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Standing atop a wind-whipped hill that cuts through his 14 acres outside of Lyons, Nick DiDomenico points to a barren brown patch visible just across Highway 36. That’s how his land looked when he bought the parcel—a plot he named Elk Run Farm—back in 2015. “Nobody had farmed here for the last 10 years, and it had been overgrazed before then,” he says. “It was actually a cattle operation.”
Since then, wild grasses have covered the hillside, popping up between the rocks and cacti where he runs his animals—hogs, sheep, and chickens—and there’s a flourishing garden that produces everything from tomatoes and tomatillos to corn and sorghum in the summer. Most notably, though, are the 2,000 trees he planted this year, row upon row of saplings that will produce apples, pears, hazelnuts, and apricots when they’re fully grown.
Remarkably, DiDomenico—a 29-year-old from Boulder without familial farming connections who gleaned an interest in agriculture during a stint traveling in South America—is doing all of this without pesticides or fertilizers. He also doesn’t have water rights (“I have a productive well,” he says), but he maintains that the trees are an even more pivotal part of his irrigation system, as their root systems retain moisture and have helped improve his land’s overall soil health. It’s a concept that seems to be working; the design and execution earned his property an award from the Colorado Permaculture Guild this past summer as the “Colorado Farm of the Year.”
Permaculture, a term falling under the umbrella of regenerative agriculture, applies to farm systems better described as ecosystems rather than traditional commodity-oriented operations. DiDomenico’s agroforest—a type of permaculture that incorporates the cultivation and conservation of trees as an integral part of its design—represents a growing area of interest for younger and beginning farmers, who self-purport to be environmentally conscious and concerned about sustainability, according to surveys from the National Young Farmers Coalition.
That school of thought comes at an interesting time for global food cultivation. Just this summer, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report detailing the adverse effects of modern agriculture on climate change. Of greatest concern? That humans must change their current agricultural methods (i.e., by shrinking farms and cultivating more trees) to prevent the most dramatic consequences of climate change—like extreme heat waves and subsequent mass migrations from areas implicated by rising seas and desertification—if the planet continues to warm to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The report was released around the same time that images of Brazil’s burning rainforest were eliciting global outrage. Many of those fires were set by humans to quickly clear land for more farms, part of a concerted effort by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to increase agricultural output in the country and loosely enforce standing regulations aimed at stemming deforestation.
Add to that: The planet’s population is expected to grow to 10.9 billion people by the end of the century. In the United States, that means a population of 434 million (up from 327 million people) and in Colorado alone, that growth translates to roughly 8.5 million people by 2050, an increase of 3 million new residents from the current population of nearly 5.7 million. And, of course, all those people need to eat.
That’s why farming operations like DiDomenico’s offer hope to climate scientists (and environmentally conscious consumers) that permaculture’s intangible environmental benefits, including reduced water use, little to no pesticides and fertilizers, and improved soil health, even in arid areas like Colorado, offer real insights into sustainable food security in the future.
“The issue with permaculture is that it has this stigma that it’s this far-out hippie thing, but there’s actually real science to back it up,” explains Mathew Davis, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Environmental Design program, who studies landscape architecture, urban agriculture, and community design. “The idea now is how do you go to a larger scale? Once you get one of these places established, it’s more self-sustaining. There’s always work to do on a farm, but as the farm’s ecosystem evolves, it begins to take more and more care of itself.”
Davis has been studying Elk Run Farm as part of his work at CU, and points to other examples in Colorado—like Basalt’s half-acre public food park—as evidence of a growing permaculture movement taking hold with the state’s budding agricultural producers. Just 10 miles away from DiDomenico’s operation, 37-year-old Byron Kominek is also challenging the status quo on his 24 acres. Kominek, a former diplomat who served at U.S. State Department outposts in Africa, is cultivating a solar garden, aptly named Jack’s Solar Garden after his grandfather, who had grown hay on the site since the 1970s.
Picture this: a diversified farm, like DiDomenico’s, but instead of corn, there are solar panels (3,276 panels to be exact) popping up in rows, with organic vegetables planted between, around, and even underneath them. Once the “garden” is up and running, Jack’s Solar Garden subscribers will be eligible for credits on their Xcel Energy bills. Kominek’s operation is only one of two in the whole country (the other is being installed over cranberry bogs in Massachusetts), an undertaking he’s spearheaded in coordination with Boulder County, Xcel Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Colorado State University, and the University of Arizona. Kominek has also enlisted Kris Korba and Avery Ellis, 30-somethings who consult on permaculture projects around the Front Range, to cultivate habitat for pollinators around the property to round out the agrosystem.
“When I think of the future, I think beyond Jack’s Solar Garden,” says Kominek. “Spring through fall, we’ll have researchers and agricultural workers coming out to our farm; we’ll have farm dinners; and then the revenue that we’re able to pull from the solar panels we’ll be able to put into other parts of our farm.”
DiDomenico agrees that part of developing a more sustainable agricultural system is looking outside traditional business models. His own method is to introduce permaculture to other would-be producers, partly through a nonprofit he’s started called Dryland Agroecology Research, which aims to use his homestead as a research site for others interested in his techniques.
“I’ve heard that the average age of farmers right now is 58 years old,” he says. “My hope is that there’s this new generation of younger farmers that are innovative and inspired by the idea that we need to make a difference ecologically, who will use these regenerative farming techniques to do that.”
If he’s right, it just might change the world.
Editor’s note: This is the third installation in a series of three articles on young farmers in Colorado. Read the first piece, on Colorado’s next generation of farmers, here. Read the second story, about legislative initiatives helping young farmers, here.