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by Centria Lilly, Farm Operations Advisor for Avalon Organic Gardens

We hear so much about “regenerative agriculture” these days, and those of us who still believe there is such a thing (and that it exists as a possibility in our busy, technologically-driven existence) are tasked with the challenges of manifesting this regenerating spirit in the future of agriculture. We—the rancher, farmer, gardener, naturalist, environmentalist, and all those whose hearts belong to the natural world—are called to repair and heal our common ground, the sacred yet disappearing terra firma.

The Santa Cruz River Valley (nestled at the base of the Tumacácori Mountains in southern Arizona)—also known as the “Palm of God’s Hand”—is, for most of us who live in this bioregion, our chosen garden. We love her in our many ways and are blessed with a still virgin beauty that only some can claim as their backyard. We are writing the beginning chapters of what could be great potentials in this river valley, with its unique soil variations, monsoon rains and drought, and a vast variety of Sonoran Desert vegetation.

As stewards of these lands, we who live here are faced with the greatest of opportunities to resurrect our soils, clean up waterways, and most of all maintain an agrarian culture comprised of souls, and animal and plant life, with a future possibility of healthy mutual cohabitation using age-old but newly rebirthed farming techniques.

Potentialities are fraught with uncertainties and, as land managers with a regenerative vision who also need to make ends meet, we are continually faced with the tug-of-war between the real and the ideal, the possible and the actual. History has proven we can learn from our mistakes, and in the realm of agriculture, there have been many. We need not look too far to see that we humans have attempted to control the environment and placed expectations and demands upon the earth to meet our growing appetites, all to the detriment of our health in communities, whole cultures, and even the land itself. We, as a global society, continue to take more than our share. The increasingly unfair distribution globally of available resources is nothing short of an abomination.

Science and technology have not always acted in the best interest of sustainable land management. Notable scientists and environmentalists, such as Allan Savory—who says “you cannot separate a culture from its lands”—are now coming full circle and seeing the error of their ways when their practices and theories were led too strongly by logic, statistics, and figures while the intrinsic instincts of the heart were forgotten at best and mocked and ridiculed at worst. Many once-renowned experts in the field of industrial agriculture are now making an about-face and opening their minds and hearts to voices coming from the wilderness, who have not yet lost touch with Mother Nature, nor their own common sense. They are retracing their steps and seeing the error of their ways.

Avalon Organic Gardens and EcoVillage has been an experimental agri-“cultural" endeavor for nearly 30 years, with “culture” being integral to this effort to build a sustainable model in the art of living. We value and cherish the human “temple” and have found that there is no “one-size-fits-all recipe” on this diverse planet when it comes to preparing the ground for cultivation, tending to the harvest, and transforming it into life-giving nutrition at the dining table. The one thing we all share in common is the understanding that growing and consuming natural, chemical-free foods for ourselves and our animals is essential for healthy living.

Avalon Gardens Co-Founder and author Niánn Emerson Chase, a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a series of articles on sustainable living called “Walking The Balance” writes:  “First and foremost, we must establish within ourselves on a personal level the balance of idealism within divine pattern and living it on a practical level. As citizens of a troubled world, we too must step out in compassionate and intelligent activism for a kinder, more sane, and sustainable world.”

Fifteen years ago when we first arrived in Tumacacori, we early on discovered that “cohabitation” with Bermuda grass, amaranth, and buffelgrass was going to pose challenges. We intensely grazed in the beginning, just to stay ahead of the seed crop coming from these noxious weeds. We composted, spread manure, used effective microorganisms, installed drip systems to replace flood irrigation methods to save water, excavated stormwater management and retention basins to reduce erosion and flooding, planted pollinator gardens, constructed bat houses, cultivated bees, heritage grains, and legumes, planted trees, established a permaculture food forest, and yes, we had a few composting toilets and certainly we weeded ’til the cows came home. You’d think we’ve done it all. Yet that said—as of this writing—we are faced with one of the most monstrous and densest weed growth seasons we have ever experienced!!!! Thank you monsoons.

We have made every effort to pool our collective resources—material, physical, and spiritual—with the upside being that we are also experiencing some of the most positive results from furthering our experimental farming and ranching practices. We are witnessing the land responding to responsible stewardship. We are just now embarking on pivotal farming methods for a future regime of no-till seed drilling, better animal rotation methods for grassland management, unlocking the latent nutrients in our soil using mycorrhizae, and compost, compost, and more compost. We fully expect a turning point for our land, and we already see the fruits of these labors in our small but hardy micro-region, where we intend to farm with methods and techniques that will ensure increasing sequestration of carbon.

From the Carbon Cycle Institute we learn:

Land management is among the largest contributors to climate change. Agriculture is the ONE sector that has the ability to transform from a net emitter of CO2 to a net sequester of CO2 — there is no other human-managed realm with this potential. Common agricultural practices, including driving a tractor, tilling the soil, over-grazing, using fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides result in significant carbon dioxide release. Alternatively, carbon can be stored long-term (decades to centuries or more) beneficially in soils in a process called soil carbon sequestration. Carbon Farming involves implementing practices that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and/or soil organic matter.

What more does our future hold as discoveries in the fields of mycology, microbial bioremediation, and plant-based phytoremediation succeed in using plant, bacteria, and fungal species to clean up contaminants and improve the quality of water and soils?  What are we held responsible for in conserving and capturing the precious water that comes from the rains and the rivers of Arizona? What can we imagine for the future of this region taking into consideration of the limited resources? What to grow, how far to transport, and what new industries can sprout from such innovation?

We can make a difference in the carbon cycle by making some integral changes to how we view and execute modern land management. We can make changes in our personal lifestyles, yet not sacrifice quality, but rethink ways to reduce the quantities of consumption and think "outside the box" of what is involved in the cultivating, processing, packaging, and shipping of the foods we consume and the feeds our animals consume.

So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. . . . Give your approval to all you cannot understand. . . . Ask the questions that have no answers. Put your faith in two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. . . . Laugh. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. . . . Practice resurrection.

~ Wendell Berry