Unless you’re a farmer or gardener, the importance of soil can be easily overlooked and underestimated. However, the reality is that we are all in debt to our soil – and not just figuratively speaking.
According to a report published in 2018 by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, the global economy is set to lose $23 trillion by 2050 through land degradation. And, so long as high erosion rates continue to outpace the slow rate of topsoil renewal, it’s clear that a future crisis will be inevitable.
That’s why Daniel and Hana Fullmer, owners of Tierra Vida Farm outside of Durango, Colorado, have become advocates for sustainable farming and regenerative production. Inspired by the motto, “Healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people,” the couple started out on heavy clay soils and farmland prone to flooding, knowing full well that without making a long-term commitment to soil health, it would be impossible for them to make a living off the land. As of 2019, they have accomplished five years of intensive management to rehabilitate the soil and continue to see improvements every year.
For example, in 2017 the San Juan Basin, which provides snowmelt for Tierra Vida Farm’s irrigation water, had 150% of normal snowpack. Tierra Vida’s fields flooded multiple times during the growing season. Although soil health initiatives had been in place for a couple of years, many crops remained small and stunted. Fast-forward two years later: In 2019, the farm had 300% of normal snowpack, but with far less flooding and fewer crops affected. The game-changer was healthier soil, which enabled the water to drain better.
Additionally, despite 2018 being a record drought year, the farm doubled production because their healthy soil acted as a reservoir. Overall, they’ve also noticed dramatic increases in plant performance with higher yields and less pest pressure.
Filling the Gaps
As the Fullmers continue to teach others about their methods and successes, they have found educational gaps that need filling. “The main misconception amongst the general public is that the goal is to conserve the current health of the soil. In reality, our goal is to improve soil health. It’s not enough to just maintain what’s there, and when we work with nature, we can speed up the soil building process exponentially,” the couple says.
The Fullmers have begun to incorporate animals into their operation with the addition of chickens. They also continue to refine their methods by using their own on-farm experience as well as learning from experts in the field. Their efforts are constantly growing and evolving.
“As farmers and ranchers, we should always be thinking about how we can create a better home for the life in the soil.”
CDA’s New Soil Health Initiative
The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) is scoping opportunities to develop a Colorado Soil Health Program (CSHP), which it expects to roll out in 2020. The program would provide innovative research, outreach and grant tools to incentivize farmers and ranchers to voluntarily adopt carbon and water conserving practices by managing for healthy soil.
As part of this program, funds and technical assistance would provide strategic support to advance soil health, including investments in seed, equipment, soil testing, demonstration plots, farmer-to-farmer educational tours and more, according to Cindy Lair, CDA’s program manager of the Colorado State Conservation Board.
“In addition, carbon storage from these improved practices will help achieve Governor Jared Polis’ ambitious greenhouse gas reductions. Improving soil health is also a strategy identified in the Colorado Water Plan.”
By partnering with landowners, the CSHP would help establish a first-of-its-kind baseline soil health map for the state, as well as identify potential environmental services markets that could provide additional revenue streams for farmers and ranchers. These pivotal steps will ensure not only that Colorado is creating soil health leaders today, but that future generations can still be productive in the fields of tomorrow.
See more: The Dirt on Soil Conservation