BOULDER, Colo. — You’d never guess standing on the rich soil inside the forest garden on Elk Run Farm that this land used to be barren. No one thought anything would grow there, except Nick DiDomenico.
DiDomenico and his family bought the property just 15 miles north of Boulder in 2015. He says the land had been overgrazed by cattle for years and was more recently used to store heavy equipment.
“When we first moved here, this entire field was completely bare and not any soil not any plants it was completely dry and desertified, and there was a bunch of prairie dogs,” DiDomenico said.
He spent the next two years running pigs through the entire area and putting hay, straw, wood chips and other organic matter into their paddock.
During that time, he also studied the land to try to figure out how the little water that did come to the area moved through the land.
Eventually, through the work of the animals and careful land management on the part of DiDomenico, enough soil had been built up to begin planting.
Some 2,000 trees were planted on the property, without supplemental irrigation, using contour alley systems. The farm doesn’t have access to supplemental irrigation other than its well, so it collects and directs rainwater toward its plants.
“The way that we see it, the trees are really anchoring the ecosystem,” DiDomenico said. “It is possible to redevelop and build ecosystems from the ground up even when there is very, very low water content or rainfall or moisture.”
The process is called regenerative farming and is becoming increasingly popular among younger farmers. The idea involves a few simple concepts: build up soil health, plant strategically, conserve water and use animals instead of plows or tractors to manage the land.
“From doing the earthworks and doing intensive animal management and over seeding and all of this whole regenerative methodology, we have been able to restore it back to usable pasture,” DiDomenico said.
No one thought DiDomenico’s idea would work. He was told over and over by others in the farming community that the land simply wouldn’t be able to sustain the trees and crops.
Because of that, he planted the trees close together, expecting about half of them to die due to the dry conditions. The way DiDomenico sees it, he’s in the process of developing a drought tolerant, climate resilient agroforestry stock.
“We’re seeing incredible results. We were expecting to lose over half of the trees and in the first year, and we lost less than 10%,” DiDomenico said.
The farm has become the experiment area for the Drylands Agroecology Research nonprofit. DiDomenico says it has started as a shoestring operation but has garnered attention from a number of other farms in the area and is now receiving funding to continue its work.
Regenerative agriculture is not a new idea. However, with the advent of global, monoculture farming operations over the decades, agriculture and food production are increasingly contributing to climate change.
A United Nations report published earlier this year attributed one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions to food production. Global food systems are becoming more energy-intensive from agriculture to packaging, transport, processing and even disposal.
Roughly two-thirds of the food production greenhouse gases being emitted come from agriculture and land use.
Monoculture farming is a practice where only one crop is planted at a time on a particular field. The practice has grown in popularity over time because it is efficient and can produce high quantities of food for a growing population.
However, monoculture farming can also deplete the soil of important nutrients and often requires heavy equipment and intense human management, such as herbicides, to thrive.
Polyculture farming is a practice where farmers grow a bit of everything so that crops can balance out one another and keep nutrients in the soil.
Within DiDomenico’s agroforestry garden grows almost any vegetable you can imagine, peppers, tomatillos, corn, onions, leaks and more. About 90% of the calories the workers who live on the property intake come from the garden and the animals that help manage it.
Once the crop has run its course, pigs, chickens and sheep are brought in one by one to clear the land and get it ready for the next growing season.
The process not only cuts down on the farm’s overall carbon emissions, it also pulls the carbon currently contributing to climate change out of the air and puts it back in the ground.
“Up until this point, we’ve been focusing almost entirely on energy systems change and how do we reduce emissions,” said Brett KenCairn, the senior policy advisor for climate and resilience for the City of Boulder.
While reducing emissions is an important aspect of combating climate change, he says drawing carbon out of the air is also essential.
KenCairn sees DiDomenico as a visionary. He says if DiDomenico's idea works, it would prove that it is possible to combat climate change and restore the land at the same time.
“Change is happening. We can’t keep doing things the way that we’ve done it. We’re going to have to try a new things,” KenCairn said. “Our best hope and I feel like our most important work in both stabilizing the climate and preparing and protecting our communities to live through the issues we’re going to face is by entering into a deeper partnership with the living world.”
At the same time, KenCairn recognizes that it is a difficult process to change directions when people’s entire livelihoods depend on the current agriculture system.
He believes it will take careful experimentation and government transition assistance to truly change tracks on agriculture production, and that requires time.
Just down the road from Elk Run Farm, the Yellow Barn Farm is also in the process of transitioning its work. The land was used for years as an equestrian center but is now moving into a 100 acre regenerative farm.
For farmer Azuraye Wycoff, the timing of this transition is critical. Last year the Calwood Fire came within three feet of the farm. The entire neighborhood and hillside behind were burned, but a lucky change in wind direction spared the farm from damage.
“I think it just shows us how fragile our systems are right now,” Wycoff said.
For her, the fires were a reminder of why this work is so important in combating climate change.
Yellow Barn Farm partnered with DiDomenico last year to plant 3,500, drought-resistant trees on the property with the help of 100 volunteers. One day soon, Wycoff is hoping the area will become a vibrant orchard.
“It looks beautiful, it brings the soil back to life, it’s sequesters and pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and puts it back in the earth, and then it will feed all of our animals,” Wycoff said.
DiDomenico sees the Yellow Barn Farm as proof that his model can work on larger scales. In the end, he hopes his methods will inspire other farmers to consider regenerative agriculture and balance out the relationship humans have with the land.
“This system is inherently demonstrative because, as far as we know, nobody has tried to grow an agroforestry system in this dry of a climate without extra water," DiDomenico said. "So, whatever does well here is going to be the foundation."