Take a walk into the Santa Fe National Forest and pick up a handful of soil. Expect it to be dark, dense, crumbly and wet—paradoxical from the dusty thin soil that makes up New Mexico’s familiar dry landscape. It’s here 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 working to improve soil health within the state: a chain of practices that starts with the ground we walk on and ends at our pantries and pizza joints, our New Mexican spots and food trucks.
“I was already deeply convinced that the solution to so many of our problems lies in the soil,” Jenniches tells SFR. “I’ve lived it. It’s a big problem, but it’s not very well known.”
It’d be an understatement to say that Jenniches has been thinking about food production for a long time. Since her childhood days on her grandparents’ farm in Germany’s Eifel region, she dreamed of working the land the way her grandparents did, something she was discouraged from doing at a young age.
“So instead I studied art, got into theater and photography and ended up in California,” she remembers. “There I started growing my own food in a community garden. For me, it was revolutionary. I learned it’s a radical act to grow your own food. It opened all kinds of revelations about health and inequalities in how we eat, who eats, where our food comes from and global systems and environmental problems.”
Through ecological nonprofit work, she began drafting policy relating to land stewardship. After moving to New Mexico in 2018, she helped draft HB204, the Healthy Soil Act, signed into law by Michelle Lujan Grisham in April 2019. It established the Healthy Soil Program within the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, a measure that helps bring resources to farmers looking to improve their practices.
“[HB204] provides grants to implement projects that will see an improvement in land stewardship, helping farmers rent equipment and get specialists out to the land so they can know the next steps,” says Katie Goetz, policy analyst and one of the co-leads of the Healthy Soil Program. “This includes tribal communities, acequias, land grants, soil and water conservation programs. We’re open to farmers and ranchers who have an interest in it, so it can improve their farm or their ranch and their yield, plus their bottom line too.”
Putting these practices into place isn’t easy for farmers who don’t have the extra capital. The grant program can provide much-needed relief to farmers when it comes to renting equipment; the USDA notes half the farmers in the country are considered “very small,” or being dependent on produce sales that bring in $10,000 or below—that’s far below the poverty threshold for an individual at $12,880, let alone a working family.
“Conventional tillage is how we’ve been producing food for the last century,” Dean Bruce, a soil and water specialist with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, explains. “Typically, you plow your field to keep the weeds down and plant the seed bed, but we want to minimize soil disturbance because that helps you maintain soil structure. When you plow, you lose moisture. We don’t want to lose moisture in the Southwest.”
The Healthy Soil Program pushes for farmers to adopt cover crops in their off-seasons, a methodology whereby plants are cultivated to manage erosion and quality rather than for harvest. When these crops degrade and break down, carbon is released into the soil. This practice, Jenniches says, can be a game changer for farmers and ranchers wanting to see a major long term-improvement to their overall yield, or for backyard gardeners looking to build up a greater harvest.
There are five major principles to maintaining soil health. In addition to cover crops, farmers can maximize biodiversity, minimize physical disturbances to the soil and maintain a living root in the earth for as long as they can. Integrating animals is key, even if those animals are only insects.
“Healthy soil is kind of like a sponge,” Jenniches continues. “It invites earthworms and other little critters that are creating pathways for air, water and fungi, who glue the earth’s particles into clumps rather than sandy soil that falls apart. This sponge is able to absorb enormous amounts of water, rather than having it run off. And when there’s a cover on top, it doesn’t evaporate. It makes a huge difference.”
These practices go right to the consumer. Big Ag’s monopolization of large-scale farming means pesticides and herbicides are commonplace, along with the expected heavy machinery that further compounds the dirt. Such practices aren’t sustainable, both Jenniches and Bruce argue—they reduce our dependence on the local food supply and further drives consumers into shaky supply chains. Healthier soil means larger yields, better local foods with successful local farmers, fewer harmful chemicals in our bodies and longer sustainability for agricultural output in New Mexico.
“In order to have healthy soil, you’ve got to have that relationship between plants and soil organisms,” Jenniches concludes. “Good structure in your soil? That’s telling you it’s alive. COVID-19 has shown that our food chains are too long, too breakable and not resilient. At the heart of this new system we’re envisioning health below the ground, too.”