Laura Jayne Foley and her husband, Daniel Lyons, hemp cultivators and founders of Wild Atlantic Hemp, use natural methods on their farm in Ireland. While much of the farmland in the region is poor quality, Foley says she noticed major improvements in their crops after adding biochar and homemade microbial tea to the soil—both natural methods of improving the soil’s nutrient density and production capacity.

Made from worm castings and seaweed, the tea increases microbial life in the soil, while biochar provides a home for microbes.

“On one side of the field, the hemp was patchy and short,” explains Foley. “But on the other side where we used the biochar, it was a completely different story. It was ridiculously obvious that something had been done to the soil.”

Daniel Lyons and Laura Jayne Foley

Foley, who holds a master’s degree in agriculture from the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG), is acutely aware of soil degradation in the world today. As a hemp farmer who has witnessed the plant’s benefits on the environment firsthand, she was inspired to seek out ways she could expand her grow practices to help other farmers in her region, where she says much of the soil is poor quality peat soil, damaged by the overuse of artificial fertilizers.

A few months after testing biochar and microbial tea on her land, Foley helped launch Hemp4Soil, a project run by local community group Loop Head Together. The one-year project will explore how local farmers growing hemp in the area could affect—and potentially improve—the quality of the soil and benefit local diversity.

If the project is successful, it could not only improve the soil and change the farming practices in Foley’s local Clare County, but also help influence the European Union’s (EU) policy on hemp and dairy farming, in line with its FOOD 2030 Initiative.

Seeding the Project

Foley is a member of local organization Loop Head Together, which was set up to attract sustainable tourism and build the cottage industry in the region. Located on the southwest coast of Ireland, “Loop Head” is a slender peninsula in Clare County, nestled between the Shannon Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean, with a population of close to 3,000.   

The area is famous for sailing, diving, and fishing, as well as its wildlife and bird watching. Thanks to the work of Loop Head Together, the peninsula was listed on the Sustainable Destinations Global Top 100, the only place in Ireland to make the list.

However, much of the farmland in the region has been damaged by years of lime and the use of synthetic fertilizers to pump grass for dairy farming.

“It kills the soil’s ability to do the normal kind of cycling it should do,” Foley says, explaining why she’s not a fan of artificial salt-based fertilizers. Lyons, Foley’s husband, compares soil with this type of fertilizer to a bodybuilder on steroids.

“The problem is [using synthetic fertilizer] looks like a beneficial way to grow, but actually what it’s been doing is slowly killing the earth’s agricultural soil,” Foley says. “And now, people all over the world are saying that our soil is depleting, and we only have a certain amount left. If we don’t start recreating soil, we’re going to end up with just desert.”

This was the thinking that inspired Foley to expand the project beyond the border of her own farm. Around the same time, Loop Head Together had secured funding for a biodiversity project from Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, which was actively looking for biodiversity projects as part of its Rural Development Program under the European Innovation Partnerships (EIP) model.

Foley’s work turned the department’s attention to soil biodiversity. They green-lit the project, awarding it 76,000 euros, and Hemp4Soil was born. The funds will be released in stages throughout the project.

“My department is viewed across the EU as a leader in how we implement and fund our major EIPs. Now, we are going to see smaller ones, with local results-based actions, also making a real difference to the environment,” said Senator Pippa Hackett, minister of state at the Ireland Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in a news release.

Establishing the Project

From the outset, Foley’s goal was to develop a project that didn’t negatively impact the farmer’s income and instead offered instant benefits. She also wanted to ensure whatever practice she developed was replicable and served as an educational platform.

To achieve this, Foley secured public sector support from various bodies, including the Irish Wildlife Trust, Hemp Cooperative Ireland, and University College Dublin (UCD), and put together a diverse operational group that includes members of the local council.

She recruited colleagues from academia to build scientific analysis into the project, including Kate Randall, Ph.D, a molecular microbial ecologist at the University of Essex (who is also a friend of Foley’s), and Lena Madden, Ph.D., a microbiologist from the Technological University of the Shannon Region (TUS).  Robert Johnson, Ph.D., founder of Biocarbon Ireland Scientific and a board member of the Hemp Cooperative Ireland, is also part of the group.

Foley approached a selection of farmers on Loop Head and asked each one for an acre of land. She got positive responses from four dairy farmers, one alpaca farmer, and five smallholder farms, including a horticulturist and the owners of a camping site with hempcrete chalets, securing a total of 10 acres to run the project.

“But no one gave us their top field,” Foley says with a laugh. “Most of the farmers gave us their worst land because, like us, they want to see results. They want to know if we can make the acre good again.”

Hemp without soil amendments versus with biochar and microbial tea

That’s not all. Foley says Loop Head’s population is also rapidly declining. “So, it’s really important for us to create industry and give people [a] reason to live and work here. For us, hemp offers us some unique opportunities and ties in with our sustainable identity. We want to future-proof our farmers.”

Foley points to the European Commission’s (EC) Farm to Fork Strategy, which aims to reduce use of chemicals, pesticides, and antimicrobials by 50% and reduce nutrient loss by 50%, while retaining soil fertility and increasing organic farming in EU by 25% by the year 2030. If successful, Hemp4Soil could help reach those goals.

Prepping the Soil

Biochar will be used to boost the carbon storage capacity of the soil. It’s a black solid high-carbon material that’s highly porous and can provide habitats for beneficial organisms. It can retain nutrients and immobilize contaminants. Biochar is also considered an effective way to sequester carbon.

“Biochar has become much more available now,” Foley says. “A lot more farmers are using it. But if you put it straight into the ground, for the first year it soaks up all the microbes and nutrients from the soil, meaning a poor rotary that year. The quality will improve in the following years. But by putting the microbial tea on it, we activate the biochar straight away. That’s what we’re doing with the slurry—using it to activate the biochar.”

Biochar is produced by heat-treating biomass, creating a substance that looks a lot like charcoal. Its pores serve as incubation centers for microbes. By adding microbes to the biochar, it’s possible to create a nutrient-dense environment.

To increase the microbial conditions of the soil, local cow liquid manure will be used instead of pesticides and fertilizers. Foley says this is an important part of growing hemp because of its phytoremediation properties, meaning it can pull toxins from the ground.

The local liquid manure will return native nutrients to the soil. Mixing manure to the biochar increases phosphorus and nitrogen retention in the soils, reducing offsite pollution and nutrients leaching into the groundwater, while improving carbon cycling and preventing soil erosion.

Because hemp can also clean soil, it’s the right plant for this project. But that’s not the only reason hemp was chosen.

Research shows one hectare of hemp can sequester up to 15 tons of CO2, far more than forestry. Beyond that, it also has a relatively short growth cycle, is an excellent source of nutrition, and creates opportunities for farm diversification.

The Project in Practice

“We’re really living in high life today—we’re off to mix manure,” Foley joked on the phone. It’s late February, and she and Randall are preparing the mix of microbes that will be spread on a part of the fields.

Everyone involved in the research project will be applying the same amendments to their land. Each acre will be divided into four plots:

Plot 1 will receive no treatment and be planted with hemp.Plot 2 will be treated with biochar and planted with hemp. Plot 3 will be treated with biochar and local cow liquid manure and then planted with hemp. Plot 4 will be the control land.

The project is taking a three-pronged approach to gauge improvements in the soil. It will measure increases in carbon in the soil, note the conditions for microbial life in the soil, and test for the removal of any chemicals that might be in the sample land. In addition, samples will also be collected from the soil adjacent to the plots to serve as control samples.

Using their analysis results, Foley will be able to provide a measure of soil health at the end of the project. Baseline readings were taken in March, and readings will be taken again throughout the year, including two weeks before seeding, one week post plow, at seeding (April/May 2022), six weeks post-seeding, and at harvest in August. A follow-up reading will take place in April 2023.

Randall from University of Essex will examine how the treatments affect the diversity and abundance of microbes in the soil, as well as the evolution of any key functional groups within the population of microbes.

“Biodiversity is important as it strengthens ecosystems, making them more resilient to change,” Randall explains. “The presence of microbes in the soil is the primary transporter of carbon to the roots of the plants, feeding their growth above ground. Research shows activity above and below ground is connected through microbes.”

Meanwhile, Madden from the Technological University of the Shannon Region is interested in how to use carbon to maximize food production. She will be testing the physical and chemical properties of the soil, including the organic matter, pH, and carbon content. Carbon is the main component of soil organic matter and helps give soil its water-retention capacity, its structure and its fertility, according to Yale Environment 360.

By using biochar, microbial slurry mix, and hemp, the thinking is that it will not only produce a superior crop, but also regenerate the soil and create long-term positive impact on the local environment while driving the creation of a local cottage hemp industry.

From Ireland but currently based in Spain, Natasha Kerry Smith writes about trends across Europe in the marijuana and hemp markets, covering product innovations, cultural shifts, and legal battles as the industry moves from black to grey to green. She dives into changing attitudes on cannabis use on her blog, The Healthy Hashhead. Find her on LinkedIn.