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Let the Revolution Begin

Conservation service focusing on soil health to help meet global food demand

story by Clay Coppedge, Country World Staff Writer

Next month the NRCS will officially roll out a new campaign that focuses on soil health as a way for farmers to meet a growing demand for food from an ever expanding world population. USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Dave White announced the new focus earlier this year.

In advance of the campaign, Ray Archuleta, a Conservation Agronomist with NRCS based in North Carolina, has conducted a series of Soil Health workshops across Texas and much of the rest of the country explaining why tillage is out and cover crops are in and why the next revolution in agriculture won’t be green but brown – the color of dirt.

“The NRCS is changing the way it does business as an agency,” he said at the Blackland Research Center in Temple last month. “No more band aids.”

Arculeta said his own focus shifted when he was working for the NRCS in Oregon and couldn’t help a farmer there hold on to his farm. The farmer had input costs of $300,000 annually, mostly for chemicals and labor, and didn’t have enough left over to pass the farm down to his son. “I didn’t know it at the time but we were standing right on top of the solution,” he said.

A number of NRCS employees attended the workshops, which also served to introduce them to the agency’s soil health campaign. State Agronomist Willie Durham with Texas NRCS said the focus on soil health represents a paradigm shift in the way the agency views agricultural and conservation practices related to soil. He said one of the most common calls he receives is from producers who are putting out more fertilizer but with less production. The problem, he said, is that an over-reliance on chemicals has burned out the soil’s organic matter.

“There is a shift away from the chemistry paradigm,” he said. “We look at soil now as a living system and focus on soil health. We know it’s a paradigm shift and it will be difficult to change but we have the tools - no-till and cover crop…The key to sustainable (agriculture) production is soil health.”

A cornerstone of the approach is a rigid devotion to no-till practices. “Tillage,” Archuleta said, “is the most destructive thing you can do to the soil.”

To make his point, Archuleta showed how a chunk of soil from land that had been tilled dissolved in water compared to a chunk of dirt from no-tilled land. The soil from the no-tilled land held together, absorbed the moisture and remained clear; the tilled dirt dissolved almost instantly and turned the water a chocolate color. The difference, he said, was that the no-tilled soil was held together by “biotic glues.”

“Millions of microorganisms hold the no-till soil together. You have fungus and organic matter and earthworms fusing the particles together and acting as binding agents,” he said. “When you open the soil, it goes into the air. You have essentially burned the house down to warm a hot dog.”

Ohio farmer Dave Brandt has farmed without tillage and with a heavy reliance on cover crops for more than 30 years, or more than a quarter century before the soil health workshops. He attended the Texas workshops to share his results, including higher yields and lower fertilizer and herbicide expenses. He said he quit tilling his land in 1971 because he “didn’t have time to till it.”

Brandt said he uses dozens of cover crops including but by no means limited to hairy vetch, oil seed radishes (which unfortunately smell a lot like natural gas when they are decaying), and winter peas. “Diversity builds resilience,” he said.

“What if we farmed like nature does?” Archuleta asked. “The forest and the prairie create their own fertility. They create their own organic matter and there isn’t a lot of soil disturbance. It’s covered all the time. The farm never stopped being part of the forest or prairie. We can manage it more by disturbing it less, and part of the way we do that is to keep it covered.”

Arculeta said he was one of many scientists who were told in school that they would help a new generation of farmers and ranchers feed the world as part of a “green revolution.”

“Yeah, I drank that Kool-Aid,” Archuleta said. “Actually, it’s going to take every country, every farm, every garden to feed the world. I can give you 3.2 billion reasons - China and India. They want to live like us. They want to eat our kind of meat and chicken. This is more of a ‘brown revolution…’ It will change not only agriculture but the country and the planet as well.”

The NRCS will officially roll out the campaign on Soil Health Management Systems nationally next month. Durham said the initial focus will be on educating producers about the soil and how to make it more productive while reducing input costs for fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

“We will do a lot of teaching,” Durham said. “We will invite growers to workshops to learn about these systems. We want to spend more time with producers individually to show them how this really works and why it works.”

Soil demonstration Ray Archuleta

According to Archuleta, tillage “is the most destructive thing you can do to the soil.” To make his point, Archuleta showed how a chunk of soil from land that had been tilled dissolved in water compared to a chunk of dirt from non-tilled land. The soil from the no-tilled land held together, absorbed the moisture and remained clear; the tilled dirt dissolved almost instantly and turned the water a chocolate color. The difference, he said, was that the no-tilled soil was held together by “biotic glues.”

Ray Archuleta, Conservation Agronomist with NRCS based in North Carolina, has conducted a series of Soil Health workshops across Texas explaining why tillage is out and cover crops are in and why the next revolution in agriculture will be the color of dirt.