Using local resources to battle degrading soil

Understanding soil issues and looking for solutions using local resources of smallholder farmers in India
Using local resources to battle degrading soil

Rubén Borge, founder of RockinSoils, works to build fertile living soils by working with communities and using local resources in order to build resilient farming ecosystems. He shares his view on loss of soil fertility and explains what the actual problems mean, and what should be done to tackle these issues.

There are two identified problems regarding soil in the sugar cane production in India. The first is hardening of soil and the second is loss of soil fertility.

Understanding the problems

There is need to understand these two problems, starting with hardening of soil, which intertwines with loss of soil fertility. Hardening of soil tells us that levels of organic matter in the soil are too low and should actually be raised. In addition: chemical substances, but also heavy machinery (tractors, for example) cause compaction of the soil. The use over time of agrochemicals can often lead to a low pH value in the soil, causing nutrient deficiency. Overall, the soil loses its structure and needs soil life, organic matter and minerals to regain it again.

What is more, India knows an intense rainy season in which a lot of water falls in a short period of time, which destroys the soil structure and rinses it off immediately. In a 'broken' soil without organic matter, the root of a crop cannot ground. The biology is not active, which means that plant nutrients trapped in organic matter and minerals are not released and the root therefore receives no nutrients. The plant then becomes purely dependent on fertilization, which is not conducive to soil life. Chemical products reduce the activity of soil life and thus stop/delay the biological cycle in the soil. This all affects the fertility of the soil.

What could help?

In order to implement a structural change, it is important to set up a cultivation plan in which a farmer not only grows sugar cane, but also other crops with, for example, deeper roots in order to get through the hard soil. Changes can be accelerated by regular application of organic amendments, such as fermented manures, composts or biofertilizers that feed the plant and stimulate soil biological processes. The farmer can then see for him-/herself whether he/she likes soil management without chemical inputs. It should be remembered that repairing a very broken soil is not easy. That takes time. Diversification of crops helps to spread risks and builds a more resilient farm. This could lead to the needed cultural change regarding soil management.

Moreover, the loss of nutrients should be turned around. This could be done by farmers looking around to see what carries nutrients in their surroundings. At the farms, organic substances are present in several forms: weeds, residual flows (crop residues), organic waste, animal manure, food residues from fish and chicken. All of these products carry nutrients that can be used for the soil in a fermentation process. Minerals of rock powders are dissolved by soil microbes and transformed in plant nutrients. Making the farmer in essence self-reliant and not depending on external sources. Some farmers will have to buy organic fertilizers, but it is especially important to look around for nutrients, which are often found in nature. 

Plants refuses, manure and minerals can be mixed in right proportions, when they are kept moist and aerated living micro-organisms soon start to ferment producing rich compost. This compost improves the agricultural land. There are many types of compost depending on the ingredients used, the microbes involved in the fermentation and the time of fermentation. This meant that micro-organism grow in which nutrients are stored. Nitrogen, an important nutrient, is part of the micro-organism’s bodies. When these micro-organisms die, the nutrients slowly release for crops. This means that the bounded nitrogen is now, as well as other nutrients, ready to be used by growing crops. This process takes several months, depending on the soil and the conditions. The rhythm of nutrient release differs by compost type and should match the crop that is being grown. For example, tomatoes need fast release as they yield relatively fast. Sugar cane on the other hand needs medium release time, as sugar cane is a crop that grows for about eight to twelve months.

To reach out to Ruben, see his website

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