Branching Out

posted in: Soil health assessment | 0

By Katelin Spradley, Director of Communications, NM Farm & Livestock Bureau.
This article was first published in the Fall 2023 issue of NM Farm and Ranch

David Lucero in his young orchard. Image by I.Jenniches CC BY 2.0

Raised with nutrition in mind. The tagline of JAL Farms located in Fort Sumner gives a glimpse into the future David and Mary Lucero are building one step at a time from the microbiome up. The Luceros, eager to share lessons they learned while converting the land they bought in 2020 from a horse farm to a 600-tree orchard, hosted around 20 participants at their farm for an Integrated Orchard Field Day on September 1, 2023.

“We are anything but perfect,” said David at the start of day. “Mary and I have been through the school of hard knocks and learned a lot of things. We made our mistakes and are more than happy to share those mistakes with you.”

The field day was carried out in collaboration with End-O-Fite Enterprises LLC, Cruces Creatives’ Seeding Regenerative Agriculture Project, NM Healthy Soil Working Group, and USDA Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), and included hands-on soil sampling, Brix testing, and compaction assessment methods the Luceros utilize to help monitor plant and soil health and guide the regenerative agriculture practices they employ on the farm.

David also shared a bit about their direct-to-consumer beef sales, and participants toured the orchard of apples, peaches, apricots, cherries, plums, and prunes.

Field Day participants in the orchard. Image by I.Jenniches CC BY 2.0

Before buying the farm, Mary worked in research in agriculture and environmental sciences and David, whose family was involved in cattle production and had a 15-acre orchard, worked in agricultural finance and marketing.

“We bought this farm partly to test these ideas about how to farm in a way that keeps that plant microbiome intact,” said Mary. “I had this vision…and we have tried to tackle it one step at a time as we go.”

We bought this farm partly to test these ideas about how to farm in a way that keeps that plant microbiome intact.

Mary Lucero, JAL Farms

After purchasing the farm, the Luceros conducted soil testing to get a baseline of soil health to work from. Their first steps were to deep till and laser level the land for the orchard, add humic acid, and plant a cover crop of fescue, orchard grass, clover, brassicas, and native grasses. The humic acid they added to the soil is a mined ore rich in micronutrients and elements that is a precursor to coal produced from decomposing ancient rainforests. They have also added fulvic acid and are planning to add biochar to the soil this year. The Luceros avoid the “fractionated nutrition” of N, P, and K in the absence of micronutrients and organic macromolecules. They prefer fertilizing with “whole foods” that include complete nutrient blends in an organic base.

“We rob from the soil, and we are all pretty good at putting nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the soil, but we need other elements in soil for plants to grow,” said David.

Finding “whole foods” for their farm has presented some challenges. The Luceros work closely with Texas Earth, a company in Lubbock, TX, and recently constructed a greenhouse where Mary conducts grower trials in partnership with Texas Earth and other companies that sell biostimulants. Soil additives, such as biochar, can also be costly, but the Luceros pointed out there are opportunities through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) or the
carbon credit market to help offset some costs.

Plants don’t grow well without an animal presence.

Mary Lucero, JAL Farms

They also plan to utilize chickens in the orchard to increase soil health. The potential for damage on their semi-dwarf trees prevents them from using their cattle, but Mary hopes to use a chicken tractor that can be moved up and down the rows of the orchard daily to increase their animal presence.

“People looking at soil health and schools of soil health know you really need diversity,” said Mary. “Plants don’t grow well without an animal presence.”

Another challenge the Luceros faced was the loss of 200 trees and an estimated two-year delay on production in the orchard due to spray drift. This prompted Mary to apply for a grant through USDA Western SARE to develop small-scale monitoring methods and develop microbial treatments to remediate spray drift early on.

Mary Lucero and participants try out brix testing with a refractometer. Images by I.Jenniches CC BY 2.0

During the field day, Mary walked participants through some simple and affordable methods to monitor crop and soil health. These methods included leaf color analysis, soil compaction testing with a penetrometer, soil sampling, and Brix testing, a method of evaluating plant health using a refractometer to measure the bending of light through a solution rich in soluble solids like sugar or plant sap.

“I am finding that a combination of lab soil and tissue testing and your own observations of indicators like leaf color, pest presence, or Brix readings are the most powerful,” said Mary.

The Luceros expect the orchard to eventually produce 3,500 bushels a year. They carefully selected varieties that will ripen sequentially for a total harvest period of 10 weeks to avoid challenges with harvesting, transporting, and selling all the produce at once, said David.

Before buying the farm, they carefully researched the potential markets in the area and ultimately plan to sell their produce from the farm and in grocery stores. Like any farm, JAL Farms has proven to be a lot of work, but the Luceros see the payoff in the transformation of their soil over the past three years and the ultimate income potential the orchard promises as they put into practice their vision for food grown with nutrition in mind.

A diverse cover crop protects the soil in the young orchard. Image by I.Jenniches CC BY 2.0

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