Farmers just about filled the new metal building at Dave Brandt’s farm near Lancaster for a Soil Health and Cover Crops Workshop this week. There the apostles of Soil Organic Matter held forth preaching the value of no-till, cover crops, micro-organisms, year-round roots, earth worms, biotic glues and biodiversity. Demonstrations of water holding capacity for soils from various crop production systems drove home the concepts.
At one point Ray Archleta, agronomist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service East region in North Carolina asked his group of farmers to join him on their knees in an overly-well-tilled plot of ground for a soil prayer. Archleta didn’t actually ask the congregation to pray, but he did have them run their fingers through the dry and barren soil looking for any signs of life. There wasn’t much to be found.
“How can you have a relationship with soil if you are not touching it and communicating with it?” Archleta asked. “As you can see when you disk the soil you wake up the copiotrophic bacteria and they eat the organic matter in the soil. When you farm in nature’s image, all the organisms work together. The biocommunity is all connected. And by the way you save money.”
He then asked the farmers to pick their favorite part of a corn plant. “The silks? The stalk? The leaves? The flowers” he asked as he probed for an answer. Pretty quickly a couple of guys responded, “The ears. That’s where the money is.”
Archleta laughed acknowledging their economic understanding. “You should be most interested in the roots,” he added. “To complete the nutrient cycle you need those roots.”
In a nearby soil pit, Brian Cooley, an soil scientist with Ohio NRCS, was showing the difference between the soil under a conventionally farmer field, soil in no-till for 40 years and natural soil under an undisturbed fence row. He noted the presence of much more organic material in the no-till and fence row soils. The result was a moister, darker soil with better water-holding capacity, improved ability to hold nutrients, Better soil structure, more microbial activity and natural glues to help the soil aggregate.
“Roots penetrate this soil better because they can follow earthworm holes and move between the soil aggregates,” he noted.
From the nods along the trench it was clear he was preaching to the choir. When he invited the worshipers in to check for themselves, they were quick to climb in the pit and take communion with the ground.