Rainfall is scarce throughout New Mexico, which is hard on soil and crops. Farmers can’t change the weather, but they can change how they manage soil to retain more water and grow flavorful, high-nutrient produce.

“If you want to conserve water, you need to look at your soil as a system,” said Rudy Garcia, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service regional soil health specialist for the Four Corners states. “Dark soil that is full of biology and nutrients is what we want, because that soil is always feeding itself.”

Garcia’s presentation was one of several soil health workshops at the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Organic Farming Conference in Albuquerque on Friday.

Garcia, who grew up in a farming community southeast of Abiquiú, said “changing the way you think” about land management produces real results for New Mexico farmers. A vineyard near Lordsburg used soil health principles to plant cover crops and loosen soil without destructive tilling. The vineyard’s grapes have more flavor and last longer because they are now grown in soil with lots of nutrients and water, Garcia said.

Rich soil soaks up water like a sponge and provides more water for crops during drought.

“We need diverse plants above the ground and a diverse ecosystem below,” Garcia said. “Soil health can be addressed at any scale of farming; it just requires some planning.”

The sustainable soil movement is gaining ground in New Mexico. Last year, the Legislature passed the Healthy Soils Act and gave the Agriculture Department $175,000 to award for soil improvement projects and $200,000 for education and soil testing. The grant money was in high demand, and the Legislature approved more program funding this year, to “improve the health, yield and profitability of the soils of the state.”