Reviewed by Noah Courser-Kellerman
“When I came to Goosegreen farm” Newman Turner begins the 1951 classic Fertility Farming, “the first calf was born dead. Disease was already master of the farm. Was I to be man enough to face such a master and turn his efforts to my own advantage?”
This book is part memoir, part practical guide and part fiery manifesto. It is about the power of good farming to resuscitate a dying farm and a vision for a new, regenerative agriculture based on biological principles, keen observation, respect for the land and hard work. I believe that Turner’s work is not as well known as it should be, and that his writings deserve a place in the canon of visionary organic writers in the company of J. Russell Smith, Masanobu Fukuoka, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, Rudolf Steiner, William Albrecht, George Washington Carver, Edward Faulkner and others.
I was given a copy of this book as a beginning farmer, trying to grow good vegetables, grain and beef on land that had been farmed conventionally for generations. This book spoke to and inspired me through the struggles of starting a farm on land exhausted by chemical farming, not only for its practical value but also by its attitude of irreverent innovation.
Newman Turner didn’t let the limited technology available to him at the time hamper his drive to innovate and care for his land. He didn’t wait for no-till drills to be invented so he could reduce tillage. Instead, he repurposed disc harrows to get seeds into the unplowed ground. He didn’t wait for polywire to be invented to practice long season intensive rotational grazing. Instead, using solid steel wire, he moved fence daily in a zig-zag pattern up a field. Instead of waiting for plastic films to be invented to ensile forages at their peak nutrition in cheap trench silos, he packed a layer of chalk over the surface to keep air out. In short, he was a visionary who was willing to bend old technologies to fit the needs of regenerative farming, creatively making do to get the job done.
Turner, a conscientious objector, was assigned to run an ailing dairy and grain farm in Somerset, England in lieu of military service in 1941. He inherited soils devoid of organic matter, crops devoured by insects and disease, and a herd of pedigreed Jersey cattle rendered almost infertile. Rejecting the reductionist “scientific” tendency of his time to see each of these problems as separate and in need of their own chemical fixes, Turner understood that his farm’s problems were really symptoms of degraded soil. With the understanding that there cannot be plant, livestock or human health without soil health, he set about finding a way to farm that worked financially and ecologically.
Regenerative agriculture is a term that has only come into wide usage in the last few years. Its core tenets are reduced tillage (non-disturbance), keeping the soil covered, diversity of plants and animals, maintaining living roots in the soil, and the integration of livestock in farming systems. Turner understood and applied each of these principles on his farm over seventy years ago.
Unlike Edward Faulkner, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour and Juliette de Bairacli Levi, authors Turner greatly respected and was inspired by, Turner was first and foremost a farmer. His lived experience of the sink or swim reality of farming forced him to synthesize the theoretical, ethical and practical in a way that non-farming authors cannot.
For Turner, financial, environmental and agronomic sustainability were one and the same. The book is interspersed with enterprise budgets, laying out detailed justifications in pounds and shillings for the adoption of regenerative practices. While the specific financials of 1940s Britain are no longer directly useful, Turner makes a compelling argument, similar to the writings of Gabe Brown or Richard Wiswall, that good farming and good finances must go hand in hand.
Fertility Farming is written in five parts: Part one, “Why Fertility Farming?” tells the story of
Goosegreen Farm, and provides an overview of his farming system, Fertility Farming. He writes how “Nature does not plough; she employs the earthworm and soil bacteria, together with deeply penetrating roots, to do her work” and of the “recuperative benefit of variety” in regards to both soil and livestock health. “But it is not in increased yields, or in costs, that I measure success of this organic fertility farming…It is the health of all living things on the farm…” Turner’s tone is self-assured but not self-satisfied. The pursuit of good farming is not one that he is ever finished with.
Part two, “Practical Farm Management,” is just that. Turner goes into detail of his cropping system involving perennial pastures rotated with grains, potatoes and annual fodder crops like kale and turnips. He explains his fertility management and the difference between true nutrient deficiency in soil and lack of availability on soil tests. He points out that soil biology is more important than chemistry in plant nutrition. (Interestingly, John Kempf delivered a keynote speech on this same subject at the most recent Acres Eco Ag conference. He reached the same bombshell conclusions, more or less, that Turner did 70 years ago.) He also explains his use of a deep bedded pack for wintering cattle, and making compost in a static heap. Weeds as dynamic accumulators, the importance of trees for ecosystem services (a term not yet coined) and planting “herbal leys”, multi-species multi-year versions of todays “cover crop cocktails” are all explained in concise, practical detail.
Part three, “Going Fertility,” is about conversion to regenerative farming from chemical-intensive conventional agriculture. Turner provides what he sees as the ideal way to transition a farm. A plan for the entire first year of the organic transition, week by week, is provided in great detail. While not directly applicable to many of today’s farm, I found this chapter really fascinating as a way to understand British dairy farming as it was practiced over 70 years ago.
Parts four and five, “The Livestock” and “Animal Diseases,” delve into the importance of livestock on the farm both as products themselves and in their role in cycling nutrients in an agroecosystem. While some of the information in this chapter is very dated, Turner’s mastery of cattle genetics and conformation and his explanations of what makes a good cow in a grass-based dairy system are still spot on and useful for anyone breeding their own stock. Turner also touches on the use of poultry in processing compost, as well as the intensive use of pigs in kickstarting the fertility building cycle on severely degraded land. “I have criticized the plough in various ways,” Turner writes, “…But this demonstration of ‘ploughs’ which need neither petrol, nor oats…and which in the process of this powerless ploughing, spread fertility over the soil [and] produce pork and bacon as a by-product leaves at least one type of plough for which I have nothing but admiration.”
The chapters on livestock disease are useful to anyone trying to move past the allopathic paradigm in their own or their livestock’s health (Though I will probably pass over the use of enemas in my own practice). Through the use of good nutrition, sound husbandry and herbal remedies, Turner claims to have successfully treated such “incurable” cattle diseases as Johne’s and tuberculosis. These claims will be met with some skepticism, but Turner’s central hypothesis, that true health is more than the absence of disease, and that healthy animals can overcome disease is true and important in today’s troubled world.
It is clear today that organic, regenerative agriculture is the model we need for the love and care of vast areas of land that has been unloved and uncared for for too long. Even as regenerative farming continues to evolve and adapt, I believe that Fertility Farming is a book that can inspire and teach for generations to come. Fertility Farming is a compelling story, manifesto and practical guide to regenerative farming that today is as radical, visionary, and provocative, and, I believe, even more timely, as it was when first published in 1951.
Noah Kellerman is a NOFA/Mass Board member and raises produce, grain, and beef at Alprilla Farm, in Essex, Mass.