Educating farmers on soil health

CN-MR-1-Educating farmers 1by Laura Rodley
Dysfunctional soil in your fields can’t attend a self-help program. It needs your help to bring it back to life, following nature’s system of using microbes and nutrients in organic matter to bring it back to life. Benefits include higher crop yield, less petroleum-based product use, less pesticide use, and a way to keep water in the soil through crop cover rather than irrigating, cutting down erosion, and a reverse of drought conditions in pockets throughout the country.
How do you do that? By planting cover crops that are rolled over and by not tilling, or reducing tilling, and keeping your soil always covered which forms a detritusphere, or armor.
“Don’t watch your neighbors. You’ll go broke. Watch nature, make money. We want you to make lots of money,” said Soil Health expert Ray Archuleta — a.k.a. Ray The Soil Guy — from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) National Soil Health Team in Greensboro, NC, as he spoke to 30 farmers and students at UMass Crops and Education Farm in South Deerfield during a workshop on sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of their nationwide effort to educate farmers about soil health, the UMass Extension, and Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.
Just by chance, they happened to be promoting it in Massachusetts during Earth Week.
Educating farmers is not new. “The focus on educating farmers on its benefits, that’s what’s new,” said Diane Baedeker Petit, USDA spokesperson. After a year in planning stages, the event kicked off in October. “This is the first workshop of its type in Massachusetts. Ray’s been going around the country,” said Petit, teaching people.
What has the response been? Archuleta answered, “It’s amazing. We’re desperate. We’ve been dependent on petroleum-based products and it’s killing us. Farmers are looking for another solution; couldn’t afford not to. Working with nature’s system changes the whole paradigm,” he said.
“Never seen a time that is more critical. Do you know that farms stop making money when they pay for fertilizer at 85 cents a pound? The era of low-cost petroleum is approaching an end,” he said. “When I left school, I thought soil was a gigantic chemistry set. That’s what we were taught. They taught us, spray baby, spray,” later realizing, “We’re doing this wrong. We’ve pierced the heart of modern agriculture. Underpinning is petroleum. Use a lot less, use tractors running off vegetable oil, off rotation, weaning farmers off rotation,” he said.
It’s all about the microbes. “Spray too much, it impacts organisms. Organic farmers till too much; it’s the only tool they use to terminate weeds,” Archuleta said, advocating change. “We have a lot of work to do.” Some farmers he is keeping tabs on using no-till, and crop covers are no longer using crop insurance. “Organic matter is their insurance,” he said.
How does the no-till system allow water to penetrate the soil? According to Archuleta, the soil becomes more porous since the microbes and aggregates have had a chance to work, as well as releasing food in the form of carbon. “Nature’s covered 24/7,” he noted.
“What happens when an organism is missing? It collapses,” said Archuleta. “Do you want to buy your fertilizer or have your soil to buffer on its own?” he asked.
According to research, commercial fertilizer is 30 to 50 percent efficient, since much of it is not utilized by the plant, said David Lamm, also on hand from the NRCS National Soil Health Team. “It’s setting you up to lose 50 cents on the dollar and cause environmental problems down the road,” he said.
On the winning side: every one percent of increased soil organic matter equals twelve percent crop yield, he noted. Animals play an important part in soil health, too. Weeds can be kept down by mob grazing. “Cows eat the weeds, become very aggressive grazers. Go grass-based dairying,” said Archuleta. “We’ve separated animals from our agrisystem. Nature never attempted to farm without animals,” said Archuleta. “Gotta have urine and manure to prime microbes.”
Even earthworms are an indicator of soil health. One or two per shovel indicates poor health; ten to twelve indicates good health.
“Nature is redundant and diverse,” said Archuleta; therefore resilient. “The typical farm is not resilient,” he said. Continuous wheat planting gets bugs kicking in; rotating and diversifying discourages them.
He advocates planting 90 day corn versus 110 corn, then planting covers. “It will give you freedom, versus being a tenant farmer,” he said.
Compacted soil is a result of continuous tilling. Ruth Hazzard of the UMass Extension Vegetable Team spoke regarding farmers and their own four year trials using deep zone tillage. The $9,000 DZT zone builder tiller tills a five inch wide strip to simultaneously break up plow pans, warm soil, and prepare a seedbed. It allows one trip through the field before planting, less fuel, less equipment, and fewer hours to prepare a field. However, one hundred percent of the growers who bought DZT zone builders reported Phytophthora capsici in their fields, a blight affecting pepper and squash. “Once it’s there, can’t rotate away from the problem,” she said.
The long term benefits of teaching good soil health will allow the USDA “to assist more farmers,” noted Petit. Rather than a farmer needing financial aid for a more efficient irrigation system, he won’t need that. “It’s a more holistic approach, not a Band-Aid; looking at the big picture,” said Petit. For example, last year in eastern Massachusetts, a farmer using the no-till system, and “not irrigating fields at all, made it through the drought,” she said.
Bringing their soil back to life can take farmers through an unstable economy, into the future. The USDA is promoting that all around the country. For more information, access www.ma.nrcs.usda.gov.

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