The Healthy Soil Act in New Mexico

By Sarah Wentzel-Fisher

San Juan Ranch. Photo courtesy of Quivira Coalition.

Let’s talk dirty for a minute. Until a few years ago, I was only tuned into the static properties of soil. If the backyard was sandy, I knew it would support plants like basil, lavender, and herbs that like well-drained soils. If the garden sported heavy clays, better to plant kale, potatoes, or other plants that don’t mind wet roots and tight soils. But soil health and function goes far beyond its basic hydrogeology.

In recent years, I’ve been turned on to the complex, dynamic, biological world of microbes, nematodes, fungi, and many other small living creatures that exist in constant and immediate symbiosis with above-ground plant communities. They ultimately capture carbon and other elements from the air and return them to the earth. Plants capture carbon through photosynthesis and process it into sugars that feed the soil microbiology through the roots of plants. Healthy soil hosts diverse and abundant carbon-based critters who eat, live, defecate, die, and decompose, returning carbon to the soil. The greater the number and diversity of plants in the soil, and the less disturbance of soil, the more vibrant the subsurface microbiological communities. In addition, the more these critters produce their carbon-based waste, the more organic matter, nutrients, and water the soil can hold.

Now when I put a shovel in the garden, I’m looking at it in a whole new way. While soil microbiology has a nerdy ring to it, you don’t need a lab or a scientist to understand this subject—you need a shovel, two eyes, a nose, some fingers, and a little water to tell you a lot about what’s going on below ground in your garden. Are there visible critters at work like worms or grubs? Does the soil look granular and aerated? When you pull a weed in your garden, are its roots sheathed in soil, looking a little like dreadlocks? Do you see delicate white veins that are not roots? If you set a chunk of dirt gently in a glass of water, does it cling together rather than dissolve? If you answer yes to many of these, you probably have healthy soil.

I love having the opportunity to write for edible’s land issue, because I love the challenge of finding ways to connect people to place and ecology through the lens of food. It is what inspired me to join the edible team almost a decade ago, and continues to drive the work I do today. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about dirt. So much of our food comes from the soil. All land and water on this big, beautiful planet are connected, so how we treat the ground beneath our feet directly impacts the quality of our food. While lab-developed products like the Impossible Burger may be stirring great media attention, even these products are based on plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals that all require healthy soil to produce their caloric contribution to food systems.

In April, the New Mexico legislature did an incredible thing. They passed healthy soil legislation, making us the twelfth state in the union to pass similar legislation and a leader in a growing movement to recognize the importance of our soils to our watersheds, biodiversity, farmers, food systems, and rural economies. Directly from the bill: “The purpose of the [legislation is to create a] program to promote and support farming and ranching systems and other forms of land management that increase soil organic matter, aggregate stability, microbiology and water retention to improve the health, yield and profitability of the soils of the state.” The Healthy Soil Act recognizes five key principles for keeping soils healthy and productive: keep soil covered with plants; minimize soil disturbance on cropland and minimize external inputs; maximize biodiversity; maintain living roots; and integrate animals into land management, including grazing animals, birds, and beneficial insects or keystone species, such as earthworms.

The legislation creates a new program at the New Mexico Department of Agriculture that will fund research on what types of agriculture and other land management make our high-desert soils healthy; educational programming for both farmers and the public on what is healthy soil and how we can support it; and grants to be awarded directly to farmers who want to shift production practices so the way they grow food or fiber benefits the soil. While the Healthy Soil Act and the new program it creates are both targeted toward farmers and ranchers, the reality is that it codifies good practices all of us should follow in our yards, gardens, or any other greenspace we play a role in maintaining.

Like many places in the country, and perhaps even more so, New Mexico soils are in crisis. Restoring soil health will take much more than legislation; it will take a fundamental shift in the way we collectively produce food, and the way we support food producers.

Every few years, the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service (prior to 1994 known as the Soil Conservation Service, which was established in the decades leading up to the Dust Bowl by a couple of smart folks who could see the direction bad farming practices were taking us) conducts a natural resource inventory. This survey looks at a number of factors related to the health and stability of our soils. Here, our soils show extreme departure from normal conditions, meaning we have high levels of wind erosion and bare ground, both of which indicate our overall soil health is declining. While many years of extreme drought have contributed to this phenomenon, we can’t discount the impact land management choices have on the situation.

Over the last decade, many farmers and ranchers have continued to plant or graze in the same fashion they always have, even though changes in the weather would suggest a need for modifying practices to suit new realities of temperature and precipitation. A number of factors contribute to slow change in agricultural practices, from the expense required for putting in new infrastructure or purchasing new equipment, to the inevitable loss in productivity while the system adapts to changes, to contractual agreements that prevent change, to peer pressure from family and neighbors who say, “Better the devil you know…”

Although change is complicated and can be hard, many farmers and ranchers also seek out education, technical support, and funding to support their soil. In the public sector, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has recently prioritized soil health and is developing tools nationally to support farmers and ranchers. Regionally, groups like the Quivira Coalition (of which I am executive director), the Soil Health Academy, Carbon Cowboys, and Soil Health Services have created on-farm, often producer-led, workshops on understanding soil health and what it takes to really improve it. Creation, passage, and implementation of the Healthy Soil Act provides a critical support mechanism at the state level, rounding out a suite of financial and technical service tools a farmer or rancher can utilize to shift to practices that promote soil health.

More Information:

To learn more about the program, see the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s website:

To understand how you can promote soil health in your yard or garden, contact your local extension agent:

To get involved at the local level helping your community steward land and water for healthy food, fiber, and fuel systems, consider joining or volunteering for your Soil and Water Conservation District:

To meet farmers, ranchers, scientists, and others working on soil health, consider attending the 2019 REGENERATE Conference,November 19–22 at the Hotel Albuquerque:

To learn how to be a soil health advocate and find teaching and learning resources, check out the NRCS Soil Health Portal:, or visit Kiss the Ground:

According to the NRCS:

As world population and food production demands rise, keeping our soil healthy and productive is of paramount importance. By implementing soil health principles and systems that include no-till, cover cropping, and diverse rotations, more and more farmers are actually increasing their soil’s organic matter and improving microbial activity. As a result, farmers are sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, and improving wildlife and pollinator habitats—all while often harvesting better yields and better profits.

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Edible celebrates New Mexico's food culture, season by season. We believe that knowing where our food comes from is a powerful thing. With our high-quality, aesthetically pleasing and informative publication, we inspire readers to support and celebrate the growers, producers, chefs, beverage and food artisans, and other food professionals in our community.