The farm of invisible friends
This award-winning organic farmer may have hundreds of sheep and cattle, but what she’s really farming is millions and millions of invisible helpers.
ev Trowbridge knows exactly how many sheep and cattle she has at any given moment, but it’s the unknown quantities of livestock she farms underground that often preoccupy her thoughts.
“They’re the ones we need to nurture,” she says. “If they’re well looked after, everything else will thrive, too.”
Bev is originally from Devon in the UK. She and her husband, surgeon Dave Crabb, farm at Ahuroa. It’s near the Kaipara Coast, an hour’s drive north of Auckland and they’ve been there since 2004. But for seven years prior to that they were out at Muriwai on the west coast. When Bev outgrew that farm, she took the name with her to the new one.
The underground livestock Bev is talking about is the microbial life in her soil, and one type of micro-organism in particular – mycorrhizal fungi – the extraordinary life force which is the key to healthy, living soil. In the 13 years that she has applied biological, regenerative farming principles to Muriwai Valley Farm, the topsoil has increased in depth by around 10-20cm. It has been a deeply satisfying and inspiring experience, and one she attributes largely to this amazing fungus.
It’s in stark contrast to most farms in NZ (see page 15) where topsoil is often badly damaged or disappearing. So how do other farmers with such diminished soil grow such lush-looking grass?
“Well, think of a ‘grow bag’,” says Bev. “There’s this thin layer of sterile growing medium, liberally bolstered by a handful of chemicals, which enables the plants to grow fast and tall, but they are nutritionally deficient and have shallow root depth.
“Pastures may indeed look good, but will have poor root penetration in our compacted soils, the soils will be biologically compromised, and the nutrient content of the feed will not contain the full complement of elements needed for animal – and human – health.
“Trace elements in particular will be low or absent. Of the 118 elements that we know of, modern farming practices use only a very small handful to replenish the soils, which is why our foods are now highly depleted in life-essential minerals.”
How does one start to build living topsoil?
“First, do no harm,” Bev says with a smile. “Stop the sprays and start thinking of ways you can avoid compacting the soil. Then make sure your infrastructure is good – you’ll need good fencing to rotate your stock properly, and decent yards to look after them well.”
Bev gets her animals in to the yards as little as possible to avoid stress, and doesn’t use dogs for the same reason. But whenever she does get them in, she drenches them with a tonic she makes that includes a seaweed powder, cider vinegar, garlic and a probiotic element for gut health – no chemical drenches.
“Next, have a good look at your pasture management. This means moving stock every few days – never graze right down to the ground. Ten centimetres of grass left in the paddock is a good rule of thumb. And follow one species of animal
with another so parasites won’t build up. Monoculture of anything generally causes long-term problems.”
Bev’s multi-colour-coded whiteboard records her pasture use and is updated daily.
After years of experimenting with all sorts of animals, Bev settled on two heritage breeds of sheep, Wiltshire Horned and Arapawa – she has over 1000 – and cattle which Bev has bred especially for the land.
“The genetics of heritage breeds of sheep are naturally better equipped to deal with pests and diseases, not having been bred to depend on pharmaceutical support. And they’re smarter, which definitely makes them more fun to work with! They’re the result of thousands of years of knowledge around land and animal husbandry, knowledge which has largely become lost in the current industrial model of ‘bigger, better, faster, more.’”
The cattle Bev has bred are Red Dexters crossed with Devons. She already knew Devons well from England (they’re famous for producing Devon clotted cream), but they have NZ heritage too, having been used extensively in oxen teams for logging and ploughing in pioneer days.
But they’re often too heavy for our soils in winter. However, cross them with smaller Dexters which have bigger hooves and you give them them a lower weight ratio per hoof. Voila – less pugging.
This cross has given Bev compact, attractive cattle that are easy on the land,
They’re smarter, which definitely makes them more fun to work with!
and they have other positives too.
“Docile, hardy, good foragers, good mothers and good beef producers.”
There’s little or no information on where meat in NZ comes from and how it is reared. Bev is vehement: this degree of environmental untraceability is unacceptable and New Zealanders deserve to know how the meat they’re eating is fed and raised. In traditional agricultural models, for example, lambs are drenched monthly with multiple chemicals up to 6-12 months of age. Not a lot of your average Kiwis know this.
Some who take the trouble to find out often reel back in horror and become vegetarian or vegan.
“I think this is a bit of a cop-out,” says Bev. “What we should instead be doing as a nation is demanding organic meat, demanding that animals be treated with respect and that farming methods become less dependent on chemistry.”
A few years ago, Bev started the
Bev’s work has added 10-20cm of topsoil to her Northland farm.
The ingredients for Bev’s gut health tonic.
Bev’s whiteboard shows her farm’s pasture rotation.