Eight years ago, Ray Archuleta was at a loss.
He was working as a U.S. Department of Agriculture agent in Oregon.
His friend, a frugal Mormon farmer, wanted to pass the farm on to his son, and his son wanted to farm.
The transition was not possible, though, because input costs were so high that the farm was unprofitable.
And Archuleta did not know how to fix his friend's problem.
He had not yet recognized that the man was destroying his soils by not taking care of soil microorganisms.
"I gave bad advice because I did not see the wholes," Archuleta told hundreds of farmers a week ago at Shady Maple banquet center in East Earl.
Archuleta now works as a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service soil health expert in North Carolina.
He was the keynote speaker at a daylong gathering organized by the Elanco Region Source Water Collaborative.
The collaborative is an effort of municipalities and water authorities to protect drinking water sources in northeastern Lancaster County.
Farmers should "follow nature's template" and see their farms as operating ecosystems that they can either damage or help thrive, Archuleta said.
Keeping soil organisms healthy will lead to healthier soils and cleaner water with less runoff.
Soil is not merely a medium for food to grow; it is itself living.
"You need to deal with ecology. Your farm is alive," he said.
Yet "the majority of our farmers are disconnected from their land," he said.
Archuleta said tillage disrupts the natural soil ecosystem by breaking up fungal colonies and awakening a class of bacteria Archuleta called "little piranhas."
"(They) will eat the glues," such as the protein glomalin, that hold soils together, he said.
The glues naturally last about 27 days, so farmers need to continually feed the microbes that make them, he said.
Without the glues, the soils are more likely to fall apart and be carried away by rain.
Improving soil health can increase water retention by 17,000 to 25,000 gallons per acre, he said.
Forestland can absorb 100 times more rainfall in an hour than conventionally tilled soil while producing a tenth of the runoff.
No-till farming on its own is not enough, however. No-till farms can still erode unless they are paired with cover crops, he said.
Cover crops and manure are also a vital source of carbon, which the microbes need for food.
Cover crops can provide a year-round buffer from the rain. While "manure is awesome," it will just run off if applied on frozen soil, Archuleta said.
The most limiting element in soil is not nitrogen but carbon, he argued. Organic matter is 58 percent carbon.
"Fertilizer does not feed the plant, ladies and gentlemen. Soil does," he said.
Cover crop roots break through compacted soil at 1,400 pounds per square inch. The roots also leak sugar, amino acids, enzymes and other foods for soil microbes, he said.
Farmers, though, are repeating some of the mistakes that led to the 1930s Dust Bowl disaster across the Midwest rather than taking care of the soil, he said.
Modern agriculture, like many other sectors, has "preached the gospel of efficiency," Archuleta said.
The emphasis on efficiency forces farmers to rely on many inputs instead of being self-sufficient.
As a result, agriculture is a fragile industry that does not handle volatility well, Archuleta said.
Energy costs are a major cause of farming's fragility. So are pesticide costs, he added.
Organic farming is not necessarily the answer. "Some of the most degraded farms I've seen in California are organic farms," he said.
Nor is regulation the best way to make farming more stable because it relies too heavily on enforcement, Archuleta said.
It would be better to have people unite based on principles, and better yet to have virtuous people who love their neighbors and the land find ways to keep soil and water healthy, he said.
"You are the most anti-fragile people I've known," he told the mostly Mennonite group, citing their tight-knit community.
Via Giri Kumar