Building a Microfarm from the Ground Up

posted in: Animals, Champions, Regenerative Ag | 3

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.

Text and images by Soil Health Champion Amelia Vogel, Rocket Punch Farm, Belen, NM

Rocket Punch Farm was founded by Amelia Vogel and Jason Schilberg in November 2019 when the couple moved from Washington, DC to Belen, NM. Jason is an artist and former graphic designer; he used his talents to create the Rocket Punch Farm logo. Amelia, a former federal employee with a background in biology, completed her master gardener training at the University of the District of Columbia. 

Sitting on just one acre, their microfarm is modeled after the urban farms, community gardens, and school gardens that Amelia worked with in Washington, DC. The largest portion, totaling one quarter acre, is dedicated to growing vegetables and herbs according to the seasons. They grow popular favorites like lettuce and tomatoes as well as more unusual vegetables such as purple sweet potatoes and trombone squash. 

Bisecting the vegetable garden from East to West is a pollinator patch planted with native plum trees, Apache plume, milkweeds, penstemons, and asters. Beetle banks (in progress) planted with native bunchgrasses run North to South, further dividing the vegetable area into quadrants. Beetle banks provide habitat for predatory beetles, food for numerous butterfly larvae, and nesting materials for birds. The Good Bug Expressway is completed with a perimeter loop: a hedgerow that surrounds the vegetable area on three sides, densely planted with golden currants, skunkbush sumac, fernbush, desert olive, and Woods’ rose. Hedgerows provide protection from strong winds while offering food and habitat for beneficial insects and other native wildlife. Using the iNaturalist app, around 100 unique species have been identified at Rocket Punch Farm so far including fungi, slime molds, birds, lizards, toads, beetles, robber flies, pollinating flies, bees, wasps, ants, butterflies, moths, spiders, centipedes, woodlice, mantids, dragonflies, assassin bugs, antlions… and those are just the living things that would willingly pose for photographs.

Other garden areas include a fruiting forest garden with serviceberries, elderberries, chokecherries, native grapes, and gooseberries; perennial culinary herb plantings; and a front yard collection of edible native cactus and succulents. There is also a composting station with a traditional compost pile and a Johnson-Su bioreactor, two large rain barrels for water catchment, and an open area that will be used as an outdoor classroom and social gathering space.

Before moving to Belen, Amelia sought to connect with the local farming and gardening community. She found the East Valencia Urban Gardens Program over the internet and became connected to the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District (VSWCD), thus beginning an important partnership. The VSWCD Financial Assistance Program offers assistance to landowners who pay into the mil levy through three ways: (1) soil testing, (2) the Standard Conservation Project, and (3) the Stand Alone Project. Through the Standard Conservation Project, Amelia and Jason worked with technical advisor Cliff Sanchez to develop a conservation plan. Rocket Punch Farm was awarded funds to help pay for a drip irrigation system and some of the native plants that are part of the pollinator patch and hedgerows. VSWCD’s Stand-Alone Project subsidized the costs of materials to build a specialty hoop house covered in 40% knitted shade cloth, used to protect leafy greens from herbivory without the use of pesticides. 

All of the backyard planting areas were prepared and are being maintained without tilling the soil, but through sheet mulching. Amelia and Jason started with a simple sheet mulch using free, local, and abundant organic materials from the waste stream: brown unwaxed cardboard removed of tape and staples and arborist wood chips. Brown cardboard is widely available for free from local businesses and local arborists will often deliver wood chips for free to avoid being charged fees at the dump. VSWCD also provides wood chips to the public for free, when available. Beginning the process of sheet mulching in December 2019, Amelia and Jason started planting in the mulched areas a few months later in spring 2020. Brushing the wood chips aside and punching a hole in the damp cardboard with a hori hori to reach the soil beneath, they planted seedlings of lettuce, onions, spinach, collards, tomatoes…you get the idea. The crops did well and the methods showed promise. 

However, the primary finding of the VSWCD’s conservation plan was that the soil was deficient in organic matter. In 2021, with VSWCD’s support, Rocket Punch Farm was awarded funds through the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Soil Program, funding the purchase of Soilutions’ organic-use approved premium compost. This compost was added to the quarter-acre vegetable planting area beginning in late winter 2021. At this time, the sheet mulch had been in place for over a year in the areas where they had first begun the process. As Amelia and Jason raked back the wood chips to apply the compost beneath (so that the compost wouldn’t blow away in the intense spring winds), they found the now-thriving population of earthworms had digested the cardboard, leaving behind nutrient-rich worm castings. The addition of compost led to an abundant 2021 harvest from their microfarm. Yes, it works, even in the desert!

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

3 Responses

  1. Duana Draszkiewicz

    What a wonderful and information packed article!

  2. Valenicia CommJoyce

    Amelia and Jason have had a wonderful impact on the growers in our area. They are not only teaching us better growing skills but they are growing our community as well.

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