Hungary to Austria to Portugal Via a Really Interesting Hole

Hungarian Soil Scientist Endre Dobos in what was a really interesting hole

by Oliver Moore

What possessed four Hungarians to drive for 10 hours, dig a hole, talk about the hole, go to bed and then drive home the next day?

Well these four were soil scientists, and these this hole was dug to help people — in this case the GROW Places Community Champions — better understand soil profiles.

In fact, it was so interesting, they dug another hole a few hundred meters from the original and spent some more time exploring its meaning.

This hole digging and accompanying conversation was a real highlight of the gathering in LebensGut Miteinander, a hub for GROW Place Austria.

While staring into a hole and talking about the hole might not sound like the most exciting of activities, for soil nerds — scientists and permaculturalists alike - this was extraordinarily interesting.

Even for us in-betweeners, the conversation between the hard science description of profiles and texture, and the solutions emanating from permaculture practitioners as they scanned the field for helpful plants was fascinating to behold.

What would often be seen as weeds in need of elimination in some farming systems were reconceptualised as soil amending plants, tap rooting diggers like plantain, emerging to help break through the compacted soil and improve it naturally.

Useful plants beneath a note taking copy with soil from a particular part of the profile

This flow between these in-the-field observational skills and the world of satellite and soil science is part of what makes GROW such an absorbing proposition. The four day gathering saw citizen science, data science, satellite science and peer to peer grower learning come together, as people travelled from around Europe to converge in this intentional community.

The next free GROW Observatory course starts 5th November

It was great to hear about the utility of citizen sensing from Mel Woods, who has been involved in numerous other citizen science initiatives. Mel explained how citizen sensing helped with a process which dampened down the noise in the busiest part of Barcelona, to make life more bearable for residents.

Mel Woods

Luca Zappa’s presentation really showed the difference ground truthing makes in harsh environments. The Technical University Wien (Vienna) based researcher made a compelling presentation, and what really stood out was two images of the same desert area.It was very clear how much more information was available because of the on-the-ground sensors. See it for yourself below — a comparison of coarse resolution (the commonly available, on the right) and high-resolution (on the left) soil moisture over the Nile delta (image via VanderSatt)

Nile Delta

Environments are getting harsher everywhere. Geographer and Soil Scientist Karoly Kovacs told of a sensor that disappeared into a crack that appeared in the bone dry summer ground — the ground closed back when the weather changed, and the sensor still gave a signal.

Walt Ludwick

It was great to get to know the GROW Community Champions better. These are a wide and varied set of characters, people selected to drive on the distribution of sensors in their regions. Seeing how they got to grips with the complexity and opportunities in the project was fascinating.

One of the encountered characters was Walt Ludwick of Quinta Vale Da Lama. Walt moved from Canada to Portugal in 2006.

“My land is in the Algarve, 43 acres in the western most part. We have dry fruit trees, extended pastures, an irrigated zone in the middle growing organic veg, and we’re planted up soft fruit trees. We’ve also got some donkeys, chickens and sheep. With the sheep on the dry lands, we’re trying to use regenerative practices and follow holistic planning methods to improve the soil. Part of it has been overgrazed, it’s too early to be certain of improvements with these practices. We haven’t had the protocol for measuring the impacts. But this sensing mission is a big step — I’ll be looking out for improved soil moisture retention because of these practices.”

The fires in Portugal make soil moisture information especially important for Walt:

“What’s crucial is to get direct feedback. Everyone sees Portugal is burning every single summer. Climate Change forecasters show us desertification is advancing, in all of north Africa in particular.

While typically we’ve been looking north, we need to look to the south for strategies in permaculture.

I’ve been inspired by Yacouba Sawadogo in Burkina Faso — known as the man who stopped the desert, with his greenline. He made grassroots surface level interventions — and he managed to do it.”

Portugal is also not north Africa however:

“There are different challenges here. There are fires in the mountain where our watershed is. Its forest up there- but not old growth, its eucalyptus. This is an invasive exotic that’s very fast growing but it sucks up all the moisture around it — and it’s like a standing oil keg. It all burns up. We’re down near the coast, but it’s still a brittle landscape. If a tree dies here they stand they start oxidising.”

What does Walt want to get from the sensors?

“ First it’s to get baseline info on my farm, the different zones and moisture retention, how they respond to hydration events (irrigation or precipitation), and compare, correlate that with data from the weather station. It hasn’t been as easy — the station is hourly, while the sensors are ¼ hour, but with some work now I can at least compare the data. Next is classification in terms of slope, aspect, soil type, we got good learnings on this at the Austria GROW Places event. So I can try different management strategies to reduce desiccation and wilting. Feedback from the sensors will helpfully tell me how good we are doing with these practices. “

The future looks bright too:

“I’m really looking forward to working with people who really know their data science. Its spatio-temporal analysis ,maybe some GIS too…now the people I want to reach out to won’t necessarily be interested in that, they’ll just want the reports to inform better decisions. I’m cautiously optimistic that we can start to engage more people in the GROW places, people with different skills. There were some people in Austria with great skills, like Lukas who showed visualisations of other parts of the world — I’d love to apply these tools to our more localised environment”

I plan to have an engagement event in November — ecosystem regenerative event, where people learn how to plant trees and assist in efforts at regeneration, at the end of that event, we might have another event, to plant sensors.

Desertification is challenging the poorest parts of Europe, it’s getting hotter, more devoid of life, we have to draw the line, and say no — to restore the landscape, to get people back onto the land- that’s a bit part of fighting desertification. The young people have left to earn a buck, the older people have been left behind, all they can do is rent out their land to foresters with eucalyptus and pine.”

Final thoughts from Walt on the GROW Place Austria event?

“Austria was a very hopeful event, most hopeful in a while actually. Meeting like-minded but very diverse people, all concerned with regeneration of landscapes in whatever form, taking a disciplined, organised, data driven approach to what are we doing. Soil is, as Pavlos said, the connective tissue, the capillarity of which can connect all these European nations. Soil is fundamental, it’s the primordial connective tissue we all share. This is the only place where I see that kind of cooperation coming together. And this is only the start of it.”

Some of the participants at the GROW Place Austria event