Almost four years ago, a handful of local ag producers were invited to a meeting at the Delta Public Library. The topic was new to some of them: "soil health."
A farmer from California had been brought in for the session to share the experiences of San Joaquin Valley producers dealing with severe water quality issues, environmental constraints and heavy government regulation there.
The session's organizers were a few local farmers, ag professionals from NRCS and other agencies, and Painted Sky RC&D. There was some concern that farming advice from a California expert might fall unheeded on local ears.
But the theme of the California farmer's presentation struck a chord with the group. He told them, "Farmers, don't treat your soil like dirt."
At that time, the various ideas and practices of low tillage and crop rotation known collectively as soil health farming seemed far removed from the realities of production agriculture in the Uncompahgre and Gunnison valleys.
But from that beginning in a basement meeting room at the library, local interest in soil health farming has grown. So much so, in fact, that last week the third annual Soil Health Conference was held at Delta's Bill Heddles Recreation Center. The gym was filled with over 150 area producers and others gathered for two days of presentations and accounts of soil health practices being employed here and in other parts of the country.
Nothing more clearly illustrates the growth of interest that has blossomed into on-farm soil health practices than the fact that half the presentations made during the two-day conference were given by producers from this area.
Panel discussions and presentations were given by area ag professionals, including David Harold and Zack Ahlberg, discussing cover crops and companion crops; by Jack Graff and Tom Kay who explained their experiences with composting; and by Richard St. Jean and Randy Meaker sharing how they have integrated various soil health practices into their own local operations.
The conference concluded with a panel presentation conducted by JL Vela of Eckert and Verlin Rockey of Austin. Local producers are on board with soil health.
Other presenters included Brendon Rockey of Center, who has developed a comprehensive and highly successful ag operation in the San Luis Valley over 20 years based on soil health practices and "working with nature."
Rockey explained how the various pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, nematicides and other chemicals used to solve existing problems actually create new problems. "All the problems we are trying to solve (applying chemicals) are the result of other things we have already done (applying chemicals)," he said of chemical-based, monoculture farming practices.
Operators and ag professionals from California, North Dakota and New Mexico added new information on technical aspects of plant biology and soil chemistry. The conference explored relevant subjects from the interaction of important microbes in root-to-soil interactions to various recipes for producing compost.
John Diener of Red Rock Ranch in Fresno County, Calif., gave conference attendees a sobering account of the social, political and environmental challenges facing agriculture — challenges which have yet to be fully felt on the Western Slope. "We're living in a competitive world," he said. "They have more lawyers than you do and they will take your water away," unless every drop is put to beneficial use, he said of organized environmental interests in his state.
Diener said soil health farming practices are a solution. He encouraged producers and emphasized the importance of their vocational calling in agriculture. "You have a great story to tell about what agriculture supports in our society. We give (others) a privilege," he said. Because of ag producers, others have the privilege of pursuing lifestyles of their choice and not having to worry every day about finding enough food to eat.
"There are people (in government and elsewhere) who get it," he said. "You have got to get engaged. There are people you need to get to know and talk to. You have friends in high places," Diener said.
"Get those people on your side. You give them the privilege, and they understand that. People want to hear you tell that story. You will do better, and don't ever think that you can't," Diener told the local producers, adding, "Soil health is the least-cost way to you of preserving your lifestyle."blog comments powered by Disqus