This article is part of a series profiling projects that have received support through the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Soil Program.
Images and text by Ben Wright, Taos Land Trust
The Vigil y Romo acequia and the Taos Land Trust have been working collaboratively on healthy soils projects over the past 3 years. We are grateful to the NMDA Healthy Soil Program for the leadership and funding to support these simultaneously progressive and traditional projects on the land.
Rio Fernando Park is a 20 acre property located near the downtown area in Taos, NM. The property is owned and managed by the Taos Land Trust with the intention of providing a publicly accessible natural and agricultural space for the Taos community. It is connected along its southwestern boundary with Baca Park, owned by the Town of Taos. The Rio Fernando emanates from the mountains to the Northeast of Taos and runs across town and through the property on its way to confluence with the RIo Pueblo, and ultimately the Rio Grande. In Rio Fernando Park, this small yet significant river creates 7 acres of wetlands and riparian habitat while also providing water for the Vigil y Romo acequia. This historic and recently restored acequia flows along the eastern boundary and then onward to irrigate a total of 44 acres of land.
The first two years of our healthy soils project focused on projects at Rio Fernando Park, while the current year is stretching to include work on additional parciantes’ land along the Vigil y Romo. We have attempted to not only implement the 5 principles of soil health directly on the land, but also to engage the community in every aspect of the work. Taos area youth crews, school groups, and many volunteers and park visitors are directly coming into contact with practices such as cover crops, no till planting techniques, pollinator habitat, compost building and application, and a growing awareness of diversity of life underground and its role in the holistic functioning of the entire system.
During the first year, from 2/1/2020 – 9/30/2020, we focused our efforts on the soils at Rio Fernando Park. We conducted soil tests, attended trainings, built compost, no till seed drilled cover crops, conducted basic microscopy analysis on the soil and compost samples, and led workshops on the techniques we were implementing. The advent of covid certainly presented challenges to the public aspect of our projects, but we continued the work on the land and communicated what we could remotely. NM Youth Conservation crew members and area students were directly involved in the work and educational opportunities.
The second year, from 1/1/21 -10/31/21, also took place at Rio Fernando Park, and covered much of the same territory. We started experimenting with different cover crop formulas and compost application techniques including the making of aerated compost teas from the previous year’s compost.
The third year, from September 15th, 2021 to May 31st, 2022 included Rio Fernando Park in the work area, but also expanded to properties belonging to other parciantes along the Vigil y Romo. This broadening of the area allowed us to expand our knowledge and equipment into helping additional land owners. We also broadened the research component of our work to develop a land lab to analyze soil and compost samples in house. We are sending our talented land lab tech to Elaine Ingham’s soil food web school to deepen her knowledge of the microbial universe, so that we can make higher quality compost and energize microbially active soils for the surrounding landscapes.
Over the past 3 years, we have met with both successes and disappointments in our progress towards healthier soils. The overall land health at Rio Fernando Park and neighbors has improved greatly since beginning these projects. Many people have become involved in the process, and have enthusiastically transferred the techniques for care onto their own lands. Through broad collaborative efforts, our no-till seeder has seeded approximately 350 acres of land in the Taos region, spreading healthy soils awareness along with diverse cover crop seed mix.
On the flip side, many of the discouragements and failures have been due to low moisture availability. We recognize that the work to improve soil health not only augments good conditions for growing crops, but also helps soils, vegetation, and landscapes resist the negative effects of droughts. However, without water on the land, it is near impossible to get the plants started that are necessary to kick start the system. With the increasing unreliability of water resources, we have been learning how to make wise decisions and make best use of the water that has been available. Persistence is the key.
The Taos Land Trust is now engaging in a long term ecological monitoring program to assess the connection between climate variability and available water resources. We believe that healthy soils are a valuable asset in the mitigation of the effects of climate change. We are attempting to observe the conditions responsible for a healthy microbial community, and which restoration strategies best sustain these conditions over time.