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The Growing Solution: Six Inches Of Soil Interview

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The Growing Solution: Six Inches Of Soil Interview

Eat & Drink

Six Inches Of Soil documentary features British farmers using sustainable and regenerative practices. We go behind the scenes.

Romally Coverdale

Mon 4 Apr 2022

Six Inches Of Soil is a documentary following amazing farmers who are transforming our world.

Following their film From The Ground Up (2020), a film centred on regenerative farmers in East Anglia and Cambridgeshire, Producer Claire Mackenzie and Director Colin Ramsay discovered there were more discussions to be had around soil health.

Due to be released June 2023, Six Inches of Soil stands as an inspiring story of British regenerative farmers and their agroecological transformations of the way food is produced, away from the industrial food systems.

Partnered with many organisations, such as Groundswell and Sustain, the film is set to follow farmers who strive to heal the soil, and provide for local communities.

The documentary also follows communities from across the UK, including small businesses, chefs and entrepreneurs over the course of a year, following the trials and tribulations of working with food and farming systems.

The Growing Solution: Six Inches Of Soil Interview

Left to right: Six Inches of Soil Director Colin Ramsay and Director of Photography Jeremy Dawson.

"The Food system we have today is a miracle and a disaster”, National Food Strategy 2021.

I interviewed Researcher Dr Lucy Michaels and Producer George Young, both of whom are working on the Six Inches of Soil.

Dr Lucy Michaels has extensive academic education, having been a food and farming researcher for about 25 years. She is an expert in understanding how the industrial food system works, and how this impacts animal health and welfare, in addition to the impact on the environment.

In Six Inches of Soil, she researched more to understand how soil plays a part in nutrition, biodiversity and also how soil helps to sequester carbon.

George Young, after working in oil trading, went back home to Essex to run his family’s farm. At the time, it was a very conventional farm (growing three crops, using chemicals and fertilisers etc.) and it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t sustainable.

He then shifted his focus to ecology, on bugs, fungi and wildlife, which seemingly let healthy soil be a by-product. As George discovered, by actively protecting and maintaining healthy ecosystems, it produced healthy soil - that both ecosystems and soil depend on each other’s health. Likewise, he also wants to provide produce that has a better density of micro nutrition, which also depends on healthy soil.

pebble: How does soil health affect people and the planet?

Dr Lucy Michaels began by stating: “You have to understand that soil is a kind of a matrix. It's not just a thing, it's a living matrix.”

“Starting with the first trophic level, the bacteria and the fungi and that through all the bugs and the beetles and and other sort of microfauna live in the soil.”

“There's research that shows there's bacteria in soil that gives off serotonin - that improves our mood. There's so much we don't know about what is valuable about what's living in the soil and what we might have lost by not having our hand in the soil, growing regularly as we did.”

Lucy also went on to speak about how she is interested in the absorption of carbon in the soil.

“Healthy soil sequesters carbon as part of the carbon cycle. It is unclear for how long and how much since there are complex interactions with plants and microbes. What is clear is that the less we disturb the soil in our agricultural practices, the better in terms of keeping carbon in the soil. This is the essence of regenerative farming.

And if you've got good soil structure, it can hold water, rather than allowing precious topsoil to wash away, which supports resilient agriculture in the face of climate change and extreme weather events."

Anna Jackson, Six Inches of Soil new entrant farmer.

pebble: George, how can you tell on your farm when soil is healthy?

“There are loads of labs in the UK, I’m sure around the world as well, working really hard to essentially come up with some metric of when your soil is healthy. Very simplistically. Some of these tests kind of burn the soil and see how much carbon dioxide I think is released,” explains George.

“The whole method kills a load of life in the soil.”

George explains it another way - if a child was given a piece of healthy soil and unhealthy soil, the child would know right away which soil was healthier.

“I think science is exceptionally important and has many, many uses, but there is sometimes nothing better than actually just using your senses to understand whether or not things are functioning well.”

George knows the importance too of what cannot be measured, like the life and joy we add to soil that is often overlooked when farming industrially.

“You know that soil is not healthy. You can feel you can smell, you can see it, you can touch it. There's nothing wrong with using our own senses to look.”

“When you've got life in your soil, you will smell it and it will smell rich and delicious. You will see these amazing kinds of fibres and roots and fungal structures and all of these things. Then you know you've got a healthy soil.

If you've got a huge amount of bird life and a huge amount of largish mammal life around on your farm, you must have those trophic layers beneath to support that. That level of ecosystem can't exist without the lower layers there.”

Yet, science is not useless - as George says it can do the final bit of finessing.

Producer George Young on his farm

Lucy added to this joy, by speaking about some academic work she was doing and her interactions with growers.

“You can see their eyes light up when they describe what a healthy soil looks like, and smells like. They will say they love their soil so much that they want to garden with bare hands.”

“It's not something that you need to necessarily go to a scientist for anymore, it might be something that we always knew.”

Lucy alludes that in Britain we have lost our connection with nature, but there are still traces of instinctual knowledge that can, and should be, embraced.

  • Read our article on Biophilic Design to learn more about humanity’s instinctual connection to nature

pebble: What’s the relationship between food and culture?

After speaking about her Rough Guide to the UK Farming Crisis (2004), and the strained relationship between farmers and supermarkets, Lucy then speaks of British food culture and her sympathy for farmers.

Britain has one of the cheapest food baskets in the world, and so it makes sense that farmers cut corners with industrial and cheaper methods - albeit unsustainable.

However, through agroecological farm systems our food supply chains could be shortened, which would mean customers would be more likely to value the farmer’s contributions and produce.

Lucy compares our food culture to other European countries, like France, where customers tend to be actively invested in the food - through markets, conversations and care about produce. There’s also more farmers overall.

“The core things you need are food and water, clothing and shelter. I understand that school syllabus are very full with things that are deemed very important, but how come the things that humanity relies on entirely are not taught at all at school?,” George explains.

George expressed his disappointment that a huge number of children are alienated, when education is told it’s not for them and that a farming career is seen as a last resort.

Consequently, George wants his farm to become an educational experience for when children come to visit. He plans on growing squashes, cucumbers and courgettes - recognisable produce - but also has distant future plans of adding a flour mill and bakery on site, so kids can understand how bread is made.

"So, for me, all these issues of food culture essentially are born out of poor education", says George

George’s farm functions on ecological connection, with every field connected with a wild margin as to increase biodiversity and support insect life. He creates these wild margins on his land 40m apart, so as to encourage insect wildlife. Some areas are designated to ecological products, while other fields are designated to food production - although he aims to keep this relatively balanced.

Lucy states “ that disconnection that we have between ourselves and our land, and the land and nature, it’s why we've sort of stopped caring so much about how our food is produced.” And she also elaborates on the need for government support in these ideological shifts.

"The food that most people are putting in their bodies is considered fuel only"

George added: “It's like if we can really begin to drive that excitement about creating food and get people to understand more about it, I think most people care quite a lot about the climate scenario and biodiversity.”

George highlights that “the food that most people are putting in their bodies is considered fuel only,” and that there is little consideration for how, or where, the food is produced.

Lucy then speaks of shifting our values. If we began to prioritise healthier choices, a whole cascade of things would happen: farmers would have the confidence to shift how they produce food, and there would be more of an infrastructure for people to buy locally and seasonally.

pebble: What do you see as the future of farming in the UK?

As well as a shift in our values, we also talked about the future of farming.

George spoke about farmers he knew who were already growing in tremendous ways, agro-ecologically speaking, on large-scale farms. He also spoke of the different forms of farming that are needed that are influenced by produce, location, and scale.

“Mixed farming is absolutely critical. We must have livestock in those systems for them to work successfully.”

George explains that there is an east-west divide in the UK. The west is predominantly livestock while the east remains crops; not only should this change for the benefit of soil, but also as a drive towards localism.

George also wishes to see more organic practices, less chemicals and more traditional forms of agriculture, to pre-industrialised farming.

Lucy speaks about urban areas, highlighting how a lot can be grown in a bio-intensive plot; urban gardening makes sense not only for soil health, but also for reducing food miles.

Lucy also highlights that we have lost an abundance of orchards, instead opting for importing apples from South Africa and New Zealand.

Lucy also supports George’s argument for non-industrialised farming:

“I would like to see a big reduction in those inputs that are in so many ways unsustainable and damaging to the soil - like the nitrogen fertiliser.”

“I understand that that's going to be complicated for some farms, but you know, reducing those and conversely, massively improving soil health using regenerative practices.”

“I'm not blaming farmers here, it's the pressure, from what I understand, the supermarkets to drive down prices. That is often the cause of [using chemical fertilisers].”

Left to right – Six Inches of Soil Sound recordist Daria Hupov, Director Colin Ramsay and Head of Conservation, Holkham Estate, Norfolk Jake Fiennes.

pebble: How can we make a positive impact by what we eat?

We can very much influence the planet by how we eat. What we eat determines biodiversity, soil health and the climate crisis.

“There’s lots of very good reasons to rethink our food choices and not only just to change our habits, but to think about what’s important to us. Maybe it’s a little bit existential, but we’ve kind of lost that connection [to nature and food] and what are the implications?,” explains Lucy.

George adds to this, hoping that the film will encourage people to engage with the food that they eat.

“Once people start to value things and want something because they value it,” but it’s not that affordability is dismissed, it is that people will prioritise what they value more.

You can directly support Six Inches Of Soil by donating, sharing and following the film’s journey.

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