Soil Health to Boost Ecosystem Resilience

After years of research and field study, Tomasz Falkowski is putting his experience about the importance of healthy soils into practice.

“I think the land is an excellent teacher of what will work, particularly in the New Mexico area,” the Associate Forestry Professor at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas said. “Learning the language of the land to understand what is going on and what practices I can adapt and what processes I will need is a prolonged process.”

Falkowski has studied soil health and its relationship to plants for years in Mexico, New York and now in New Mexico’s Tierra y Montes Soil and Water Conservation District. Recently, he was named an NACD Soil Health Champion.

“It’s been all lessons,” he said of the process. “You definitely need to take an adaptive management approach to things, particularly in the way that climate change is destabilizing what’s been considered normal. It’s really critical to make sure you have healthy soil when so much of the climate is in flux.”

The passion began years ago, while completing graduate research in Syracuse, N.Y. considering how agroforestry restores soil health and in turn how agroforestry management can be applied in a socioecological restoration context.

“For a long time, my interest (in soil health) was really a research question,” Falkowski said. “I wasn’t much of a practitioner because I was always away doing field work during the summers, and then COVID hit and I was finally able to cultivate a garden with my partner. Quarantine rooted us in place more, and we did a lot of composting.  We played around with different methods I learned in Mexico and tried applying those.” At the time, he lived in Ithaca, N.Y. to research biochar at Cornell University.

A little over a year ago, Falkowski took the position at New Mexico Highlands University, where he continues researching and teaching soil science. He has also begun working the soil of his own property. Although the soil at his home in New Mexico is mostly clay, as it was in New York, he is approaching his soil health efforts differently.

While he tackled the high clay, low organic soil in the East by attempting a double-dig method to work in organic material and tilth, Falkowski decided that was too much work for him. Now, he has started a strawbale garden he will integrate into the soil using sheet mulching, along with composting food scraps. He is looking at collaborating with a neighbor to add manure as well.

“The main goal is to get to a point where we’re comfortable putting plants into the ground,” he said. “Right now, I suspect that germination and establishment (of vegetation) would be just dismal.”

Climate is another challenge Falkowski faces, motivating him to contribute to soil health and conversation.

“It’s a matter of adapting,” Falkowski said. “Right now, climate change is no longer a far-off threat. I would argue it’s a present reality, and as much as I advocate for action, I think increasingly we need to be thinking about adaptations and how those figure into it.

“We need to be flexible and try to increase the resilience of the system in terms of maximum diversity and maximum organic inputs and productivity and then also be willing to roll with the punches and change plans,” he said.

With degrees in bioengineering and environmental engineering, Falkowski said he sometimes struggles with applying that engineering mind to nature in terms of controlling variables. He once became fairly despondent, he said, when beetles decimated his garden; he was sure all was lost, but ultimately, it came back of its own accord.

He is reminded, he said, of quotes from author and scientist Robin Kimmerer describing the land as a giver of gifts.

“So often we just think about taking resources, rather than of thinking about how we can cultivate the health and resilience of these ecosystems so they are capable of giving us gifts,” he said. “So that’s really what I want to focus on in my own land stewardship.”

Falkowski has a doctorate from SUNY College of Environmental Forestry and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the School of Soil and Crop Science at Cornell University. In addition, he has embarked on two other research projects related to biochar, including investigating how New Mexico landowners can adopt biochar to improve soil health and reduce wildfire risk.

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