Soil Health U 2020: Program aimed at changing the planet

Oohs and ahs were evidence of impact rumbling through the crowd while Ray Archuleta stunned folks with visual appeal the morning of Jan. 22.

The stark contrast of photos flashed on the screen in Heritage Hall snared the attention of some 600 people who were attending the third annual Soil Health U and Trade Show at Tony’s Pizza Events Center in Salina, Kansas, which continues Jan. 23. The event is sponsored by High Plains Journal.

The images showed what fourth-generation Mexico rancher Alejandro Carrillo was able to accomplish, one patch of land at a time, making portions of the Chihuahuan Desert bloom, and reversing the “desertification of the West.”

Carrillo changed a portion of his 24,000-acre ranch from requiring 250 acres to support one cow to 20 acres for one cow, Archuleta said.

The retired agronomist after 32 years with the Natural Resources Conservation Service—now an agroecologist—is out to change the world by convincing one or a few people at a time to work in concert with nature.

“The biggest issues are cultural; the way we see things, the way we interpret the world,” Archuleta said. “It’s an ego issue.”

Crusted soils in old and New Mexico, Colorado, California and other areas are a result of “manipulation” that have altered the climate.

“That bare soil is reflecting hot sensible heat off the surface and is going back into the atmosphere and pushing rain clouds away,” he said.

Carrillo is changing his ranch “from desert to prairie on 6 inches of rain a year,” Archuleta said. “You cannot have weather without plants and soil. They bring the rain.”

Attitudes stop the clouds “not fence posts,” he said, while showing how conditions change at property lines, between farming and ranching practices.

“Look at the difference on the other side of that fence,” Archuleta said.

He’s among many who advocate “thinking holistically” and “working in sync with nature.”

It took one rancher to build a community in one parched area of Mexico, he said.

“Mimic nature’s beautiful design,” Archuleta said, showing several examples of written advice, including a biblical passage (Job 12:7) “Ask the beasts and they will teach you.”

He was among the like-minded individuals who urge that people “understand nature,” Archuleta said, “Have a relationship with it.”

He was among friends the first day of Soil Health U.

“When I see you people changing the world, it really gives me hope,” Archuleta said. “We will transform the planet, one heart, one mind at a time.”

He was introduced by Andy Lyon, part of the Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies program with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, aimed at improving the state’s water quality.

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“I hope this tells good news as I talk with the people at Soil Health,” Lyon said. “I am struck by the quality of the people. It gives us optimism for the future.”

Archuleta’s talk was “reaffirming” to Rosalee Tibbits, seated with husband John Tibbits. The Ottawa County farmers have been open to change for much of their careers, and enjoy attending events like Soil Health U.

“You get ideas to take home,” John Tibbits said.

Kearny County farmer Tom White drove nearly four hours from southwest Kansas to take part.

“I’m hoping to learn soil health and practical applications,” he said.

Mark Knopp, of Chapman, worked as a master electrician for 35 years before returning to farming full time.

“I went to cover crops six or seven years ago and now I want to learn more about it,” he said. “This year really showed that some land hadn’t been taken care of. I’m looking to resolve some of those issues.”

Not everyone buys into the concept of soil health and walking arm and arm with natural systems.

Influencing switches in farming practices is not easy, said Adam Chappell, a farmer and budding rancher near Cotton Plant, Arkansas. He’s among the speakers at Soil Health U.

“Change is hard unless you’re broke like I was. Then it wasn’t hard at all,” he said.

Convincing neighbors is challenging.

“Doing what I’m doing down south is like spitting in somebody’s food. They think I am insane,” Chappell said. “They call you a dirty farmer or a trashy farmer. They don’t say it to me, but they say it.”

He sees people changing, “but it’s real slow.”

Speaker Brian Alexander was out for attention, wearing a “Make Soil Healthy Again” hat, designed to look like President Trump’s MAGA lid.

“It’s guaranteed to start a conversation, no matter where you go,” said the rancher in the Red Hills of Barber County, in south-central Kansas.

Soil Health U is designed to educate people, said Jennifer M. Latzke, associate editor of HPJ.

“We want you to learn practical and applicable ways to improve your most valuable resources, and that’s the soil,” she said. “This program has something for everyone. We have someone on our slate of speakers who should be able to further your education.”

Tim Unruh can be reached at [email protected].