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Q&A: Ray Archuleta

The soil health guru sees a bright future for agriculture.

Ray Archuleta views nature as a template that farmers should mimic. “Farmers who are mimicking nature reduce their inputs and labor while their quality of life increases exponentially,” says Archuleta, the south-central regional soil health specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

SF: When did you start to see a shift in the perception of soil health?
RA: It was about the year 2000. I was in Idaho working as an agronomist and district conservationist. Every time the irrigation season started, the river would be filled with sediment; it looked like chocolate. It bothered me that we were spending millions and billions of dollars on conservation and still having these problems.
When a good friend of mine, who worked really hard, couldn’t bring his son into the operation, I started questioning modern agriculture and how many acres it takes to maintain one to two families. I questioned why we have to farm so many acres, and why we’re losing so much of our soil. From that point on, it started to resonate with me: Something was really wrong.

I began to question our processes, how we’re farming and using conservation on the land. Eventually, I was exposed to the right people and information. For me, the movement started in Bismarck, North Dakota. That’s where I learned from experts leading the soil health movement. It was desperation for us in conservation and as landowners; we realized that something was very, very wrong. We questioned everything. We looked to outside sources, and then we put the pieces together. The problem was the way humans look at agriculture. We had built agriculture on the wrong premise.

We should have been mimicking nature all along instead of trying to control it with the tillage, fungicides, and insecticides. We should have been nurturing and facilitating the soil. We needed to be wise and cautious with our tools.

SF: What do you see for the future of soil health?
RA: Because of the mass education going on, there’s going to be a fundamental shift. People want to see something different; they see something is intrinsically wrong. Why do we put in so many resources and, yet, a son or daughter can’t come into the operation?

We’re going to hit a tipping point where we’ll see a massive following in soil health – not just the innovators anymore. Between the success that farmers and ranchers are having and the always-increasing price of inputs, there’s going to be a fundamental shift. The 1% to 2% of producers will catch on; the rest will follow.

SF: What is the biggest challenge for farmers today?
RA: The biggest challenge we have is the massive eco disconnect. It’s how little farmers, ranchers, Extension – myself included – know about the living ecosystem in the soil. We need to educate people that the soil is alive. People don’t understand the concept, so we have producers who are disconnected from the resource.

SF: What’s wrong with conservation today?
RA: The way farm policies are set up makes it very difficult for conservation to be promoted. Some of our safety nets do not encourage or facilitate these types of eco farming. You can do a poor job farming, and crop insurance will still facilitate poor farm management.

We’ve created a system of reductionist management. You focus on tiny pieces and forget to look at the whole picture. When you manage a farm in a living ecosystem, it’s necessary to understand you are in the context of the forest. It’s good to look at the trees once in a while, but you have to step back and look at the forest, too.

SF Bio

Name: Ray Archuleta
Background: Archuleta began his career with the NRCS 30 years ago. He recently became the south-central regional soil health specialist. He’s had positions as a technician designing irrigation systems and livestock piping systems. He’s worked in conservation engineering. Archuleta has also been an irrigation nutrient specialist, water quality specialist, district conservationist, and agronomist.

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