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Soil health and sustainability: Reflections on a presentation from Ray Arhculeta

By Maggie Harthoorn

Man working in a gardenOn April 1, 2014, I attended a speech by Ray Archuleta—NRCS soil heath guru—at Iowa State University, titled Soil Health and Sustainability.  Ray promotes conservation on agriculture land and encourages ideas such as no-till farming and cover crops. He has held a number of conservation positions throughout his career in the Natural Resources field and is currently traveling the country to present his Soil Health and Sustainability lecture to students, farmers, natural resource professionals, and many other conservation enthusiasts or critics.

Ray started his presentation by asking demographic questions about the audience to inventory what current professions were present. He then asked everyone if they had been taught to farm or plant gardens to improve nature. When no one in the audience responded yes to this question, Ray explained that this is the current trend in the United States. He says that our human race has become disconnected from nature. This statement really opened my mind to the ideas presented throughout the rest of his presentation.

To demonstrate Ray’s main point that soil health decline is directly related to the way current farming practices disturb it Ray performed a variety of demonstrations. The goal of these demonstrations was to show the difference between soil found in a natural setting and soil that has been tilled and has been given additional chemical applications. His demonstrations showed that disturbed soil does not allow water to filtrate as well as soil that has not been tilled. Soil is made of sand, silt, and clay. Tilling agriculture land breaks the glues that hold these particles together, so soil collapses. It is the farmer’s job is to keep the “glue” in the soil.

Nature uses living organisms, such as earthworms, ants, and nematodes, to till the soil.  These organisms don’t break the glue that holds the soil togetherIf the glue bonds in soil have been broken, the pores collapse and a clod of soil falls apart when placed into water, as was demonstrated by Ray. Clods of healthy soils stay together when placed in water. If soil is healthy and undisturbed then it is also going to perform better in flood events because the pores are not collapsed and water infiltrates into it rather than running off. To sum up this idea Ray then stated, “tillage is not your friend”.

Copiotrophic bacteria are “R strategists” activated by tillage or fertilizers that are dropped on soil causing these bacteria to multiply. These bacteria eat organic matter and biotic glues (mineral complexes) created by organisms and mycorrhizae that holds soil. Organisms die, nitrates are lost, and weeds begin to spread. He calls weeds “nature’s scabs” for damaged soil. If we don’t want to battle weeds we should not be damaging the soil.

After demonstrating what current agriculture practices are doing to soil health, Ray focused on the fact that soil should be viewed as a living ecosystem, not a medium for growing plants. He also pointed out that no climate issues, whether they are severe weather patterns or depleting energy resources, can be fixed without fixing soil issues because soil is the foundation of everything. Ray said our soil is “naked, thirsty, and running a fever”, and it is important for us to realize this now before it is too late.

To manage for better soil usage it is important to practice holism through ecology. Nature works in wholes or cycles and patterns, and we should treat ecosystems as how they would naturally perform. If ecosystems are healthy they will produce higher yield and in turn be better for the farmer. These systems are self-healing and self-regulating, but we need to have faith in them.

We talk about the need for conservation in natural resource systems at Iowa State, so it is satisfying to see the ways our forestry curriculum is preparing us for work in this field after we graduate. It was also encouraging to see the enthusiasm that the farmers present at Ray’s lecture have for these new conservation practices. The future of the soil on their lands is in their hands.

One of Ray’s main goals is to explain these basic problems and principles to as many people as possible. It is easy to present data and facts to all of these people, but Ray attempts to give his audiences a “personal knowing” so that the information will reach their hearts. We can help Ray to reach this goal. He has instilled his pride for conservation in those of us who were present at his lecture, and we in turn can instill this pride in others that we attempt to educate. With this goal in mind a change can be made for the future health of our soils.

Ray ended his presentation by saying “Our goal is to teach and educate our people. Change 20 million hearts and minds who will teach children and it will be perpetual, simply because it is the right thing to do. Build robust and resilient ecosystems. To survive beyond the 21st century we must learn to farm like nature. The template is there, we need to recognize it.”

This guest post is by Maggie Harthoorn, an undergraduate student at Iowa State University majoring in forestry.