The answer to healthier food, viable farming and addressing climate change is as close as the dirt beneath our feet.
Taos Valley farmers like Melinda Batemanof Morning Star Farm and Chris Pieper and Elana Lombard,of Flourish Farms, know that healthy soil is the key to better food. Beyond that, the plants covering every inch of healthy soil absorb carbon dioxide, helping reduce one of the primary greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. These growers have changed the way they manage crops and have seen their soil get richer and better as a result.
Five steps are key to healthy soil, according to the latest research: Keep the soil covered, disturb the surface as little as possible, encourage a diverse variety of plants, protect living roots and integrate grazing animals, like cows, goats or chickens.
These five have grown out of what scientists have learned in the last several years about what's happening beneath the ground surface. Healthy soil contains more microorganisms - bacteria and fungi - in one teaspoonful than there are people on the planet. Soil that is covered with plants above ground and teaming with microorganisms, worms, beetles, ants and other life below ground, grows healthier food, holds water and absorbs carbon.
Scientists have understood the need for healthy soil for decades. The USDA Yearbook of Agriculture spelled out the benefits in the agency's 1938 book "Soils and Men" and noted the failing to do so back then. "Nature treats the earth kindly. Man treats her harshly. He overplows the cropland, overgrazes the pastureland, and overcuts the timberland. He destroys millions of acres completely."
Scientists once believed that tilling the soil and adding lots of compost or fertilizer was the best way to build its health. That's changed. Now they understand the action that helps plants thrive happens in the top few inches of soil.
"Soil science has become aware of the importance of the rhizosphere (the area around plant roots)," Bateman said. In a complex dance, the roots produce chemicals that help feed microbes that in turn improve plant growth. Different plant roots emit different chemicals which then attract different types of microbes; so the more diverse the plant roots are the bigger variety of microbe dance partners are available.
"The more species the better," Chris Pieper said. "As they say, diversity above ground translates into diversity below ground."
Keeping soil covered with a variety of plants or mulch and reducing the number of bare spots, cools the soil and helps it absorb water like a sponge instead of allowing it to run off.
The latest theories on building healthy soil has caused a buzz and not just among farmers. New Mexico's lawmakers in 2019 joined a dozen other states in passing healthy soils legislation. Under the law, the New Mexico Health Soil Working Group helps by providing information, technical assistance and resources to commercial farmers, ranchers and other land managers. In its first year, the state's Healthy Soil Program received 84 applications for pilot project grants; only 19 could be funded from available monies. In 2020, a bipartisan sponsored bill to add funding for more projects died in the legislature just before the COVID-19 pandemic sank the state's fortunes further.
Despite the challenge in finding funds to help growers switch their methods, local producers are sharing information, experimenting and finding what works in Northern New Mexico's harsh growing conditions.
Bateman, who's had a commercial farm and taught others farming techniques for 28 years, is working with the nonprofit Not Forgotten Outreach farm, teaching students in the Vet Corps program about building soil and good compost. She still has to till some of her farm beds but she's changed the tool she uses, looking for the least disturbance of the soil.
Pieper, who farms in Arroyo Seco and helps his wife Elana Lombard with their downtown Taos business Mudd n' Flood, said they started rethinking their soil practices three years ago. "One of the practices that we've really changed is we shifted from a focus on compost to build the soil to using diverse cover crops to rebuild soil," Pieper said.
Five years ago, like a lot of gardeners and farmers, he used to rototill his garden beds. Now he spreads seed directly on the soil surface, even if there are other plant residues there. He covers the beds with a thin eighth of an inch or quarter inch of good compost and then water. "Those plants, just like in nature, send their roots down," he said.
They now focus attention on keeping diverse cover crops growing on the land. Pieper said they mix up four main types of cover crops - grasses, legumes such as peas, vetch and clover, forbes and greens such as kale and collards.
They graze goats and chickens through their pastures at different times, to help gently churn up soil, fertilize and reduce weeds.
Through careful management, Pieper said the soil on the farm has "improved dramatically."
"We can reverse so much of the harm we've done, to the land, the climate and the water, by how we grow food," Pieper said. "Too, by restoring soil health we can increase the nutrient density of our food and help human health."
The couple's daughter Gwendolyn Pieper, an artist and aspiring soil scientist, also has taken an interest in soil. She recently received 500 pounds of cover crop seed she plans to donate through the Taos Land Trust to people interested in learning more about healthy soil. She's also working on a demonstration project at Casa Minka in Arroyo Seco, where she is an artist in residence. The research project involves planting half the property's garden with a cover crop seed mix. She'll collect data on plant growth and take soil samples to send to the Cornell University Soil Health Laboratory for a deeper look at the microbes and chemistry.
Peter Vigil, long time district manager of the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District, works with both large-scale producers and backyard gardeners on projects from managing noxious weeds to addressing erosion. After the Healthy Soil Act passed the legislature, Vigil received a grant to train he and his staff on healthy soil methods. Then they tested soil across Taos County. They worked with more than 100 producers and Vigil said he hopes to work with 100 more this year.
Among the ranchers and farmers who have large areas of land to manage, Vigil said the word about the new approaches to soil health is spreading "little by little." On the range, moving livestock frequently and having access to several pastures is one key to building soil health and not overgrazing. But those that rely on public land grazing allotments along with private pastures are affected to some degree on the policies of federal land agencies. Vigil thinks if the traditional, larger scale producers can get the help they need, building healthy soil could be done much quicker at a landscape scale.
Building healthy soil is something everyone can do, no matter how large or small their piece of land. And every inch of plant-rich, covered soil can help offset climate change.