Working with loam

This is the easiest type of soil to manage, and is ideal for those with limited farming experience, says vegetable expert Bill Kerr.

Loam has something of everything. While it does not hold water or nutrients as well as clay, it also does not leach water and dry out like sand. The type of loam will depend on the amount of clay and sand it contains. Loam can be ‘heavy’, with a fairly high clay content, or ‘light’, which has more sand than clay. The proportions will determine how easy or difficult it is to work with.

Loam soils are generally the most valuable, unless you’re producing crops such as pineapples or flue-cured tobacco, which favour sand. Loam is thus a ‘middle-of-the-road’ soil. If you want to buy a farm, loam is normally what you should look for. It’s easier and cheaper to manage than other soil types, with fewer risks.

Avoid ’bargains’
For this reason, plots with loam soil tend to be more expensive, but it’s generally worth paying the higher price. A ‘bargain’ property may be tempting, but it’s the soil that determines its potential and running costs, and paying a little more may save you a great deal of money in the long run.

If you have limited experience, having a forgiving, easier-to-manage soil can make a huge difference to the profitability of your farm. Farmers who battle with their soil because it’s too shallow or too sandy sometimes complain to me about the damage they experience during extreme weather conditions. When asked why they had bought their farms, they usually reply that it’s what they could afford.

Yet, at the same time they’ll build a pack shed and other buildings for their crops. While such structures contribute significantly to the value of the farm, they will cost the same whether the soil is productive or unproductive. But fertiliser costs and the overall risk will be higher if the soil is ‘unproductive’. And the more money that is spent on infrastructure, the more difficult it is to move to a farm with better soil. In short, although it’s tempting to buy a cheaper farm with poorer soil, it’s usually better to start with a smaller property with the best soil, and expand from there.

With loam soil, the profit margin per hectare will remain higher and you will be exposed to fewer risks from extreme weather.
Loam soil also has the greatest capacity for improvement to achieve higher future production. Money spent on making chemical and physical improvements to the soil will therefore provide you with yield benefits and at the same time improve the value of the farm should you wish to sell it.

With loam as your ‘foundation’, you can set about nurturing the soil in a way that will make it continually more productive and easier to manage. In fact, you may now be at the starting point of a process which makes your farming a great deal more profitable, manageable and satisfying.

Soil isn’t simply soil – it’s a living entity teeming with unseen organisms and nutrients. And just as we need to manage human beings so that they become more productive, we need to manage our soil so that it reaches its full potential in a gradual yet consistent process. We’ll discuss this aspect in a future issue.