The soil beneath our feet might save the planet.
“If we get the soil right we can fix a lot of our issues,” Ray Archuleta says. “Healthy soils lead to a healthy plant, a healthy animal, a healthy human, healthy water, and ultimately a healthy climate and planet.”
Archuleta, a Certified Professional Soil Scientist with the Soil Science Society of America, has a calling – soil conservation. He’s traveled the United States as well as abroad to plant the seeds of thought about the negative effects of a problem that he sees everywhere he goes. That problem is soil erosion.
In the film “Kiss the Ground,” released in 2020, the problem of rapid soil erosion is said to have begun long ago when mankind invented the plow. As the plow became popular vast areas around cities were plowed to grow grain for food. As the soils eroded so did those early empires until they eventually vanished into the dust. The film describes the 1930s Dust Bowl era as the largest manmade disaster in history. By the end of 1934, millions of cropland acres were permanently damaged.
In an effort to save the nation’s soil President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Soil Conservation Service. It still remains in the form of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. It’s through that service that people like Archuleta work to educate farmers on soil-conservation farming practices, largely through hands-on demonstrations.
“Tillage is one of the most intrusive things we do in modern agriculture,” said Archuleta, who has more than 30 years experience as a soil conservationist, water-quality specialist and conservation agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “It is not our friend.”
Carbon runs the system, he said. Plants grow by utilizing the carbon dioxide they obtain from the atmosphere. Of that carbon, 40 percent makes its way to the root system creating a complex interrelated habitat.
“In every handful of healthy soil there are more organisms than there are people who have ever lived on planet earth,” said Kristine Nichols, chief scientist with the Rodale Institute. “Soil microbial diversity mirrors the microbial diversity we are now seeing in the human body. We have more bacterial cells in the human body than human cells. When you eat kale it’s the bacteria in your body that is consuming it.”
“Kiss the Ground” asserts that conventional chemical agricultural practices leave the soil almost completely devoid of the microorganisms humans need for health. Those same microorganisms are necessary to pull carbon from the atmosphere. The post-World War II era saw a significant increase in chemical use in U.S. food production. An infrastructure was created around single types of industry that took livestock off the land and increasingly into feedlots.
“Fertilizers mask the problem of degraded soils,” Archuleta said. “Continual use of fungicides, herbicides and other chemicals is like a chronic stress to the soil.”
In the film Alan Savory describes “desertification” as a fancy word for land that’s turning to desert. It only happens when bare ground is created. Bare soil is much colder at dawn and much hotter at midday than soil with vegetation, he said. That changes the micro-climate and eventually the macro-climate. Poor land leads to poor people, increasing flooding and droughts. The result is a poor long-term prognosis for human survival on the planet if we continue with a business as usual attitude.
Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increase of biodiversity, improvement of the water cycle, support of bio-sequestration, increase in resistance to climate change, and strengthening of the health and vitality of farm soils.
Gabe Brown, North Dakota farmer and rancher, is at the forefront of the regenerative-agriculture movement. Brown’s conversion to regenerative farming is shown in a segment of Kiss the Ground; it offers hope for a future with healthy soils.
When Brown realized his soil and profits were eroding he studied Thomas Jefferson’s journals, he said, to try to understand how early farmers grew crops without pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
“We can improve soil health faster than we ever thought possible,” Brown said in the film. “I will bet my ranch against yours that I can get regenerative methods to work on your farm. Because the principles of soil health such as least amount of disturbance, plant diversity, living roots at all times and animal integration are universal. There’s no doubt in my mind that these practices can work anywhere in the world.”
Brown sold all his tillage equipment in 1994 and has been zero-till since. He diversified by adding peas to his crop rotation to fix nitrogen.
“I was trying to think of ways to diversify my crop rotation and take advantage of nature’s synergies,” he said. “Why do we as farmers insist on purchasing our nitrogen when all we have to do is plant legumes, or provide the home and habitat for the nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil?”
Kiss the Ground shows a need to amend production ways with the complex biome of our soils; it ends with profound hopefulness. Farmers like Brown and soil conservationists like Archuleta are on a mission to make that hopeful scenario become a reality. They believe our future depends on it.