By Daniel & Hana Fullmer
Working as farmers during a severe drought year, we have appreciated the well-meaning sympathy from customers, family, and friends: “How are you doing with the drought this year?” Our response contains reserved optimism: “We would be happy to have more snow in the mountains, a regular monsoon cycle with less wind and hail, and fewer 95 degree days. However, we have doubled our production this year, are seeing our best yields to date, and have plenty of water for our needs.” There is another question, less often spoken but present, “Is this climate change? Is this the new normal?” We believe the science is clear and need no further encouragement to respond to a future of extreme weather variability. The design of our farm is a proactive response to present and future weather challenges.
There are two major strategies for reducing water consumption: using less water (conservation) and using water more carefully (efficiency). We utilize both strategies. Our efficiency measures consist of drip irrigation to maximize our limited resource, watertight irrigation lines throughout the farm, and a compact layout.
Water conservation strategies are more nuanced and require multi-year planning and effort, but provide tremendous returns. Conservation measures are biologically based and centered on improving the soil: its depth, structure, and biological diversity. At our farm, in the fourth year of operation, these measures provide a broad range of values from water conservation and soil quality to profitability and plant health.
Our conservation practices include not tilling the soil, grazing cover crops in rotation with our cash crop, and using large volumes of compost. These practices combined have created as much as 12 inches of topsoil, which stores water and carbon while providing more nutrients to plants. Stored carbon in the soil creates natural soil tilth—the sponge-like texture of healthy soil. On our clay ground where water runoff was once typical, an increase in soil organic matter has created a reservoir holding water and nutrients for the summers’ vegetable production.
Soil exists in a symbiotic relationship with plants. Working together they can store tremendous amounts of carbon through a process of photosynthetic fixation and biomass decomposition. During photosynthesis, plants feed carbon to soil microbes living around their roots by cycling atmospheric carbon into the soil. In exchange for carbon, microbes bring water and nutrients to the plant. It is quite common for agricultural land that relies on tillage and synthetic nutrients to contain 0.5 to 2 percent soil organic matter (a measure of stored carbon), while mature forests and perennial grasslands can contain more than 10 percent. Conventional agriculture has disrupted the plant soil relationship, and the result is a loss of carbon cycling into the soil and an increase of carbon release into the atmosphere. For every 1 percent of change in soil organic matter per acre in the top 6 inches, 18 tons of CO2 are sequestered in the soil or lost from it (Kittredge). (Editor’s note: The average car emits 6 tons CO2/year). 2016 testing showed our soil organic matter at 3.6 percent and that increased to 7.15 percent in 2018, while our biological soil diversity has improved as well. Our soil has begun to take on the smell and texture of a forest floor, and earthworms are present with every shovel full. As the soil improves, our farm (and our ability to grow food for our community) becomes more resilient to weather extremes.
Regenerative agriculture is the term most often used to describe the farming practices we use. These practices can be used at any scale and on any type of farm or ranch. The benefits we are beginning to experience are typical of other farms that have made similar investments in the soil. As a business we enjoy the increased productivity of the soil and the reduced labor requirements because we are working with, and improving, soil biology. As community members concerned about climate change, we are excited that we can proactively store carbon in the soil while also improving the resilience and profitability of our farm.
As growers, we know how hard farmers and ranchers work and how much they care, regardless of their farming model. We believe that agriculture needs to become more resilient and regenerative practices are needed. In order to transition, we will all need to support one another. As a community of farmers and consumers, it’s time to work together to transition our farming practices and food choices toward regenerative ones.
Daniel and Hana Fullmer own Tierra Vida Farm, a no-till diversified vegetable farm, where they produce a large variety of vegetables for their CSA and wholesale customers. Their motto is healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people. To learn more about their operation visit: www.tierravidafarm.com