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Foothills Farming Collective collaborates to regenerate dry land

Regenerative farming techniques combat desertification in increasingly arid land

The Foothills Farming Collective works across several properties in the western foothills of Boulder County to bring resilient agriculture to the forefront. The goal of the collective, led by Dryland Agroecology Research, is to use regenerative farming techniques, old and new, to combat desertification of the land, address climate change at a local level and restore food sovereignty to local communities.

Dryland Agroecology Research, or DAR, has three main pillars — regenerative land design, ecological research and an education and community outreach curriculum that includes a young childhood curriculum on the farm property, according to DAR Executive Director Nick DiDomenico.

In 2015, DiDomenico returned to Colorado from traveling through South America where he learned about off-grid food systems, permaculture farming and resilient living. Helping his father by investing in a parcel of land just off US 36. This land, where Elk Run Farm now sits, they were told by the National Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, was not a viable agricultural property. DiDomenico used his skills as a carpenter and landscaper to repair the buildings to build value on the property.

The fourteen acre parcel was another story. It had been degraded and over-grazed by cattle and there were no irrigation rights. He reached out to NRCS for assistance and learned the conservation practices it used wouldn’t help. 

Refusing to give up on the land, DiDomenico looked to practices he learned in South America and got to work building out the farm and testing the new practices on the severely degraded land. 

“I knew it was going to be beautiful at some point but I didn’t know what it was going to turn into,” DiDomenico said.

He used livestock to build up the topsoil and a third-acre forest garden was planted with berries, fruit trees and other produce varieties. DiDomenico kept extensive documentation of the practices and techniques he used on the land. 

Taking on a project this size required more funding than DiDomenico had. He still wanted to catch and direct rainwater on the property and reduce the need for irrigation for planting trees. Turning the farm into a 501(c)3 nonprofit, he soon put together an investment plan and found a family investor, creating DAR. 

“All these other farmers and regenerative practitioners in the area told me that I was crazy,” DiDomenico said. “That you couldn’t plant trees in this climate without supplemental irrigation, but I wanted to test and document this regenerative project.”

Elk Run Farm and DAR functions now as an education center, training other farmers in regenerative design process. DAR consults with other local farms that want to implement similar practices in a continually dry country. 

DiDomenico is friends with Hardy Ball at MetaCarbon Organic Farm, visible just across US 36 from Elk Run, and helped them develop agroforestry plots — adding trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems —  on the farm. In early 2020, the owner of Allen’s Farm just south of Elk Run on US 35, Mary Wycoff, reached out to DiDomenico for help converting the 100-acre equestrian property into a new regenerative farm, now known as Yellow Barn Farm. After DAR started collaborating with the two farms, the Foothills Farming Collective was formed.

Each farm in the collective plays a slightly different role or focus. Whereas DAR focuses more on the regenerative land design, MetaCarbon has put its priority on growing food sovereignty in the area. Yellow Barn Farm uses the international networking skills of co-owner Azuraye Wycoff to bring in local interest. 

MetaCarbon Organic Farm is a project two years in the making, a collective, in itself, between five friends who started farming together as a way to find mission and purpose that could create a positive impact on the community and climate change. 

The land MetaCarbon sits on hadn’t been farmed in 40 years before they took it over. It’s taken a lot of work and application of regenerative agriculture and permaculture practices to get the land producing again. 

For Ball, the stark reality of how the country accesses its food and how much is grown locally has been a driving factor in his work at MetaCarbon. At a conference in January 2020, Ball was shocked to learn that only 1% of the food in Colorado comes from a local source.

“I think there’s still a significant gap in people’s behavior. People say they want to support these ideas, but still buy their food from a grocery store because it’s cheaper sourced from farther away,” Ball said. “I think people still need a little more encouragement to wake up to the value of hand-selected vegetables.”

According to Ball, the farm has brought in a greater sense of community in the past two years and has helped encourage and invigorate their vision. Regenerative farming, food sovereignty and new agricultural practices have drawn in people from all walks of life who want to learn and get involved, Ball said.

Yellow Barn Farm owners, Mary and Azuraye Wycoff, were considering selling the once equestrian center. In 2020, the CalWood fire ripped around the property and burned up the land around the farm, but left the structures alone. This seemed like a sign to the Wycoffs and they decided it was time to see how regenerative farming might help their property. 

Wycoff feels her purpose is to gather the people to projects they’re most suited for and to understand the social ecology of the farming collective. Wycoff compares the systems of organization for people to what DiDomenico uses for landscape design, a model similar to the spiral dynamics and fractals found in nature.

“My goal is to figure out who all the people are in our ecosystem,” Azuraye Wycoff  said. “This really helps figure out who are the leaders, the core team and technicians, the people that come forward and want to help. Then we can figure out who we’re really putting in all this energy for.”

Azuraye Wycoff  looks at this agricultural community as an opportunity to return the land to equilibrium and help move away from the monoculture that has dominated agriculture for years, she said. Small scale farming produces food for the people who live on the farm and the surrounding areas and spirals out into a true local market for the community that doesn’t stretch beyond their reach.

New ventures and partnerships in the Foothills Farming Collective can only help the community as a whole, Azuraye Wycoff said. The current partners beyond the three farms include Jack’s Solar Garden, Mustang Whiskey Ranch and Sentient Healing, but the collective is hoping for more like-minded organizations joining them in the future.

One way the collective is looking to spread its reach is by working closely with its neighbors. According to DiDomenico, city of Boulder Climate and Sustainability Coordinator Brett Kencairn is working with DAR on grant funding to apply regenerative designs to desertified parcels of land throughout the county. DiDomenico wants to work with cities and municipalities to restore the landscape and create thriving ecosystems, in turn addressing growing food deserts and combat climate change at a local level.

“A lot of people are seeing these regenerative practices as a solution to climate change and food insecurity,” DiDomenico said. “We have a really big vision for it. If these practices and mentality are adopted widespread, there could be fulfilling and meaningful work for so many people.”