Trees and plants are nature’s best ally for capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide, and New Mexico State University wants to harness that power to help fight climate change in arid environments.
As the state’s land grant university, NMSU is well prepared to lead the way in decarbonizing agriculture in rural and urban areas statewide. It has 12 agricultural research stations scattered throughout the state and operates Cooperative Extension Service offices in every county to rapidly disseminate science-based knowledge in local communities.
Under a newly developed “carbon management and soil health” initiative, NMSU plans to research and compile the best ways to apply climate-friendly agricultural methods in New Mexico’s dry, hot environment. NMSU experts will then use that knowledge to directly instruct growers, ranchers, land managers, forest rangers and even urban populations on how to use nature’s tool box to help capture and sequester carbon in every nook and cranny.
In the process, the university will build a cadre of trained students and professionals to help guide a transformation from today’s carbon-intensive agricultural practices to new, non-carbon-emitting methods as the country strives to reach carbon neutrality by mid-century.
The initiative will not only benefit New Mexico, but also states throughout the western U.S., and other arid countries and regions worldwide as lessons learned are shared with everybody. In fact, NMSU’s College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences has outlined a “road map” to do just that, said Leslie Edgar, an associate dean and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, which encompasses NMSU’s 12 research centers around New Mexico.
“The faculty-developed road map can help us work with producers in New Mexico, while also helping from a global perspective,” Edgar told the Journal. “More than 30% of the world is made up of arid and semi-arid lands, and everyone needs to figure out carbon management in all those places … If we can make this happen in New Mexico, we can make it happen across the world, and we’re focused on being leaders in that way.”
The new initiative is an integral part of the university’s emerging vision of turning the NMSU campus in Las Cruces, its branch campuses, and its statewide agricultural science centers and cooperative extension offices into “living labs” and public demonstration sites for low- and no-carbon practices in agriculture, energy and other areas.
NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu is one of the key architects working to put that vision into action.
“Decarbonization is becoming a mantra, and we have to prepare the environment at all levels to create the jobs of the future for a carbon-neutral world,” Arvizu told the Journal. “We can’t just worry about the technologies we need to do it, but also the workforce to develop and implement those technologies. We have to train the next generation of decision-makers for low-carbon economies … and higher education has a great deal to offer in all of that.”
Agriculture critical to decarbonization
Although national and local efforts are focused largely on transitioning the economy from fossil fuels to renewable resources, agriculture is also contributing significantly to global emissions and climate change.
In the U.S. alone, agriculture accounts for more than 10.5% of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, according to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And the United Nations has warned that, without substantial changes in land use and agricultural practices, global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be limited.
According to various studies and estimates, removing existing carbon from the atmosphere and replenishing soil worldwide could potentially sequester up to 10% of emissions annually.
But to do that, new climate-friendly agricultural practices must be adopted widely in rural and urban settings. That includes such things as planting more cover crops everywhere to increase surface vegetation; less tilling of soil to avoid releasing carbon into the air; replacing chemical fertilizers with compost and other biomass to replenish soils; and use of rotational cattle-grazing systems to allow soil and grass to recover and propagate in open rangeland.
In woody areas, it means aggressive reforestation after wildfires, along with preventive forest thinning and other measures to avoid fire in the first place or mitigate its impact.
Under President Joe Biden’s proposals to fight climate change, Congress is now considering large-scale investment in research, programs and incentives to help producers adopt sustainable practices. Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment plan — which already received bipartisan approval in the Senate and is now pending in the House — includes $1 billion to help the agricultural industry shift to net-zero emissions. And a lot more money could flow into new initiatives, depending on what Congress approves in a second, $3.5 trillion investment bill now under debate.
But it’s unclear what programs will actually receive support, since substantial disagreement exists about specific measures needed to transform agriculture. Among other things, Congress has considered directly paying farmers to implement sustainable practices to capture carbon in soil, plus federal efforts to shore up carbon-offset trading markets for growers who voluntarily reduce emissions to earn carbon credits they can sell to recoup investments and remain profitable.
NMSU takes the lead
NMSU hopes to tap into whatever funding is approved to implement its statewide carbon-management initiative. The university is seeking $38 million in federal assistance to finance the program over 10 years, with $30 million in the first five years to fully establish research projects, demonstration sites, and educational programs for students and local communities.
Those efforts have robust support from New Mexico’s two Democratic senators, Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján. Heinrich, for example, visited NMSU’s agricultural science center in Clovis — which is leading the first climate research efforts — to see activities first hand and discuss potential federal funding with NMSU executives.
“We have a lot of people working on this, but we need funding to move forward,” Edgar said. “We’re seeking an initial $1 million to kick start the project and acquire the equipment we need to get going. We’re also working with state legislators and the governor’s office for additional support.”
The first phase of the project will involve four of the university’s 12 agricultural science centers. That includes the facility at Clovis, plus NMSU centers in Los Lunas, in Mora in the state’s northern mountains, and at Corona in Central New Mexico.
In general, research and education will focus on growing desert-adapted cover crops for use on farms and rangelands, reforestation and forest management, and greening strategies for urban and semi-urban areas, said NMSU assistant professor Rajan Ghimire, an agronomist and soil scientist based in Clovis who is the research lead for the carbon-management program.
At Clovis, Ghimire is already testing a variety of drought- and heat-resistant cover crops, plus methods to grow them alongside commercial crops without tilling the soil or applying chemical fertilizers. As those practices are adapted into agriculture throughout the state, growers and ranchers can not only increase carbon capture and sequestration in farmlands and ranges, but also improve the soil for better production.
“We’re looking at minimum tilling or no tilling to reduce oxidation in the soil, which releases carbon, and the use of cover crops for more intensive cropping on farms and rangelands,” Ghimire said. “More vegetation provides a lot more roots to help sequester carbon.”
Replacing nitrogen fertilizer with organic biomass can also improve soils, while avoiding release of nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas.
Water management and modern irrigation methods to reduce water use are critical to everything, given New Mexico’s arid environment. Climate change has already plunged the state, and the Southwest in general, into chronic drought, as unprecedented heat waves, reduced precipitation and declining runoff from snow packs diminish water supplies.
Cover crop research involves low-water-use vegetation, such as native grasses and legumes that can thrive in dry climates, Ghimire said.
And measuring carbon content in soil is at the heart of everything, both to establish a baseline of current carbon sequestration and then to document how much new cover crops and improved growing methods help to increase carbon levels in the ground.
“We’re looking at how to include cover crops in existing crop rotation on farms,” Ghimire said. “We want to show how to improve soil health, how much water is needed for cover crops, and how much carbon sequestration can happen in the long term. It’s not just measuring carbon capture over one year, but over time to set achievable goals going forward.”
As the carbon-management program progresses, Clovis will become the “model site” to educate about best practices for croplands, Ghimire said.
Sustainable rangeland research
NMSU’s Corona Range and Livestock Research Center — which encompasses nearly 28,000 acres — will become the model site for carbon management on rangelands. That includes effective methods to grow more native grasses and legumes alongside cattle operations, said Shad Cox, Corona center superintendent.
“This is a working ranch and laboratory for scientists to apply research on top of normal livestock operations,” Cox told the Journal. “It’s the only ‘living lab’ research site for rangeland in the university system.”
Research will assess proper cattle-stocking rates to leave enough forage on the ground for a healthy root system to capture more carbon.
“We’ll introduce more organic matter into the soil,” Cox said. “Then, we’ll study cattle concentrations to stomp that organic matter into the ground, and rotation practices where we take the livestock away so it can grow. … We’ll also measure how much forage we need on the range and how much we can successfully leave in place to reduce the amount of bare ground.”
In addition, the Corona center will be a demonstration site for ranchers who consider opening their lands to renewable development for wind and solar farms. The university formed a new partnership with Pattern Energy — which is building a gigawatt of new wind generation in Corona and other nearby areas — to place 39 wind turbines on Corona rangeland.
“We want to help fight climate change, while keeping land open and in production, and that means making sure land managers have the tools to survive with diversified income streams,” Cox said. “Allowing wind development is one way to generate more funds, help families keep their kids on the ranch, and not sell off the land.”
Hopefully, adopting sustainable operations through the carbon-management program will also diversify income through federal incentives for ranchers and land managers, Cox added.
“We want to develop best practices to help combat climate change, while also diversifying ranch income,” he said.
Urban and semi-urban agriculture
The Los Lunas science center will become NMSU’s model site for carbon management in urban and semi-urban areas, given its location in the mid-Rio Grande Corridor just south of Albuquerque.
As in Clovis, at the Los Lunas center itself, NMSU specialists will study native grasses and other cover crops for suburban growers, including the many alfalfa farms and vineyards that dot the mid-Rio Grande landscape, said Mark Marsalis, a forage specialist and center superintendent. That includes testing such things as sorghum, millet, cowpea and winterpea for inclusion among commercial crops, or for rotation between growing seasons and harvests.
In vineyards, for example, cover crops could be planted between grape trellis rows.
“We have several vineyards in the urban and periurban areas in New Mexico where potential benefits of increased ground cover can be realized,” Marsalis told the Journal. “Traditional inter-row spaces are either bare ground or grasses mowed short, neither of which provides a significant carbon sequestration benefit.”
For pasture lands, the center will study drought-tolerant alfalfa and grass varieties that can improve productivity and grow for longer periods during the year, providing more carbon-capture potential than many traditional forages, Marsalis said.
In urban zones, NMSU specialists will work with homeowners, gardeners and land managers to grow more vegetation everywhere, including trees, shrubs, backyard food plots and, possibly, rooftop gardens. Turfgrass could also gain a new lease on life in times of drought by promoting desert-adapted native varieties and employing proper irrigation practices, said NMSU Turfgrass specialist Bernhard Leinauer.
“Turf has been overlooked … or seen as kind of the ‘anti-Christ’ of ground covers because it’s considered a water-guzzling crop that’s good only for backyard aesthetics or for golf courses,” Leinauer told the Journal. “But carbon storage is one reason we should do it. It has intense root systems that bind carbon into the desert soil.”
Turfgrass misconceptions have led to widespread xeriscaping in many desert-based cities, with homeowners, businesses and park managers often ripping up grass to conserve water. But, with the right native grasses and irrigation techniques, turf could provide a huge boost to carbon sequestration without draining scarce water resources, Leinauer said.
“We know there’s significant carbon-storage potential with turf, so we need to study it and irrigate properly,” he said. “People over-irrigate, but we can sustain grass on much less water.”
Nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, NMSU’s research center in Mora will be the model site for carbon-focused forestry management and reforestation.
The center is already working extensively on research projects to determine the most successful methods and species to use for reforesting in the Rocky Mountain region, which, like most places in the West, has lost vast swaths of forest to wildfires that are growing much more frequent and intense with climate change.
Under the carbon-management program, the Mora center will intensify its work in three areas, including methods to improve survival rates for replanted trees, documenting growth rates, and developing detailed estimates on the increase in carbon sequestration through reforestation, said Owen Burney, NMSU director of reforestation and superintendent for the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center in Mora.
“Thinning the forests and improving forestry management are critical to avoid catastrophic fires in the first place,” Burney told the Journal. “But there’s like 20 million acres that need thinning just in New Mexico. We don’t have the money or resources right now to do that, so we’re focusing on recovery after wildfire events.”
Through reforestation efforts in burned areas, the center is now documenting:
• Optimal planting density to prevent new fires as trees grow back;
• Ideal seedling sizes for replanting, the best times of year to do it, and how to control competing vegetation in replanted zones to ensure growth and survival; and
• The best species for carbon capture with comprehensive modeling of sequestration rates.
The Mora center, which encompasses 118 acres, has two large greenhouses that can grow up to 300,000 seedlings annually. It supplies seedlings for reforestation in four states, including Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
“We manage everything from seed to seedling to out-planting,” Burney said.
Over time, lessons learned from the four model sites will be applied at NMSU’s eight other science centers, where specialists will study adaptation of sustainable practices in all of New Mexico’s varied soils and sub-climates.
“There are like six sub-climates around New Mexico in terms of precipitation and temperature, with different soils in each one,” Ghimire said. “NMSU’s 12 science centers are spread out around the state to capture all those zones. We’ve designed our carbon-management road map to study and apply the new growing methods and strategies we develop in all those places.”
As the program expands, more centers will become model sites for new technology development, such as studying use of brackish water for cover crops in southeastern New Mexico, Edgar said.
And NMSU’s main campus in Las Cruces will offer specialized support for carbon-management efforts across the state, such as applying artificial intelligence to agricultural operations through weather monitoring, GPS mapping and data analysis to help producers make well-informed, timely decisions.
Through NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service offices — set up more than a century ago to make university expertise directly accessible in local communities across New Mexico — agricultural specialists will work to teach about emerging carbon-management practices and help producers everywhere to apply them.
“We’ll make sure our extension agents and specialists have all the information on hand and are working with the public to get it out there,” Edgar said. “Our people are well established in every single county.”