When I bought my little 2.5 acre property in 2008, I noticed that the back two acres had literally no top soil. The plants were struggling to grow in Virginia’s easily compacted clay, rich in potassium and phosphorus but totally devoid of the nitrogen needed for healthy plantlife. It was bizarre but easily explained - one day a neighbor told me that a previous owner had cut down two acres of mature oak trees and sold the lumber, then scraped up the top soil and sold that, too. But medieval agriculture saved my farm!
To rectify the problem without spending tens of thousands of dollars, in 2013, I turned to the medieval practice of faldage. Faldage was the lord of a manor’s right to have sheep kept in his fields to manure them during the winter - in the process, fertilizing the soil with their excrement - when they would need supplementary feed in the form of hay. The sheep would graze on the stubble in the field, leave some of the hay as waste, and convert any vegetable matter they did eat to valuable manure, which would decay and form nitrogen-rich soil to fertilize the crops planted there in the spring. The stubble and waste hay provided carbon to balance out excess nitrogen, which might be lost in the form of ammonia, ensuring that all of nutrients in the manure and the waste vegetation stayed in the field to fertilize it.
For my efforts, I chose goats to eat the trees and British Soay sheep. The Soays are a rare breed nearly identical to the first domesticated sheep to arrive in Britain around 3000 years ago. Their small size and incredible hardiness make them ideal for restorative grazing tactics: lightweight sheep lead to less soil compaction than larger and heavier modern breeds. In addition to my ruminants, I added potbelly pigs to recreate the action of medieval plows that would have turned over the earth and broken the high-carbon plant stems into smaller pieces that easily decay. Small round bales of hay provide feed for my sheep and goats, and I confine them to about a third of the land at any given time.
The tactic has succeeded beyond my wildest hopes! In one winter, my small flock of goats, sheep, and pigs can build 3-4 inches (7.5-10 cm) of top soil in the area where their hay bales are located in around 6 months. That takes care of about 1/3 to 1/2 of the section they’re on, with a little manure scattered over the rest of it. After that, they’re rotated to another section and the newly enriched area is planted with a mix of grasses, legumes, and broad-leaf weeds with deep tap roots to preserve the new soil, fix the new nitrogen, and bring up nutrients from the clay subsoil. Coincidentally, this also provides thriving pasture for my flock and cuts my feed bill, when they’re allowed to graze it after the plants have become well-established.
Today, three years later, we’re well on the way. One large area is covered in grasses, chicory, dandelion, and clover. Another is awaiting planting with a shade-tolerant cover crop mix. A third is covered in hay and manure that is rapidly breaking down thanks to the dedicated action of the pigs, becoming a rich organic soup. This winter, we’ll move to the first of the less accessible area, and in another year or so we’ll start the cycle over again, continuing to put our flock to work until we’ve built up a healthy 8-12 inches (20-30cm) of beautiful black top soil planted with a thriving mix of varied pasture. And all of it will have been done with minimal human labor invested, just the rolling out of a hay bale every week or two. I went medieval on my farm, and it worked out great. -Andrea Chandler, Manor of Mixed Blessings