The Good Soil: Solum Farm and Soil School

We don’t dish the dirt in this magazine but it’s about time we did – real dirt, upfront and gritty. By the end of this article you’ll understand why sustainability never tasted so good and why muck-raking is great for your health.

Soil specialist, Mike Smith from Solum Farm tells me that if I get myself over to his pub in Harwood now, he can tell me the story of his life in 20 minutes. So, I do.

An hour and a half later, with a queue of people behind me waiting to talk to Mike, I put down my pen, admitting defeat. 20 minutes? It would take as many hours to do justice to the exploits of Mike Smith and his partner Cheryl and even then, there’d be more.

So, for this article, we’ll just dish the dirt…by which I mean the Soil Project, Mike and Cheryl’s initiative to spread the good oil about good soil, through their NGO, Organic Matters Foundation.

“It’s not just about growing food,” says Mike. “You have to know how to grow soil first. If you can’t grow soil, then you won’t grow food for very long.”

Mike & Cheryl Solum Farm owners
Mike & Cheryl Smith

Mike and Cheryl are farmers. They created the Organic Matters Foundation to help other farmers in the Pacific area improve their soil and in doing so, improve their lives. “It’s important to pass the farm onto your children in a better state than when you got it,” says Mike.

From this belief grew Soil School, a training program designed to teach soil sustainability practices in developing countries such as Fiji, Palau, Samoa, PNG and the Solomon Islands.

“These countries are often the dumping grounds for other countries’ crap,” says Mike, “including chemicals that are banned elsewhere and linked, anecdotally, to a lot of sickness. Soil School teaches a more sustainable way of doing things. Our whole ethos is not that everyone wants to be organic but that everyone wants to feel better and wants to be able to hand their farm onto their children.”

“There are two things you can ask yourself,” says Mike, with the intensity of an earthy Dirty Harry. “Is nature perfect? Or is nature not perfect? Now, if you believe that nature is not perfect then that’s okay – humans have invented a whole bunch of insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, genocides and regicides – all the things that kill – to fix nature’s ‘problems’. But we believe nature is perfect, so we have to understand why that pest or disease is there in the first place. Biological agriculture looks at the cause, not the symptom. You know, nature hasn’t placed a weed there just to piss you off!”

Weeds have an important function and it is up to the biological agriculturalist to work out what micro-nutrient deficiencies that weed is remediating. Natural remediation might take a very long time but by identifying the deficiency, soil farmers can start helping nature along.

“Realistically,” says Mike, “farmers have to grow a crop in one season so the quicker we understand what nature is showing us, the quicker we can work with nature to solve the issue.”

Mike and Cheryl have taken Soil School all around the Pacific area including teaching for garden and farming groups in Australia. Over the past twelve years they have trained around 1,800 farmers. Soil School has been effective in changing farmers’ perspective, but as Mike says, “We are not really teaching anything new, we’re just reminding ourselves of what we’ve forgotten. Quick fixes have a terrible knock-on effect that result in sick eco-systems which results in sick people.”

A two-year Soil School program on an island in Fiji costs around $50,000 USD which is, “cheap-as-chips” in comparison to what government agencies spend for much less return, according to Mike. It is a three-stage approach with multiple soil samples tested between stages to monitor and adjust for the differing soil biologies. On completion of the Soil School program the farmers will have the knowledge to continue soil farming on their own, a redundancy Mike has built in to ensure the independence of farmers the Organic Matters Foundation assists.

Fijian Soil School
Soil School, South Pacific. Image courtesy of Organic Matters Foundation

Their work garnered international attention from Sea Mercy, an American NGO that enlists the yachting community worldwide to deliver aid and information to communities decimated by the effects of extreme weather events. Sea Mercy has partnered with the Organic Matters Foundation to create Remote Island Soil Education or RISE. Each year Sea Mercy sponsors an intensive four-week RISE Internship for an at-risk island, to teach the Soil School program.

As Mike says, “For any health, self-sustainable or economic development related program in the South Pacific to succeed, it must start with soils training.”

Mike and Cheryl’s global perspective has grown from their own travelling experiences. They met and married in the Clarence Valley but then went to see the world, as many do, returning from their home in Samoa when Cheryl’s father became ill. Around the same time, the land they now call Solum Farm came on the market and the next stage of Mike and Cheryl’s life began.

The name ‘solum’ is Latin for the first layer of soil, most affected by plant roots. Solum Farm is renowned in the Clarence Valley for excellent organic produce, workshops, TAFE internships and the biannual Feast in the Field, a fundraiser for the Organic Matters Foundation, which operates with no government funding.

Feast in the Field is edible philosophy. It celebrates fine dining the Solum way, providing a delicious education on where food comes from – the back story, Mike calls it.

The 2016 Feast in the Field was ‘Nose to Tail, Flower to Seed’ and involved slaughtering and butchering three steers raised on Solum Farm.

“Three weeks out all the chefs turned up to watch the process,” Mike tells me. “It was all done calmly by a qualified butcher with as much kindness to the animals as possible, under the circumstances. Yet the emotion among the chefs was just amazing – none of them had ever seen a beast killed; to them, meat came in a cryo-vac bag…there were some tears, some real emotion. When it came time to cook the meat they approached it with, well, I guess the word is reverence. It was quite moving.”

“When we told this story at the Feast some of the diners couldn’t cope with it. But I think it’s really important to know where your food comes from. Otherwise, we lose connection with the animal and the ground.”

“We started our campaign before it was groovy to know where your food comes from but that’s what it’s all about, showing the process. I want people to realise that there is a healthy alternative to packaged food, readily available. It’s hard to change people’s habits but we are getting there.”

Cheryl picking fresh fruit

This year’s Feast in the Field featured local chefs celebrating seasonal seafood. The event was a sell-out success. Clearly, Mike’s message is getting across.

As well as Solum Farm, Mike and Cheryl have developed the Yamba Farmers’ Market, building it up to become a thriving centre for locally grown produce.

“You know, you give someone a dozen free-range eggs and they’ll rave to you about how good they are. But the next week they go back to the supermarket, not thinking to offer to buy from you. We want to draw people’s attention to the value of locally produced food.”

“If you get in step with nature you’ll be more grounded: you’ll understand the cycle,” Mike explains. “You see, people are so removed from the cycle of life that they think nature is over there, but nature is here: nature is us.”

We are interrupted by a local, wanting Mike’s attention.

“Come talk to me if you want the dirt on this one,” the local says, laughing.

But we’ve already got it and it’s all good.

Find out more about Solum Farm and Soil School at Organic Matters Foundation