Microgrant helps Young Farmer invest in Soil Health

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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 Ian Colburn, solarpunk farm

I’m a beginning-ish farmer, primarily working in Albuquerque’s South Valley. I don’t own farmland but in 2017 began farming rented property with my partner as solarpunk farm. In 2019, I started to build a relationship with a land owner who was interested in having some of their property farmed. The 50×100’ field used to be a horse pasture and the soil was barren, sandy and rocky. There was surface water but the field was not level and the ditch had to be extended.

A soil profile of the project area before any tractor work or planting.

In order to be able to make the needed investments in infrastructure and improve soil health I decided to apply for a Healthy Soil Program grant with the NM Department of Agriculture. As an individual applicant, I was “sponsored” by Ciudad Soil & Water Conservation District. District staff was super helpful in guiding me through the process of applying –it really highlights how important the sponsoring organization is.

I was thrilled to be awarded a small grant of about $700 to cover soil tests, a perennial cover crop seed mix and tractor work to level and grade the field. For soil testing I used Ward Labs to do the Haney test which has some unique features to assess soil microbial activity and nutrient availability in the soil. I also dug a hole to look at the soil profile and I did an infiltration test.

I hired a contractor to level and berm the field and opened the flood gates for a first deep watering. Initial tractor work to prepare the project area for flood irrigation was inadequate. The field wasn’t level enough and berms were not tall enough. As a result, the 8-species perennial cover crop did not come up well. Instead, dormant weed seeds sprouted with a vengeance –a sea of goatheads and silverleaf nightshade simply overwhelmed the cover crop! Weeds came up everywhere.

I practice no-till by necessity because I don’t own a tractor, but trying to manage this amount of weed pressure by hand was an impossible task and created vast areas of bare soil. Finally I had to hire a different tractor operator to rip the soil and make bigger berms. I then seeded heavily only with millet. By applying this inexpensive seed usually used for feed at several times the normal seeding rate, I was able to suppress the goatheads and nightshades. Bindweed, kosha and amaranth were greatly reduced as well. At the end of the season, it was easy to mow the cover crop down with a small ride-on mower and the leftover material broke down really fast.

The following season I used the BCS to plant 250 asparagus crowns with blue corn in between. Asparagus is pretty drought tolerant. It’s a casual cash crop, demanding only light work in the spring. Demand is huge and the price is great. I market the spears through a CSA, the Coop and Farmers Market. I continue to use annual cover crops (mainly oats, wheat and barley) that I incorporate by hand in between the asparagus and corn stubble. Eventually, I would like to establish perennial covers in the pathways between asparagus beds, interplanting the cover crop and the cash crop.

My main take-away is that I learned a lot and that the grant funding allowed me to give cover crops a try and not be afraid to make mistakes. Growing in very small peri-urban spaces can be challenging. It’s difficult to invest in longterm soil health when you only have a handshake agreement with the landowner, but the grant money defrayed some of that risk.

A 749 BCS walk-behind tractor, rented from Rio Grande Community Farm, sits in front of the HSP grant project field that was planted into asparagus six months earlier.
The HSP grant project field mowed after a season in blue corn and asparagus. This is the season following my grant project.

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

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