View from the Collective: Reflections on the Decision "Should we add Nitrogen fertiliser?"

It’s been an eventful time in the #OurField collective! On 1st June, 31 OurFielders voted on whether to apply artificial nitrogen to the field or not. With a 75% voting, it was the largest voting turnout so far.

 

Previous to this, the only decisions made have been related to what the collective would like to grow - which turned out to be quite a ride in itself! However, to many of the collective, this decision felt especially important as it made the first decision between whether the field would be organically grown or not, and also may have a big impact on the success of the crop.

 

Two months ago John first mentioned the need to decide whether the collective wants to apply nitrogen fertiliser or not. Interestingly, this decision would also be linked to whether to spray fungicides or plant growth regulators - the link being that if we don’t add nitrogen, we probably won’t need the other two either.

 

The collective had to weigh up the complex benefits and risks of adding nitrogen or not. Adding N could lead to a higher probability of successful and healthy growth, giving the crop a good start with a boost of nitrogen. Multiple collective members spoke up around the potential of creating a healthier soil in the long-run, and moving away from a dependence on artificial fertilisers, if the decision was made to go without artificial N.

 

The decision was also compounded by an added angle of information; collective member Daniel Kindred independently arranged for a Soil Health Test to be done by NRM laboratories, with John collecting 20 samples from across the #OurField field. The results of the test can be found as a PDF on the public Loomio thread.

 

According to John’s read of the soil test, the field has a fair bit of available nitrogen as it is, and enough of other essential nutrients to grow the crop. However, in Daniel’s point of view, the information about nitrogen from the test was limited - a deeper soil sample (60cm) and lab measurements would be required to have an accurate result.

 

At the same time, conversations with John’s agronomist, Richard, was suggesting something different: “I was talking to Richard the agronomist about this yesterday and his thoughts were that if we don’t apply any, we’ll have a very disappointing harvest.” Richard suggested adding 50kg/ha urea to the field to give the crop extra ‘oomph’ and also help the spelt ‘grow away from weeds’, which were also starting to appear - less than the usual 100-150kg/ha usually applied to other spring crops on John’s farm.

 

The decision itself was very close - almost 50/50 - and the collective requested an extension of time, as many wanted to do more research on the possible downfalls of adding nitrogen to the field. At first, there were a flurry of ‘yes’ votes - supporting Richard’s suggestion of 50kg/ha urea.

 

However, as the decision proceeded, other voices emerged from the mix - voicing concerns of artificial nitrogen negating the beneficial effects of the undersown clover,  and the risk of the fertiliser supporting a more aggressive competition by the weeds. Others voiced the risk of artificial nitrogen increasing the risk of ‘lodging’ as spelt tends to be a tall crop. Lodging is when a crop buckles under its own weight, leading it to fall over, and making it difficult to harvest mechanically. One organic permaculture farmer also explained that the fertiliser would likely increase the crop venerability to disease down the line.

 

For some members of the collective, the decision came down to one of experimentation and ‘trying something new’ vs profit. Others felt that the decision was really about whether to prioritise the long-term health of the soil, and the possible transition for John’s farm to one with no chemical inputs. The systemic problems around the use of artificial nitrogen was also weighed in the mix.

 

One member commented: “So what if the crop won’t maximise the profit? Next year it will. And maybe we will have a great crop…” - a tense decision indeed, where personal values were coming into play! The general sense from the collective was that the discussion proved hugely helpful and informative - and with a spirit of collaboration and experimentation all views were welcomed.

 

In the end, the collective majority voted against adding nitrogen fertiliser (16 against, and 14 for, with one abstaining) - thereby voting for the riskier option in the name of experimentation, long-term soil health, and other reasons listed above.

 

Below we are lucky enough to have an interview with Christine Lewis and Matteo De Vos, two #OurFieldWeston members from both sides of the decision! Christine voted ‘for’ adding nitrogen, while Matteo voted against. Scroll down to hear a bit more about what the decision was like for them, and a larger reflection on the #OurField experience in general!

 

 

How have you found the decision-making process of OurField?

Christine Lewis (CL): Actually quite easy to come to a decision on how to vote but then quickly realising that I just don't know enough.

Matteo De Vos (MDV): It has been interesting to be confronted with a clear Yes/No decision-making process, especially when I usually position myself more or less in the middle; I'm usually sympathetic to both sides of the argument. You have to accept however that farming is ultimately about taking calculated risks and making decisions, not about indefinite contemplation and reflection. The decision-making process in a way is a reflection of that: at a certain moment in time, you have to decide.

 

Has it felt like a learning process at all?

CL: Definitely. I didn't realise how much I didn't know. The photo of the three containers of Spelt on the truck suddenly showed me the scale of the task and the importance of getting things right. All that effort to find Spring Spelt and we could make a bad decision that ruins it.

MDV: Definitely - with a steep learning curve. In particular at the beginning, there was a lot of new information to digest from the others. Most members in the group are much more informed than I am on different aspects of farming, and so it has been a bit of a game of catch-up.

 

How easy was it to answer the question about whether we should add Nitrogen to the field?  

CL: Very easy at first but then I had some doubts, I voted yes as I think nutrients are important but I worry I don't know enough. I looked at things from all sides but didn't change my vote more influenced by the wonderful display of roses I have having fed them this year so adding nutrients seems to be important. Nitrogen-fixation seems to be the best way forward in the longer term

MDV: More difficult the longer I waited. There were strong arguments on either side of the aisle. I voted 20 minutes before the deadline. The votes were practically split down the middle.

  

Looking at comments from others as they voted, did you reconsider at any time?  

CL: The vote on adding Nitrogen fertiliser or not really brought out the value of having a community approach to this. The comments really made me think hard about other things I hadn't considered. I am happy with the result which was close because I was close to changing my mind, a bit more time to talk with others may have done it.

MDV: I was certainly swayed, but I never changed my vote.

 

What are the risks and benefits you considered?

CL: Benefits first, to give the crop a good start and it felt we were late in planting and the weather had been dry. I didn't think there were any risks until I read other viewpoints. On the whole I think the benefits outweigh any risks. 

MDV: The risks: not using fertiliser may, at least in the short-run, lead to a lower yield. I was particularly concerned that such a result would then discourage any future experimentation without fertiliser, and that we would send out the wrong message to future projects.
Benefits: healthier soil over the long-run, more sustainable and in-line with being experimental / trying something different. A move away from dependence on nitrogen fertilizer 

 

Now that the decision has been made not to add Nitrogen, how do you feel?

CL:I feel okay about it as we agreed before we started that vote outcome must be accepted.  If the crop starts to struggle we will need to accept it could be because of this decision but there will be no blame. It was good to get the soil test results in advance which to me has reduced the risk a bit so what will be will be, I think the questions on pesticides still to come will be harder for me.

MDV: I feel confident and hopeful. It's exciting and refreshing to try something new and different from the norm.

 

How different was this vote to the previous vote on what crop to grow?

CL: It was a harder question because I would be happy with any crop, with this decision we are starting to influence the outcome of the crop.

MDV: I feel that the consequences of this decision could be much more significant. The first decision helped give the project a bit of an identity, a face (or crop) to a name. The second decision could have a big impact on the end-result of our experiment.

 

Has the OurField project met your expectations?

CL: Yes I think so, it has been great to meet so many lovely and interesting people. Great to find an area I can learn more about and to think about food chains from a farming perspective. It has put a focus for me on wasting less now I now more about the effort needed to grow crops.

MDV: Yes. It's a shame I live so far away (Paris!), but at the same time exciting that such a diverse group of people can come together and make important decisions on how we grow our food. I'd like to see OurField spread beyond the UK eventually.

 

Is there anything you would like to be different?

CL: More people expressing their views earlier on Loomio would help. Would be great to know what decisions we are going to face in case it influences previous ones.

MDV: Participation from more members of the group. We have strong participation from a core group of individuals, which is great, but it would be helpful to hear from everyone.

 

Any lessons learned?  

CL: It's great to be involved. I need to spend more time researching. I should explain my views in much more detail which means I need to give it more time.

MDV: Many. Just the decision-making process of farming alone can take a lot of time / demands a lot of research. Doing the actual work behind the decisions must be a whole other ballgame. I'm looking forward to visiting the farm and meeting John and the team behind the decisions we're collectively taking.  

 

If you'd like to follow the live decision-making process over on Loomio, head over here.

Phoebe Tickell