A nature-friendly Norfolk farm is harnessing millions of tiny microbes to put life back into barren soils - and to feed crops without artificial chemicals.

Nick Padwick is estate director at Wild Ken Hill, near Snettisham in west Norfolk, where a "three-pronged approach" to sustainability includes large-scale rewilding, traditional conservation and regenerative agriculture.

But while large grazing animals and rare birds of prey might catch the eye of conservationists, it is tiny microscopic organisms which have become the focus of the farming team.

Since 2011, the farm has phased out insecticides and fungicides, and last year was the first that no artificial nitrogen fertilisers were used.

Meanwhile, Mr Padwick has completed three years of training to become the first UK farmer to qualify as a Soil Food Web consultant.

Eastern Daily Press: Estate director Nick Padwick studying soil samples under a microscope at Wild Ken Hill, near Snettisham in west NorfolkEstate director Nick Padwick studying soil samples under a microscope at Wild Ken Hill, near Snettisham in west Norfolk (Image: Chris Hill)

This has given him the specialist knowledge to analyse soil samples under a microscope, and identify organisms such as fungal hyphae, flagellate protozoa and nematodes - which are capable of naturally recycling nitrogen which is vital to plant life.

And now the farm is manufacturing compost extracts loaded with these tiny microbes, which are put onto fields as a "living additive" for the soil.

The forthcoming harvest will be the crucial test for this new approach – and Mr Padwick hopes the results will prove that food crops can be grown as profitably as conventional farming, but without the cost, risk and environmental damage of agrochemicals.

Mr Padwick said: "We have had 40-50 years of using chemicals and using the plough, but at Ken Hill we wanted to think of another way of doing it. We are trying to introduce life back into our soils.

"I am not making compost for nutrients - I am using it for livestock to recycle all the bacteria in the soils.

"Whatever we are growing, we need the right biology in the soil to grow the crop we want to grow."

He said even after three years of "thorough regenerative farming", the estate's soils contained very few microbes apart from bacteria.

"Now we have these lovely fungal hyphae and flagellates, which are part of the protozoa family," he said. "They have a 30:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio, while bacteria is 5:1, so these bad boys have got to eat six bacteria to stay alive.

"Once they have got their carbon, they are taking on six nitrogens as well and they only want one. So they release it into the soil as a plant-available ammonia, and so do amoebae.

"All they do is suck up bacteria and recycle it as ammonia. Nematodes will also release ammonia. And the fungi release mild acids into the soil, which allows plants to access important minerals such as magnesium, manganese, phosphate, potash, zinc, and copper."

Eastern Daily Press: A bacteria-feeding nematode, photographed under a microscope at Wild Ken HillA bacteria-feeding nematode, photographed under a microscope at Wild Ken Hill (Image: Nick Padwick)

Mr Padwick said his thermocompost contains an "insane" amount of life, with more than one million protozoa found in one sample.

He makes it without animal muck, instead using green material harvested from herbal leys, funded through government stewardship schemes and incentives.

It consists of a high-nitrogen element - in this case legumes - along with green vegetation and woodchip, which is closely monitored and turned at optimum times to produce the microbes needed by the soil.

"Bubbling machines" are used to distil the compost into a watery extract which is a more consistent and cost-effective way of spreading its biology over a wider area. And the estate is looking at ways to scale up further and help improve neighbouring farms, by making and applying slurries.

"The process is so important," he said. "I have so many of my mates who say:  ‘Yeah, of course, we do loads of compost’. Yes, but what’s in it? ‘I don’t know, it's just compost’.

"You need to know what is in your compost. Is it aerobic or anaerobic? Is it high protozoa? Is it low fungi, high bacteria? There is so much to think about."

Mr Padwick urged farmers to invest in a microscope to start studying their soil, and said agricultural colleges and universities should be pushing more courses on soil biology.

"We want to prove we can transform and grow a healthier crop," he added. "But also, our cost of production and fixed costs have gone down dramatically, so we have totally de-risked the business as well.

"If it keeps raining, or if the fertiliser price goes up, I don’t mind, because I have spent nothing on it. 

"In the farming magazines, every page you turn has an advert by chemical manufacturers, saying: 'You need to buy this'. But you don’t. We haven’t used a fungicide here for four years.

"We are absolutely moving the dial. We are starting to see things starting to change, but the proof of the pudding will be this harvest.

"Anyone can make compost, but we have really pushed to make the right compost, with the right microbes in it to affect the soil and change the plants we are growing. I cannot wait to see the results."

Eastern Daily Press: Estate director Nick Padwick with compost made at Wild Ken Hill, near Snettisham in west NorfolkEstate director Nick Padwick with compost made at Wild Ken Hill, near Snettisham in west Norfolk (Image: Chris Hill)