Soil and cultural regeneration of agriculture

posted in: Regenerative Ag | 0

This article is part of a series profiling farms and ranches that have received support through the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Soil Program.

By Mark LeClaire, farmer and founder of Atrisco Community Farm, Albuquerque, NM

Americans are facing a two-pronged assault on our food security: accelerating climate change and the fallout from decades of highly subsidized industrial farming practices that have decimated our most productive soils and driven small family farmers off the land. There is an urgent need for our community to invest in forward-looking projects that regenerate both the soil and the cultural aspects of agriculture.

Atrisco Community Farm (ACF) was founded in 2012, operating as a small CSA on donated land until finally finding a permanent home in 2017. We began working with the land by adding large amounts of leaf mulch and composted manures and planting a fall cover crop of wheat and vetch in what would become the vegetable garden. We expanded the cover cropping in 2018 in order to double the size of the garden area, and brought in poultry which free ranged over the space all fall and winter. In 2019 we borrowed a broadfork from a local farming friend and experimented with a no-till approach on the beds prepared in 2018, planting directly into the residue left from the previous fall with no apparent loss of productivity. We continued using this no-till method, adding compost and compost teas produced on site, while extending the acequia irrigation and planting cover crops in a future orchard site.

Current practices include planting for pollinators, limited grazing, and extensive cover cropping and interplanting –for example, we planted peppers and tomatoes directly into a clover cover crop; cosmos and tithonia were allowed to grow up over a carrot bed, shading the carrots over the summer; and vetch that went to seed volunteered under corn, spreading in the fall as the corn died back. From the beginning, inputs have been limited to cover crops, compost, compost teas, and bacterial & fungal inoculants, with no obvious loss of productivity compared to farmers relying on fertilizers. Out in the field, it’s been incredible and gratifying to witness the explosion in insect population and diversity and the rapid return of snakes and toads to previously barren areas.

We are deeply engaged in seed preservation, having maintained several indigenous corn & bean varieties since the farm’s inception. Over ⅔ of our crops are grown from seed that originated on site, encompassing flowers, herbs, greens, and root vegetables. Over the past several years, we have also participated in a grafting co-op and already have a wide variety of apple, apricot and sour cherry trees and native shrubs in pots.

This work, firmly in line with the soil health principles espoused by the New Mexico Healthy Soil Program, gives us a strong foundation to build on. While I have been unable to support my three children on farming alone, I see enormous long-term value in continuing the work I have been engaged in over the last decade. As a CSA, we provide food to about a dozen families in partnership with the Center of Southwest Culture while giving away 200-300 pounds of food yearly to low-income families that would find it difficult to buy fresh produce. This work has low short-term financial reward but high long-term benefits for the community.

The network of relationships we have formed –through collective grazing, seed-trading, grafting, labor exchanges, and food-gifting– is itself resilient and regenerative. We’re honored to partner with Cleo’s Blue Corn Kitchen, a local, native-owned catering company that is also deeply involved in the community through demonstrations at schools and community centers. ACF grew the eponymous blue corn and a variety of vegetables for owner Cleo Otero’s expanding business, thus preserving rare native heirloom varieties and circulating them back out into an urban community that is often cut off from these foods. We also donate fresh produce weekly to Albuquerque Mutual Aid, a volunteer run organization working to address food insecurity in the community in the wake of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Our long-term vision is to develop a dynamic approach to farming in the South Valley that is highly responsive to climate change and able to generate food and economic opportunity with minimal outside inputs. We envision linking together a network of currently abandoned pastures in the area using these approaches, restoring both soil fertility, biodiversity, and connections in the human community, while maintaining traditional acequia culture. Pastures planted with drought-tolerant grasses and lined with hedges that include hardy native fruit trees and shrubs will serve as a literal hedge against future food insecurity and species loss. In this way, we are sequestering carbon, promoting wildlife diversity, and banking water and soil fertility –providing the ability to contract in drier years without a total loss of topsoil and habitat while expanding food production in years with abundant rainfall.

Image by Mark LeClaire, Atrisco Community Farm

View more farms and ranches that have received support through the Healthy Soil Program.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *