USDA Soil Scientist Reveals Simple Tips for Improving Soil Health
August 30, 2015
By Dr. Mercola
The health of the soil in which our food is grown is intimately connected to our health, not to mention the environment as a whole.
Ray Archuleta, aka "the Soil Guy," is a soil scientist and conservation agronomist at the United States Department of Agriculture - Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) at the East National Technology Support Center (ENTSC) in Greensboro, North Carolina.
"I've been working for the government for about 30 years. It was during the last 10 years that I started discovering that we weren't fixing our resource issues.Once Ray got a job at the East National Technology Service Center, he was finally exposed to the right people with the right paradigm and began learning how a farm connects to and is part of the natural ecosystem.
Our water quality wasn't getting better, and the farmers were going broke. The worst thing about it is I couldn't help them.
Even though I went to eight years of university studies, I realized that I didn't understand how the soil and the ecosystem function. That led to the fact that I couldn't help the producers save their farms," he says.
"I think the majority of our farmers think that the farms are separate from the woods or the prairie. But I started realizing that the soils still want to be treated like those prairies and like those woods.
Simply stated, soil health is the soil's ability to function, to sustain animals, plants, humans, and our climate. The healthier the soil is, the more it functions properly.
If I would use one word to explain soil health, I would say biomimicry: mimicking nature, the biology and the ecology, to make it function.
Keeping the soil covered, having living root, bringing diversity, and integrating animals — those are principles we teach to make soil healthy and functioning."
Gabe Brown was one of the first to introduce me to the concept of "soil armor," basically providing the soil with a shield of protection in the form of mulch or wood chips, or by using a cocktail of cover crops.
Bare soil is a recipe for poor soil health, as it dries up the soil and prevents the soil microbes from thriving. So making sure the soil is covered is a foundational step, no matter what the size of your farm or garden.
"A plant doesn't just cover the soil but it's a biological primer. It's an energy transformer. It feeds the soil microbiology. It's so critical for people to understand that it's not just a cover for protection, but it's a biological primer and energy transformer.The thing is, unless you provide the soil with armor, nature will try to provide it — typically with intensified weed growth! That's why I'm a big fan of mulch, which can cut weeds by nearly 90 percent. It can also cut water needs in half.
So, the plants are absolutely critical for the soil ecosystem. The ironic thing is that a majority of our producers think that cover crops are optional. They look at them as just something to stop erosion."
My favorite is wood chips as they provide plenty of carbon, are great food for earthworms, radically increase mycorrhizal fungi, and are very inexpensive if not free. But cover crops will do the same thing, and is easier to use on a farm.
"Carbon is the driving cycle," Ray explains. "It drives the phosphorus - and nitrogen cycle. It is the driving force because it is the one that feeds the soil organisms.
And that photosynthetic material leaks into the soil rhizosphere, and it feeds the biology and it drives the soil biology.
So, to me, carbon is the most limiting nutrients in our soils todays because we till it so much, we don't use covers, and we strip all the armor away. Most of our soils are carbon depleted, so carbon is the most critical."
USDA Now Prioritizes Soil Health
Fortunately, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is part of the USDA and the major agency that works with private land owners, farmers, and ranchers, has become very committed to understanding and teaching about soil health.
Not only will regenerating our soils lead to improved food production, it also addresses a majority of resource concerns, such as water.
When you add carbon back into the soil, either by adding mulch or cover crops, the carbon feeds mycorrhizal fungi that eventually produce glomalin, which may be even better than humic acid at retaining water, so that you limit your irrigation needs and make your garden or fields more resilient during droughts.
"Our chief, Jason Weller, requires that all of us, every NRCS employee, be taught soil health so it spread through the whole agency. So, it is a priority for NRCS to not only learn soil health and to teach our employees but also to facilitate it at the ground level to our farmers and ranchers. This movement is growing by leaps and bounds... I think modern agriculture is turning the corner," Ray says.Considering data suggesting we may lose all commercial top soil, globally, in the next 60 years if we keep going at the current rate, such changes cannot move fast enough.
The NRCS website is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about soil health, and farmers wanting to change their system. At present, about 10 percent of US farmers have started incorporating practices to address soil health. Only about two percent have transitioned to full-on regenerative land management, such as that taught by Gabe Brown.
So there's still plenty of room for improvement. But it's certainly a start, and the winds of change are picking up. One incentive for farmers, once they understand the system, is that it can save them quite a bit of money, improving the profitability of their farm.
"It helps wean them off costly chemical fertilizers, helps them reduce the fungicide cost, the insecticide cost. Going to no-till farming with cover crops, integrating animals, and in farming more like nature, they're reducing a lot of their petroleum-based inputs. This is phenomenal. It also saves them work. And they can see how the farm soil is improving, and they get excited about that.
I've had farmers said, 'You know what? Right now, I am excited about farming, and I haven't been excited about farming in years.' Some of them say, 'Now, I have hope.' That's really encouraging. The number one thing I do is get people to look at the soil differently, as a living ecosystem. I think that's the number one thing. If I cannot convince them to do that, they won't do the rest of the practices."
Anyone Can Grow Food
The late Jerry Brunetti introduced the idea of Victory Gardens during World War I and II, when it was advertised as a way for patriots to make a difference on the home-front. At that time, the majority of the produce grown in the US was grown right in people's backyards, and I firmly believe we need to revert back to growing our own food.
We don't have to rely on large-scale commercial agriculture and industrial agriculture. And you don't need an entire farm to grow some of your own food. All you need to do is convert some of your decorative landscaping to edibles if you have a front – or backyard. Or you can grow food in containers if you live in an apartment. Community gardens are another option.
"I love the idea of victory gardens," Ray says. "I think one of the most powerful ways to reconnect people back to the land. We're connected very well with our cellphones but we're incredibly disconnected from the natural resource, and I think the victory garden would be a great way to do that and spread that kind of understanding. And it's simple.
I think that's where we have to go because one of my biggest concerns, too, is our farms are too big. A lot of producers don't want to hear that. I'm telling them they're farming too many acres and it's hard to do it right. I tell a lot of young farmers, 'You're better off doing it with the acreage you have. Learn how to do it right. Learn the management skills. Learn the logistics. You're better off than buying and farming another hundred acres.'"
Tips for the Garden Enthusiast
YouTube is a fantastic resource where you can learn a lot, including how to optimize your garden and grow your own food. To start off, search YouTube using the keywords "no-till garden." Tilling your soil is a major mistake, as it destroys valuable soil life and promotes weed growth. When you till, you break up the aggregates, waking up R-strategist bacteria that consume the glomalin, the organo-mineral complexes or organic matter that acts like a glue in the soil and help retain water. So tilling is profoundly counterproductive.
Instead, do what Ray suggests:
"Get some cardboard, lay it on top [of the soil], get your leaves, get a bunch of compost, smother the grass there, and start layering that like a lasagna. When you're ready to plant your tomatoes, you just create a hole right through, pierce the cardboard into the soil beneath, and let it go. That's all you have to. And then every season after you get your vegetables up, plant a cover crop. It's that simple."Keep in mind you do not want to plant in the composting materials on the top of your cardboard, or directly into the pile of wood chips. You need to drop your plants through all of that material into the soil underneath. The mulch just helps protect your plants and nourish the soil. Another important point: do not mix the wood chips into your soil, as that ties up nitrogen. Simply place the wood chips on top of the soil and leave them; do not bury them.
There are also a number of excellent books available these days. Ray recommends Carrots Love Tomatoes: Companion Planting for a Healthy Garden, which teaches you how to do intercropping of vegetables. Certain vegetables grow better when joined by other plants. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) website also has a number of books, including one of cover crops that, along with many others, can be read online for free if you don't want to purchase a paper copy.
Two Ways to Use Cover Crops
There are two ways to use cover crops. One way is to simply plant the cover crop once you've grown and harvested your regular crop. This way the soil is not left bare, and the cover crop basically becomes mulch for the next growing season. The second way is to mix the cover crop in with the regular crops during the growing season — a system called intercropping. Here, you have to make sure the crops go well together.
For example, if you're growing sweet corn, you could use clover, as it does not compete too much with the corn while building the mycorrhizal network. So intercropping requires you to learn which crops support and benefit each other.
"Some producers will grow cowpeas or soybeans next to their corn. Again, it's a legume and the legumes, at the bottom, have these nodules that these rhizobia bacteria nodulate and get nitrogen from the air and they transform it to a soluble form that the plants can utilize," Ray explains. "The legume will build this underground network, and they feed each other, share resources: nutrients, phosphorus, and water. It's just beautiful."
Going Beyond Organic...
From my perspective, one of the best ways to optimize your health is to grow your own food. Not to mention the fact that gardening can help boost your mental well-being, and may help promote a healthier microbiome to boot, if you allow yourself to get a bit dirty.
Once you get started, I think you'll find that little compares to the joy of interacting with nature, watching your garden grow and flourish, knowing that you're going to get nutrient-dense foods that are not only nourishing you and your family but also helpful for the environment.
"I see so much parallelism between the medical institutions and agricultural institutions," Ray says. "There's really no buy-in from the people themselves. In other words, I think we're not going to change dramatically until people start educating themselves and have skin in the game, which leads to soul of the game...
I never thought that one person could make a difference, but they can. I have a lot of organic producers I work with, and I love them dearly. I think we need to take it beyond organic as ecological farming because some of the organic farms – I've been all over the country like in California – some of them have the most degraded soils, and it's not just about organic, it's above organic.
We're teaching people how to farm more like nature does and reduce the tillage. Tillage can be as intrusive as chemical fertilizers and pesticides. So for my brothers and sisters of organic, I think [the key] is to help them and teach them also to reduce tillage, do more mulch tillage, and use more of the cover [crops]... Organic means they're not using chemicals, which is fine. But [healthy soil] is about much more than that."