I’ve succumbed to the soil health bug. How do I know? Well, on a recent kayak adventure in the Adirondacks, I laid awake at night listening to the unencumbered, deafening raindrops hit our tent and envisioned the uncovered soil getting pounded as the chocolate water carried the next generation’s livelihood off the land on which it was born.
My perspective heightens as I look into the eyes of my new granddaughter, Hadley. It reaffirmed for me the importance of holding on to her soil with sod. After all our farm sign says, “Grazing takes care of our roots”.
Because I helped out on Grasstravaganza 2014, I got some face-time over some barbeque with “Soil” Ray Archuleta, a nationally known sensation, orator and soil agronomist from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. His observations about the poor soil health of the greatest country on earth hit me hard. He found it unbelievable that at 53 years old he would experience a modern dust bowl.
When faced with this situation back in 1930, the “Father of Soil Conservation” and director of the Soil Conservation Service, Hugh Hammond Bennett, traveled around the country wielding a sharp tongue to wake the country up to the realities of losing topsoil. He succeeded in arousing national attention where others had failed because he inspired farmers first. The soil wafting over Washington, D.C. didn’t hurt either.
Among his writings, none was more influential than a USDA bulletin co-authored with William Ridgely Chapline titled Soil Erosion: A National Menace. In it, Bennett expressed that after 24 years spent studying the soils of the United States, that soil erosion is the biggest problem confronting the farmers of the nation.
I can respect his conviction because he said what needed to be said, despite being in the crosshairs of public office.
Ray made a powerful observation to me. “Personally, I think we have something more powerful in this soil health movement, than Mr. Bennett did. I am not sure back then, if they understood the correct “premise” of the agency’s first name in calling it, The Soil Erosion Service. Erosion is the effect of poor soil function. Our name should have been the Soil Health Service.”
“I argue we should have never named ourselves the tool or the effects, we should name ourselves the goal! Tools are awesome, but they are not the goal! My goal is not…no-till, cover crops, adaptive grazing or other tools or processes. I am not about a tool, I’m about understanding!!! It takes understanding and wisdom to use the tools correctly. In the words of my friend Gabe Brown; we need to farm in nature’s image.”
Are we witnessing a modern day Hugh Bennett in Ray Archuleta? And will he be able to speak the truth without being sequestered? I believe it to be so because, as he puts it, “the soil health/cover crop/grazing animal excitement is being driven by farmers.”
I like his approach because he talks to all genres of farmers without judging. Through education and demonstration, farmers locally and nationally are getting more resilience in their soils. By keeping the soil covered 24/7 and managing for the millions of microbes with less tillage and less chemicals, farmers are increasing water holding capacity, crop resiliency and on-farm feed production. And with quality soil comes more money in your pocket.
His believers are no slouches and are gaining national attention in the press.
Farmers like Howard G. Buffett, Gabe Brown, Dave Brandt, Steve Groff and Joel Salatin among others are helping to fuel productive conservation using biology instead of chemistry. I have watched fellow farmers get excited about their soil again as Ray performed his slake test and rainfall simulation comparing cultural farming practices on the soil structure. Conversations about building locally robust, productive soils using cover cropping strategies are far more compelling than say, building manure storages.
Ray and his team of soil advocates are not pulling any punches because we need to face the fact: Losing soil and water off the land is unsustainable for agriculture (and us) to continue. We need infiltration not runoff and we needed it yesterday.
I am sold on Ray’s passion after witnessing an on-farm rain demonstration using a no-till soil, overgrazed field and rotationally grazed pasture. An inch of water poured on the overgrazed, compacted soil, completely ran off. The other two soils could only hold 50% of the water before it ran off. So I ask you, if you kept giving me a dollar and all you got back was 50 cents, would you be happy with that return?
The bigger question is how will our compromised soils affect our great grandchildren’s future?
“Out of the long list of nature’s gifts to man, none is perhaps so utterly essential to human life as soil.”
~ Hugh Hammond Bennett