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El Paso County Maggie Hanna, whose father was a leader in the regenerative ranching movement, points out grass variations and cacti species on her property. She understands the importance of grass variation, which is why she’s changing the grazing pattern of her herd. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When Daniel Fullmer founded Tierra Vida Farm in 2015, he had two main priorities for his two-acre plot nestled at the base of the rugged San Juan Mountains: soil health and profitability.

“Within the current paradigm of input-based agriculture, where nationally we rely on a tremendous amount of fertilizers and pesticides, we use the soil as a medium to grow crops on, rather than the digestive system to provide nutrients for the plant,” said Fullmer, who now co-owns and operates the vegetable farm southeast of Durango with his wife, Hana.

On their farm, the Fullmers practice what is most often referred to as regenerative agriculture –– a system of holistic farming and grazing practices that aims to improve soil health, increase plant productivity and capture more carbon from the atmosphere. 

But the financial and ecological benefits can take years to come to fruition for conventional or large-scale farms, and like any systematic change, implementing the practices takes time, energy and financial investment. A proposed statewide soil health program aims to support farmers like the Fullmers continue to enhance their practices, while helping producers who want to adopt practices that build healthier soil by providing grants, educational opportunities and on-the-ground technical assistance. 

Hana, left, and Daniel Fullmer, owners of Tierra Vida Farm southeast of Durango, dig up soil in their orchard, where they planted a cover crop about a year ago. The soil, once packed clay, now is rich with nutrients, which means they will need to spend less on things like fertilizers to coax a crop from their land. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Soil is more than just a substrate that grows stuff. And if we can foster the health of the soil, and we can reduce our agricultural inputs, that’s going to help farmers’ bottom line and will benefit the environment,” said Cindy Lair, state conservation program manager for Colorado’s Department of Agriculture.

Gov. Jared Polis requested $166,491 from the state’s General Fund to support the program, which would include funding for a full-time employee to oversee its operations. If approved in the annual state budget, the program will start July 1, 2020, and run through the fiscal year.

Fullmer says he hopes the statewide program gives farmers and ranchers more financial flexibility to experiment with new practices, and gives them more access to research and emerging markets.

“Farmers are already stretched. They run very expensive businesses. They have a lot of land and they have a lot of capital investment and infrastructure. And they typically don’t make a lot of money,” Fullmer said. “So asking them to transition to a whole new way of farming is a big ask. There’s a lot of value that farmers can provide going forward if they’re properly incentivized and supported to do so. But we have to recognize where we are and how we got to this place.” 

Regenerative agriculture — a shift in mindset

For decades, U.S. large-scale agriculture has relied on federal subsidies focused on maximizing yields to reduce costs to the consumer. The intense focus on increased yields has led to wide-scale reliance on pesticides and fertilizers to boost production, as well as unintended consequences such as pollution, increased greenhouse gas emissions and degraded soil health.

“Agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change and CO2 in the atmosphere. We’ve gotten away from natural systems and into these very highly specialized technological systems, like putting all the hogs in buildings and the chickens in buildings and all the cattle in feedlots,” said George Whitten, a third-generation rancher in the northern San Luis Valley who advocates for integrating cattle into farming operations as a way to improve soil health.

According to a recent report by Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, the agriculture sector accounts for 9% of Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions, or approximately 11.4 million metric tons of CO2. Colorado Carbon Fund, a local nonprofit, estimates that regenerative agriculture could remove 23.15 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050.

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“I think most farmers and ranchers realize that we need to move toward more sustainable practices in agriculture. But the reality is that agriculture is still based on commodity markets, which don’t reward anybody for anything other than just more production,” Whitten said.

“George’s life mission is a campaign against bare soil,” Julie Sullivan said of her husband. She and Whitten both train holistic ranchers to care for their soils. In 2003 the biggest drought in 700 years hit the San Luis Valley and an aerial photo showed that their 3D ranch was fine because of the biodiversity of grasses they had cultivated on their land. Today this still seems to be true, each pile of hay stacked up for the cattle to eat had many varieties of clover and grasses. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Though every farm operates differently, Clark Harshbarger, director of regenerative agriculture for the nonprofit Mad Agriculture, explains that there are a few key principles that most regenerative farms practice to increase soil health.

The first is keeping the soil covered. 

When soil is exposed to the elements, the billions of beneficial microorganisms that help create a favorable environment for plants to grow in gets disrupted. To protect the delicate underground ecosystem, farmers transplant crops instead of starting them from seed, which also increases the amount of carbon that gets funneled from the atmosphere into the ground because the plants have more time to photosynthesize. The practice also helps keep the soil cool, which allows water to soak down to the roots instead of evaporating under the scorching sun. 

On the Fullmers’ farm, they transplant all their plants and plant cover crops, which are selected specifically to help protect and enrich the soil. Right before the cover crops go to seed, they rotationally graze a herd of dairy goats, which mow down the crop and deposit nutrient-dense manure back into the soil. (Integrating managed grazing into farming practices is also a key principle of regenerative agriculture.)

From 2012 to 2017, cover crop acres in the U.S. increased to 15.4 million acres from 10.3 million. In Colorado, the number of farms using cover crops increased by 37.9%, according to a report by the Soil Health Institute.

Though cover crops have proved successful for a lot of producers, Harshbarger stresses that to be successful, cover cropping must be used in conjunction with other regenerative practices.

“Planting cover crops has become somewhat of a buzzword, but a lot of times it has failed in Colorado because you can’t just necessarily strip the land of all the minerals and all the resources by planting crops reliant on chemical fertilizers, and then plant a cover crop and expect biology to carry it the rest of the way,” said Harshbarger, who worked as a soil scientist for Colorado’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for 16 years.

Disturbing the soil less and decreasing the use of chemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides, is another core principle of regenerative agriculture. Other strategies include planting a diversity of crops, replacing annual grasses with perennial ones and using compost to boost the amount of organic matter in the soil.

Tierra Vida Farm owner Daniel Fullmer shovels compost made on the farm. Lawmakers this summer drafter a bill that proposes to help make compost cheaper and more readily available to producers statewide (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This summer, lawmakers drafted a bill that proposes a statewide composting management plan to help make compost more financially feasible and available to agricultural producers wanting to give their soil a boost.

“Perennial grasses by nature set roots deeper and deeper and deeper each year, and then when you have shrubs and other plants introduced into that system, it improves the potential for more carbon sequestration,” Harshbarger said. “By nature, annual cropping systems are taking from the ecological system where perennial systems are giving.”

The roots of drought protection

Deep roots also pull water farther underground, which helps mitigate erosion and helps farmers conserve water. 

Approximately 89% of Colorado’s water goes to agriculture, according to the State Water Plan. A report released in July 2019 by the Colorado Water Conservation Board predicts a water supply gap of 250,000 to 750,000 acre-feet by 2050 due to population growth, storage operations and climate change.

Healthy soil high in organic matter can hold six times its weight in water, which can help producers conserve and build resilience to drought and extreme weather events, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We understand that these things don’t happen overnight.,” Lair said. “…And we don’t expect to see immediate results. I mean I’ve heard farmers say that they saw some very slight changes after having their first cover crop. But realistically, it will take at least five years or so to see more carbon in the soil tests.”

Hana Fullmer, co-owner of Tierra Vida Farm, holds soil from the pasture next to the farm’s orchard that has not been worked and is clay packed with shallow roots compared to the rich, black healthy soil in the orchard that they have been working with. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Though there are many details to iron out, Lair says she feels optimistic about a statewide soil health program, and credits work by the Colorado Collaborative for Healthy Soils for leading the conversation around what the program might look like. 

“The work they’re doing is really beneficial to getting the word out and trying to help people understand what a soil health program could do,” Lair said.

The group was formed by farmers, ranchers and stakeholders across the state to explore ways to encourage and incentivize soil management practices. They hold monthly meetings that are open to the public.

“There are already pockets of really strong local engagement and innovative farmers that are leading the way in this area,” Lair said. 

Consider the five-year pilot program underway on a 120-acre farm near Longmont. 

A collaboration between Boulder County Parks and Open Space and Colorado State University, the farm is planned to be ground-zero for experimenting with soil health practices. A year in, the results are slim, the Daily Times-Call reported. But the researchers remain optimistic that soil carbon will increase over time.

“So my hope is that we can capitalize off of their leadership and provide additional resources so they can continue to tell their stories and help others get involved and adopt some of these soil health practices that can benefit their businesses as well as the climate,” Lair said.

Supporting producers to drive market change

When Harshbarger talks about the benefits of healthy soils, his soliloquies are equal parts poetry and scientific jargon. 

He says regenerative agriculture is the best way for farmers and ranchers to build resilience in light of climate change, but he understands the barriers many face when wanting to scale up their soil health practices or try new ones. 

“One policy can’t fit for all of Colorado, and that’s the first thing I would say about a statewide soil health program,” Harshbarger said.

“But I think any funding that’s coming from our society that goes back to agriculture is a good thing, especially if it’s improving the resource base versus degrading it,” he said. “And we can’t just think about the practices that promote soil health, we really have to be creating those markets and that demand and those systems so that farmers are willing to take that risk in their economic model.” 

Fullmer said he can experiment with different soil health practices because he grows specialty crops that have a better profit margin and sells directly to consumers. But larger-scale operations with smaller profit margins per acre and based on a commodity production system have less wiggle room for experimentation, he said.

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For example, in 2017, after reading about some success stories, Fullmer tried planting a new cover crop on a 20-acre plot of land he manages. 

His experiment failed.

“So I spent $1,000 on equipment and seed, and the crops died. If there were some sort of local support system — and I really tried to seek out guidance and there really wasn’t any — to be able to engage with my farming peers.

“Being able to have these conversations amongst peers and amongst providers is really important,” he said. “We are trying to reframe the context of agriculture away from inputs and technology and industrial mindsets to a more biological mindset. And that will take time. But really, it’s the only way forward.” 

Daniel, right, and Hana Fullmer walk through one of the hoop houses on Tierra Vida Farm where chickens roam in during the off season. The chickens play an important role in improving the condition of soil on their farm. (Jerry McBride, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Fullmer says that most importantly, a statewide soil health program would help promote new markets for producers, and help increase awareness about regenerative agriculture and its societal benefits so consumers can help drive the transition. 

Harshbarger agrees.

“What needs to happen is that people that are already doing regenerative agriculture need to be lifted up and they need to be spoken about, and they need to share how they’re doing what they are doing with the rest of the agricultural community,” he said. 

“We don’t need to point the finger at people that are spraying chemicals or have a more conventional approach. We just need to support them if they’re willing to change.”

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Sun writer. She left the publication in June 2020. Email: Twitter: @moe_clark15