Soil Health: Numbers vs. Knowing

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Sometimes it takes a bit of an evangelist to remind us that praying at the altar of facts and figures can blind one to how they all connect in the bigger picture. In the case of production systems that build soil health, that preacher is Ray Archuleta.

“The soil is naked, hungry, thirsty and running a fever,” said Archuleta during a presentation at the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health in February. Archuleta’s talk, which is featured on a recent LSP Ear to the Ground podcast, is peppered with this kind of blunt, colorful language. And the Natural Resources Conservation Service conservation agronomist doesn’t mince words when he says sick soil is something we all need to take personally. It’s the difference between “informational knowing” and “personal knowing.”

Informational knowing is acknowledging the latest data showing how cover crops, for example, can increase organic matter by a certain percentage and that in turn can result in more consistent corn yields down the line. Personal knowing is seeing the connections between having more living plant systems on the ground year-round and increased soil biota and how that healthier soil food web can have a domino effect on everything from how resilient a farm field is under adverse weather conditions to how clean the water is in the local watershed to how, ultimately, profitable that agricultural enterprise is.

“Informational knowing is where you go, ‘I see.’ But personal knowing goes into your soul, your inner being, and you understand. You go, ‘I see.’ ” Archuleta told a group of scientists, conservation agency personnel and farmers. “Unless our producers and our society goes at this on a personal level, personal knowing, we will not heal our land. It will be all academic and talking points.”

Archuleta is the kind of soil conservationist who is not afraid to use terms like “soul” and “inner being” when speaking to just about any group. Check out videos of his presentations and it becomes clear he’s comfortable preaching the soil health gospel to farmers large and small, conventional and not-so-conventional. It helps that his passion for the resource is accentuated with a gift for communication and a bit of entertaining theatrics. Archuleta’s soil slaking presentation, for example, has a succinct way of making, in just a few moments, even the most uninitiated audience member immediately see the difference between building our soil and mining it.

Tools vs. Systems

Society at large has a major stake in seeing a practice like cover cropping adopted, given its environmental benefits. The current issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation reports that utilizing extensive cover cropping in just five states, including Minnesota, could cut overall nitrate loadings in the Mississippi River by 20 percent, which could play a significant role in reducing the size of the hypoxic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico downstream. This is especially good news in Minnesota, where Pollution Control Agency research shows 73 percent of the nitrogen escaping into the state’s rivers is coming from cropland.

The Journal of Soil and Water Conservation results, which are just the latest in a long line of cover cropping benefits being documented by scientists, help bolster the argument for planting something like winter rye after corn harvest in the fall. But they don’t necessarily provide farmers the incentive to make cover cropping part of an integrated, holistic system for building long-term soil health. In fact, even studies showing that cover cropping can help maintain yields of cash crops like corn and soybeans won’t necessarily close the deal for farmers concerned about the hassle factor of adding yet one more tool to their production system.

Reading the numbers reported by such a studies allows one to see, but hearing Archuleta put it all together and talk about “farming in nature’s image” makes one actually see. There’s no better example of that than North Dakota’s Burleigh County, where farmers, scientists and soil conservationists are opening up a lot of people’s eyes to the opportunities available when soil is treated as a living system, and not just a plant stand.

“Farmers, once they have the understanding, they will find a way to make it work,” he maintains. Shovel Worms

“Understanding” is a key word here. For example, in much of agriculture these days, “soil health” and “cover cropping” are often used interchangeably. That’s not a completely bad thing, considering that cover cropping does produce numerous benefits above and below the surface of the soil. However, as Archuleta reminds us, cover cropping is a tool, a tool that can be applied without necessarily having a deep understanding of how having more plant life present in a field before and after the typical growing season sparks the kind of long-term biological activity that produces multiple benefits far down the line.

Archuleta concedes he graduated from college with a reductionist view that you could apply one practice to a field while ignoring all of the wider impacts—positive and negative—that practice was having on the rest of the ecosystem. He now understands that “it’s about relationships and understanding interconnectedness” and until the principles of ecology are applied to farming, agriculture will never be truly sustainable.

Recognizing ecological relationships is key when things don’t go as planned, which is often the case in farming. Farmers who have tried cover cropping in recent years have had mixed results, particularly during the oftentimes brutally short growing season we have in states like Minnesota. If cover cropping is just an isolated tool, it’s much easier to drop it and return to business as usual when things go awry. But when such a practice is part of an integrated system involving no-till and livestock, for example, it has value beyond just covering the land for a season. In no-till systems, cover crops can help suppress weeds and break up soil compaction. And if a farmer has cattle, cover crops can provide a cheap source of feed while closing the nutrient cycle.

Farmers who adopt cover crops and stick with them tend to use them as part of other innovative practices, says Rob Myers, who has conducted in-depth surveys on farmers’ use of cover cropping in the Upper Mississippi River watershed. Using such a comprehensive systems approach to build soil health makes it more likely a farmer will make such practices a permanent part of an operation, according to Myers, who is the regional director of Extension Programs for the north central region of the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

Making connections and understanding their context requires close observation. Archuleta is a big believer in farmers getting off the tractor, taking out a shovel and literally digging in to assess the impacts their production systems are having on the health of their soil. One can tell a lot from how dirt looks, smells and feels. When he gives presentations around the country, the agronomist is genuinely shocked at how few farmers closely monitor the well-being of their soils. That’s too bad, because nothing builds personal knowing like grubbing into a handful of prime loam. It can create the kind of awareness that allows a farmer to see connections.

A few years ago I watched Martin and Loretta Jaus lead a group of government agency wildlife experts on a tour of their Sibley County dairy farm. The experts were there to see the songbirds, raptors and other critters that call this organic operation home. The farmers talked about how they have integrated diverse, multi-year crop rotations and rotational grazing of livestock to build up a farm that’s economically and environmentally sustainable. But before the natural resource professionals left, Martin made a point of spading up a double handful of soil and allowing the professional conservationists breath in its fragrant life. His point was clear: whether it’s wildlife or milk, it all starts with this stuff.

As Loretta told Minnesota Public Radio earlier this week: “It’s a pretty sweet system when you let it work.”

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