Work for the soil, scientist says
By Larry Dreiling
"You need to keep your soil covered. Otherwise, it's naked, hungry and running a fever."
So said Ray Archuleta, conservation agronomist on the soil quality team at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service East National Technology Center at Greensboro, N.C., discussing managing cropland for optimum soil health during the keynote address at the annual No-till on the Plains Winter Conference, held recently at Salina, Kan.
Using a demonstration of different soil configurations soaked in water, Archuleta pointed out a disintegrating clod of soil that had been tilled, leading Archuleta to say that for every one percent of U.S. soils not tilled, 19,000 gallons of water is kept from runoff--and giving a rebuff to current agricultural policies that no-till advocates say work against long-term soil health.
"Our policies support this type of agriculture," Archuleta said as the clod and water turned to a dirt-filled reservoir. "We give crop insurance to this type of farming."
He then pointed to a clod of soil kept in no-till for 40 years, holding firm in water.
"This farmer doesn't farm with crop insurance," Archuleta said. "He farms with organic matter. Our farmers who do this sort of work don't fit in well with crop insurance. That has to change. We need to reward the stewards of the planet."
He discussed the farmer from whom he acquired the soil. The farm, located in North Carolina, suffering from the nationwide drought, had received less than 11 inches of rainfall in the 2012 growing season, yet managed to grow a normal silage crop while his neighbors grew nothing.
"You are looking at high-risk farming versus farming in nature's image," Archuleta said. "Conventional farming is intrusive. It is forcing the system. Tillage is destructive to the soil ecosystem."
"You need a love for the land that's not emoting. We need a love for the land that is done in intelligence and wisdom and knowledge. We can no longer be ignorant about it."
Soils must be understood in an ecological, social, national and global context, Archuleta said.
He followed this with several quotes:
"The greatest roadblock to progress is the human mind," Archuleta said. "It is hard to educate a man if his check depends on it.
"We can heal the planet using less energy. The era of plentiful low-cost petroleum is approaching its end. The peaking of world production presents the U.S. with unprecedented risk. Fuel price volatility will increase and without timely mitigation."
Archuleta added the economic, social and political costs of failure to improve soil health would be unprecedented.
"We need to work together to be more efficient, because there are 3 billion people on this planet who want to live like us. This is why we need to know about soil in a global context," he said. We need to manage more and disturb less. Use chemicals with wisdom. And tillage? No. Never."
That's because soil and plants are one.
"When you get the crop off at the end of the season, make it one again. Soil is thirsty, because it has no water. Soil temperatures can rise to 150 degrees. We can install a terrace and call it good, but it will be bare between the terraces," Archuleta said.
"I've told EPA we don't have a runoff problem. We have an infiltration problem. When you till, you destroy the aggregate stability of the soil and it will run off."
He then posited the theory that soil erosion is a major contributor to droughts.
"We used to experience drought five out of every 50 years," Archuleta said. "We now are on pace to have drought 20 out of every 50 years. That is because we have diminished our soils to the point where we've diminished the carbon cycle, and therefore we've created our own droughts.
"The rainfall zone is going off into the ocean because our soils are so hot and not covered since its vegetation that attracts rain. I'm convinced we need to revegetate Africa if we want to heal the planet. It used to be grassland. Hannibal crossed it with elephants on grass. It's now barren. We can and need to bring back the land. Let's teach the planet how to do it so they feed themselves."
Archuleta called for a new method of science education as a way to invigorate young people into eventually teaching science that will be more beneficial to mankind.
"The way we teach science in a reductionist way but forget to look at the whole. We need to walk our farms and look at everything," Archuleta said. "We also need to look at the way we do research, so it's not for the convenience of the researcher but according to the needs of the farmer.
"We need reductionist science. It helped build our cars and buildings. But you can't treat your farm like a car. Plus, we can't throw money at it. We need to be proactive."
Above all, Archuleta said agricultural needs more holistic approaches to growing crops like no-till, in order that soil health can be more easily understood.
"We need to understand our interconnectedness to nature," Archuleta said. "We need to understand the microbes in the soil so we can understand the microbes in the rumen of an animal eating the plant so we can understand the microbes in our own bodies that digest the beef from the rumen animal.
"We are part of a beautiful system, a balanced system. In a tilled system, we have low diversity, high chemical and high biological disturbance. I want the opposite, high diversity, low disturbance."
Management practices that improve the soil health, Archuleta said, will increase farmer productivity and profitability immediately and into the future. This can be accomplished by disturbing the soil as little as possible, growing as many different species of plants as practical, keeping living plants in the soil as often as possible and keeping the soil covered all the time.
"Work with Mother Nature. She will help you," Archuleta said.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at email@example.com.