Take a walk in the Santa Fe National Forest and collect a handful of soil. Expect it to be dark, dense, crumbly, and wet – paradoxical with the dusty, thin soil that makes up the familiar arid New Mexico landscape. This is where change is taking shape.
Isabelle Jenniches is a co-founder of the New Mexico Healthy Soil Working Group, a cadre of conservationists and organizers who work to improve soil health in the state: a chain of practices that begins with the soil we walk in and with our pantries and our pizza ends joints, our New Mexican spots and food trucks.
“I was deeply convinced that the solution to so many of our problems lay in the ground,” Jenniches told SFR. “I’ve lived it. It’s a big problem, but it’s not very well known. “
It would be an understatement to say that Jenniches has been thinking about food production for a long time. Since childhood on her grandparents’ farm in the Eifel, she dreamed of farming the land like her grandparents, which discouraged her from a young age.
“So I studied art, got into theater and photography, and ended up in California,” she recalls. “There I started growing my own food in a community garden. For me it was revolutionary. I’ve learned that growing your own food is a radical act. It has opened up all sorts of revelations about health and inequalities in the way we eat, who eats, where our food comes from, as well as global systems and environmental problems. “
Through ecological charitable work, she began developing land management guidelines. After moving to New Mexico in 2018, she helped draft HB204, the Healthy Soil Act, which was enacted by Michelle Lujan Grisham in April 2019. It established the Healthy Soil Program within the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, a measure that helps provide resources to farmers who want to improve their practices.
“[HB204] provides grants to implement projects that improve land management, helps farmers rent equipment, and bring specialists to the land so they know what to do next, ”said Katie Goetz, policy analyst and one of the co-directors of Healthy floor program. “This includes tribal communities, acequias, land permits, soil and water protection programs. We are open to farmers and ranchers who are interested so that it can improve their farm or ranch and their yield and bottom line. “
Implementing these practices is not easy for farmers who do not have the additional capital. The grant program can give farmers much-needed facilities for renting equipment; The USDA notes that half of farmers in the country are viewed as “very small” or rely on selling products that make $ 10,000 or less – well below the poverty line for an individual of $ 12,880. Dollars, much less for a working family.
“We’ve been producing food using conventional tillage for the last century,” said Dean Bruce, Soil and Water Specialist for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. “Usually you plow your field to hold down the weeds and plant the seedbed, but we want to minimize soil disturbance as this will help you maintain soil structure. When you plow you lose moisture. We don’t want to lose any moisture in the southwest. “
The Healthy Soil Program urges farmers to grow catch crops in the off-season, a method of cultivating crops to cope with erosion and quality, rather than to harvest. When these plants break down and break down, carbon is released into the soil. This practice, Jenniches says, can be a crucial factor for farmers and ranchers who want a significant long-term improvement in their overall yield, or for backyard gardeners looking to get a bigger harvest.
There are five main principles for maintaining soil health. In addition to catch crops, farmers can maximize biodiversity, minimize physical disturbance of the soil, and maintain a living root in the soil for as long as possible. The integration of animals is key, even if those animals are just insects.
“Healthy soil is like a sponge,” continues Jenniches. “It invites earthworms and other small creatures that create paths for air, water, and fungi that glue the earth particles into clumps rather than sandy soil that falls apart. This sponge is able to absorb enormous amounts of water instead of beading it off. And if a cover is up, it won’t evaporate. It makes a big difference.”
These practices go straight to the consumer. Big Ag’s monopoly of large-scale agriculture means that pesticides and herbicides are commonplace, along with the expected heavy machinery to further exacerbate the dirt. Such practices are unsustainable, argue both Jenniches and Bruce – they reduce our dependence on local food supplies and drive consumers further into shaky supply chains. Healthier soil means higher yields, better local foods with successful local farmers, fewer harmful chemicals in our bodies, and longer sustainability of agricultural production in New Mexico.
“To have healthy soil, you have to have this relationship between plants and soil organisms,” concludes Jenniches. “Good structure in your floor? That tells you it’s alive. COVID-19 has shown that our food chains are too long, too fragile and not resilient. We also envision underground health as the heart of this new system. “
You can learn more about soil health at nmhealthysoil.org and find out more about the NMDA’s Healthy Soil Program here.