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Soil Health Workshop Report

Published on Thursday, February 14, 2013

Soil Health Workshop Report

How I Was Positively Blown Away by USDA

On February 13, 2013, I attended a soil health workshop in Colfax. There were about 60 in attendance which I make as 38 wheat-barley-lentil rotation type farmers, 15 ag agency/district, 6 ag chem reps, me. From the enthusiastic feedback, I expect some of the farmer attendees who already have the equipment needed will adopt the practices introduced to them at the workshop. 

USDA's national soil health team is exhorting local wheat farmers to replace chemical fallow and till-fallow with living cover on the promise that the soil vitality achieved will increase yields, stabilize and increase farm net income, reduce inputs, and eliminate reliance on synthetic fertilizer and herbicides. Our local Spokane Conservation District sponsored one of the workshops.

I wasn't expecting anything "new" at this workshop and was amazed to find it deeply informed by permaculture. Let go of your chemicals and your plows, instead harness the power of your mob grazing herd animals, harness your "herd" of soil animals, stop killing the soil. 

Is it permaculture? The workshop was for our inland northwest region's non-irrigated food production systems that use heavy equipment to plant through massive chop-and-drop residue in a single pass.  The complex and expensive equipment requirements of these systems place them outside the permaculture context that our Spokane permaculture community members work with.  However, going through the permaculture ethic, and 12 design principles, it looks like a good fit. Consider that the Yeomans Keyline plow (a 40 yrs old subsoil tillage implement designed to build soil health) demands impressively heavy equipment, and Sepp Holzer has shown us the advantages of using heavy equipment to increase land diversity. USDA's approach is more consistent with permaculture than I initially appreciated.


The soil health workshop reading list includes "Permaculture: A Designers Manual by Bill Mollison" and highlights it as one of four practical guides listed.

Of the other references listed at the site, in particular, I think we Spokane area permies can use (expand on) their cover crop periodic table to help craft our plant guild designs. The workshop went into more detail as to how, when, and why to use this table: target 8-12 species in each cover crop mix.  Expect to sow 20 to 40 pounds per acre, 40 - 50 seeds per square foot. Select a mix of rooting depths and plant heights. Include some legumes, a cool season grass, a warm season grass, a cool season broadleaf, and a warm season broadleaf species to assure diverse soil microbiology. Also mentioned were outside resources to tailor cover crop mixes and crop rotation strategies to specific sites and adapting these to stage of soil revitalization (more legumes early on for instance)

In support of this part of the design process, and being the soil geek that I am, I point you to Soil Chemistry by Rick Haney because it highlights a new approach to lab characterization of soil health. I plan to send samples in for this. Conventional soil analysis was developed for soils in a state of low soil health (most farm soils), this new analysis by Rick Haney throws out the familiar N-P-K emphasis for new indices tied to soil health. This approach is necessary because applying established N-P-K criteria developed by our land grant universities will decrease the productivity of our healthiest, and most productive, soils.

The presenters, all employees of USDA-NRCS used myriad examples gathered over the last 10 years of NRCS soil health efforts, of a couple dozen farmers who have demonstrated that, though it takes years to transition, that once high soil vitality is established it enables elimination of fertilizer inputs and pesticides, and, in the highest soil vitality cases, that yields were higher in the absence of fertilizers than could be achieved with fertilizer in soils in poor health. 

Much of what was presented is straight out of familiar eco-agriculture principles (see Acres USA) which have been developing for long decades.  What uniquely resonated as permaculture in my view was the repeated emphasis on biomimicry, the emphasis on relying on all the observational senses, the patient iterative process in building soil towards a self-sustaining system, the eagerness to value high diversity in plant species, to utilize animals in the soil building process, the value put on solar energy and water "sticking" where it lands. The unflinching belief that we can always do far better by working with nature, that we must if we are to reverse centuries of soil degradation, that the most important change needed is between our ears. The message I took away was that the key to that is a change in our hearts, as farmers and in community with farmers, to embrace an ethic of soil health. 

I found it particularly telling that NRCS is cultivating a permie-esque teach-the-teacher effort to speed adoption. Lead presenter, Ray Archuletta told me that NRCS is planning to have Geoff Lawton come in and advise them on how to expand and improve this national soil health effort.

A soil scientist friend in attendance who had come in from Puyallup commented to me this effort is coming down directly from the NRCS chief, that everyone in NRCS is being directed to align their efforts in support with this latest permutation of this now decade-old soil health campaign. 
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7 comments on article "Soil Health Workshop Report"

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Siemen Family Farms, Inc.

2/14/2013 10:01 AM

Any information on small scale implementation - i.e. 10 acres and less? The reason I ask is that not only could this be used to reclaim abandoned lots and highly degraded yards (in my neighborhood especially) but also as a kind of covert operation in anticipation of certain areas becoming community gardens by pre-seeding without permission places that are under consideration. A good test area could be that strip right next to the freeway on the North side of 2nd Ave for example. Roadside swales, small unused spaces, etc. could all be good candidates for preserving soil in unusual spaces. Not that I think anyone is soil-ist but those soils are in just as much need as farmland/cropland soils. ;-)


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Phil

2/14/2013 10:13 AM

Sean: I am thinking the same. Like for the Polly Judd Park design project, which involves wild, weedy, low-soil-health situation.


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Mike Hagar (website host)

2/14/2013 10:07 AM

Thanks Phil. Fantastic report and insight on your part. It is great to know that there are governmental organizations who are saying "we will support..." to more and more Permaculture style solutions.


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Kamori

2/14/2013 7:27 PM

Oooooooo I want to hear more about using that periodic chart on my 9 acre project. Seems like that would be a great way to begin to reclaim land that is now either dominated by rhizomous grass or knapweed & co.


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Phil

2/15/2013 6:32 AM

During the workshop, they pointed us to http://www.greencoverseed.com as having a spreadsheet that supported creating a custom mix using a wide variety of seeds. They even indicate cool season vs warm season in the spreadsheet. They inoculate their legumes (an issue with some cover crop seed sellers). Looked around yesterday, couldn't locate anybody else striving to hit the soil health market as neatly as greencoverseed.com. I have been going through their list, eliminating species not adapted to our region, learning about best planting season, growth form, habitat effects, target pounds per acre, target seeds per square foot, cost, and such. I suggest we start up a forum discussion for group collaboration, because there are many not that familiar choices to wade through. For example their Ethiopian cabbage looks like a workable mix mate if you are looking to get something you could eat assuming the deer don't beat you to it.

Next is working out how and when to seed it. I have never made seed balls, but that looks like a prime way to move Polly Judd Park and up the soil health scale. For your site, extensive sheet mulching is needed, right? so I see seeding into the sheet mulch.


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Will Kearns

2/15/2013 3:54 PM

Not only is your report excellent, but the USDA's leap into Permaculture techniques and references to established Permaculture pioneers is astounding. Thanks Phil ... here's hoping you can participate in the Geoff Lawton sessions! = )


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j_nail

2/19/2013 6:30 AM

Great write-up on your experience at the Soil Health Workshop, Phil! Glad to see your Soilnerd soul has been stirred...! Thanks for sharing, and continuing to transmute your findings into useful content for us.

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