The spotlight was on Rudy Garcia, regional soil health specialist for New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, at the Soil Health Workshop, held in Lamar last month.

More than 30 local producers gathered to learn the fundamentals of soil health and what happens under the ground.

According to Garcia, plant roots feed millions of microorganisms that turn nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium into forms usable by plants. The carbon liquid formed by the roots is known by Garcia as "black gold."

Garcia says the secret to forming black gold is to never let the soil be bare and to minimize tillage, which disrupts the system.

Garcia used the example of the Mycorrhizae Hyphae, a fungus that collects water for the plants if the soil is healthy. The fungus can travel farther than the roots, like an underground spider web, collecting moisture for the plant. However, if the soil is turned, that system is destroyed, and when exposed to air, the underground ecosystems are disrupted.

"How would you like to be dumped out in the desert of Arizona with no protection from the heat and no water?" asked Garcia. "The microorganisms all require water to work."

According to Garcia, turning a fallow period into a cover crop period prevents the soil from being left bare and, subsequently, being destroyed by the sun.

"You would never take off and leave your cattle or sheep without water and food, but for years we have been doing that to the soil organisms," said Garcia.

Farming with beneficial insects, such as earthworms - which Garcia calls the "underground herd" - is also recommended.

When the microorganisms get hot and go dormant, earthworms and other crucial organisms are gone.

The NRCS Environmental Quality Incentive Program provides cost-share for producers to plant cover crops so they can take that fallow period and cover the ground.  

According to NRCS, science shows that all components of the soil work together and, by continually having the ground covered, moisture is actually better retained.

NRCS and the Prowers Conservation District, based in Lamar, are working with Xerces Society to obtain pollinator cover crops. NRCS also pays for butterfly plantings to help the monarch butterfly.  

Bees and butterflies are in jeopardy, and planting species that will host them will benefit the farm and the rest of the world, the NRCS said.

Producers who are interested in opportunities to work with Garcia and other specialists to assess their soil health and explore repair options can visit their local NRCS office.