Soil: The Magic Ingredient

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Issue 312
January/February 2019
Courage

Ethical Living

Soil: The Magic Ingredient
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Cover: Anna and Elena Balbusso www.balbusso.com

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Satish Kumar is impressed by a musician-farmer’s recipe for bread.

Photograph by Sebastien Vaissiere

Photograph by Sebastien Vaissiere

Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it, and it will grow our food, our fuel, and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it, and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it. – Atharva Veda (Sanskrit scripture)

My friend Michael Watt once asked me, “Have you heard of Andy Cato?”

I had heard of the musician Andy Cato, of Groove Armada fame, but I did not know that he is also, as Michael informed me, one of the most radical and innovative farmers in France. I soon discovered that he and Michael are good friends, and during our conversation we decided to visit his 100-hectare farm, called Naroques, which is located near the picturesque town of Auch, in south-west France.

The Cato family welcomed us with glasses of delicious French wine and supremely tasty sourdough bread made with wheat grown, milled and baked on the farm. I have rarely savoured such superb bread, and I asked for the recipe.

“The secret is good soil. Great food comes from great soil,” Andy said. “Our life depends on the few inches of the earth we call topsoil. Here we take good care of the soil, so we get good bread.”

“There must be something more to your bread than just the good soil,” I insisted.

“The wheat I grow is not ordinary hybrid wheat, full of gluten and produced with huge amounts of artificial fertiliser and pesticides,” revealed Andy. “I use the original or ancient variety that was grown in this area for no one knows how long – perhaps hundreds, if not thousands of years. Unfortunately, it is now almost extinct.”

“How did you manage to find the original variety of wheat?” I asked.

“I searched for a long time, but it wasn’t easy. The ancient seeds are no longer for sale – and in fact, according to EU rules, the sale of old varieties is illegal – but I didn’t give up my quest. I kept asking, particularly the old farmers, about the original variety of seeds. One day I was visiting a farm machinery museum run by a retired farmer; he told me to go and see an even older friend of his who, until 30 years ago, made bread with the distinctive, original and local wheat variety. Full of anticipation and excitement I visited this 80-year-old farmer and legendary baker. He took me to his old grain silo to see if there were any seeds still there. When I climbed in, I found a thin layer of wheat seeds. No one knew how old the variety was, but I was filled with joy. I brought the seeds home and sowed them on a small patch of land. To my utter delight they grew. I saved all the crop as seeds and slowly but surely increased the amount. Now I am completely free of hybrid wheat.” And now, Andy and his colleague Simon bake 200 to 300 loaves of bread a day to supply a number of schools as well as their shop in the town of Auch.

Inspired by an Amish community in Pennsylvania, Andy grows wheat with the help of horses rather than using tractors and combine harvesters; he believes that heavy machinery compacts and damages the soil and harms the living organisms in it. I was delighted to see these strong and sturdy horses as companions to Andy and his fellow cultivators.

The horses help to sow the seeds and harvest the crops, but Andy does not plough the land. He practises pasture cropping, a system in which the farm is covered in perennial pasture under which the soil is constantly improving and a vast number of beneficial organisms are thriving.

“Mess with the soil as little as possible and certainly never turn it upside down,” said Andy.

It was a complete surprise to me to learn that it is possible to farm 100 hectares of land and grow vast quantities of wheat without ploughing the land or turning the soil; the visionary author Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote The One-Straw Revolution and also inspired Andy, must be happy and smiling in his grave.

The bread we had been relishing was the product of a true partnership between the land, the earth organisms, horses and humans, living and working in harmony. The secret of Andy’s bread is the good soil he calls “the magic machine”. Soil is the source of all life on Earth. Take care of the soil, and the soil will take care of everything else.

The Naroques farm is a superb example of farming without chemical fertilisers, pesticides or the use of fossil fuel. There was no pollution, no waste and no emissions of greenhouse gases. I have visited a number of organic farms around the world, but what Andy is doing is more than organic: it is truly natural farming, totally free of the industrial methods of factory farming and agribusiness. If civilisation is to survive for a long time, this is the model for healthy, ecological and sustainable ways of food production.

“But what about the sceptics living in the cities?” I asked Andy, “They will say that all this is very idealistic, and that we cannot feed the world with this kind of natural farming.”

Andy replied, “There is no lack of food in the world. Half of the food in our supermarkets, in restaurants and even in our homes is thrown away. We don’t need more food. We need real food made from strong plants that is both nourishing and nutritious. Real food is less about weight, and more about nutrition. When food is nutritious we need less of it. Much of our bread is made with hybrid wheat, causing gluten allergies, obesity and ill health. It is not merely the quantity of food that matters, but also the quality, and that requires quality of soil and a love of the land. Farming has to be organised on a human scale. Small-scale farming feeds 70% of the world, so it’s something we must celebrate. Many more people need to return to the earth and engage in food production to ensure the quality of our food.”

Our visit to the farm was full of surprises, realistic hopes and pure pleasure. Thanks to my friend Michael, I had met Andy, the musician-farmer. If Andy can have two vocations, why can’t we all learn from that and combine part-time farming with other kinds of work?

For more information: therealfoodfight.uk/la-ferme-a-naroques. See Andy Cato's recipe for 'slow' bread.

Satish Kumar is the author of Soil, Soul, Society.

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