Permaculture & Soil Health Part I

“Permaculture Soil Health: How I Found Religion” by USDA-NRCS District Conservationist, Raymond Covino

About 6 years ago, I was attending a mandatory, week-long training session for my job on how to use a new spreadsheet. Now, as fun as that might seem, it turned out to be one of the most important educational experiences of my adult career – and of my life. This session shifted my entire focus … it is what’s known as my “aha moment.”

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking – especially if you’ve ever met me – that I’m not really into spreadsheets or sitting still. However, it was during this conference that I met a man named Ray Archuleta, who was a presenter on Day 3 of the session.

“I was frustrated enough that I was considering a career change.”
Raymond Covino, District Conservationist

For the entire 90 minutes he spoke, I was literally on the edge of my seat. It had been so long since I heard the words ecology or diversity (as it relates to ecosystems), hearing them that day made me feel like maybe I could actually make an effectual improvement in this planet that I love so much.

Let’s take a step back for a second to define effectual improvement. I love my job; I really do. But before this training, I felt like I was walking around a room in the dark with a box of bandages trying to fix people who were cutting each other. Oh sure, I was helping on occasion, when I could, by chance at times, but the bigger picture was still not being met.

Celebrating Ag Rainfall Demo Covino

(Raymond Covino doing a rainwater harvesting demo during a “Celebrating Agriculture” event. )

We’re still losing topsoil. We’re still using ancient sunlight to fabricate synthetic materials to use more ancient sunlight to grow food that requires us to pump ancient water, and we’re still eutrophic in most of our water courses.

Hardly seems like the right model. I was frustrated enough that I was considering a career change.

However, in that 90 minutes, Archuleta was able to show me that I can make a difference; that we can make a difference; and it can be done economically, on any scale.

Ray-Archuleta_Chris-Clayton-300x225

My enthusiasm brought me into a discussion with this somewhat crazed madman with the idea that we could improve the health of our soils using cover crops, diversity, lack of disturbance – and if you’re reading this, I’m sure you know most of the basic principles.

My fervor to know more led me to the concept of permaculture.

In my free time, I began an independent search and became somewhat obsessed with soil health. In 2013, I began working with the NRCS National Soil Health Training Cadre; in 2014 I got my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC); and today I continue to work with the team to help get the word out.

How Does the NRCS Soil Health Movement Relate to Permaculture?

During my PDC course, I found that the permaculture planning principles very closely mimic the NRCS planning process – almost to a fault. It’s amazing how two systems that were developed so far apart are so similar. Permaculture preaches regenerate, grow, share the surplus, etc. NRCS preaches conservation measures on private lands. Not exactly the same, but you get the idea. Each process of inventorying, observing, and formulating alternatives is quite similar.

How Do Soils Help Us?

Well, to start, without soil we’d all still be aquatic organisms and there would be no music – and I like music, so you can thank the soil for that one. They sequester carbon – literally thousands of millions of tons of carbon annually – but only if allowed to. They cycle nutrients, even the salts … er … I mean fertilizers we put down are not plant available – they have to cycle via microbial processes before they’re plant available. They infiltrate and retain moisture. They physically hold the plants in place. They’re habitat. Soils are by far the most diverse ecosystem on the planet, and yet, most of the population treats soil like dirt. Each gram contains billions of microbes and the vast majority of the diversity on the planet is microbial soil organisms. By a longshot.

How Does Something So Simple Do So Much?

I guess the real short answer is that it’s not simple. We can’t even begin to fathom all of the ecological processes going on under our feet; our best attempts are soil tests (of which there are many) to determine certain key indicators.

Given that, let me get this out there – I’m not against fertilizers or using other tools; however, the wise use of application is encouraged. For example, if your soil is very low on Sulphur, you might have to add some. A lot of professionals, especially permaculturists, start with a pretty denuded site before designing a system that will be productive. You’re going to have a hard go of it if you are low on something. You can’t create an element in the soil with a seed, but you sure can cycle it.

The ultimate value of soils, be it local, regional, national, or global is still not understood. The more we learn about soil health, the more we realize we have to continue to learn – each new discovery leads us to learn even more. However, once you learn to read soil health, you can’t unlearn it. It becomes part of you. In coming blogs, we’ll explore different facets of soil health, and how they impact everything from your garden to the world.

More about Raymond Covino

Raymond Covino is District Conservationist at thje USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Windham County, Connecticut. He enjoys wilderness hiking, fishing, gardening, fabrication, making wines and ciders… and too many other hobbies to list.

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