CRAWFORD AND VERNON COUNTIES - Nationally-known soil scientist Ray Archuleta presented a practical road map for restoration of farm profitability to about 200 farmers gathered at the Tainter Creek Watershed Council’s ‘Reducing Costs and Flood Impacts on the Farm’ events.
The program was held Wednesday, July 25 and Thursday, July 26 at Woodhill Farms in rural Vernon County. Tainter Creek Watershed Council members Brian and Laura McCulloh own Woodhill Farms, located in Franklin Township.
The retired 32-year career soil scientist with USDA-NRCS with an ag school background had a straightforward message for the assembled farmers.
“We got it all wrong,” Archuleta was quick to say. “In our western scientific tradition, we utilize the principle of ‘reductionism,’ which is breaking things down into parts to study them.
“What this results in is viewing the farm system as a collection of disconnected parts, versus viewing it as a living, interdependent whole,” Archuleta said. “Physics and chemistry are easy sciences, compared to biology, which is very complex.”
Archuleta showed event participants two pictures. One was of a car broken down into all of its individual parts, and the other a picture of a whole, fully assembled car.
“Which one do you want to use to try to go to town?” he asked.
“You can’t look at farms as a collection of unrelated pieces,” Archuleta emphasized. “Everything is connected. Instead of teaching ag students this science or that science, they should have been pulling it all together under the general category of ecology.”
Archuleta said he’d had an epiphany about 15 years before when working as an irrigation specialist in Oregon and Idaho.
“I’d set up the irrigation systems for the farm, and then all the water would run off the field,” the soil scientist explained. “The farms just kept getting bigger and bigger, yet they didn’t generate enough income to bring in the next generation without getting bigger yet.
“Why do we need to farm more than 500 acres to make a living, usually with one or both spouses working off the farm as well?” Archuleta asked himself.
Another fact has weighed heavily on Archuleta.
“Farming has one of the highest suicide rates of the top 20-30 occupations in the United States,” Archuleta observed. “It is among the most difficult jobs on the planet. By the time you pay for seeds, inputs and taxes, only 14 percent of $1 spent on food goes to the farmer.”
Archuleta believes that with modern, science-based farming, in addition to all the economic and operational stresses and pressures, there is also a spiritual gap that has taken away the satisfaction and stewardship from farming.
“Christians used to be more spiritual about the land,” Archuleta said. “A farm is not just a machine composed of separate, collected parts, but rather a living whole. The scientists focused on chemistry and physics, and forgot biology.”
Keep it covered
Archuleta said that all farming systems, whether organic, which relies on tillage to control weeds, or no-till monocultures, are falling short of optimal productivity. He emphasized that tillage should really be called ‘tillagecide,’ because it destroys the soil microbiology and reduces water infiltration.
“When you till the soil, you wake up the bacteria, which consume the carbon in the soil and release it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide,” Archuleta explained. “This, in turn, deprives the soil microbiology of their food and causes the aggregates of sand and silt to collapse, which results in compaction and lack of air spaces to capture the rainfall.”
Even no-till without cover crops will produce these unwanted results, because when you leave the soil uncovered after harvest, with no living roots in it, then you are not building and restoring the soil biology, according to Archuleta. When you don’t have the ‘glue’ in the soil to hold it together, then the soil doesn’t hold calcium or nutrients.
“No-till just prevents destruction of the house, but it is cover crops that feed the factory workers and create the glues,” Archuleta told the event participants. “Corn and beans are not enough. The worst thing you can do is to leave the ground bare – this is why farmers are going broke.”
Archuleta explained that when you maintain a continual cover on the soil, preferably multi-species, this protects the soil like a ‘skin,’ preventing compaction, feeding the soil biology with a diversity of plant exudates, and supporting the formation and maintenance of soil aggregates. This, in turn, produces nitrogen so the need for inputs is reduced, and maintains the air spaces in the soil so that the rainfall stays in the soil where the farmer needs it, and doesn’t run off into the water.
“Sixty percent of the water in our system comes from the oceans,” Archuleta said. “A little known fact is that the other 40 percent comes from inland evaporative transpiration. We’ve disrupted the ‘little’ water cycle, and that’s why we’re getting the bigger rains. And flooding is basically a problem of lack of infiltration in the soil.”
Archuleta explained that after soybeans, which have small, weak roots, fertility drops because the plant leaks nitrogen. Too much nitrogen in the soil destroys the glues that hold the soil aggregates together and allow for water infiltration.
These days, Archuleta explained, farmers are just throwing chemicals at the problems. Tillage buries the weed seeds, and causes more weeds to grow, and uncovered no-till soil grows weeds as an attempt to heal itself by covering itself.
“Once healthy soils are cycling, nitrogen will not be an issue,” Archuleta explained. “You have to focus on the carbon first – the nitrogen processes the food, and 90 percent of nitrogen comes from the soil microbes. When you apply a chemical fertilizer, only about 40 percent reaches the plant, and 60 percent is leached.
“I don’t know about you,” Archuleta said. “But I much prefer to sign the back of checks versus the front.”
Archuleta is a big advocate of including animals in farm systems, managing for optimal soil health.
“The number one question I get is about how to do no-till organic,” Archuleta said. “You cannot successfully do organic no-till without animals, and grazing versus haying will do wonders for your soil health.”
Archuleta pointed out it is not necessary to till in your manure. Nature doesn’t till.
“The creator didn’t make the buffalo with a disc on their rear end,” Archuleta joked. “Aeration comes from roots, worms and critters in the soil, and they don’t require diesel – you just have to feed them. Living plants capture solar energy to make carbon energy. Plants are the mouth of the soil.”
Archuleta spoke to event participants about the ‘heartbreak of haying’ or of overgrazing a pasture.
“Don’t cut so low, let your animals eat the last cutting in the field, and don’t take from the field every year,” Archuleta advised. “Bale grazing is a great option, and you should try to take the carbon back where you took it from. Every bale of hay that is taken off the land removes $40 of nutrients.”
Biomimicry, which is the art of finding solutions to problems by mimicking the tried and true methods of nature, is the future of agriculture, according to Archuleta. He described a coming ‘revolution’ in agriculture, which he called ‘regenerative agriculture.’
“If you get the ecology right on your farms,” Archuleta said, “then the money will follow.”
Archuleta lamented that ag professionals are never taught this in school, because “biology is complicated.” Instead, he said, “we are taught that we have to control, manipulate and force in order to achieve yields.
“I’m not telling you how to run your farms, not to till or not to use chemical inputs,” Archuleta said. “I’m telling you to be very careful with your tools. To run a healthy, economically successful farm operation, you have to pursue regeneration – you have to love and nurture your soils and farm systems, and you have to give back more than you take.”
Archuleta urged farmers to re-tool their farm operations to run on ‘new sunlight’ versus ‘old sunlight.’ What he means by this is that by maintaining continuous cover on the land with cover crops, and reducing or eliminating tillage, farmers can use the health of the soil biology to reduce inputs and increase profitability.
“When your inputs go down, that’s when your profitability will go up,” Archuleta said. “Urge your local agricultural suppliers to support farmers growing cover crops and managing for soil health – after all, the only ones getting rich selling farmers agricultural chemicals are the manufacturers – not the farmer or the ag supplier.”