Cruces Creatives, in partnership with six other organizations, has been awarded its first grant: $30,000 for a program to identify and address obstacles to regenerative agriculture in New Mexico. An executive summary of the program follows.
Seeding Regenerative Agriculture
Farmers and ranchers can achieve many benefits by more closely following natural models. By cultivating continuous vegetative cover, minimizing tillage, and inoculating soils with the beneficial microbes in soils where the microbiota has been destroyed by conventional practices, farmers can increase crop yields, increase soil nitrogen through the work of free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria, increase soil carbon, increase soil water infiltration, increase soil water retention, and prevent or reduce topsoil loss (Johnson et al. “Soil Microbial Communities,” Johnson “Carbon and Nitrogen Partitioning,” Johnson “Influence in Agroecosystems”). Similar benefits can be achieved on ranchland through soil microbiota restoration and by imitating the high-intensity, adaptive grazing practices that nature developed with wild ruminant herds.
In this proposal, we refer to these practices collectively as “regenerative agriculture,” and these practices can address water scarcity, food scarcity, climate change, biodiversity and habitat loss, and farm and ranch profitability and long-term viability. The large-scale benefits are known. The challenge now is adapting current practices. Unfortunately, the process of adapting new practices is notoriously slow in the field of agriculture—often taking decades—and the global challenges facing us do not leave us that time. In this collaborative proposal, we propose to work around or address the obstacles impeding the widespread commercial implementation of regenerative agriculture.
There are multiple obstacles to the widespread commercial use of any new farming or ranching practice: technical hurdles, such as difficulty translating lab-based agricultural research to the realities of the field or range (Parnell et al.; Kellett; Dau); economic obstacles, such as difficulty raising capital funds or uncertainty about return on investment (Hepperly 45, 48; Carr), regulatory hurdles (Parnell et al.; Hepperly 54-55); knowledge barriers, such as unfamiliarity with required tools or processes (Hepperly 50, 188-189); negative perceptions of science among farmers (Hepperly 35-36); differences in culture and professional expectations among farmers, scientists, and policy makers (Maat 187); and communicative obstacles among farmers, scientists, and policy makers.
For regenerative agriculture in New Mexico, many of these obstacles have already been removed. Each geographic area, and perhaps each farm, will have its own technical hurdles, but the major and widespread issues have been overcome, with several commercial farms and ranches around the United States having implemented regenerative agricultural approaches successfully (Byck “Soil Carbon Cowboys”; Byck “100,000 Beating Hearts”). Economic obstacles are still formidable, but they can be manageable: capital funds can be raised through loans from organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and although more information about return on investment would be valuable (one goal of this project is to generate more such information), multiple pilot projects at the commercial scale will attest to the economic viability of regenerative agriculture. In New Mexico, regulatory systems do not impose direct obstacles, even though regulations could be improved by creating new policies that recognize and reward soil carbon capture.
In New Mexico, the most substantial obstacles are political, cultural, and knowledge-based. Collectively, our collaboration is poised to address each of these remaining obstacles.
Our plan for change, in essence, is modeled on how beneficial adaptations can originate and spread through ecological communities: a small group, well positioned for change, adapts; the adaptation proves beneficial; the adapted individuals interact with other individuals; and the adaptation spreads. In many instances of social behavior, groups follow “tipping point” theory, and once a small, critical mass of practitioners has been reached, a new behavior can quickly spread through an entire group. Our goal is to build regenerative agriculture in New Mexico toward its tipping point.
Research conducted by collaboration team member Patrick DeSimio through the MESA Project (see “Partner Organizations”) has found that, in Doña Ana County, sizable minorities of farmers and ranchers are largely not subject to the political and cultural barriers that typically impede the implementation of sustainable agricultural technologies (2018, pp. 55 and 67). This subgroup of agriculturalists views environmental degradation as a significant threat, accepts mainstream scientific consensus on human impacts to climate and the environment, and shares a substantial technical vocabulary with agricultural scientists. Most members of this subgroup have already implemented sustainable practices on their farms or ranches. For members of this group, which we call a “Seed Group,” cultural and political beliefs are no longer obstacles to regenerative agriculture; rather, these beliefs can be motivating assets.
Consequently, when working with a Seed Group, the only substantial obstacles to regenerative agriculture are knowledge barriers (which can be addressed through training) and possible technical hurdles associated with on-the-ground conditions as specific farms. Technical hurdles always require innovation, but they can be addressed.
Our proposal is to work with members of Seed Groups—who are part of our existing networks—to implement regenerative agriculture on their farm and ranch land throughout New Mexico, to collaboratively address the inevitable technical hurdles, and to collectively design and perform economic and scientific research to accurately gauge the net economic and environmental benefits of regenerative agriculture. With the Seed Groups as models and guides, we will then collaborate to facilitate interaction and exchange between Seed Group members and other agriculturalists in their communities, promoting the spread of regenerative agriculture (a beneficial adaptation) through larger sections of the agricultural community. The goal is to reach a tipping point beyond which regenerative agriculture becomes the new normal.
Members of the Seed Groups will be drawn from our existing networks (almost 100 members of a Seed Group are already involved in the MESA Project in Doña Ana County) and through promotional materials that explicitly identify with sustainable agriculture and its benefits in relation to environmental threats.
This project plan relies on the collective expertise and abilities of each project partner. The Institute for Sustainable Agricultural Research (ISAR) at New Mexico State University (NMSU) is a global leader in regenerative agriculture, especially the cultivation and use of beneficial soil microbes, and ISAR will provide technical and scientific support for this project. Similarly, the Sustainable Agricultural Science Center (SASC) at Alcalde will provide scientific and technical expertise on regenerative agriculture and will provide a testbed for research. The MESA Project, Acequia Madre del Rio Lucero y del Arroyo Seco, Rivers & Birds, and Western Landowners Alliance offer established connections with farmers and ranchers throughout New Mexico, as well as a wide range of resources that can support regenerative agriculture in New Mexico. The Western Landowners Alliance, with its extensive history of successfully influencing policy, will work to impact policy and facilitate regenerative agriculture. Cruces Creatives, a makerspace in Doña Ana County, will offer technical support through rapid prototyping and a broad network of community experts who can help farmers and scientists quickly develop needed technologies and equipment for regenerative agriculture. Each partner organization also has connections to policy makers, offering the chance to create an organized movement behind any needed policy changes.
Carr, Geoffrey. “The Future of Agriculture.” The Economist, June 9, 2016.
Dau, James. “From Lab to the Field, Research Takes Food Where It’s Needed Most.” n.d.
DeSimio, Patrick. “Literacies and Discourse Conventions in Sustainable Agriculture: Potentials for a Rhetoric of Cooperation between Farmers and Scientists.” Master’s Thesis, New Mexico State University
Hepperly, Jody. “Standing in the Way of Control: Small Farmers, Water Use, and Technology Adoption in Oregon.” Master’s Thesis, Oregon State University
Johnson, David C, Elliington, Joe, and Eaton, Wesley. “Development of soil microbial communities for promoting sustainability in agriculture and a global carbon fix” (PrePrint) PeerJ, January 13, 2015
Johnson, David C. “The influence of soil microbial community structure on carbon and nitrogen partitioning in plant/soil ecosystems.” (PrePrint) PeerJ, March 2, 2017.
Johnson, David C. Presentation “Soil Microbes: Their Powerful Influence in Agroecosytems.” California State University Chico.” September 29, 2016
Kellet, Abby. “Taking the Lab to the Field.” Farmers Guardian, 2016. https://www.fginsight.com/vip/vip/taking-the-lab-to-the-field-10568
Maat, H. (2011). “The History and Culture of Agricultural Experiments.” NJAS-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 57(3-4), pp. 187-195
“One Hundred Thousand Beating Hearts.” Vimeo, uploaded by Peter Byck, 12 June 2016, https://vimeo.com/170413226
Parnell, J. Jacob et al. “From the Lab to the Farm: An Industrial Perspective of Plant Beneficial Microorganisms.” Frontiers in Plant Science 7 (2016): 1-12.
“Soil Carbon Cowboys.” Vimeo, uploaded by Peter Byck, 27 November 2013, https://vimeo.com/80518559