Farmers Need to Take Care of the Little Guys — in the Soil

12/14/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

EAST EARL, Pa. — Eight years ago, Ray Archuleta was at a loss.

He was working as a USDA agent in Oregon. His friend, a frugal Mormon farmer, wanted to pass the farm on to his son, and his son wanted to farm. The transition was not possible, though, because input costs were so high that the farm was unprofitable.

And Archuleta did not know how to fix his friend’s problem.

He had not yet recognized that the man was destroying his soils by not taking care of soil microorganisms.

“I gave bad advice because I did not see the wholes,” Archuleta, who now works as a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service soil health expert in North Carolina, told hundreds of farmers Dec. 9 at Shady Maple Banquet Center.

Archuleta was the keynote speaker at a daylong gathering organized by the Elanco Region Source Water Collaborative, an effort of municipalities and water authorities to protect drinking water sources in the northeastern part of Lancaster County.

Farmers should “follow nature’s template” and see their farms as operating ecosystems that they can either damage or help thrive, Archuleta said. Keeping soil organisms healthy will lead to healthier soils and cleaner water with less runoff.

Soil is not merely a medium for food to grow; it is itself living. “You need to deal with ecology. Your farm is alive,” he said.

Not paying attention to the soil’s condition would be like a husband not talking to his wife, he said.

Still, “the majority of our farmers are disconnected from their land,” he said.

Archuleta said tillage disrupts the natural soil ecosystem by breaking up fungal colonies and awakening a class of bacteria Archuleta called “little piranhas.”

“(They) will eat the glues,” such as the protein glomalin, that hold soils together, he said.

The glues naturally last about 27 days, so farmers need to continually feed the microbes that make them, he said. Without the glues, the soils are more likely to fall apart and be carried away by rain.

Improving soil health can increase water retention by 17,000 to 25,000 gallons per acre, he said. Forestland can absorb 100 times more rainfall in an hour than conventionally tilled soil while producing a tenth of the runoff.

No-till farming on its own is not enough, however. No-till farms can still erode unless they are paired with cover crops, he said.

Cover crops and manure are also a vital source of carbon, which the microbes need for food.

Cover crops can provide a year-round buffer from the rain. While “manure is awesome,” it will just run off if applied on frozen soil, Archuleta said.

The most limiting element in soil is not nitrogen but carbon, he argued. Organic matter is 58 percent carbon.

“Fertilizer does not feed the plant, ladies and gentlemen. Soil does,” he said.

Cover crop roots break through compacted soil at 1,400 pounds per square inch, and roots leak sugar, amino acids, enzymes and other foods for soil microbes, he said.

Good and Bad

The costs of mistreating soil are painfully evident across the country. In Archuleta’s native New Mexico, land that was prairie in the 1960s is now populated with mesquite, a desert plant.

In Colorado earlier this year, “I saw the Dust Bowl happen in my lifetime,” he said. Wind storms blew huge clouds of dust, and the rivers looked like chocolate.

Farmers are repeating some of the mistakes that led to the 1930s agricultural disaster rather than taking care of the soil, he said.

Archuleta also told some success stories.

One of the farmers Archuleta works with in North Carolina has dropped from using five herbicides to one and has not applied inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus in years.

The farmer discovered in a surprising way that he did not need to use fertilizer. “The chain fell off the rig, and he saw no difference,” Archuleta said.

He told of one beef farmer who has cattle that gain 3.1 pounds per day by mob, or high-density, grazing on a cover crop mix.

In this technique, the animals are grouped tightly together and moved frequently over different parts of the field, concentrating waste and giving the pasture time to recover between grazings.

The technique mimics nature because predators kept bison in tight herds, Archuleta said.

The cows should eat only about 40 percent of the grass in a pasture before being moved. “I want most of that grass trampled” to give food to the soil life, he said.

Archuleta also described a father-and-son team in North Dakota that has automated its high-density grazing using paddocks that open and close by solar-powered timers. They also house chickens in a modified horse trailer they pull through the pastures behind the cattle.

The two men manage 6,000 acres by themselves.

Fixing Fragility

Modern agriculture, like many other sectors, has “preached the gospel of efficiency,” Archuleta said.

The emphasis on efficiency forces farmers to rely on many inputs instead of being self-sufficient. As a result, agriculture is a fragile industry that does not handle volatility well, he said.

Energy is a major cause of farming’s fragility. China and India’s increasing demand for oil, and the United States’ continuing reliance on it, will likely drive oil prices higher.

Pesticides add to the fragility because their prices are likely to keep going up, and manufacturing them requires gigantic amounts of oil and natural gas.

Organic farming is not necessarily the answer. “Some of the most degraded farms I’ve seen in California are organic farms,” he said.

Regulation is also not the best way to make farming more stable because it relies too heavily on enforcement, Archuleta said.

It would be better to have people unite based on principles, and better yet to have virtuous people who love their neighbors and the land find ways to keep soil and water healthy, he said.

“You are the most anti-fragile people I’ve known,” he told the mostly Mennonite group, citing their tight-knit community.

Farmers should also diversify so they can withstand times when, for example, the corn price is down.

Farmers should have the goal of saying, “I’m not dependent on external forces,” he said.

“Technology will not save us,” but humility, understanding and love for each other — and maybe even for the soil microbes — can, he said.

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