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Getting back to the land

Ian Colburn and Casey Holland began farming at Chispas in 2017 and 2018, respectively, growing over 120 varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables. The farm is applying for a soil health grant from the state. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Casey Holland and Ian Colburn love digging in the dirt, even in the middle of the Albuquerque area. The pair manage Chispas Farm, a 4-acre operation in Bernalillo County’s South Valley. Chickens and dairy cows roam near the rows of vegetables and flowers that line the small urban farm.

Holland and Colburn practice regenerative agriculture, which aims to restore soil nutrients while maintaining healthy crops. They are applying for a healthy soil grant from the state to help further that effort.

The New Mexico Department of Agriculture has a total of $175,000 to award for soil improvement projects in the pilot year of the Healthy Soils Program. The grant program was created by the Healthy Soil Act, which passed the Legislature this year and was signed by the governor in April.

“We’re excited about finding ways to diversify our cover crop mixes and to incorporate more mulching,” Holland said. “We hope the grant could help us transition from tilling our soil to a minimal disturbance alternative that protects this soil microbiome we’ve worked hard to build up, instead of shredding it.”

Chickens wander around Chispas Farm in the South Valley.

The program is seeking projects that focus on one or more of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s five principles of soil health: keeping soil covered, minimizing soil disturbance on cropland, maximizing biodiversity, maintaining a living root and integrating animals into land management.

Soil packed with nutrients acts like a sponge that soaks up and stores water, which means erosion, droughts and floods don’t hit as hard. That’s important for agriculture in a dry state such as New Mexico.

Individual farmers and ranchers must submit applications through soil and water conservation districts, New Mexico State University agricultural extension offices, pueblos and tribes, acequias or land grants.

“I feel like the mission of this program is to make New Mexico soils more profitable, but also keep them that way for generations to come,” said Chispas Farm’s Colburn, who is also applying for a grant for another property. “It could be a boost for new farmers or even a struggling farm.”

The new state program could improve the state’s soil health, according to Julie Maitland, the NMDA Agriculture Programs and Resources division director. The law says soil management can support the market for food grown in New Mexico.

Rows of vegetables and flowers line the 4-acre Chispas Farm in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Farmers Casey Holland and Ian Colburn use regenerative agriculture practices to keep their soil healthy for generations.

“We want that vibrant and rich soil with a healthy biome,” Maitland said. “The soil should be able to hold water. The soil and water cycles are so integrated; that’s on everyone’s mind if they manage land.”

For Chispas Farm, a grant could also bring in more livestock to graze and stimulate the soil; they use small dairy cows now.

Aside from the grants, the Healthy Soil Act includes an additional $200,000 for education and soil testing.

“I think the program can encourage existing farmers to treat their land better,” Holland said. “We’re always learning and seeing what works and what doesn’t. I’m excited to learn more about the education component – we have a lot of knowledge to share and a lot to receive from other farmers.”

The grants are geared for projects that address even one of the soil health principles, according to Katie Goetz, a policy analyst with NMDA.

“We want to give farmers and ranchers the flexibility and creativity for them to do what’s beneficial on their land,” Goetz said. “Risk is inherent in agriculture because we’re dealing with Mother Nature. This gives farmers and ranchers a chance to try something new while they deal with that risk.”

The Healthy Soil Act was endorsed by more than 100 food and agriculture groups, as well as environmental groups, farms and ranches – a unique collaboration for entities that often find themselves on opposing sides.

Isabelle Jenniches, a co-founder of the New Mexico Healthy Soil Working Group that advocated for the legislation, said the law’s overwhelming support shows soil health in New Mexico is a pressing issue, calling the program “small with big goals.”

“People in New Mexico can see the decline of soil health on their own land,” Jenniches said. “Topsoil is blowing away and creating dead zones. Growers are seeing a decline in crop fertility and nutritional value in our food. But achieving healthy soil is an issue that we can actually do something about.”

Chispas Farm has seen how adapting to the state’s dry climate by protecting the soil can make a small farm sustainable. The farm’s three employees grew 15,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables last year.

“When I first came here, all of these fields were just dirt,” Holland said. “We have to work with the mindset that we’re not going to abandon this land.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal. Visit reportforamerica.org to learn about the effort to place journalists in local newsrooms around the country.

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