Published: February 19, 2024

Category: Regenerative Agriculture

Speakers at the Big Soil Health Event like Ray Archuleta urge farmers to build soil health, diversify crop production, build plant immunity

By Ken Roseboro

While the United States continues to lose soil, farmers can reverse the trend, build healthy soils, and produce more nutritious foods. This was a key theme of the Big Soil Health Event, which was held in December in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Nearly 500 people, mostly farmers, attended the conference to hear a wide range of presentations by leading voices in the regenerative agriculture movement including Ray Archuleta, Certified Professional Soil Scientist with the Soil Science Society of America; Kris Nichols, founder and principal scientist of KRIS (Knowledge for Regeneration and Innovation in Soils); Jerry Hatfield, retired USDA-ARS plant physiologist and laboratory director; and John Kempf, founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture. Several regenerative agriculture farmers including Russell Hedrick and Monte Bottens also gave presentations.

In his keynote presentation, Ray Archuleta discussed the growing science of biomimicry, which aims to design sustainable products that mimic natural systems. Archuleta said that agriculture must learn from nature. “Mimic life and nature’s principles,” he said. “Don’t genetically splice it.”

Archuleta emphasized that building soil health is needed worldwide. “Soil health is for everywhere, not just for the U.S.”

“Corn and soybeans are some of the stupidest things you can grow”

Kris Nichols quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt who said: “A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.”

Nichols said the U.S. loses 1.7 billion tons of topsoil every year. “We are making the face of the planet like the surface of the moon,” she said.

Nichols criticized industrial agriculture in the U.S. with its focus on corn and soybeans. “Corn and soybeans are some of the stupidest things you can grow,” she said. “We aren’t feeding the world; we produce industrial crops.”

She said the U.S. is producing unhealthy food that is causing health problems. “We are obese and malnourished. We have sacrificed everything for yield: our health, our food, our water, and our children’s health.”

Nichols urged farmers to diversify their production with small grains such as barley and wheat. “We have this opportunity to change the planet, opportunities to make fundamental changes.”

Nichols said that food companies must play a big role in changing agriculture. “We need to force food companies to have this conversation. These are the people we need to be talking to.”

Regenerative agriculture is built on community

Jerry Hatfield also discussed the problems with topsoil loss, saying that Iowa lost 10 million tons of soil in 2021. He also encouraged more diversity in crop production and integration of livestock, citing the “power of manure” to build healthy soils.

“We can add additional crops in the rotation such as winter oilseed crops in the Midwest,” he said.

“Farmers ask me: Where do I start (with regenerative agriculture)?” Hatfield said. “Just start.”

He then discussed the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s principles of soil health: maintaining soil armor, minimizing soil disturbance, plant diversity, and continual live plant/root.

Hatfield said regenerative agriculture requires a holistic approach that considers all those principles simultaneously. “In agriculture, we value one ecosystem: how much we produce,” he said. “We have to consider other ecosystems.”

Hatfield said regenerative agriculture is “built on community” with farmers sharing what works and what doesn’t work. “We are a community in how we look at these systems. How do we build community to share ideas, successes, failures, and equipment? We only change when the pain of changing is less than the pain of remaining the same.”

During the question-and-answer session, someone asked Hatfield how much time we have left before the soil is gone. There have been estimates that the earth has just 50-60 more harvests. He said there could be impacts in a shorter amount of time but is optimistic the problem can be solved.

“Let’s solve the problem now in a five-year period. Let’s not get to the point where we can’t recover; let’s get to the point where we can recover.”

“Agriculture has great potential to turn things around”

John Kempf described how he started his company, Advancing Eco Agriculture, based on his experience learning that plants have immune systems like human beings.

“When plants have a functional immune system, they can pass that on to people,” he said.

He gave several examples of how his company helped farmers solve pests and disease problems by boosting plant immunity. An organic farm in Pennsylvania used an AEA foliar spray product that increased the immune response to corn rootworm. Adding nutrients to corn plants in an organic farm in Kansas helped overcome a major problem with spider mites.

Kempf cited the number of degenerative diseases in the U.S. “The atrocious quality of food has a negative impact on human health,” Kempf said, adding there are toxins such as pesticides in the food supply.

But while agriculture has contributed to declining health in the U.S. Kempf is optimistic that agriculture can have a positive impact.

“Agriculture has great potential to turn things around,” he said.

Kris Nichols also encouraged farmers. “You are the difference between life and lifelessness. We can change this.”

Organic & Non-GMO Insights February 2024