless, Min-till, Polyculture
Admittedly, being a grassland farmer from the Northwest, my grasp of arable farming is basic. When I left Thomas Fouhy’s farm, I was both enlightened and confused in equal measure – it took me days to process the sheer breadth of information he shared.
My notes were a useless page of random words scribbled as I tried and failed to keep pace with Tom’s galloping delivery interspersed with his razor-sharp Corkonian wit! He farms part-time on 84 acres of dry loamy soil in what he playfully describes as a “high spot in the bottom” of the Blackwater valley in Co. Cork.
What I did know for sure after leaving this farm was that I had seen something inspiring. For a start, the crops resonated with vitality and the soil looked and smelled incredible. The farm is in its seventh year of full symbol organic production. Although the land is geologically ideal, when converted, the ground was “virtually sterile”. The organic-matter was at rock bottom, and the soil was acidic after years of conventional sugar beet production. Tom says “the only life in the soil was the slugs”. His first task was to raise the pH to a healthy 6.2 - 6.4 with applications of lime over the first few years. Since then he feels that his farming practises are keeping the soil balanced, and although he doesn’t rule them out, he hopes not to need much in the way of mineral amendments going forward.
We set out to walk the fields armed with a digging fork. At opportune moments, Tom thrust the fork into the fertile ground to proudly show me the deep roots with their surfaces coated in a rhizosheath of soil interspersed with white strands of mycorrhizal fungi.
First, we looked at dense polyculture sowing of many crops on a small area adjacent to his house (where a less productive person might have sown a lawn). He listed the plant species in the thigh-high crop - crimson clover, soybean, lupin, triticale, oats, and linseed. It was sown just seven weeks earlier, and he waited until I asked with confusion... “What’s your plan for this?” This, he told me with an excited grin, was an experiment to grow a protein-rich standing polyculture formulated to be rotationally grazed by free-ranging pigs! If it works, he thinks this mix could be grown to this stage twice in the growing season and then followed with a winter cover and root-crop mix. So, in theory, the pigs would be rotated over the land three times annually without any purchased feed.
The innovation doesn’t stop there; Tom’s farm is a stockless, min-till, organic operation with a ten-year rotation of spring-sown crops which include cereals, speciality oilseed and legume crops. After the cash crops are harvested, a diverse cover crop (carefully tailored to ‘mop up’ excess nutrients from the previous and prepare for a future cash crop) is sown to protect the soil and build more fertility over the autumn and winter.
Red clover is currently grown as the primary fertility building break-crop. Tom intends to experiment with phasing out the non-profitable period of the ‘break crop’, opting instead to increase the integration of clovers into the cash crops. The idea is to over-sow clovers, approximately six weeks post the cash crop emergence so that the clover is well established in the growing season, yet not competing with the main cash crop as it gets established. Other fertility building measures include returning the carbon-rich crop residues to the soil and growing grain lupins as the legume component of the rotation. All these practises have enhanced the organic matter, soil structure and biological activity in the ground.
Tom was keen to communicate that the organic arable sector in Ireland has much more scope than what is currently being explored. He is trialling crops all the time to make the farm as profitable as possible. What makes his farm so exciting is the sheer diversity of crops in the rotation. Lupins and linseed are his flagship species. He had trialled five varieties of lupin before he found a variety of blue lupins that work well on his farm. Lupins are a fantastic protein crop that is shockingly underutilised; it has around 32% protein, and unlike beans or soy (which contain toxins that require cooking before feeding), lupins can be fed raw to both monogastrics and ruminants at any rate. He also noted that the residue from the lupins promotes a tremendous growth of fungal mycelium, which highlights the importance of this crop as a crucial part of his soil enrichment program.
Linseed is a tricky crop to harvest due to the fibre strength of the stalks. Again, Tom has overcome this by trialling varieties and experimenting with plant spacing and the combine harvester set-up. This year he is growing a golden linseed variety called Marmalade. Linseed yields just over a tonne per acre and is exceptionally profitable, making €1000 - €1200 per tonne with ready markets in Ireland, the UK and Europe. The linseed residue (flax) is baled as it does not break down fast enough on the soil surface, and it hinders min-till and sowing operations for the following crop. These flax bales are traded with a local livestock farmer for farmyard manure which is composted (as per organic regulations) for a minimum of three months before spreading.
Both lupins and linseed play a vital role in the farm’s fertility program as they are dynamic accumulators of mineral phosphorus which is generally locked-up in the soil. The soil microbial symbionts of both these plants deliver the phosphorus to the root zone in exchange for the plant’s root exudates. As the breakdown of the root occurs in the soil, the phosphorus then becomes available for the next crop.
The experiments continue this year with an area of lentils grown as a combi crop with the linseed. The lentils, a Mediterranean legume, are a notoriously difficult crop to harvest and have never been grown widely on a large scale in Ireland. Still, it seems, such a challenge is an invitation to Thomas Fouhy! Tom trusted that the linseed would create a scaffold for the lentils to grow on, which will keep them off the ground. Now all that is needed is a warm, dry autumn to ripen them for harvest.
Other crops in the rotation include wheat, oats (for Flahavans), triticale, rye, buckwheat and sunflowers. The sunflowers are handpicked and donated to Marymount University Hospital & Hospice. Those not picked are often allowed to ripen and harvested with the combine harvester to save the seed, which is used in some of the cover-crop mixtures and for the following year’s sunflower crop. The wheat varieties are always milling types as Tom has a passion for bread and has future hopes to develop an on-farm business – watch this space! Growing wheat with the high protein required for yeast bread has always been a challenge in Ireland. One idea Tom is exploring is adding a percentage of Red wheat (which is a variety of low yield but very high protein) into the sowing mix so that the resulting milled flour will reach the desired protein content.
Min-till is a non-inversion shallow method of tillage, using disc harrows to terminate the cover crop and the stale seedbed method to prepare the soil for sowing. The surface tilling stimulates biogeologic chemical processes which are governed by soil microorganisms. In simple terms, it mixes all the carbon/plant residue with the soil to promote its breakdown while creating a feast for the soil biology which in turn releases nutrients in a plant-available form for the following crop.
Weed management begins with the stale seedbed – after the first pass with the disc-harrow, the soil is left to rest for days or weeks to allow any weed seeds to germinate. When conditions are optimal, the field is then harrowed again to kill germinating weeds at their most vulnerable and further improve the tilth. This process may be repeated several times, depending on conditions and timing. The last pass before sowing is generally made with a Lemken Smaragd, which is a non-inversion cultivator that rips any compaction or pan that may be caused by the discs.
Tom prefers non-powered machines as they are easier to maintain and “tinker with” and less likely to do soil damage. Currently, part of his sowing and harvesting are done by a contractor, but he plans to buy his own seed drill so he can have more control over crop spacing. Another advantage will be that he can synchronise the width and function of all his implements and practise Control-Traffic-Farming. CTF is a system which confines all machinery loads to permanent in-field traffic lanes which protects the seedbed by reducing the area of soil compaction.
Comb-harrows are used to weed crops in their early vegetative stage. Later in the season, a very clever machine called a ‘Weed-Surfer’ is used to top or mow the flower heads from weeds that grow above the canopy of the crop. Other strategies include taking advantage of the allelopathic nature of oats. In the fields where the niche crops are growing, a lot of the crop could be lost in the headlands. To stop edge weeds encroaching and add to the plant diversity in the field, Tom will often plant oats in these headlands. They will be harvested first and fully utilise the acreage, giving an additional crop and clear headlands to allow precision harvesting of the valuable niche crop.
Seed saving is practised where the opportunity arises; Tom has combine-harvested buckwheat, red clover, rye, triticale and sunflowers for the seed to use in his cover crop mixes. Cover crop seed is costly to buy so any saving is welcome.
As arable operations go, Tom’s farm is relatively small and this factor motivated him to convert to organic production and is why he focuses on niche, high-value crops; he needs to make every acre count and to be profitable. Tom farms part-time with help from his son Tomás and support from the rest of the family. They consider their off-farm incomes as a privilege that allows them to be brave and radical in their thinking when it comes to “trying things and thinking outside the box on the farming operation”.
Organic Trust commend the innovative work they do in the form of grassroots, on-farm research which is so valuable and inspirational to the organic sector.