MHS Heroes: Dirt On Legs

Cecily Hardie

Cecily Hardie, Writer

SEYMOUR, Missouri – Soil health consultant Ray Archuleta started his own business on June 24, 2017. He travels around the country speaking to farmers, teaching them how to mimic and flow with nature so they can build the health of their soil. “Well, nature has a template, and we need to follow the design… So what I actually do is I help producers understand the natural ecosystem and how to emulate it, how to not force it, but to mimic it,” he explains.

Before he started his business, Archuleta worked for the government for 32 years in the Natural Resources Conservation Services agency. He soon realized that farmers were going broke and irrigation was muddying rivers. “…the very sad thing is every time they would start irrigating, the beautiful emerald colored snake river would turn chocolate. It was a beautiful green and it would turn chocolate, and I could see that and it bothered me,” he recalled sadly. The soil isn’t healthy, which makes the plants and animals unhealthy, therefore making humans unhealthy. He decided he needed to change things, but he couldn’t do that while working for the government because of all the politics involved. So, he retired from NRCS and started his own business.

It takes less work and energy to emulate the natural ecosystem on a farm, and this method produces healthier plants. To create chemical fertilizer and pesticides, you have to use up a lot of energy and money that farmers often don’t have. “Takes a lot of energy to make chemical fertilizer. For example, most people don’t know this but to make 150 pounds of fertilizer, so for one acre of corn, you can drive your car for 600 miles. So multiply that by a billion acres, and how much energy it takes to make chemical fertilizer, it’s a stupid amount of energy,” Archuleta explains.

The largest problem with soil health is the mindset of the producers. “The biggest problem, I tell people, look in the mirror. You’re the biggest problem. It’s the way you see things,” Archuleta explains. Producers believe that the soil is not a living thing. Archuleta insists this is not true. Soil isn’t just dirt, and its sole purpose isn’t to just hold up a plant. It’s a living thing. “In fact, the word ‘human’ comes from the word ‘humus’ – humus in the soil. So technically, we’re all dirt on legs.”

Improving soil health will impact all living organisms. It starts with changing your mind, and then continues with understanding the biology of the soil. “So we have to get it right since the beginning. Start with the soil, go to the plant. And it starts with the soil biology, so with understanding those little bacteria, the fungi, those earthworms, those little orthopods on the top, are so important.”

Healthy soil yields nutrient rich vegetables for us to enjoy. This will make us healthier and help the obesity problem because we will be able to eat less food but take in more calories. “Another thing I want people to realize is that we’re on a precipice. We’re on a tipping point. If we don’t start healing the land, we’re going to have problems,” Archuleta warned.

He used to be an unbeliever of climate change because of how the facts were presented, but when he approached it in a different light, he started believing it. “But let’s say that a lot of the problems we’re having with the climate is because the land is denigrated. Degraded. There’s too much bare ground. The soil’s tilled too much, there’s no covering. Not enough diversity. And we’re knocking tropical forests down to grow palm oil.” A solution Archuleta suggested would be to pay farmers to do regenerative agriculture. Everyone is part of the problem, so we all need to be part of the solution.

Question: When did you start the Soil Health Consulting business?

Answer: I started the business about last June. It was started on June 24th. I retired. I put 32 years in the government, and I was tired of working at the government because I realized there’s a lot of politics. I have a saying. It says, ‘It’s hard to educate a man if his check depends upon it.’ Upton Sinclair came up with that statement. And here’s what I’m getting at is what is happening is when there’s a lot of controlling forces in Washington DC. When we started the Soil Health movement, I was so excited. I was so naive. I said, ‘Oh, all of us are going to catch on. We’re going to go out there, we’re going to take it to the chief of NRCS and we’re going to change our country. And we’re going to head down a journey of healing the soil and regenerative ag.’ Boy was I naive. I started realizing that there’s a lot of people – big companies, chemical companies, fertilizer companies, and not just them. The corn board and soybean board and all these commodity boards, everybody has a controlling factor. But rarely do they ever care for the planet earth. They say they do, but it’s money first. And so I started realizing when we started telling people that we were going to save fertilizing chemicals and some people in Washington DC did not like that, the lobbyists. And they put pressure. And then poor old antiquated science just perpetuated the problem. And so it was time for me to leave. So I said I have more flexibility, and I can be more blunt in my message without having to be censored. So that’s one of the reasons I left. Besides, I was already done. I had 32 years in.

Question: You said something about college not teaching you correctly. How did they teach you vs what you figured out? What was wrong about what they taught you?

Answer: I think years into this I found out that there’s a book that I read it’s called Holistic Management by Allan Savory. It made me realize that when we attend colleges, or you can even see it in the medical field, there are 2 fields that have suffered from what we call reductional science. Reductional science is this – you take little tiny individual pieces and you study down to its individual molecule. You reduce it. The problem with this is it doesn’t work in agriculture and human health. You have to understand to back off and look at how all the things are connected, how everything works in syncrony. Let me give you an example. You go to the doctor, you go to a generalist, and the generalist will send you to where? A specialist. Take you to a heart doctor, an eye doctor, to a nose doctor, to a toe doctor. The problem with that is that it’s all connected. Your body doesn’t work in separation. It works in synchrony, it works in wholes, it works in patterns. Same thing in agriculture. When I left college, I left college with a very reduced way of thinking, like this. When you go to college, they taught soil science in one department, entomology in one department, plant pathology in one department, biology in one department. And then what happens when you leave, you’re like this. You don’t see how everything relates to the wholes and patterns. Same thing with the medical field. That’s why people are having problems finding good doctors. My wife Sonja was sick for 2 years. Very sick. We went to all kinds of doctors, we went through all kinds of tests, and we couldn’t find the problem. Until we went to someone who started looking in wholes and patterns, and didn’t reduce her to just an organ. Not just to an eye. So when you go to college, Cecily, you have to be very careful that you don’t forget to look at things in wholes and patterns, and how everything is connected. Reduction is powerful. We learned that from the Greeks and the Romans. It’s a powerful science. We couldn’t get to the moon, we couldn’t have an iphone. The problem is it doesn’t work in dynamic ecosystems, and the body is a dynamic ecosystem. So in the natural world it doesn’t work very well. So just be conscious that if you do study things down to an individual piece, back off and see how everything is connected. That’s critical.

Question: How do you propose to start building soil health?

Answer: I go all over the country and I speak all over the country, in fact, across the world. The first thing in building soil health is that you have to change your mind. The way you look at things. The biggest problem, I tell people, look in the mirror. You’re the biggest problem. It’s the way you see things. It’s that reductionism. Most producers across the world were taught reductionism, and they don’t think the soil is alive. They think it’s a growing medium. The soil is a living system. It’s dynamic. In fact, the word ‘human’ comes from the word ‘humus’ – humus in the soil. So technically, we’re all dirt on legs. And, it’s interesting – you are trillions, maybe ten trillion cells, and a majority of them are bacteria. 10% is all you. The rest is bacteria. The best, most important thing is to understand the soil is alive. It’s not dirt. It’s not just something to hold up a plant. And until I get that across with producers, they will never heal their soil and make it healthy. So a lot of it is the way you think and how you perceive the ecosystem. It’s interesting, growing up and spending a lot of time in agriculture, I used to think of my farm – there’s the field, the prairie or the forest or wherever the farm was hewn out of, I used to think of it separate. And most producers think this is the farm, this is the rest of planet earth. Sorry, the farm was taken out of the planet earth. It was taken out of the prairie, it was taken out of the forest. So the farm works very similar as the prairie and forest. And what does that mean? It’s called ecosystem services. The prairie has a water cycle, it has a nutrient cycle. So does the forest, so does the farm. So the way the ecological processes work, it’s the same in the forest, the prairie, same on the farm. So those are the first things I start to convey to producers so they can start cleaning their soil. They’re not going to heal it.

Question: You apply these ideas to your own farm?

Answer: Yes. I have to. Because one – I don’t like to work too hard. If you work against the natural ecosystem… let’s face it, every creature, even humans, love to do the least possible. So if somebody tells you ‘I’m kinda lazy, it’s called conservation of energy.’ We all love conservation of energy. If I want to flow with the natural system, I have to understand the principles and apply it to my farm. Because I travel a lot, so I want to make sure that everything is working in synchrony. In harmony. And the way you do that is by emulating – understand how it works. And so that’s why I apply those principles on my operation because one – every time you work against it it costs fertilizer, and it takes a lot of energy. Takes a lot of energy to make chemical fertilizer. For example, most people don’t know this but to make 150 pounds of fertilizer, so for one acre of corn, you can drive your car for 600 miles. So multiply that by a billion acres, and how much energy it takes to make chemical fertilizer, it’s a stupid amount of energy. So, we’re not being careful with our energy, takes too much fertilizer, too much herbicides, too much chemicals because you’re not working with it. So I am applying the same principles because I don’t want to work too hard and I want to work with it. So that’s why I apply the principles on my operation, too. And it also improves plant health, human health. If you do it the right way, everybody’s happy. Nobody’s lacking. From the animal to the plant to the human, everything works. Just makes sense.