soil health academy

Participants at the Aug. 13-15 Soil Health Academy got down and dirty at Dawn and Grant Breitkreutz's Stony Creek Farm in Redwood County, Minn.

REDWOOD COUNTY, Minn. — Are we destroying our soils because we are working them too intensely? That’s a frequent question as agriculture acknowledges increasing production per acre, but declining profitability.

At the three-day Soul Health Academy hosted at Dawn and Grant Breitkreutz’s farm (better known as Stony Creek Farm in Redwood County, Minn.) Ray Archuleta responded this way: “I think we are hurting our soils because it’s the lack of understanding and relationship to nature’s system. In college it seemed I was taught a ‘fear based’ ecology … to control, to enforce and to yield. That was the wrong premise. I should have been taught to emulate, to understand, to nurture nature and work with her, collaborate with her.”

Archuleta was one of the three instructors conducting this mind-probing event which took place Aug. 13-15. The event attracted 40 students from various American colleges, even three from overseas.  Archuleta, along with partners Gabe Brown from North Dakota, and Allen Williams from Mississippi, are the teaching/training team of Understanding Ag. LLC. Understanding Ag is a privately-owned business which conducts soil health studies across America. Classes at Stony Creek were Grant’s farm shop equipped with some chairs and tables, plus two flat-bed trailers when ‘students’ moved from classroom to field labs.  

Archuleta shared some history after WW II when chemical fertilizer became available. Soon thereafter, the industrial chemical industry became the doorway to greater farm productivity and the race was on. “Go back to the 1600s and 1700s, the two sciences that predominated were chemistry and physics.  Biology was so complex nobody really understood it,” said Archuleta. “In the 1930s and 1940s, however, some of the best soils biologists were in Russia. The father of micro-soil biology was a Russian scientist.”

Some of Archuleta’s own history includes seven years with the Peace Corps in Guatemala which impacts his commentary. “Our agriculture is causing more starvation because those Guatemalan farmers can’t compete with American farmers. If we farmed ecologically, we could easily feed 10 billion people!” 

Archuleta shared this startling factoid: “Most of our food gets lost through spoilage, transportation and bureaucratic bungling at all levels.”

Does Archuleta and his two colleagues sense an exceptional hunger amongst students as they teach and explore with them this incredible world of soil biology?

He responded, “People are desperate. They are coming to the same conclusion that modern agriculture is not working. Farm stress keeps building … and thus the increasing number of farm deaths by suicide.

“Farmers are the poorest millionaires I know. They have to maintain millions of dollars of infrastructure just to make a living, yet it’s extremely stressful for many. I call it ‘death by tools’. Everybody selling the tools, such as the farm equipment companies, the fertilizer manufacturer, the chemical industry … all these tool makers are making money while farmers are barely surviving.”

Archuleta, Williams and Brown do indeed travel the world — even doing soil health training sessions in Australia, a vast country of endless miles of dust and desert environments. So why do Australian farmers seemingly get along very well?

Archuleta answered, “Australia is very unique. They have no subsidies. Farmers get no help. But farmers learned that by collaborating with other farmers, this working together enables all to succeed. And they use nature as their template. It’s amazing when no one is giving you a check how quickly you are willing to learn! And that is why Austrailian farmers love coming to America to see what they can learn from U.S. farmers!”

So has the United States Department of Agriculture, through its huge Extension education program, helped fuel this relentless urge towards ever-increasing production?

Archuleta looks back to the 1970s and 1980s when farmers were going broke. “USDA, through extension, started chanting, ’get bigger, get bigger … or get out”. We even had an energetic ag secretary who encouraged ‘fence line to fence line’ crop production; but no remedies to guarantee markets for this excess production. What we really needed to do was get much more diversity into our farmlands.

“The problem is, we have both a human and an animal distribution challenge — what we call Confined Cities … CAFOS. Too many humans in one area; two many animals in one area. We need more people on the land, not more of these mega farms that sprawl across county lines. Today’s average farmer age is 59 and it keeps increasing. Even with automation and GPS driven technologies, this is not forever sustainable. There is a saying: ‘the health and fertility of your soil is in proportion to the number of footsteps you put upon it.’ In simple terms: get too big and you no longer have a relationship with your farm.”

With this growing age gap between the ‘wannabe’ and the 60-plus active duty farmers, are younger people even wanting to be educated about the science of farming?  Do they really even care about the ‘living life’ beneath their shoes?

Archuleta is encouraged. “I am seeing a pattern … the females, our beloved ladies, are picking it up quicker… because farming is nurturing. It’s not forcing, it’s not controlling.”

With productive efficiencies continuing as the capitalistic goal of American agriculture, what’s the future role of the USDA — specifically the nationwide Extension service? Or will U.S. farmers continue to produce beyond market demands simply because that’s what happens in a capitalistic society?

Archuleta hesitated only briefly, then ventured, “Until everyone decides to really want to understand how nature works, we will be a struggling economy. Government never fixes anything. It usually just gets bigger with more and more band-aid fixes. Read the Gospel about the grandiose revolutions like 12 fisherman changing the world; and Martin Luther impacting the entire Christian world. In recent times, Martin Luther King and a small group of people changed society. It’s people with integrity, people with moral standards, and people with love and compassion for the soils of this planet that are making a difference.

So is no-till and cover crops the starting point for a healthier planet?  A self-sustaining earth?

Summed up Archuleta, “The most important thing is changing the way you see things. Understand this: Nature doesn’t till. She has a living root all the time.”   

The 6 Principles of Soil Health:

  1. Know your context. Our soil health practices are a reflection of ourselves and our stewardship of the road.
  2. Do not disturb.  In nature, there is no mechanical or chemical disturbance.
  3. Cover and build surface armor. To protect the soil’s “skin’.
  4. Mix it up with diversity of plants, microbes, insects, wildlife, livestock.  Mother Nature did not grow monocultures so why should we.
  5. Keep living roots in the soil as long as possible each year. Roots feed soil microorganism, which feed our plants.
  6. Grow healthy animals and soil together.  Grazing has been an essential components of all soils at one time or another.