From Tradition to Transformation | Revolutionising Agriculture

Part 1 | Ray Archuleta Series

Cover photo

March 12 & 13, 2024 – Bibulman-Wadandi Noongar Boodja

“Instead of years, think of how many opportunities do you have.”

“Each year, each growing season gives us one opportunity to test an idea. If we run ten trials per year, we have ten times the number of opportunities to test our ideas each year.”

Ray Archuleta, a world-renowned soil health expert hails from a brittle tending region of New Mexico in south-west USA. Ray’s family has lived in the region for 400-500 years since it was first conquered by Spain. Ray and his wife, Sonya, currently manage a small, 155-acre farm in Missouri.

Ray began his two-week tour of Australia in Victoria providing several educational workshops for Soil Restoration Farming before heading to Bridgetown, WA for a 1-day seminar followed by a masterclass on soil ecology. The WA events were hosted by Certified Organic Biodynamic WA (COBWA) and sponsored by Regen WA, Lotterywest, Perth NRM, Grower Group Alliance and the South-West WA Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub.

Over 100 people gathered for the Bridgetown events and were enthralled by Ray’s knowledge, enthusiasm and passion for healthy soil. His quirky humour kept the mood light and entertaining.

By way of introduction, Ray shared the journey that led him to travel the world to teach and train people about soil ecology. For over 30 years he worked for the US Department of Agriculture, and he became increasingly frustrated seeing soil degradation all across the US. Despite the billions of dollars spent over the past 90 years, progress from US government intervention programs to improve soil quality was at best limited, or made the situation worse. Together with a very fragmented, reductionist education system he was left feeling lost, depressed and angry. He wanted to know why can’t farmers make a living off prime farm land?

The most important part of soil is the microbes

Two significant events happened that profoundly impacted Ray. First, he heard Allan Savory speak on Holistic Management which resonated strongly with him. He thought Allan was ‘brilliant.’ Second, Ray visited Gabe Brown’s North Dakota ranch in 2007. Finally, the light came on for him. He suddenly realised all these years that he’d missed the most important part about soil, the microbes, the soil ecology. He says “our job is to emulate nature’s design, mimic it, love it, nurture it, work with it, follow the design.” This completely contrasted with what he learned in college and is still taught all over the world: “yield, yield, yield, yield, control, force with chemicals, tillage, fertiliser and with all my tools because at the end of the day all that matters is YIELD.”

Without microbes there is no life on the planet. Period. Today, Ray educates people holistically on soil ecology, how it relates to and benefits the rest of the ecosystem. He aims to de-program what people have been taught about soil. COBWA’s workshops are part of the de-programming.

Soils can handle acute stress but not chronic stress

Following his introduction, Ray brought us together for a simple, yet insightful demonstration (see image below) of what stress does to soil function. With assistance from Garry Page, a certified organic farmer from Pingelly, Ray collected three soil types:

  1. Acutely stressed soil – recently bared off soil
  2. Chronically stressed soil – over-grazed, over-treated with fertilisers and pesticides
  3. Low stress, low disturbed soil

Ray noted that a human body can handle acute stresses e.g., building muscle from weight training, but not chronic stress. Compare the impact of eating a Big Mac once versus eating a Big Mac every day for a year. Once is okay, however, humans don’t cope so well with the chronic scenario.

Likewise, soils can handle acute stress but not chronic stress. Tillage e.g. done once, is an acute stress. Continual tillage done several times per year is chronic stress. Continual tillage, continual pesticides / fertilisers use, continual over-grazing, continual over-everything cause chronic stress. On the other hand, minimal disturbance, avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilisers, and long recovery periods after grazing result in low stress soils like that found beneath trees in a forest.

Ray shared that soils all around the world function the same. They all have biology that modifies the soil. This is why he does this test everywhere he goes, with the same result.

The three soil types were individually packed tightly into long cylinders with holes in the bottom that allowed water to collect in separate containers below. With help from workshop volunteers they poured an equal volume of water on top of the soil to simulate rain and a timer was started. Note, each water sample had different food colouring to make the results easily visible. The difference between soil types was dramatic. Water began to infiltrate the low-stressed soil almost immediately and all of it had infiltrated through the soil within 5 minutes. Some water began to infiltrate the acute-stressed soil after a few minutes and by 15 minutes about half the water still remained above the surface. However, even after 15 minutes only a few drops of water had infiltrated the chronic-stressed soil and most remained above the surface.

Ray emphasised that if this water was rainfall whatever doesn’t infiltrate into the soil will flow into dams, rivers and lakes and take precious topsoil away with it. “We don’t want water to flow away, we want it in the soil.”

The same demonstration was done the following day with nearly identical results, however, in the masterclass we let the test run much longer. After about 45 minutes all the water had eventually infiltrated the chronic-stressed soil, whereas with the other soil types it had taken much less time. We then tipped out the soil to examine them. The low-stress soil was visibly wet, the acute-stress soil appeared slightly wet, however, the chronic-stressed soil remained visibly dry. Not only did the water take a long time to infiltrate the chronic-stressed soil the water was not stored in the soil either. Note, all 3 soil types were dry to begin with.

Functional soils depend on carbon aggregates

Soil serves 3 essential functions:

  1. Filters water
  2. Stores water
  3. Recycles nutrients

The key is the soil biology and the aggregates they build in soil. Aggregates are little balls of organic matter, like the texture of a chocolate cake, that are created by fungi, bacteria and plants. Carbon exudates from plants feed soil microbes to build these aggregates. Our health, our animals, our planet, our climate is all connected to the soil aggregate. The end of the water cycle is an aggregate. The water cycle begins and ends with an aggregate in the soil. Without aggregates there is no water infiltration and no functional small water cycle. It’s all connected.

Ray emphasised, “the number one principle to walk away with today is that everything is one. Everything is connected from the microbes to you, to the cheetah, to the water table, all is one.”

Aggregates don’t exist without soil biology. The aggregates act like small marbles and when the water lands on soil the aggregates help water go straight in. Aggregates contain pores and spaces for air and microbes to occupy. Living organisms like fungi and bacteria make super-biotic glues that cause aggregates to form. These glues, e.g., glomalin, are elegant, complex molecules. Incidentally, 40-60% of organic matter in soil comes from the carcasses of dead bacteria.

“All tests are wrong, some are useful”

Ray explained the slake test which is an observation test for aggregation stability. A small clump of dry soil is immersed in a volume of water. “What we want to see is the soil to not fall apart. Water is going to rush in to fill the pore spaces. If the water is not held within the pressures trying to fill up those pore spaces the clump falls apart. If this happens it means super-biotic glues are missing and there is not enough soil carbon to hold the structure together.”

Ray stressed that the slake test works on 95-98% of soils tested on 6 continents. “There are 2-3% of soils that do not break up because of their minerology which gives them a type of ‘chemical magnetism’ that holds them together. If a clump doesn’t break apart, it doesn’t mean the soil is healthy and functional. This is why it’s important to do the infiltration test,” which is a functional test to determine the presence of functional soil aggregates.

Note, both tests are designed to use with rainwater or irrigated water. Groundwater or salinity affects the results. Salinity can cause dispersion which is different. Ray shared “the way to counter salinity is with carbon; don’t till and grow living plants. Biology modifies and sorts out saline soils.”

Chronically stressed soils aren’t functional and don’t recycle nutrients. Over-spraying soil with fertilisers and pesticides leads to stressed, chemically addicted soils. Ray cautioned. “It is important to understand this. A lot of people want farmers to stop using chemicals and fertilisers right away. No! You’ll make a farmer go broke. You get away from addiction slowly, gradually. You don’t go into regenerative agriculture right away, it takes years to become a regenerative farmer.”

Functional soils depend on carbon aggregates.

“We cannot build aggregates without animals, plants and microbes. Biology changes the soil. It changes bulk density. The soil is alive, it is not a fixed growing medium. It’s dynamic. Aggregates last about 27 days on average. They change daily. They’re being consumed, they’re being built. Your soil is all a function of your management.”

Soil is the interface between life and geology

Naked soil has no cover. Ray shared that “ancient people called the plant ‘the mouth of the soil,’ it’s the coverage; it’s the skin; it’s everything. The moment we take the plant out and we have no biology, it’s geology. Soil is the interface between life and geology. So much we teach about soil is wrong”

He emphasised three points:

• Soil is hungry. It’s starving to death because most people leave the ground bare at the end of the year (growing year) and they don’t have living covers all the time.

• Soil’s thirsty because soil temperatures with no residue, no skin, no living plant have increased; the water’s evaporating. It’s not just the heat but also light and its reflection (this is called albedo – the proportion of sunlight that is reflected) that causes more evaporation.

• Temperatures are rising. Bacteria like to be around 29-30°C (85°F). Bacteria and their enzymes shut down at 40.6°C (105°F). When it gets above 40°C the soil biology starts to shuts down.

Ray contributed “we don’t have global warming, we have global ignorance and global disconnect.” These three points highlight global warming is the outcome of this disconnect.

To learn about the relationship between vegetation (cover), soil and the small-water cycle and how poor land-management affects this relationship to cause global warming, we encourage you to read “Ground Breaking” by Philip Mulvey and Freya Mulvey.

Tillage causes soil mineralisation

Ray introduced a short movie by NASA that modelled global atmospheric CO2 levels across 2006 condensed into a couple of minutes. Massive increases in atmospheric CO2 over North America and Europe occurred from November – December and from February – May that coincided with periods of intense tillage. However, from June – September, when spring and summer plant growth is high, atmospheric CO2 levels fell dramatically. The changes seen reflect two major agricultural activities, tillage and plant growth.

Tillage remains a huge problem in North America and Europe, but less so in countries like Australia which have largely adopted no-till practices. The problem with tillage is it wakes up opportunistic bacteria, known as r (rapid metabolic rate)-strategists that grow rapidly when resources are in surplus. These bacteria consume the aggregates, the glues, exudates, everything. They respire and release CO2 into the atmosphere. The bacteria die and release nitrate into the soil. This is soil mineralisation. Ray thinks this is a safety mechanism. The nitrate wakes up weeds to grow and start the healing process. It’s nature way to start to heal itself so massive erosion doesn’t occur.

According to Ray the real problem with our planet warming is not CO2. It’s only 0.04% of the atmosphere (11% of this is man-made) while water vapour is 0.4%. Water loss from soil is the actual problem. We lose 900% (almost 10X) more water from soil than CO2 every time we till. “We’ve known this since 1978, yet we never talk about it. The third largest reservoir of water is the soil, it’s meant to be there. The water and the carbon need to be in the soil.”

Rather than focus solely on CO2 which is too simplistic, too reductionist, Ray shared, “I want to do something that’s cheap and fast that can heal our planet quick, and that’s a living plant. It’s a great time to be in agriculture. Don’t get me wrong agriculture is the biggest destroyer but it’s also the biggest builder. I have hope now. We can fix this.”

I don’t know why, it’s just the way we do things around here

Often what gets in the way of change is social conditioning from family, friends, colleagues and so on. Ray shared a 2-minute video to show how social conditioning to behave a particular way comes about within a social group and, importantly, even though the reason for the behaviour within the social group no longer exists the behaviour persists.

Social conditioning leads people to question, criticise and ostracise others when they do something for the first time in a region. Ray recalled when he first started to use sheep. “You idiot, this is cattle country, what are you doing with sheep?” His reply was “where’s the sign, no sheep allowed?”

Questioning anything can be challenging, especially the science, and leave us vulnerable. To question science Ray says “follow the money.” Over many years science has been manipulated to the nth degree (by business). “Understand our conventional system that is now the model system was based on science, but science is asking the wrong question. It is science but it wasn’t a science of humility, which asks how do we mimic the natural system?”

Science teaches what we need to know separately, not holistically, but siloed or reduced. Ray used the health system to highlight the issue. When we go to a doctor with a problem, they send us to a specialist. However, the problem is everything is connected to the affected part. “The first doctor we see should understand how the whole body works. They should be the most brilliant one, because it’s all connected together. All the parts function together as a whole. This is holistic science. This is what Allan Savory taught me. He said ‘Ray put it together as a whole.’ Agriculture is the same. We can’t fix it with reductionism. We’re approaching it incorrectly. Nature’s alive; she’s connected; she’s complex; she’s one. The moment we start isolating things, we’re lost. This is why I was so frustrated when I got out of college, I couldn’t solve the problem.”

Ray’s heard all the excuses for regenerative agriculture. It’s too cold, it’s too wet, it’s too hot, it’s too dry. This is all reductionism, looking at one parameter only at a time. All ecosystems have life, even bacteria and organisms exist in sand. “This is not Mars. This is not the moon.” Organisms can live in the harshest of conditions. “Acids leak. Microbes, bacteria break rock down. Fungi break rock down. Powerful excretions. They bring (solubilise) the nutrients out of rocks.”

Four things we need to know (in our paddocks)

Ray shared when he walks over your paddocks, he wants to know four things:

  1. How much sunlight do you capture? How much bare soil is there?
  2. The planet runs on biodiversity. How much biodiversity is there? Plants, animals, insects, viruses, bacteria? These all help regulate points 3 and 4.
  3. The water cycle – is it effective?
  4. The nutrient cycle – are nutrients recycling?

Four things. Capture sunlight. Turn sunlight into liquid sun (quote from Christine Jones). Plants convert sunlight into usable energy in the form of thousands of chemicals that leak into soil where they feed the bacteria and insects (biodiversity). “Biodiversity is the number one thing I look at in people’s operation. The hardest thing I’ve found to get farmers to do is be diverse. They just want to do one thing. One crop or one animal. Biodiversity improves water and nutrient cycles. It all comes from liquid sun.” He shared on average, sunlight is only captured for 120 days a year in the US. As soon as corn and soy are harvested the fields are laid bare.

The top 2 cm of soil is the most important. The majority of nutrient recycling, the life of the soil, occurs in the top 2 cm, where the microbial community exists. We want nutrients to recycle fast. This is what happens when the soil is alive.

Fossil fuel, chemicals, pesticides, fertilisers, diesel, coal are all forms of captured ancient sunlight (energy). Our goal is to capture as much sunlight today as we can. Ray cautioned, we cannot stop using all fossil fuels right away, without causing big problems. One change can have a big impact.

Circling back to aggregates, Ray shared his observation that WA soils are low in aggregates due to chronic stress. Our challenge is to build more aggregates. If you want to learn more about soil aggregates Ray suggests reading the work of Prof Johan Six – the ‘father of aggregates’ in Zurich.

Do not be fooled to think our soil problems can be solved quickly. Hundreds or thousands of years of stress will take time to heal. Gabe Brown, a pioneer in regenerative farming, says even after many years his soil is not yet healed.

Let thy food be thy medicine

Businesses are making more money than ever in agriculture, yet farmers are poorer than ever with massive debt. The system is broken. Collectively, we created this system because we want cheap food. People are now willing to pay for food that is grown using a different, healthier system. Ray suggested reading “What your food ate: how to heal the land and reclaim your health” by David Montgomery and Anne Bikle. It doesn’t matter if you eat the right food, if it wasn’t grown right you won’t get the right benefit and nutrient balance. Notably, since 1950 the cost of food has halved while the cost of healthcare has doubled. Farmers have suffered the most through this.

Biomimicry asks what would nature do?

Ray loves biomimicry. It’s the science of humility. He recommends checking out the Biomimicry Institute. In short, biomimicry is “Ask Nature. How does she do it? It is not new. We’ve used biomimicry for a long time. Velcro is based on plant cockleburs. Planes were designed by watching birds fly. Our problem was we never respected the creation by nature. Our way was never humble. It was about control. Heat from cities pushes rain clouds away. If we have more vegetation crime rates go down. We’re designed to be in the garden.”

“With biomimicry we teach farmers how to mimic the prairie and the forest.” The natural system has been speaking to us for a long time. “Ask the animals and they will teach you. Ask the birds of the sky and they will tell you.” Ancient cultures understood this, we just haven’t listened.

Using cover crops we mimic the natural system. They keep the soil covered all year; gives it skin to retain water and when they die, we use them to suppress weeds. With grazing systems we can mimic the Serengeti. We want to move livestock in large groups, in high density, quickly and then give the pasture long recovery.

“We are all connected. We can heal the whole planet if we’re humble and mimic the natural system. Work with nature.”