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  • Laurel Angell

Healthy Soil Means Healthy People: It Is All About Relationships



Jeff Borum is the Soil Health Coordinator at the East Stanislaus RCD (ESRCD) located in the Bay-Delta region east of the San Joaquin River. They have active programs that benefit farmers, ranchers, and watersheds, and cultivate a thriving Soil Health Hub comprised of other RCDs, landowners, researchers, and partners.


Do not expect a technical lecture when you ask Jeff Borum, the Soil Health Coordinator at the East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District, about the factors that lead to healthy soil. He will just smile and say, “It’s all about relationships.”


According to Jeff, “To successfully improve soil health in our area, we have to focus on how to integrate these ranching and farming techniques into the community and do what is best for the farmer and rancher. It cannot just be about more conservation on more acres. That is a waste of time. Healthy soil means healthy people. It has to be a little more about the community and a little less business-y.”


“People come in and don’t know small towns and think that their conservation projects are the savior, but they never talk to the farmers about their day or the things they care about. One time, I met this farmer, talked to him twice on the phone, and by the end of the day, I was helping him plan his son’s graduation party. We developed a trust that helped us work together.”


Jeff believes that it is critical to value farmers’ time and local knowledge when developing and promoting solutions to soil health. “A lot of the agencies who focus on conservation give a lot money for cover crops, but they only pay for the seed, not the equipment. It is like giving these farmers a million nails and no hammers. The people who are making the decisions maybe haven’t been on a farm…they don’t have local knowledge.”


“I appreciate USGS as they were looking at putting compost on rangeland to mitigate greenhouse gases. They did the math to figure out that it takes this much time and money to spread the compost on the land…but they did not factor in what it would cost to have somebody load it. It can take twice as much time to load it as to spread it. We have to translate things like this for the political and agency folks.”


“We need to recognize that a spectrum of things exists. So many people focus on organic, but we have a lot of people to feed. Agriculture and those within agriculture are very heterogeneous and we need a spectrum to feed everyone, clothe everyone. Sometimes going organic isn’t the best answer for the farmer.”


Jeff is also a big proponent of slowing down and moving away from the need for quick results. As he points out, “A very fast moving society doesn’t integrate with agriculture…soil is just not fast moving.”


Right now, you can look on YouTube to see where someone planted seed and watered it…and it grew perfectly. What you don’t know is that it got seeded at 200 lbs. an acre and that it was planted in soil that has been used 1000 times for cover cropping demonstrations and was manicured. So, when you try to repeat that and don’t get those quick results, you don’t feel proud. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. We have to make sure that people know that this stuff takes time and it is a transition.”


Agencies, non-profits, and other technical assistance groups often fall into the same short-term thinking trap. “For new programs, it takes three to five years to be successful. Many of these programs last about year. It is not that it is worthless, but in terms of agriculture and soil management decisions, you are throwing darts. We need to throw multiple sets of darts to see a pattern and be able to adapt. This timeframe literally lets us throw one set of darts. We have no time to build things up and build relationships with the farmers.”


Despite the challenges, Jeff is optimistic about what he is seeing in the San Joaquin Valley. “A lot of the farmers that I’ve met in the San Joaquin Valley feel that this is the time for them. Some have gotten farms from their families and some have bought farms. They change something up and start to see more birds on their land and then they want help to make more changes.”


“I get the most excited when folks that are doing conventional ranching and farming start to see differences with slight changes. They have an orchard and start chipping, putting down compost and start shading. They see more birds and bees come back and then they start looking for resources and reach out to us.”


“I love it when you are growing almonds, but you have also created habitat for birds and have taken care of the fish in the stream and you are getting a premium price because you are doing all of these things.”