4.8.2016 – Regenerative Agriculture, Soil Health, and Ray Archuleta
One of the topics that has caught the attention of our committee this year is regenerative agriculture. If you go to Wikipedia, you will find the following definition: “Regenerative agriculture is a sub-sector practice of organic farming designed to build soil health or to regenerate unhealthy soils. The practices associated with regenerative agriculture are those identified with other approaches to organic farming, including maintaining a high percentage of organic matter in soils, minimum tillage, biodiversity, composting, mulching, crop rotation, cover crops, and green manures.”
We recently had a group of diversified farmers at the State House for Small Farm Action Day. At that time we heard several of the farmers talk about regenerative agriculture so we decided to have some time dedicated to the subject. We took testimony from additional farmers who employ regenerative agricultural practices and heard positive stories about soil health and reclamation. One young farmer from Shaftsbury told the story of taking over a family farm with a 50-acre hayfield that was covered with brown patches and produced poorly. After careful rotational grazing, the field is producing many times over its former level.
Lindsay Harris of Mountain Home Farm in Tunbridge is a dairy farmer who employs regenerative techniques. Formerly, she sold raw milk from a Hinesburg farm that she rented but is now producing cultured butter, buttermilk, and ricotta cheese. Her animals are grass-fed with no grain and her land is rotationally-grazed with new pasture every 12 hours. Her wonderfully delicious butter (she brought samples with her!) is available at the Brattleboro Food Coop.
Last October, I attended the Farm-to-Plate Gathering at Killington and was lucky to meet Ray Archuleta, a conservation agronomist, who works for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Greensboro, North Carolina. His focus and passion is healthy soils and he is known affectionately as “Ray, the Soils Guy”. He is candid about the fact that he has worked in the soil health field for three decades and got the first 20 years wrong.
Ray is a strong proponent of cover cropping and no-till agriculture, which builds soil health, facilitates carbon sequestration through the air-to-soil feedback loop, reduces or eliminates the need for chemical inputs, and minimizes soil erosion. In other words, farming in nature’s image by using biomimicry practices and agro-ecology principles solves a multitude of problems.
At the Gathering, Ray performed a couple of soil tests to demonstrate the benefits of no-till practices. One was a “slake”, or soil stability test, in which he compared four different air-dried soil samples. He placed the samples in mesh “baskets” suspended at the top of a water-filled cylinder. The samples that came from no-till fields hung together, whereas the tilled samples fell apart, or slaked, due to the disturbed soil chemistry.
The other test was a filtration test in which a rainstorm was recreated in glass cylinders. What was interesting was that while one might think that the tilled soil sample that had been “fluffed up” would let water pass through it more quickly, that is not the case – the no-till sample was the winner. What that means in a very practical sense is that better filtration means less run off. If you would like to view this yourself, go to YouTube and search for Ray Archuleta. The 27-minute video “Soil and Diverse Cover Crops with Ray Archuleta and David Brandt Part 1” gives the basics.
Why is this important and what does this mean for the State of Vermont? As we struggle to clean up Lake Champlain and other waters of the State, we might think about applying some of these strategies. More cover cropping and less tilling would reduce soil erosion and nutrient run-off. This, in turn, would reduce the amount of fertilizer necessary to replenish nutrients necessary to grow crops and would promote increased carbon sequestration.
At the Gathering, I spoke with Ray about my own vegetable garden that I rototill the daylights out of to keep weed free. He suggested that I plant cereal rye and roll it, planting into the flattened rye. I am also thinking about planting white clover between rows to give my honey bees and other pollinators added forage. This summer may be the time for some interesting experimentation!
In conclusion, I thought it was interesting when I asked one of my committee members who had attended the Gathering what he thought. He was a conventional dairy farmer in Addison County for many years but now raises cattle and pigs for direct sale to customers. He said that if we had employed these methods years ago, we probably wouldn’t be in the mess we are now regarding the situation in Lake Champlain. As more farmers become aware of these techniques and begin to use them, the hope is that the clean-up won’t be as difficult and costly as originally thought.