This project brings desert soil to life

30.06.2015 By:

[Pius Floris, soil doctor, brings desert soil to life]
Erosion and drought are making more and more land unusable for agriculture. Like in Spain, for example. In the European subsidised LIFE project “OPERATION CO2”  Dutchman Pius Floris and his team of agronomists and other experts are turning around an abandoned field into one that can be used for agriculture – without irrigation, simply with the aid of micro-organisms. “This just blows me away!” 

“Look, nothing grows here. Absolutely nothing. Not even weeds.” Pius Floris picks up a stone from the depleted soil. There’s a whole stack of them lying here in the blazing sun. They have been brought to the surface as wind and rain have washed away more and more fertile soil. About 20 cm of soft soil remains, with nothing but hard, stony ground underneath.

Agriculture without irrigation
‘Soil doctor’ Floris and his team of Spanish and Dutch farmers and scientists found the field in this state three years ago. This piece of barren land is located between the Spanish cities of Zamora and Zaragoza. It’s hard to believe that this central region of Castilla y León was for centuries the area’s breadbasket. It fed people from miles around. Now grain can only be grown profitably here with the aid of the European subsidy per hectare of agricultural land, introduced to ensure food security on the continent. The area is still relatively green in spring, but in the summer everything around this unirrigated field will have died off.
Together with the University of Valladolid and five other partners, the team is responsible for revegetating a 2x 50 hectare plot of abandoned land. The field had been over-fertilised and treated with many different chemicals over a long period of time, with the result that nothing more would grow there.
The European LIFE+ funded project, which runs from 2012-2017, aims to bring this piece of desert back to life in a couple of years’ time, to prove that you can call a halt to erosion and that agriculture is possible here, even without irrigation. 

Fungi and bacteria
Floris is passionate about agriculture and science, but he is primarily an entrepreneur. For many years he ran a tree maintenance company which still bears his name. He sold his business eight years ago. Armed with the knowledge of soil and root growth he had accumulated, he then immersed himself in improving agricultural land by encouraging soil life. He and his company, Plant Health Cure, provide advice to customers including farmers, growers, landscapers and golf course managers. He also sells products to improve soil health and benefit plant growth, in which specific fungi and bacteria form a major part.
And it is the fungi and bacteria that play a central role in this Spanish project. They form a partnership with plants in which, in return for sugars, they supply water, minerals and nutrients from the soil, help develop resistance against pathogens, and stimulate plant growth. The grain production that went on here for many decades has almost completely wiped out these beneficial microorganisms as a result of all the chemical fertilisers and pesticides that were applied, Floris explains: “We’re putting them back into the system.” 

Successful experiment
The project, which is an experiment, started as follows: first, the team made furrows with a Roman plough, which cuts much less deeply into the soil than a modern plough. The furrows are at right angles to the flow direction of the water, so that the winter rain does not flow away but soaks straight into the soil. They then sowed oats and vetch, both suitable for use as animal feed. Vetch is a plant that can bind nitrogen to its roots, making the nitrogen available for subsequent crops after harvest. 

Roots grow through rocks
After sowing, the team divided the field into three zones. Zone A was given a high dose of organic fertiliser with bacteria and fungi. It was contained mycorrhizal fungi which nestle in or on the roots and form an intricate network, enabling the plants to absorb much more water and nutrients. Zone B was given half a dose of both. Zone C was treated in the conventional way, with chemical fertiliser.
The crops in Zone A with the fungi and bacteria grew the best.
Floris and his colleagues saw a clear difference after just a few months. The crops in the zone with the artificial fertiliser grew worst. The crops in Zone A with the fungi and bacteria grew the best. Also striking was the fact that the roots of the crops were found to have drilled through the rocky ground in search of groundwater. This was due to the acids excreted by the fungi. And with these deep roots the crops can grow in this dry region without the farmer needing to irrigate.
This difference is at its most noticeable a week before the third harvest. The sun is beating down on the field, but the crops in Zone A look perfectly healthy. The plants in Zone C are very small. Many have red leaves, a sign of phosphorus deficiency. Phosphorus is one of the most important minerals. It was applied via the chemical fertiliser, but was obviously not absorbed properly as most of it has not reached the roots. “There are at least ten other measurable differences,” says Alejandro Campo del Rio, who manages the land.

Floris strides through the almost waist-high oats and vetch, stopping every couple of metres to grab and scrutinise an ear: “This just blows me away!” Every now and then he pulls a plant out of the ground to look at the roots through his magnifying glass. They are now almost 80 cm deep, a measurement on the wall of a pit dug by Alejandro a few days earlier reveals. “With a trained eye you can see that the very finely branched oat roots have been colonised by mycorrhizal fungi. And you see these little spheres here? They are nitrogen nodules on the roots of the vetch. They convert the nitrogen in the air into a form that can be absorbed by the plant. And when the vetch is harvested, the nitrogen is left behind for the next crop.”
Making agriculture possible in ‘marginal’ areas such as this is becoming increasingly important. 

Soil deserves attention
The team wants to roll out this method of working throughout the whole region. Making agriculture possible in ‘marginal’ areas such as this is becoming increasingly important. The world population is growing, while soil quality is on the decline worldwide and climate change is making extreme droughts an ever more frequent occurrence. The recent water crisis in the US state of California is a prime example of this.

Floris’s team very definitely has the blessing of the local Spanish community. The mayor of the nearby village of Ayoo de Vidriales has already spontaneously offered Floris a house, because reviving agriculture will create jobs for young people who have moved away in search of work. Interest from the whole of the surrounding area and from the European Union is growing fast. The oats and vetch on the plot were harvested in late May. The yield of this cattle feed was more than 4,000 kg per hectare: that’s just as much as a normal farmer can achieve with irrigation. “We’ve lost sight of the soil for far too long. It’s high time we put that right.”

To see the original article (in dutch) click here 

Fotografie: Miguel Ángel Santos

Author: Jop de Vrieze (