Orchardist hopes to spread sustainable practices to farmers across the country

Posted at 7:28 PM, Jan 07, 2022

TRUCHAS, NM. — On the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in New Mexico, Gordon Tooley manages an apple tree orchard and nursery called Tooley's Trees.

When he bought the land in 1991, he says it was overgrazed and had eroded.

"From where I'm standing here, we have about 11 western states that are all tortured and in rough shape and is part of our big picture water cycle of why we have climactic chaos," Tooley said. "We are in a highly evaporative water cycle and a transformational one because we have a lack of plants and too much bare ground.”

It’s hard to see this time of year, but Tooley says his land has no bare ground. It’s completely covered in grasses, plants, trees and shrubs.

“I am totally committed to changing the way water behaves, getting moisture into the soil and getting roots into the soil and protecting the diversity of our genetic material that is at risk," Tooley said. "More than half of the varieties of apples that were in North America a hundred and fifty years ago are gone now. So that's about eight thousand varieties that are missing."

Tooley has traveled across the state collecting different apple varietals to build that diversity back up. Agricultural ecologist and soil scientist Jerry Glover says there’s a benefit to having a wide collection of trees, plants and shrubs.

“A variety of apples that are flowering at different times of the year, in addition to the range of plants, grasses, other flowering plants that are growing in the orchard, provides a lot more nectar resources, probably over a much longer period of the season for a greater diversity of pollinators — Bees, wasps, even flies other insects that are very important to keeping that ecosystem vibrant and thriving,” Glover said.

Glover says more plants mean greater biodiversity.

“We've seen a troubling collapse of biodiversity around the world over the past 50 years,” Glover said.

Though it may look different from state to state, Glover says farmers all over the U.S. can implement similar practices of covering bare ground and growing a diversity of crops. However, he says it can come at a cost.

“Folks not familiar with farming assume that farmers should just do this," Glover said. "Ya know, why not? Well, the 'why not' is because these more complex systems where you're growing more crops, more different types of plants over a longer period of the year requires more information, requires more management inputs from the farmer.”

Glover says it’s a big problem if farmers can’t make a profit. Nonetheless, he says there is a growing need for farmers to maintain healthy soil and support biodiversity as we move into a future where our food systems could be at risk.

“We need to make sure that the land that we're producing on is producing as much as possible with the least amount of environmental damage,” Glover said.

Tooley says he believes every person, not just farmers, can do their part to grow food and build healthy ecosystems.

“People are maybe deciding that, you know, 'I have a tiny backyard, I'm going to plant some fruit trees, I'm going to plant some shrubs, I'm going to make a pie, I'm going to pull carrots, grow squash, beans, whatever,'” Tooley said.