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.

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