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Learning to feed the soil

Regenerative farming, a strategy for enhancing soils, watersheds, biodiversity and capturing carbon in the ground, will be discussed Friday evening, Oct. 11, in a talk by soil scientist Ray Archuleta.

The event, organized by Our Family Farms, is creating a regional buzz, especially in the Applegate Valley, where organic food farmers are planning to carpool to the event at Ashland Hills Hotel.

“Archuleta is important because regenerative ag is a way to farm that’s respectful of all life in the soil, keeping it healthy and encouraging nature’s process of carbon farming, that is, accumulating carbon in soils for long periods to mitigate climate change,” said Ashlander Ray Seidler, a retired microbiology professor at Oregon State University and research scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Archuleta, who worked for 30 years as a soil conservationist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, says current agriculture is “built on the wrong premise,” and regenerative agriculture is about healing it.

“For years and years farmers have been going broke, communities have been falling apart and we’ve been diminishing our health while polluting and contributing to destructive weather patterns,” Archuleta said in a phone interview.

Archuleta notes that when he went to college decades ago, he learned a “fear-based ecology, where you try to subdue nature, using chemicals and tillage and genetics. We should build a flowing ecosystem like nature, by understanding its nurturing synergies.”

At the heart of regenerative agriculture is a no-till strategy. You leave the soil to itself, letting it weave the natural web of life and disturbing it as little as possible when you insert seeds and harvest plants.

“Plowing is extremely destructive. It disrupts the whole habitat, infuses oxygen and diminishes habitat for earthworms and all creatures,” he said. “It takes a lot of energy to build it back. Tillage stimulates more weeds to grow.”

Executive Director Rhianna Simes of Our Family Farms said regenerative agriculture is especially relevant now because the evolution of soil science has shown the importance of protecting natural soil and because of the explosion of plastic mulch with the planting of 40,000 acres of hemp in Oregon and their “synthetic inputs” into soil.

“Those fields were in hay or pears or perennial grasses for many years,” she said. “We’re seeing backsliding in sustainable or regenerative agriculture, and we’re trying to provide the opportunity for farmers to hear from professionals who’ve done the cost-benefit analysis and research about how that soil is degraded for the future.”

Even home gardeners have a lot to learn from implementing strategies that will be presented in the seminar, she says, because “as we understand our soil as an ecosystem that’s alive and learn about it, we’re able to value living soils in ways that change our behavior.

“When we say we’re organic-sustainable, that implies we’re sustaining nature’s processes already, but we’re not. Regenerative agriculture is about regeneration of natural resources we depend on. It’s a departure from resource extraction of industrial agriculture, where we take what we want and leave the soil with very little life. Regenerative agriculture is leaving things better than we found them.”

Archuleta points to the science of diffusion research, which tracks how new ideas spread through society, with 2.5 percent of people in the first category, called “innovators.” In the last 12 to 15 years, he says, it’s beginning to cross into the next stage, “early adaptors,” who are 13.5 percent of the population.

“Innovators among farmers are 2 percent now, still in early stages, but we’re getting more and more,” he says.

“We’re having a health crisis in this country, as our soils are so diminished and have lost 50 percent of their nutrient density. We eat cheap, processed food. The wealth that used to flow from farmers and ranchers supported small towns and their stores and gas stations, but it’s not going to the producer now — and it’s not a problem that politics will solve.”

The event is one of six educational or field trip events on regenerative agriculture put on by Our Family Farms. Friday’s event will run from 6 to 8:30 p.m. For details, see www.ourfamilyfarms.org.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Ray Archuleta