By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
A group of farmers who take sustainability seriously and the Greater Tucumcari Economic Development Corp. are sponsoring a two-day symposium called “Empowering the Land.”
The organizers are billing the Sept. 27-28 event as a “special 2-day conference that highlights the new regenerative (sustainable) era that we’re entering, after having gone through the agrarian era, industrial revolution, and information age.”
The event’s promotional literature explains the purpose of the symposium:
“We plan to set an environment where creative cerebral juices can flow freely; positive, productive interactions between people are encouraged, and our local business, farming and ranching community is empowered.”
Tom Sidwell, a cattle rancher who owns and manages 7,000 acres below the Caprock south of Tucumcari, is one of the speakers at this event. Marie Nava, who operates a farm that feeds her family as much as it serves markets, is one of the organizers.
Sidwell and Nava are both practicing what is called holistic land management, one of the themes of the conference.
Sidwell doesn’t like to call his cattle ranching philosophy “holistic land management.” He’d rather call it “planned grazing.”
No matter what you call it, though, it’s an attempt to imitate nature. Back in the good old days for buffalo, before people, unsupervised buffalo herds grazed the grasslands of the Llano Estacado, and the patterns they set actually sustained prairie grasses and kept them greener, Sidwell said.
Buffalo, Sidwell explained, traveled in herds that kept moving. The herd would stop for a few days and chow down on the grass. The buffalo left wastes, of course, and their hoof prints ground into the soil, so they would leave the area depleted, but equipped to grow another crop of grazing grass before the next herd, or the same one, showed up again later in the year, or a few years later. Decomposing waste fertilized the soil and encouraged the growth of friendly micro-organisms that nourished the grass and the hoof prints pockmarked the ground in a way that helped it retain water.
What if you grazed cattle that way? Not many ranchers do, but Sidwell does, and if intensity of green coloration is an indicator of success in a drought year, Sidwell has done it. His acreage looks greener on the ground, and Sidwell’s land is a shade or two darker in Google Earth photographs than the surrounding ranch land.
Sidwell achieves this, he said, by keeping his cattle together and moving them from pasture to pasture to give each pasture some months to recover before another onslaught of grazing. From all indications, it works, and that’s why he keeps doing it that way, he says.
“I believe in improving all the time,” Sidwell said. He doesn’t mind if he is one of the few ranchers in New Mexico who does things in a way that emulates the accidental soil care that the buffalo achieved. He can sustain 38 acres per cow, compared with the 55 acres per animal that was required when he bought his current ranch 10 years ago, he said. And that improves his financial picture as well as his productivity.
He is also relentless in removing non-native water-guzzlers like mesquite and juniper from his land. Removing 50 of the invaders per acre, he said, can save him an acre-foot of water, more than 326,000 gallons, per acre per year.
Nava, on the other hand, is farming to raise food for her family as much as for income. She promotes sustainable fertility of soils, by placing earthworms in the soil beneath the rabbit hutch on her farm, and waters the soil regularly, using rainwater captured from the roof whenever she can.
That worm-enriched soil, she said, then goes to the garden areas near the main house. Her garden crops, corn, pole beans, zucchini and other summer squashes, tomatoes and others, are organically grown.
To combat squash bugs and other pests, she said, she uses a small amount of milk mixed with water, which also encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. She raises broiler chickens in a moveable coup to help the soil, and, like Sidwell, moves her few head of cattle from one area of her farm to the other regularly to allow the cattle and soil to interact in a sustainable cycle.
American society, she said, has been sickened by too much unwholesome food.
“We need to get back to health with fresh, locally grown organic foods,” she said.
While many local ranchers and agricultural officials are worried that drought has killed naturally occurring grazing grasses that will take several drought-free years to recover, Sidwell thinks his land will support his usual 200 head as soon as drought conditions improve. Currently, like other Quay County ranchers, Sidwell has cut his herd to about 70 and is selling them younger than he does in non-drought times.
At the conference, other local speakers include Kelly Boney, who raises goats in San Jon area, and Bob Hockaday, a Tucumcari-based scientist and inventor, who is developing renewable energy technology for agricultural use. Another local speaker is Mimi Sidwell, Tom Sidwell’s wife, who will speak on value-added farming and ranching.
Robyne Beaubien, who works with Main Street programs in Eastern New Mexico will talk about the value of “buying local.”
Other speakers will include holistic management, lifestyle, agricultural and engineers from other New Mexico colleges, universities and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.