BREEN – For farmers and ranchers in the Breen area, the days of last spring and summer won’t be easily forgotten.
Drought conditions and steady winds created health and safety hazards for residents. Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary often kept children inside for recess. Roads were plowed of the mounting dust. Above all, the good earth – the very soil that farmers depended on – was being blown away.
Now, La Plata County and agencies such as the Colorado State University Extension, La Plata Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Veterans Homestead Project are trying to help.
About 60 regional residents, mostly who graze or till the land for their livelihood, gathered in Breen at Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary on Saturday for a panel discussion and presentation called Putting Grasslands to Work, a series of solutions – holistic solutions – to what have been called dust bowl conditions on the mesa.
La Plata County analyst and event organizer Susan Hakanson called it a real and significant concern for the county.
“Not only is it bad for your land because your land becomes way less productive when you lose that topsoil, also the county was out here plowing roads last spring because of the massive amount of dirt that was in the air,” she said. “The school district had to keep kids closed in and not allow them to go outside. They had to turn off their air exchange systems because there was so much dust in the air. People with immune and respiratory issues were told to stay inside for weeks at a time. We had a pretty major dust bowl kind of issue going on down here.”
While such conditions commonly are attributed to drought and overgrazing, Byron Shelton, senior program director with the Savory Institute, a global organization based in Colorado promoting holistic land management with more than 30 million acres in tow across the world, said solutions begin at the very foundations of soil.
“We have big challenges here in western Colorado, and especially down here,” Shelton said after the event. “It’s really worldwide – it’s that we’re losing our biodiversity, therefore we’re losing our water, we’re losing our productivity of our soil and that makes us economically unsound. We’ve got to have our biological capital back, but we can’t do it without being economically sound at the same time.”
Holistic land management, developed by Zimbabwean biologist Allan Savory, strives to reverse desertification – dehydrating the land. It promotes the observing of the natural relationships between wild grazing animals and their environments and, in effect, teaches farmers and ranchers beneficial strategies for management systems.
And soil is the main ingredient. In fact, soil is considered to be as unrenewable as oil, according to the Land Institute, a nonprofit Kansas research organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture. On a more global scale, in an effort to increase the awareness and understanding of soil, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Soils.
Shelton said with holistic methods, in contrast to popular opinion, grazing could be the answer.
“We enhance the whole farm process,” he said. “Grazing is one of the tools that is most powerful, and if it’s used wrong, it destroys, as it has; but if it’s used correctly, it’s the only thing that can make this land more productive – we don’t have enough wildlife and predators – we live here now, and we’ve replaced (wildlife) with domestic stock, and we need to mimic nature, but it has to be economically sound and environmentally sound.”
The Land Institute’s president, Wes Jackson, and author Wendell Berry both maintain “that ecological health must be restored to agricultural landscapes, as well as economical health to our rural communities.”
Hakanson said the forum was to show people there are resources available, that programs and tools are in place to help.
“The commissioners are really concerned with loss of soil, the quality of life, the health implications,” she said. “And so just giving the landowner some ideas of the help they can get to try and get some kind of mitigation for that. To get a crop in the ground that stays, or even if it’s snow fencing to try and keep that dirt from blowing off of your field. We’re just trying to bring some tools to the landowner because it was a mess out here last spring.”
Breen Mesa Farm, a 265-acre organic pasture hog operation just a few miles from the school, is out to rebuild its soil from the ground up. Farm operators Edit Aquarian and Greg Hopkins use a holistic approach in doing so, but they have another mission, as well. It’s called the Veterans Homestead Project.
Founded by Hopkins, a former Air Force pararescue specialist, he and Aquarian hope to not only rebuild soil and create a self-sustaining farm but to teach it to other combat veterans and help them rebuild themselves.
“His job was trying to save people,” Aquarian said. “Now he’s trying to save people with offering his life, his farm, his expertise, to teach veterans how to take care of themselves, to take care of animals and grown food, compost, build soil and be self-sustainable. The bigger part of it is that the camaraderie between the veterans, specifically combat veterans to open up to others. That is the most healing part, not just working with animals or the soil.”
Aqaurian said they hope to return the land to what it was and to teach others how they did it, local farmers and veterans alike.
“It’s nothing new,” she said. “It’s how all our grandparents lived, just getting back to self-sustainability.”
A series of workshops on holistic management are scheduled, beginning in February, starting with an introduction to holistic management, growing season and grazing plan, land planning, financial planning and consultation with the Savory Institute.
“We’re trying to get some of these folks some help,” Hakanson said. “We’re trying to keep some of that soil where it belongs.”
“This is a big dream,” Aquarian said. “A big picture. What I’m hoping personally is not just returning our land back to productive, healthy and balanced, but with that keeping the moisture here and not letting it run off.”