Article by Don Boyd, Friends BEAM Project Manager
Imagine for a moment that you could fund a project that would pull tons of carbon out of the air and sequester it in the ground while simultaneously returning farm soil to a level of health it had not seen for decades, if not hundreds of years? And, what if you could do that and reduce refuge labor costs and water usage at the same time in fields that recently had failed to grow crops? Finally, what if the deal meant you could work with a research team that has already successfully done this in numerous places around the world. This was the opportunity facing the Friends Board of Directors in the summer and fall of 2023.
The projected benefits to improved farming practices and wildlife food production on the refuge combined with the proven environmental benefits of regenerative agricultural practices (regen ag) led to the Board signing a five-year contract with Dr. David C. Johnson, molecular biologist and research scientist and his partner Hui-Chun Su. The project partners – Friends of Bosque del Apache, researchers Dr. David Johnson and colleague Hui-Chun Su, and Bosque del Apache NWR – will collaborate on demonstrating the benefits of regen ag practices while improving the soil health of thirty-eight acres of farm land on the south end of the refuge using Dr. Johnson’s BEAM process. Dr. Johnson, a former farmer and PhD molecular biologist Educator at New Mexico State University and his wife and colleague Hui-Chun Su, were chosen due to their extensive successful experience in regenerative agriculture and intimate knowledge of environmental conditions in New Mexico and the American Southwest.
The BEAM process – Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management – promises to restore or regenerate soil microbiomes by:
– Reducing/eliminating chemical inputs or disturbances from tillage
– Promoting year-round living roots from full-time ground cover using cover crops and/or commodity crops
– Re-introducing beneficial soil microbiomes either through: 1.) implementation of livestock using adaptive multi-paddock grazing methods for range management (see carboncowboys.org), or 2.) inoculation with beneficial microbes (i.e. from a Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxUGk161Ly8&t=12s)
Using regenerative agriculture practices offers the refuge, and middle Rio Grande Valley farmers and others who might follow along, a model for improving more traditional farming practices that can result in higher economic yields using less labor and water. Gone from these traditional farming practices are the constant discing and tilling that release carbon during every pass of the tractor over a field and that hastens water loss due to evaporation. Used in place of discs, mowers and tillers, is a “no-till drill” and roller crimper. Pulled behind a tractor, the no-till drill digs a shallow furrow over existing ground cover, plants the seeds, injects the liquid biology (from the Johnson-Su Bioreactor) and covers the soil, all in a single pass.
Seven cover crop seed types designed to enhance the carbon and nitrogen content of the soil were planted in late October and early November. These radish, Austrian winter peas, triticale, Balansa clover, and three vetches will be knocked down by a roller-crimper in late April. The roller-crimper does not cut the plants but bends or breaks them down within a few inches of ground level so that the plant stays in place. The plants protect the soil surface from excessive heat and evaporation and is not washed away by rain nor blown away by wind. These low-lying plants also provide a home for beneficial insects that make the need for insecticides less likely. By using cover crops that enrich the soil with nitrogen and carbon, it is possible to eliminate the use of soil amendments like phosphorous and nitrogen. Nitrogen fixed in the soil this way makes it bio-available to other plants, whereas nitrogen losses from amendments can mean as much as 85% of it runs off and contributes to ground water contamination and runoff. The Johnson-Sus are quick to point out that all soils are different and that a careful tracking of soil changes is necessary to be successful. To track soil health, the Johnson-Sus conducted a soil analysis in October that will be repeated in years three and five. Soil analyses will suggest subsequent cover and commodity crop choices.
Typically, the first late April or early May planting would be a commodity crop, something that focuses on producing food for our wildlife. But, the soil of the four project fields is currently so nutrient deficient that another cover crop is needed to remedy the deficiencies. In October of 2024 another cover crop will be planted to protect the soil over the winter months. The first commodity crop will be in the ground in the 2025 spring planting.
Visitors to the refuge looking out across these fields, viewable from the far end of the south loop (adjacent to the John P. Taylor, Jr. Memorial Trailhead), will eventually see interpretive signs along the tour-loop roadway explaining the BEAM process. Depending on the season, they may be looking at a variety of winter cover crop plants or, beginning in May of 2025, commodity crops grown for our migratory visitors.
Crop failures in the last few years resulting from poor soil health, increasing temperatures and drought, call for new farming practices that have potential to weather these challenges. The Friends of Bosque del Apache realize that regenerative farm practices, used increasingly world-wide, offer this potential and are willing to invest resources over time to keep your Bosque del Apache the jewel on the Rio Grande that it has been since 1939.
A quick note from Don Boyd, Friends BEAM Project Manager:
I first heard Dr. David Johnson speak at the 2022 Festival of the Cranes. Frankly, I was amazed at the potential benefits of regenerative agriculture (regen ag) practices he outlined: reduced water consumption in agriculture (80% of our fresh water in New Mexico is used in agriculture); no soil amendments; no pesticide or insecticide use; reduced labor costs; no more tilling and release of carbon in the atmosphere; and the sequestration of atmospheric carbon in the ground. And these are not pie-in-the-sky academic musings; he and others have been able to produce these outcomes consistently around the world. His last observation – that we can pull atmospheric carbon out of the air and put it back in the soil – floored me! Even our small thirty-eight acre size project has the potential to put tons of carbon back in the ground. The final soil analysis, at the end of year five, will confirm what we have been able to do. Our hope is that over the next five years our investment will pay off in many ways, including modeling for others how to conserve precious resources and help address the problems of climate change. Stay tuned . . . I’ll update you from time-to-time on project progress.
If you would like to see Dr. Johnson’s presentation from the 2022 Festival of the Cranes that inspired me, it is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUOxfLR7n-k
Don can be reached for questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Help us ensure the future success of the Bosque del Apache farm crops! If you would like to financially support the Regenerative Agriculture Pilot (BEAM) Project, please donate here.