New report examines socio-economic benefits of soil health for New Mexico farms and ranches

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Photo provided by Charles Hibner

The NM Healthy Soil Working Group solicited the non-profit Crossroads Resource Center to interview New Mexico farmers and ranchers to learn more about their reasons for pursuing soil health. Drawing from 12 individual accounts representing a diverse cross-section of the state, Building Soil Health in New Mexico charts millennia old traditions and new strategies, analyses soil health benefits and samples on-farm measurements used to track progress.

“A steadfast core of ranchers and farmers have proven they can build soil health in New Mexico, one of the most challenging environments in the US. The state’s combination of arid weather, unpredictable rain, and hot sunlight poses huge complications, but several farmers and ranchers have overcome them. In so doing, they carry forward soil health practices that have been pursued on these lands for thousands of years. Some proudly continue strong farm operations their forebears cultivated. Others try to repair damage inflicted by their own ancestors.” says the report.

Our overall purpose is to recover from the damage we have  done on our land since we started farming in 1896.

Tanner Mitchell, Tequesquite Ranch, Roy, NM

While all interviewees place soil health at the center of their operations, “each grower has carved out unique strategies that suit their individual farm or ranch. Each has broken from the concept that natural resources, including soil, should be ‘mined’ until exhausted, preferring a strategy of building soil health so that other benefits will accrue.”

Our tradition tells us to “receive the day”: this involves taking the energy you have and focusing it on facilitating natural processes, not looking at production as the goal.

James and Joyce Skeet, Spirit Farm, Vanderwagen, NM

The farmers and ranchers are united in their dedication to working with nature to produce healthy, nutrient dense and culturally relevant foods. Management strategies are guided by the 5 universal soil health principles which provide direction for promoting critical synergistic relationships between soil biology, plants and animals.

My basic principle is to always have a living root in the soil. That is why I like cover crops. I try to get them in the ground early and I also make sure they are in place for the winter, to avoid evapotranspiration, and minimize water consumption.

Don Hartman, Hartman Farms, Deming, NM

The most critical determinant for building soil health in New Mexico’s arid environment is water availability as soil micro- and macro-organisms depend on it. But with dwindling rainfall, unpredictable snow pack, and an ongoing multi-year drought –all signs of the worsening climate crisis– water supplies have become greatly uncertain.

The bottom line in any western soil is putting water into the soil. You have to have good structure. Any organic matter you can put into the soil is helpful. Biological activity is a key thing. You want to raise the level of micro-organisms.

Charles Hibner, Hibner Ranch, Cebolla, NM

Healthy soil acts like a sponge, allowing water to infiltrate through earthworm channels and good aggregation facilitated by soil microbes and mycorrhizal fungi. Better able to absorb and hold water, healthy soil makes the most of scarce water resources, greatly reduces erosion and evaporation and even has the potential to restore the small water cycle which increases local rainfall. Yet in times of drought improving degraded lands is just that much harder.

Ranching here is not easy. There is always a constant hint of risk, given our land. This year it was drought.

Gilbert Louis III, Acoma No. 8 Ranch, Acoma Pueblo, NM

Adding to the challenges posed by New Mexico’s unforgiving environment are fickle markets and economic restraints. The growers interviewed developed a variety of responses in order to reduce their dependence on undifferentiated commodity markets. Accessing niche markets that fetch better prices, diversifying income streams, selling value-added products, collaborating with other producers, engaging in direct sales and building relationships with local communities are some of their strategies.

To this day I have a diversity of beneficial insects. There’s a balance in nature. The beneficials will come in and help you out.

Ramon “Dosi” and Norma Alvarez, Alvarez Farms, La Union, NM

Relying on soil health boosts profitability as growers are able to grow more forage and reduce input costs: rather than purchasing hay, expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides they grow cover crops as “green manure” and foster plant health and beneficial insects to address pest issues.

“We prefer this kind of a closed system, where the nutrients stay right on the farm.”

Laura Harper, Del Valle Pecans, Mesilla Valley, NM

And yet, most producers depend heavily upon personal savings, outside jobs or grant support in order to keep their business going and invest in conservation practices. The interviews underscore findings in the 2020 report New Mexico Farm & Food Economy which stated that 70% of New Mexico farms reported a net loss in 2017.

I am loving every single day of farming.

JJ Sánchez, Adelino Legacy Farms, Adelino, NM

Despite the challenges, building a business on the basis of soil health is worth it because of the many co-benefits growers cited: better crop and animal health, increased family happiness, higher profitability when conditions are favorable and greater resilience in times of hardship. “Greater resilience means any given farm is more likely to be profitable, even in bad years. Still, for ranchers and farmers to enjoy sustained economic benefits from following soil health principles, society will need to build both market mechanisms and public incentives that reward those who pursue soil health strategies.” concludes the report.

[Our] system gives me more flexibility. Cattle markets are always taking wild swings, and prices were really low this  year. I had the flexibility to not have to sell, because I knew I could feed them from my own pastures.

Jim Berlier, Berlier Ranch, Encino, NM

The report clearly shows that without community buy-in and support, farming and ranching is not just risky, but in many instances unsustainable. Supply chain disruptions during the pandemic have laid bare New Mexico’s shortcomings in terms of self-reliance –95% of our food is currently imported while we export 97% of products grown in the state– making the case for increased local food production.

I wanted to be involved in transitioning away from the industrial food system and helping improve the natural environment. I firmly believe we can be the solution to the problems we have created.

Matthew Draper, North Valley Organics, Albuquerque, NM

The findings in this report are a call to action for New Mexicans to support regenerative and soil health building businesses that bring about environmental and public health benefits. In addition to buying directly from local farmers and building community support, it is imperative to advocate for policy incentivizing soil health and to attract investment in a regenerative economy in order to create a healthy, just and resilient food system.

We want to thank the farmers and ranchers for sharing their stories:

  • James and Joyce Skeet, Spirit Farm (vegetables, fruit and livestock), Vanderwagen, NM
  • Matthew Draper, North Valley Organics (certified organic vegetables and fruit), Albuquerque, NM 
  • Don Hartman, Hartman Farms (green chile, onions, watermelons, sorghum, hay), Deming, NM
  • Laura Harper, Del Valle Pecans (pecans), Mesilla Valley, NM
  • JJ Sánchez, Adelino Legacy Farms (hay), Adelino, NM
  • Jim Berlier, Berlier Ranch (cattle), Encino, NM
  • Charles Hibner, Hibner Ranch (cattle), Cebolla, NM
  • Gilbert Louis III, Acoma No. 8 Ranch, (cattle, corn), Pueblo of Acoma, NM
  • Tanner Mitchell, Tequesquite Ranch (cattle), Roy, NM
  • Ramon “ Dosí” and Norma Alvarez, Alvarez Farms (certified organic cotton, wheat, alfalfa, quarter horses, cattle), La Union, NM

→ Download the report Building Soil Health in New Mexico
PDF (17.1 MB)

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