A Biological Approach to Improving Soils

May 2014

Nicole Masters is a biological farming advocate working with Bruce Nimon at Kokako Farms

Nicole Masters of Integrity Soils, wants farmers to be proactive and take a more holistic approach to managing their properties.

Many already know through observation much of what is needed to be done and just require help “putting all the pieces of the puzzle together”.

Based in Hawkes Bay, Nicole is a director of Integrity Soils and spokeswoman for the Association of Biological Farmers. She says focusing on soil health is not only good for the environment, but makes economic sense. She maintains that many animal health and weed problems could be traced back to the soil.

Farmers often don’t put enough lime on their pastures and get hung up on the pH of the soil when that has little to do with it. She says farmers could improve their soil biology by adding humic acid, fish oil or seaweed when applying fertiliser. “It’s very simple stuff and it makes a big difference.”

Nicole says often pastures are kept too short and therefore don’t develop rooting depth, which makes them susceptible to extreme weather and climate change. Without adequate biology, soils cannot act like a sponge and are more easily washed or blown away.

Nicole likens it to preventative health in humans. Instead of going to the doctor for pills, you go for a run, stop smoking and drinking and get more sleep.

“Biological soil management is not necessarily what farmers and consultants are talking about, but I think there is a growing awareness about the key role of biology and how to harness it”, she says.

Bruce Nimon at Kokako Farms recently won a soil management award at the 2014 Ballance Environmental Farm Awards ( East Coast.)

The Kokako Vineyard is situated in the Ohiti Valley in Hawkes Bay and has around 100ha of vines of mixed varieties split over two sites ranging from silt loams to heavy river gravels.  Kokako Farm also includes a livestock block and a pipfruit orchard.

Nicole started working alongside Bruce Nimon and Kokako Farms in 2006 prompting him to look at how he could move from a high input system into a system more focused on the soils.

At that time the vines required high fertiliser, trace elements, fungicide and herbicide inputs to produce a viable crop.  Some of the blocks had high vigour with poor fruit ripening and some blocks were uneven in growth and ripening, causing major headaches for the owners. There were problem weeds like mallow, nettle, prickly pear and fat hen, which they were dealing with using chemicals. The weed was a legacy of a long period of cropping on the land. The herbicide was having a marked impact on soil health, with structure-less mossy dead zones.

It seemed pretty clear to Nicole that the herbicide was a major limitation on the property, so she worked with Bruce to trial a block. Removing the permanent herbicide strip from under the vines was the single biggest shift in the grape growing system.

Once the trials showed merit, Bruce introduced biological products for vine and soil health, and began to trial other approaches including intervine plantings to build soil health and provide bio-controls.

Bruce is convinced that international markets will increasingly demand ‘zero residuals’ and although he doesn’t want to be a voice for the industry, he can see it coming. He says they basically take a soil first approach – every time they think about using a product, they try and anticipate what it is going to do to the soil. He says his costs are 25 to 30% less than before using the biological approach. Other benefits include a marked reduction in nutrient based deficiencies, less water stress, a drop in mealy bugs and an increase in worms. Bruce says challenges ahead include grape leaf roller.