A Balancing Act

“There is nothing in the whole of nature which is more important than or deserves as much attention as the soil. Truly it is the soil that makes the world a friendly environment for mankind. It is the soil which nourishes and provides for the whole of nature; the whole of creation depends upon the soil which is the ultimate foundation of our existence” – Friedrich Albert Fallou (1862)

Gerry Brady, organic dairy farmer, reads the above quote from one of his many organic farming books as we sit down to discuss earthworms and how he has discovered their essential role on his farm.

A popular misconception is that people farmed organically before the introduction of artificial fertilisers but without the same level of production. However, people were farming with less education and knowledge of grassland management, crop rotation and best farming practices. People weren’t really farming organically. To farm organically you must be educated in organic farming practices. One needs to understand the science of how and why things grow.

Worm cast with hole

First rule is a healthy population of earthworms. Gerry found a leaving certificate biology book that had a chapter in it on the earthworm. There he found six key points that changed the way he started thinking about organic farming.

  • Their burrowing action improves aeration which allows oxygen to diffuse down to the roots and organisms in the soil
  • Their burrowing also improves drainage which prevents soils becoming waterlogged
  • Burrowing loosens the soil and allows easier penetration of plant roots
  • They help mix the soil bringing nutrient rich soil from lower levels to the surface (casts) and take leaves down into the soil
  • They increase the organic content of the soil by egesting partly digested leaves
  • Their digestive secretions help keep the pH of the soil neutral – optimum pH for plants

After 30 or 40 years of putting fertilisers onto his land, the earthworm population and clover had disappeared. It took a good few years of “coaxing” to build the population back up. On healthy grassland the estimated number of earthworms per acre in the soil is 8.6 million (The Living Soil, Lady Eve Balfour). But, for this to occur, you must work with nature.

Earthworms are put under too much pressure. Modern farming practices encourage farmers to take soil samples. Then, if the pH is too low, lime is put down. This can have as much impact on the earthworms as supplementary nitrogen. Spreading lime causes a rapid change in pH in the soil. This leaches away over time resulting again in an acidic soil – then more lime. A soil with a frequently changing pH will not support a vigorous earthworm population. Nature works slowly.

Cattle grazing

It is important to understand how earthworms work. They digest and breakdown material which is acidic, such as rotten vegetation, leaves and grass. They break down this acidic material and neutralise the soil as they do so with their digestive secretions. Every time lime is put down this delicate balance is upset. Yes, earthworms thrive in a neutral soil but this neutral environment must come from their own slow, steady work.

The only way to farm organically is to help the worm population; by keeping the ground dry, never poaching the ground (letting cows out when it’s too wet), only ploughing on rare occasions – once every 5 or even 10 years should be enough or when there is a new crop to be put in. Ploughing does a lot of damage, disrupting the environment they are creating for themselves. It’s also very important to ensure there’s plenty of food for them to eat. Regular toppng and letting the cattle out to graze ensures this.

And what do you get in return for ensuring happy and content earthworms? The channels they create when burrowing in soil improve drainage, aeration and allow plant roots to go to deeper soil. They mix soil constituents and have a significant contribution to the enrichment of nutrients and humus in topsoil in the form of casts – a mixture of dead material and subsoil they digest and secrete. This is highly nutritious. In fact, it is estimated that an active worm population can process as much as 40 tonnes per hectare of these casts in one year (Organic Farming, Nicolas Lampkin). How much would you pay for a few tonnes of organic topsoil?

It took Gerry 10 years to get the various elements of his farm balanced – and now grass is growing just as it was when he was putting out fertiliser and lime – without the associated costs. He says,

“every time you stick your nose in you’re probably doing more harm than good. Remember that trying to “fix” something like the pH or nitrogen will affect something else. Learn how nature works, be patient and allow all the elements to work together.”


Organic Farming, Nicolas Lampkin, Farming Press, United Kingdom, 1990,

The Living Soil, Lady Eve Balfour, Faber and Faber, Great Britain, 1943, Republication featuring original text in 2006 by the Soil Association

Irish Sugar Industry – Sweet or Sour?

Royal Irish Beet-Root Sugar Factory in Mountmellick was founded in 1851 but failed after 10 years. It couldn’t replace the substantial imports that were already coming into Ireland. However, the establishment of the Irish Sugar Manufacturing Company in Carlow in 1926 was the beginning of an 80 year industry.

In 2006 the Irish sugar industry came to an end after the EU made decisions to end sugar production in the least efficient countries. The closure of the sugar factory in Carlow resulted in a loss of 320 jobs in the area.

Sugar prices soared after the reforms and there have been growing calls for Ireland to re-enter the sector. A report by the European Court of Auditors in 2010 found the closure of the factory had been needless because the business was profitable at the time.

Beet Ireland are now working to re-introduce the industry into Ireland.

Irish sugar industry - sweet or sour?

Irish sugar industry – sweet or sour?

The Urban Farmer – Craze or Future Trend?

Urban Farmers - craze or future trend?

Urban Farmers – craze or future trend?

The majority of the world’s population lives in a city, and this proportion continues to grow. One hundred years ago, 2 out of every 10 people lived in an urban area. By 1990, nearly 40% of the global population lived in a city, in 2010, more than half of all people lived in an urban area. It is predicted that by 2030, 6 out of every 10 people will live in a city, and by 2050, this will increase to 7 out of 10 people  (www.who.int).  This trend of urbanisation of course means masses of individuals in cities depending on fewer and fewer people to grow their food.

The interest in producing your own food and particularly growing your own fruit and vegetables is an area that has gained a lot of interest in the last few years. With people becoming more health conscious, aware of what they eat, interested in organic and so forth it makes sense to grow it yourself. Of course, for the growing number of urbanites across the globe, growing a ‘traditional’ vegetable garden isn’t possible.

For those people there are ‘Windowfarms’. This is a pretty nifty idea that comes from Britta Riley in the US, that allows city dwellers to grow their own fruit, vegetables and herbs. Set up in 2009, it has already gained significant growth with 40,000 members in their online community.

A Windowfarm is a vegetable garden on your windowsill. To maximise space it’s vertical, it allows plants to make the most of natural light and the climate is controlled through control of your living space. What is different is that the plants are grown in organic “liquid soil”.  This liquid soil is water with the necessary nutrients which is then pumped from a reservoir into each of the plant bottles. Water that is not used is collected again at the base which gets distributed again to the plants.

It’s a great idea for “foodies” or just people who want to have some fresh vegetables at hand when doing their cooking. Of course, for people living in apartments it’s a great way to grow food in a limited space. Some of the recommended plants on the Windowfarms.org website are kale, chard, strawberries, dill, lettuce or basil. Obviously, root vegetables or wheat are not going to work!

Windowfarms initially began as an experiment in environmental solutions which quickly turning into a social enterprise that has received a lot of publicity and funding. Their mission is “healthier people and a healthier planet” and it’s hard to argue with that. Watch Britta Riley on Ted Talks below talking about her Windowfarms, where she got her idea and how it has developed since it’s conception. It’s an interesting story!

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Have you got what it takes to be a Tweeting Farmer?

Do you have what it takes


We are looking for farming enthusiasts that can share what it means to be an Irish farmer!

The ups and downs, the challenges and positive experiences, the good days and the bad.

Using Twitter, we want to focus on a farmers daily routine to showcase what it means to be a farmer in 2013 and also provide an opportunity for the wider community (rural and urban) to really learn about the day to day workings of an Irish farm.


Sound interesting? This is what we’re looking for…

  • We would preferably like to get full time farmers
  • We need farmers from different sectors – dairy, beef, sheep, pig, chicken, tillage
  • You can be on Twitter already or new to it – we’ll give you guidelines and get you started
  • We need someone that can commit to at least 5 tweets a day (give or take) from June 1st to August 31st

Once it gets started the Twitter streams will be set up on the Farmers Feed Families website with a profile of each of our Tweeting Farmers!

Want to get involved?

Email us farmersfeedfamiliesireland [@] gmail.com or go to our website at www.farmersfeedfamilies.ie or you can find more information on our Facebook and Twitter.

Different milk from different cows?

And other interesting dairy facts!

Irish dairy facts

Facts about Irish dairy