Workshop taps ‘secrets of the soil’
Submitted photo Farmers and farm agents from around the region took part in an all-day workshop Wednesday at the University of Massachusetts Crops Research and Education Farm to look at ways to tap into the soil’s natural capacity to be a vital living system.
SOUTH DEERFIELD — When you get right down to it, there’s almost nothing as basic and magical as soil. It’s easy to take for granted, but 30 or so farmers and farm agents from around the region took part in an all-day workshop Wednesday on ways to tap into the soil’s natural capacity to be a vital living system.
“The soil is a living ecosystem, it’s not a growing medium,” said Ray ‘the Soil Guy’ Archuleta, a soil health specialist from the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Greensboro, N.C., a presenter at the “Building Healthy Soils” workshop at the University of Massachusetts Crops Research and Education Farm. “The soil’s not a chemistry set, with all your little inputs,” said Archuleta. “It’s got myriad organisms we’re trying to feed and protect. Once you understand that, it changes the way you do business.”
Through hands-on soil demonstrations, field observations and more, this soil health session and others the U.S. Department of Agriculture program around the country focuses on building the soil’s natural resiliency through less intrusive, more diverse approaches with less physical, chemical and biological disturbances.
These techniques include low tillage, fewer fungicides and herbicides, less overgrazing and more diverse cover crops.
“We’re teaching people to emulate natural ecosystems to farm more in nature’s image,” said Archuleta.
The “biological” approach emphasizes the importance of microbes in the soil, and how the soil — as the second largest carbon sink after the ocean — could go a long way toward pushing back climate change.
“Our water cycles and carbon cycles are not functioning,” Archuleta said. “The water is running quickly off the land and huge amounts of carbon dioxide are not being sequestered. Once we get these cycles working, we can stabilize the climate. If we fix the soils, we address a huge number of resource issues: we save energy, we save water, we get the water cycling again, the nutrients cycling again. We get healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy animals.”
Archuleta said that because of the rise in petroleum prices, “our farmers are feeling the economic pinch. Our waterways and lakes are feeling it, too, with more nutrient runoff and sediment. It’s causing a lot of problems to our ecosystem. The soil’s not functioning, so we’re losing nutrients, and they’re ending up in our lakes and rivers. Our soils are becoming depleted and can’t hold those nutrients in place. We’re teaching people to mimic nature to make the soil healthy and functioning, and the more we teach them, the less dependeant they are on petroleum-based products. Everybody wins.”
Another workshop leader, Tom Akin, a NRCS conservation agronomist based in South Amherst, said that teaching farmers to increase the carbon in the soil and to cycle nutrients through the soil through a diverse mix of cover crops planted early and properly turned into the soil is key.
One farmer in the eastern part of the state, he said, grows sweet corn and pumpkins without tilling. Last year, according to Akin, “He didn’t have to irrigate during the worst part of the drought. He had beautiful corn, pumpkins and a wonderful organic mulch layer that was keeping the soil cool, it was conserving water, and keeping the soil biology cool. The soil was reliant enough to get thru drought without any added irrigation.”
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