Jim O'Gorman's methods may be questioned by many, but one only has to look at the quality of the soil on his Kakanui property, and the crops it produces, to realise he knows what he's doing, and he's doing it right.
A leading figure in New Zealand’s organic movement, Jim runs his ‘one man’ micro farm at Kakanui without the help of electricity, or any machinery.
Known by many as the ‘Dirt Doctor’, Jim believes farmers today rely too heavily on chemicals to ‘fix’ problems with their soil, and says their focus should be on biology not science when they are looking for ways to improve it.
Jim says he was given the name by a local Brussels sprout grower who had difficulty with a hectare or so of what should have been productive soil. “I helped him use biology to fix the problem, and his response was that I had healed the soil and he would call me the Dirt Doctor from then on. The name stuck. The name does fit however, as healthy soil instead of dead dirt is the aim of the processes.”
Jim bought his half-hectare property at Kakanui (North Otago) twenty years ago to establish a School of Environmental Recovery.
An agricultural scientist with environmental concerns, he says the land, which was covered in California thistle, was the worst piece of land he could buy.
The property, which had previously been used for intensive horticulture for two generations, had been cropped almost continuously for more than thirty years, firstly in brassica and finally narcissi.
During that time, prior to Jim buying it, standard fertiliser (e.g. Nitrophosca Blue) and chemical applications, (including DDT and the Triazine family of herbicide, especially Symazine) had been applied for disease and pest control.
Neighbours described to Jim how prior to the narcissi harvest, the land was sprayed to “bare brown dead”. A stream of brown was said to flow out of the gate whenever it rained.
Jim says the initial impression was that the land was very dry, lacked stable hummus and was packed and hard. A field test revealed no worms in evidence and water took more than 24 hours to drain away in test holes. A machinery-created hardpan was evident at approximately 15–20cm depth throughout the property.
In a paper Jim presented at a conference at Lincoln University in 2007, he describes the methods taken to remedy the state of the soil so it could be turned into a viable self-sustaining organic production unit within ten years, by using microbiological husbandry and effective weed management.
It was decided to create raised beds that are 750mm wide and approximately 15m long to suit tools he would use. Using what is called “the double dig” process, the topsoil was broken open with minimum turning, and pulled aside to reveal the subsoil, which was then broken open. The next section of topsoil was then broken open and dragged over the top of the open subsoil, repeating the process and forming a shoulder-width bed.
This method, Jim says, increased the aeration of the soil and broke through the hardpan, increasing the amount of soil available to crop roots, as well as forming paths between the beds to avoid compaction. With the beds formed, they were then covered with mature compost. The sides of the beds were then drawn up to mix the compost with the top few centimetres of topsoil.
The beds were then planted in the second season and crops were left to grow with a weed burden until the optimum time to weed. It was through using this method, and using green waste (including weeds) as compost, that Jim eventually turned what was an unproductive piece of land into fertile soil with good depth and water retention that it previously lacked.
Today Jim tries to have 1,000 metres of bed under production at any one time.
“I plant so the leaves of the mature crop will be touching other crop plants, this reduces weeding. There are no machines used, not even a lawnmower, everything is done by hand. This is a part of the design and intent to develop concepts that can be effective without machinery, in lesser resourced situations.”
Jim has designed his small farm around the idea that any green waste should be dug back into the soil, so weeds effectively become a compost crop that you are growing at the same time as your vegetable crops.
Although the soil at Kakanui was originally badly damaged, Jim has proven that with the right approach it can be turned around and eventually made productive.
Thanks to his many years spent researching ways of using microbiology to help recover damaged soil, Jim is a well known and respected figure in organic circles, and his produce is sought after because of the flavours produced by the Kakanui soil.
So delicious is his produce, two years ago he was asked if he could provide some for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to Government House, the fourth time he had supplied produce to members of the royal family.
Today, working alone on his property, Jim continues to monitor what is happening in his soil, taking samples and observing improvements or changes.
Until recently, few people understood the important role the microbiology of our soil plays in plant productivity. It’s thanks to people like Jim O’Gorman and his biological approach to gardening that this is now changing.