Friday, 31 January 2020

Farming as nature intended. A “dynamic duo” from south of the border, brings a message of hope and radical change to producers on the Canadian prairies.

by Larry Powell

A conventional farm in Manitoba. A PinP photo.
"You're tilling too much!"
That was Ray Archuleta's blunt message to about 50 people at a meeting this week in the small, agricultural community of Shoal Lake, Manitoba. The brilliant, affable Archuleta operates a small ranch in Missouri. His partner. Gabe Brown, whose "down home" personality has apparently earned him the monicker, "Farmer Brown," runs a big, mixed operation in North Dakota.

Both men are on the same mission - convince as many farmers as they can to move away from conventional production. That's how countless producers in Canada, the U.S. and developed countries around the world, have, for decades, practised this predominant style of agriculture. They rely on heavy and expensive "inputs" of fertilizers, pesticides, machinery and "mono-crops," all designed to produce the highest yields possible. 


Ray Archuleta conducts a so-
called "slake test."
Archuleta, a soil and water scientist, worked for the U.S. government for many years. He says too much tillage 
makes the land more vulnerable, not only to the kind of erosion that blows farmers' soils away in massive dust storms, but to devastating floods and droughts, as well. He adds, neglect of soil biology has gone on for so long, it has resulted in farm soils becoming "the most destroyed eco-system there is!" 

In a demonstration for his audience (similar to the one shown, l.), Archuleta had volunteers drop different samples of the same type of soil into clear, plastic tubes. Some of those samples were from fields that had been tilled and treated with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Others had not been tilled, but planted with cover crops that kept them constantly green and fed with valuable nutrients. When water was added, the first soil group rapidly disintegrated. The second kept their shapes for a prolonged period and absorbed the water into their pores, instead. This was indicative of healthy soil that would hold moisture and nutrients for the plants growing in it.

Archuleta says, after working for the government for a long time, promoting the kind of system he now campaigns against, he saw the light and quit to start ranching and spreading the word of a new and better way called Regenerative Agriculture. He sees too many conventional farmers going broke and doesn't like it. He calls them "The poorest millionaires I know," due to the tremendous debt they carry for expensive infrastructure. In his words, "The money goes to the tool-makers," meaning the machinery and farm input manufacturers.

He believes producers like himself, who emulate nature (a process called "bio-mimicry"), are the ones who are now making the money.
Gabe Brown in his field, with several
cover crops growing at once.
His partner, Gabe Brown (r.), says cover crops hold the secret to healthy soil and crops. On his five thousand acre farm near Bismark, Brown keeps his fields diversified with a constant cover of green during the growing season; before, after and during development of the main crop. 
An example is intercropping - planting several grain crops in the same field, then harvesting and separating or using the mix for feed.Brown says, too many inputs (like pesticides and artificial fertilizers), even on "zero-till" fields, can, over time, turn soil into virtual "bricks." These can result in "ponding," rather than absorption in heavy rains. He wonders whether the disastrous flooding which ravaged vast parts of the U.S. midwest this summer, might have been as bad had the soils in states like Iowa, not been turned into "crap" by misguided farming practises over many years.

Brown isn't impressed with the high yields many conventional farmers get, either. His advice, "Stop giving awards for yields, instead of profit." He suggests yields really don't matter much if your profits are eaten up with high input and machinery costs.

Brown notes, for every harmful pest farmers face, there are 17 hundred beneficial ones. This obviously means, it probably makes more sense to nurture the beneficial ones, than kill the bad one! So he grows lots of flowering plants on his land which attract pollinators like bees and butterflies. He even has a beekeeper operating on his property, to produce honey which he buys and sells at a profit. 

He also raises beef cattle which are carefully herded through fields to avoid overgrazing. Hogs and chickens range outdoors. 

The event which brought the two men to Canada, was sponsored by Agriculture Canada and the Living Labs Project.      

One of the local organizers, Michael Thiele, tells PinP,  there are many producers beginning to think about or are making the first small changes towards a regenerative model. Over the 4 workshops this week we spoke to over 300 producers. Huge interest."

                    
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