Longmont farmer works to revive soil

Marcus McCauley is working on a soil improvement project on Open Space land adjoining his McCauley Family Farm near Longmont.

The work is similar to what he’s done on his own land, improving soil health by using practices such as keyline design to follow contours of the land and using a subsoil plow to cut deep grooves in the land that allow him to “harvest water.” Water from rainfall and irrigation accumulates in the grooves and soaks deeply into the land rather than running off.

He also applies compost, adding nutrients to the soil, while the water helps grass seeds to grow, their roots penetrating the hard ground, trapping carbon and releasing nutrients to microbes in the soil. These methods have greatly improved his own land, on which he also has planted strips of trees with small berries on his pastures to attract birds.

McCauley couldn’t help but become interested in the Open Space parcel next to his farm after an intense windstorm a couple of years ago blew large amounts of its topsoil onto his farm, depositing about ¼ inch over his fields. So much soil accumulated along the fence that his sheep could walk over it. Those acquainted with environmental science or farming understand the loss of topsoil is considered an ecological disaster.

“It took millennia to build (the soil) up,” McCauley said. “The taxpayers have owned that land for a very short period of time, and the topsoil is gone.

”When the person leasing the land left, McCauley inquired about the land, wondering what was going to happen to it. He was told it was unleasable, meaning that it could not support farming or ranching. Over-grazing and a proliferation of prairie dogs, which could not be killed in Boulder as of this writing, were the main causes. The city was re-examining its prairie dog policies after complaints by farmers and a recommendation by its open space board.

McCauley got permission to lease the land from the city under a carbon farming program. The deep-groove plowing helps with the prairie dogs, because the soil stays wetter after rain.

“It discourages them from maintaining a permanent spot,” McCauley said.

A dry fall meant spotty germination after seeding, but subsequent moisture should help the cover crop he planted in late spring. Bindweed remains a problem, as do prairie dogs, but he is hopeful that he will be able to bring the land back to the point where grazing is possible.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to have the opportunity to regenerate land,” he said. “You can’t take a broken system and put it on the shelf and say, ‘We’re going to preserve this,’ unless you really manage the ecology of it.”

by Cindy Sutter