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Regenerative agriculture offers sustainability, climate resilience to local ranchers

On a ranch in Valle Escondido last Wednesday (July 5), U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies, met with local ranchers and producers and Taos County commissioners Darlene Vigil and Ronald Mascareñas to discuss how the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA) can support current regenerative agriculture efforts in the county.

The ARA, which the Senator introduced to the Senate in March, puts forward the ambitious goal of achieving net-zero agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 2040. The act outlines a series of complex checks and balances broadly focused on funding sustainable agriculture research and education, incentivizing the use of climate-conscious farming practices, preserving farmlands, integrating renewable energy production into agriculture and decreasing food waste.

The principles of regenerative agriculture 

Regenerative agriculture prioritizes soil health by using cover cropping, increased biodiversity, no-till methods, rotational grazing, environment-adapted livestock and plants and a variety of other strategies to cultivate nutrient-rich, water-retaining soil that is more productive and climate resilient.

Regenerative practices can reduce agriculture’s climate impact by decreasing the amount of nitrous-oxide released by soils and allowing soils to increase their carbon sequestration capacity.

“When you increase the health of the soils through carbon sequestration and through increased biological health in the soil, you increase the soil’s ability to retain water,” Gillian Joyce, the executive director of Alianza Agri-Cultura de Taos and the government relations representative for Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, explained.

“You decrease flooding, you decrease runoff; you decrease erosion and you increase the viability of agricultural products, because you are using all the water that lands on your property.”

As water grows increasingly scarce and top soil levels dwindle, ranchers are turning towards regenerative agriculture as a means of survival. “They can build soil — inches of soil — in three to five years; originally it was thought to take 100 years to grow an inch of soil,” Pat Pacheco, a cattle rancher from Taos, explained.

What exactly regenerative agriculture looks like depends on the environmental conditions of a given place and can vary between farms or ranches in the same region. The central principle, Pacheco explained, is emulating natural cycles.

“It’s management, context and observation,” he said. “It’s always adjusting.”

Sen. Heinrich said flexibility is critical.

Education and access

The lack of formal education available for regenerative agriculture limits the assistance available to farmers and ranchers. The ARA’s focus on expanded accessibility to technical services should help efforts to effectively employ regenerative agricultural strategies, according to Joyce.

“Even the best [agriculture] schools in the country still aren’t teaching this stuff,” she said, adding that support from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency is also limited at best due to divestment in agriculture.

Right now, ranchers rely largely on sharing YouTube videos, recommending articles and swapping strategies to learn regenerative agriculture practices.

By establishing U.S. Department of Agriculture Climate Hubs across the United States, and prioritizing education in sustainable agriculture through initiatives like an Agriculture Research Service internship program, the ARA seeks to cultivate a new generation of agriculturalists trained in regenerative methods and create a framework for disseminating knowledge to ranchers and farmers.

“The practitioners … they're having to educate the federal government, soil people, the Ph.Ds. It's going the other direction,” Pacheco said. “You've taught us some stuff, but we're gonna show you what’s actually functioning on the ground and what our communities want.” Opening a dialogue between ranchers and farmers and these agriculture scientists is also important.

Spreading this knowledge is also part and parcel of the ARA’s ambition to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint.

Supporting local meat production

“We’re survivors,” Robert Martinez, another Taos rancher, said. “It’s been slow death for the last 40 years. The margins have all gone to the packers; they control the price.”

Right now, ranchers in Taos County often rely on USDA-inspected services over 300 miles away, Mercedes Rodriguez, the executive director of the Taos County Economic Development Corporation (TCEDC), explained.

In collaboration with multiple local governments and nonprofits, TCEDC is reviving its mobile matanza program, which fell dormant in 2014. With an increased capacity for meat processing and packing anticipated to come online in 2024, the program will support the local food economy and “cut out the middleman,” Rodriguez said.

Even with financial support coming from county, state and federal sources, “there’s definitely still funding needed,” she said. The ARA will create a Processing Resilience Grant Program to assist in the establishment of small-scale meat processing facilities with funding of up to $500,000. “Washington has realized the need for these small-to-very-small facilities.”

“We have been traditionally a community that feeds ourselves, and we need to get back to that,” Martinez said.

Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions

Underpinning the ARA is the bold goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture by 2040.

Although the ARA seems popular among Taos ranchers who have already embraced regenerative agriculture, Joyce anticipates a cultural barrier to the act’s success in the broader ranching community. “Around here, it’s hardly a problem. People are all bought in.”

The ARA lays out a series of financial incentives for sustainable agriculture, such as including soil health and greenhouse gas emission reduction efforts as eligible for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which would not only reward ranchers for their efforts but also compensate them for any losses they face as they update their practices.

But a relationship of skepticism and distrust between ranchers and the government could also slow down these efforts, according to Martinez.

Although hesitant to embrace the bill, Martinez was optimistic that incentivizing regenerative methods and educating people about how to implement them are a step in the right direction.

“You don’t turn a switch on any of this nor on the understanding or the learning, but I have never met a farmer or rancher who didn’t want to make their land better and more productive,” Martinez said.

Pacheco said he hopes to see greater collaboration between the county and federal governments, so legislation like the ARA reflects the needs of farmers and ranchers here.

“So that's the question, [but] how do we go there?” Pacheco said. “The senators, our county commissioners can be huge in making that decision. Our commission can really tell the senators how the cow bit the cabbage.”