Robbie Bevis kneels in one of his fields covered with a mixed cover crop. 

 

The Arkansas Soil Health  Alliance Takes Root

Local Farmers Work to Decrease Inputs and Improve Soil Health

By: Lacey Thacker

“I don’t see how we’re going to continue to farm the way we currently are. Something has to change,” Robbie Bevis says. Bevis, a fifth-generation farmer in Scott, is one of a group of farmers working to develop the Arkansas Soil Health Alliance, a new 501c (3). Bevis, who began running the farm in 1999, began decreasing tillage on his property soon thereafter. He says that while some farmers may subsoil or do “deep tillage” and think it’s having a positive impact on their soil, if you can easily stick your finger in the dirt, it has no structure, and if it has no structure, it’s not healthy soil.

“When you go over to this healthy soil and it’s got root wads, you can’t push your finger through it, which causes some to think the soil lacks aeration. Quite the opposite,” Bevis says. It’s the roots, the glomalin (a protein produced by fungi), and everything else that’s in the soil that makes it healthy. “So even though you can’t push [your finger] through it, it still has a lot of air in it,” Bevis explains. He picks up a wad of healthy soil to demonstrate; sure enough, it clings together. The soil with no organic matter crumbles without any effort.

Bevis Farms grows mostly soybeans and corn; the majority of his fields haven’t been tilled in years. Instead, Bevis plants a cover crop of mixed species. It’s allowed to decompose in the fields, then corn or soybeans are planted directly into the ground underneath the biomass. As the biomass grows over the years, it enriches the soil. 

Practicality
Much of Bevis’ interest in no-till low-input agriculture is practical. He notes that one can make almost anything work on an acre; it’s the farmer who is able to make something work on 40 acres—or 100—that he’s inclined to pay attention to. Bevis doesn’t just want anecdotal evidence; he wants research that provides scientific data about the efficacy of what he, and other farmers like him, are doing. 

Bevis is quick to point out that he doesn’t necessarily think every farmer has to go 100 percent organic, but he also thinks tilling, spraying pesticides and herbicides, and even fertilizing by default, are simply tools, and, “We need to use the right tool at the right time.” In fact, Bevis calls it a “bad habit” to use a tool just because you have it. Bevis likens the situation to antibiotic use, saying, “Antibiotics don’t work as good as they used to because we’ve overused them.” 

It was a man named Ray Archuleto who encouraged Bevis, and others, to decrease their inputs and decrease, or stop, tilling altogether. “‘I want to get you to where it hurts you to do tillage,’ he said to me. I told him, ‘I’m to the point where it hurts me to watch other people do tillage,’” he recalls. Bevis says he isn’t against tilling in and of itself, but he says he sees the number of trips some farmers make across their fields, simply out of habit, and he translates the trips into dollars, noting that the multiple trips across the field weren’t necessary. Instead, they were done because of habit and a desire to make the field look a certain way.

Forming the Plan
After their success with soil health practices, Bevis and several other farmers began tossing around the idea of a formal organization to help educate others. They discussed the idea off and on for a couple years, but each year they became busy with their jobs—farming. Finally, the members of the group were ready to put in some of their own money to really get the program started. “Next thing we knew, NRCS gave us our grant to help get it started,” he says. 

Bevis has been contacted by agencies and individuals from surrounding states who’d like Bevis to participate in developing a Mid-South soil health group, but Bevis says he’s had to learn to say, “Not yet.” Bevis says the group is still trying to figure out what exactly they’re doing in Arkansas. While they have a pretty good idea—education and advocacy—the group must establish itself in its home state before branching out.

Bevis says his passion comes from seeing the difference a different set of agriculture practices can make. One example he cites is a farmer who, over the course of 30 years, was able to change his soil classification. He believes if the Soil Health Alliance can spread the word far enough, the impact of wind erosion and water erosion can be mitigated, and along with that, water quality and water infiltration can be helped. Bevis says, “It’s hard not to get excited about something when you see the difference it can make. Not just for agriculture, but for society as a whole.”

Left to right: To the top of the image is black oats; to the bottom, cereal rye, both of which are part of Bevis’ cover crop mix. Cover crops provide many benefits, including decreasing erosion. Brassicas, pictured here, are an excellent option for adding organic matter to the soil during the off season. Tillage radishes help improve water infiltration and soil aeration as well as decrease soil compaction.