It took three tries to get the New Mexico Healthy Soil Act out of the agriculture committee for consideration by the state legislature, but by coupling determination with diplomacy, advocates were able to build a comprehensive proposal the whole agriculture community could support.
"It took three votes, and the first one was very partisan," recalled Jeff Goebel, of Belen, N.M., a certified educator with Holistic Management International.
Still, he and others continued to reach out and seek constructive feedback, refining the concept until it had the support of a broad coalition. The measure was signed into law in April of this year.
Goebel considers it an example of how holistic principles can be applied to the human aspect of resource management.
The initiative is strictly voluntary but will be used to assemble financial and educational resources to help producers explore and adopt practices that improve soil health.
More than ten other states have backed similar initiatives. In Colorado, the Coalition to Enhance Working Lands, or CEWL, is comprised of dozens of businesses, organizations and governmental agencies working toward the same objective.
The successful campaign in New Mexico is evidence that "pressure and release," an intuitive method of moving livestock championed by the late Bud Williams, works on humans, too, Goebel said with a grin as he stood at a busy trade show booth.
He was among dozens of HMI certified educators who gathered recently for the annual Quivira Coalition Conference, which is now in its second year of meeting jointly with HMI and the Denver-based American Grassfed Association.
While studying the healthy interaction of plants, animals and landscapes has long been the focus at Quivira, a unique collaboration between ecologists and ranchers that was started 20 years ago, the quest for environmental restoration clearly has a human component. How to cultivate effective working relationships and deal productively with human psychology was a reoccurring thread throughout the two-day conference, held in Albuquerque.
The official theme was regenerating health from the soil up, but the agenda put equal emphasis on effective human interaction and relational dynamics.
"Sometimes we make the mistake of taking the people out of it," said Natalie Allio, an eco-psychologist and co-owner of Badger Creek Ranch in Canon City, during one of the panels.
Eco-psychology seeks to understand and develop the emotional connection between individuals and the natural environment.
Allio's working cattle and guest ranch is managed by several couples who collectively prioritize "education and feeding the community," as she described it.
"We always talk about the diversity of plants in our landscapes, but not so much about the diversity of people," she said. "Relationships are usually the part of the operation we don't tend. We're out there tending the land, the cattle and the crops, but the relationships are so important."
Positive human interaction is vital to facilitating change, managing multigenerational farms, addressing racial inequalities or responding to mental health concerns, all areas various speakers touched on during the conference.
Reflecting on effective family farm dynamics, Will Johnson, CEO of Flying Diamond Ranch at Kit Carson, Colorado, talked about the need to formalize the decision-making process, hold regular meetings and proactively determine specific job expectations before hiring.
He also shared how he has softened his "hard-charging style" since he left the Marines and took over the leadership of his multigenerational family operation.
"You have to get buy-in," he said. "Your ideas come second to hashing out what the entire team wants."
Val Farmer, a clinical psychologist and mediator based in St. Louis who has written a widely read counseling column for many years, also spoke about how ranchers sometimes need to soften their relational style to achieve better results.
"The real purpose of the ranch is the health and happiness of everybody on the ranch," he said.
Farmer said early in his career he took an interest in holistic management training because it offered insight into the agricultural community, including the interpersonal aspects. He expressed satisfaction over how the concept has spread and flourished in the years since then.
HMI offers comprehensive instruction anywhere in the world through one-on-one distance learning. Trained certified educators often go on to work in consulting roles within agriculture or natural resource management.
HMI courses cover biological monitoring, planned grazing, financial planning, marketing and more. But much of the attention is given to the way people think and the processes they use to work through problems and arrive at solutions.
Along with Farmer, Bob Fetsch, a retired extension specialist at Colorado State University, had the delicate assignment of discussing how to mitigate the very real threat of suicide during a time of extended financial stress in agriculture.
The two of them suggested some practical steps, like avoiding bullying lenders, having a back-up lender and seeking out an independent financial analysis when necessary.
Fetsch also talked about CSU's work to "train-the-trainer" so mental health counselors are prepared to understand and respond to the unique needs of rural clientele.
While continued low commodity prices are a growing source of stress in rural communities, financial challenges are nothing new to members of New Mexico's 23 Indian tribes, which have long lacked access to land and capital, alongside other minority groups.
A panel of representatives from African American, Hispanic and indigenous communities discussed some of the barriers minorities still face and talked what can be done to make the industry more inclusive.
Michael Johnson, a research associate with the Native American Agriculture Fund, explained how fractionalization of land holdings — whereby hundreds of Native individuals might collectively own a couple hundred acres of land — often prevents them from participating in federal programs or gaining access to capital.
"If someone is on trust land, they have the right of occupancy but not the title to it," he said.
The panel also reminded the audience that most minorities were excluded from the original Homestead Act, which helps explain why more than 97 percent of U.S. land is still owned by descendants of white European settlers.
With so much emerging interest in ecologically sensitive and regenerative farming practices, Johnson said Native communities simply want to be recognized and acknowledged for their centuries-old contributions to conservation. He is currently working with conservation districts to help facilitate the disbursement of federal cost-share funds, grants and other business assistance to farmers on tribal lands, but added that frustration often arises when traditional Native approaches clash with modern scientific methods.
The conflict transcends any one issue, such as whether genetically modified crops are healthy for land and people, he emphasized.
"It's about having the ability to look at things through a different lens," he said. "It's about culture versus economics."
Other panelists talked about the need to reform bankruptcy laws, provide better treatment of farm workers and fix communication gaps caused by linguistic differences.
The panel concluded with the not-so-radical idea that people are an integral part of any natural landscape.
"We shouldn't be fencing off land to preserve it, without including the people who have managed it for generations," noted Jennifer Silveri, director of field operations for Michigan Food and Farming Systems. "We are part of the ecosystem too."