How Regenerative Agriculture, Dryland Farming and Water
Conservation Can Help Save Farming in the Southwest
Nearly 25 years have passed since the start of former Vice President Al Gore’s crusade against climate change. His message not only still resonates, but the truth remains as inconvenient as ever.
On July 25, Brian Kahn, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noted in the Earth Observatory that, “although urban development in the Southwest probably exacerbated recent warming—by replacing vegetation with impervious surfaces more likely to trap heat—anthropogenic climate change [i.e., resulting from the influence of humans on nature] was likely contributing to this heat wave.”
Likewise, Myles Allen, professor of geosystem science at Oxford University, said in the Washington Post on July 5 that “the solution to the problem is actually rather simple: capturing carbon dioxide, either where it is generated or recapturing it from the atmosphere and disposing of it underground.”
So, how do we capture more carbon dioxide? Easy: plant more plants. It is a solution that farmers implement practically every day. Plants, especially trees, capture carbon dioxide through photosynthesis that supports the growth of their leaves, branches and roots.
In addition to prompting some planting, the unforgiving heat dome we’ve endured this summer should remind us all that we all need to take water conservation seriously, and need to prepare for warmer days to come. It is an inconvenient truth that we have embraced on our farm, one that we are committed to responding to in a number of innovative ways.
In 2021, my wife, Dr. Chelsea Hollander, and I decided to pick up our family and leave a convenient suburban lifestyle in New York and move to the Land of Enchantment so that we might have a healthier life a lot closer to nature. We landed in Cerrillos, 20 miles south of Santa Fe, and started a homestead. Even before our move in May of that year, we knew that in addition to growing organic produce, we were committed to conservation and ecosystem restoration on our 350 acres.
Thus, with the help of a number of amazing partners, including the Quivira Coalition and Ecotone Landscape Planning, we honed our overall efforts to focus on regenerative agriculture, dryland farming and ecosystem restoration, and set our operating philosophy upon three pillars of education, research and community.
And so began our incredible journey into a redefined life that is much less convenient but far more meaningful. As one might expect from a life that is off a dirt road, largely off-the-grid, in the high mountain desert—there have been almost daily trials and tribulations.
One of the foremost challenges has been water conservation. From the onset, our operational directive has employed and experimented with a number of innovative and traditional cultivation and water-harvesting techniques.
Foremost is our commitment to dryland farming, which is the practice of producing crops during the dry season by using the moisture stored in the soil from the previous “rainy” season. To support this practice, we embraced healthy soil principles, which include using cover crops, minimizing soil disturbance, fostering animal and plant biodiversity, eliminating synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, integrating livestock and maximizing the presence of living roots. The combination of these practices ultimately leads to healthier soil that will retain more water over the long run.
With the help of a grant from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, we were able to implement these principles within our first year and saw positive results immediately— all without any supplemental irrigation.
We also chose to plant drought-resistant native plants and succulents that would endure an arid and unforgiving landscape. On June 10 of this year, with the support of several organizational partners and two dozen workshop volunteers, we planted over 500 agave, cacti, yucca, cholla and sotol. With the support of a Western SARE grant, we are also creating a one-acre Permaculture food forest that includes 500 more succulents and native plants such as saltbush, tomatillo, sage bush, amaranth, cottonwood, honey locust trees and a retention pond.
To create infrastructure that will support this endeavor, we are continually creating water harvesting earthworks across our cropland. Heading up this ambitious initiative is Nina Listro, our director of farm operations, who presciently took it upon herself to become a certified water harvesting design practitioner through a course offered by the Watershed Management Group in Tucson. Subsequently, she has led the creation of acres of erosion-control structures like one-rock dams, Zuni bowls and media lunas and also designed a couple of raintank and greywater systems.
Thus, in addition to a 1,500-gallon catchment tank we have attached to our home, we now have two 500-gallon tanks that capture rain and snow-melt off our 2,000 square-foot garage. This provides water for our farm interns’ living spaces and is ultimately recycled by a greywater system that waters a wildflower garden outside their kitchen window.
With a generous grant from the LOR Foundation, we are also building an innovative water catchment system that will help supply the needs of plants and seedlings growing in our 33-foot geodesic greenhouse. The project entails capturing precipitation in a corrugated half-pipe that circumvents the exterior of the dome and runs into a 2,500-gallon underground catchment tank, which will be connected to a solar-powered pump and hydrant inside the dome. Completion of this pioneering system will serve as a model for other producers with domed greenhouses, helping to sustain agriculture in the drought-ridden Southwest.
These are merely a few examples of innovations we are implementing at Chelenzo Farms. We feel fortunate to have settled in Cerrillos for our little life-changing experiment, for we owe a lot to our gracious neighbors who have embraced our aspirations, family and farm team. Our success is also due to the army of volunteers and the multitude of awesome organizational partners we have worked with over the last two years. See a full list of projects and partners at chelenzofarms.com.
Lorenzo Domínguez is El Patrón, co-owner of Hacienda Dominguez & Chelenzo Farms in Cerrillos, NM, along with his wife Chelsea, aka “the real boss.” Domínguez is also host of the El Puente radio show on KSWV 99.9 FM in Santa Fe, which bridges regenerative agriculture with regenerative health and community through interviews with leaders and practitioners. He recently served as the only farmer on the inaugural review committee for the New Mexico Economic Development Department’s Healthy Food Financing Fund, an integral part of the governor’s Food Initiative. He is currently a candidate for the governing board of Santa Fe Community College.