Obstacles & Solutions

The obstacles we address were identified through the expertise and experience of multiple partner organizations, the results of other research, and surveys and interviews of over 250 farmers, ranchers, agricultural scientists, policy makers, farm supply store owners, and other members of the agricultural system in New Mexico. Through this work, we have identified six major obstacles to the widespread adoption of regenerative agricultural practices. We have also developed systemic approaches for addressing each one through the Seed Groups and support activities, making it possible to establish thriving local models of sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

Sustainable and regenerative agriculture follow key principles that can work anywhere. These principles are not practices, though. For each principle, there’s an important question: How, exactly, do I do that? The answer can change a lot depending on the local circumstances. The local environment, the resources available to you, and what you’re trying to do all matter.


Let’s illustrate this by considering the regenerative agriculture principle of keeping living roots in the soil. For a farmer, this principle often means growing cover crops during seasons when fields would conventionally be left barren. How, exactly, will that work, though? Which cover crops will work best for the soils, climate, and water availability? Of the cover crops that could work well, which are available from suppliers in the area? How should the cover crops be terminated? How should the crop residue be treated? How should the cover crops be managed to work with the commodity crops? The list of questions goes on. Problematically for the spread of sustainable and regenerative agriculture, the answers can be different in different areas. There is no one set of practices that can be copied and pasted from one environment to another.


In brief, sustainable/regenerative agriculture is based on general principles that apply everywhere. However, for regenerative agriculture to work on the ground, the general principles need to be translated into location-specific practices. In New Mexico, that work is ongoing: no single farmer or rancher seems to have solved the complete puzzle of how to translate all of the general principles into detailed practices.

When technologies are in the early stages of development, they tend not to be especially user friendly. Early users, in effect, are also product developers, tweaking the technologies until they work in the context where they’ll be used. (If you’re interested in an in-depth discussion of this general trend, consider reading Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore.) Since most people can’t and/or won’t step into the role of product developer as well as product user, technologies that aren’t easy to use won’t be used by more than a fraction of the possible market. 

Many of the technologies that support sustainable and regenerative agriculture, from adaptive grazing equipment to specialized composting systems, are still in the early stages of development. Seed Group members report continually having to experiment with and refine technologies, in much the same way that they report the need to continually experiment with and refine their practices. Many technologies don’t “just work.” Until they “just work,” most farmers and ranchers won’t be able to use them. Relatively few people have the time, skills, money, and inclination to experiment.

This isn’t to say that easy-to-use technologies for sustainable and regenerative agriculture aren’t on the market. User-friendly equipment for low-till/no-till agriculture, for instance, does exist on the national market. However, the easy-to-use technologies tend to be very expensive, especially for the budgets of smaller farmers and ranchers. Additionally, few supply stores in New Mexico carry technologies for regenerative agriculture that might be available in other parts of the United States.

 In brief, because technologies that support sustainable and regenerative agriculture are still at the earliest phases of development, the technologies tend to be expensive, not particularly user-friendly, and often not available from distributors in New Mexico. 

The unusualness of sustainable and regenerative agriculture sets up social barriers to the adoption of these agricultural approaches. Socially, it’s not easy to stand out by doing things differently than most of your friends and neighbors–and with just single percentages of farmers and ranchers in New Mexico practicing sustainable/regenerative agriculture, these practices are pretty far from the mainstream. Until more people in a social network practice sustainable/regenerative agriculture, most people will be reluctant to seem different by trying it, which keeps the practices from spreading to more people. Sustainability has also become entangled in the U.S. culture wars, introducing socio-political barriers to what should be a pragmatic issue.

Sustainable/regenerative agriculture is relatively new, so scientific research on sustainable/regenerative agriculture is relatively new too. Although the results of some experiments are highly promising, published experiments are still somewhat scarce. In a further drawback, the studies that are available sometimes produce conflicting results–which is not particularly surprising, given how sustainable/regenerative practices need to be reinvented to work in each local area. Because sustainable/regenerative principles need to be localized into specific practices, even when scientific results are available (not always) and in close agreement (only sometimes), there’s no guarantee that the published results or the recommended practices will be a good fit outside of the original testing environment. 


To get good evidence on what’s working, what isn’t, and to what extent, we need more scientific research, and we need it to be localized.

Compared to conventional commodity crop producers, who have access to well established markets and distribution chains, sustainable and regenerative producers often face more challenges in selling their produce because the markets and distribution channels for sustainable and regenerative agriculture are young and often underdeveloped.


Additionally, economic conditions for sustainable and regenerative producers are challenging (as they are, in general, for producers throughout New Mexico).

Current laws and policies in New Mexico aren’t always the best for sustainable/regenerative agriculture. Stakeholders in our agricultural system point toward multiple friction points with current policies and regulations, in areas including soil carbon sequestration; definitions and classifications of agriculture and agricultural species; zoning codes; food waste composting; farmland conservation; alternative dairy manure treatment; and land access. In many cases, these friction points seem to emerge not from any deliberate opposition to sustainable/regenerative agriculture, but because sustainable/regenerative agriculture was not considered when the laws and policies were passed.

Seed Groups are long-term networks of farmers and ranchers from the same area who work with each other and with other project partners to practice sustainable and regenerative agriculture. As part of SRA, Seed Group members meet an average of once per month for a workshop or participant-led field day on regenerative/sustainable practices, followed by a grant-funded meal that offers opportunities to build friendships and partnerships for business or research (as well as opportunities to plan the next field days). Seed Group members also get access to scientific, technical, and grant writing support through project partners, and participants receive a small stipend for their time and knowledge. So far, all Seed Group members have also made strong friendships through the groups. Currently, 25 farms and ranches are participating as Seed Group members, centered around three locations in New Mexico: Las Cruces, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. 

Seed Group members don’t need to bring any specialized knowledge about sustainable or regenerative agriculture to participate, but many of the participants have figured out how to get one or more regenerative/sustainable practices to work in their local areas. Basically, most Seed Group members have a handful of puzzle pieces about how to get the full picture of regenerative/sustainable agriculture to work locally, and by bringing these producers together into a supportive network of peers, friends, and collaborators, we can quickly assemble a lot of the puzzle. 

Producers don’t need to officially join Seed Groups to participate in field days, and of the more than 700 farmers and ranchers who have participated in field days since 2019, over 89% report being able to implement regenerative practices thanks to peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and the support of the Seed Groups.

As we expand Seed Group participation, we can move from principles to practice by using the collective knowledge and creativity of Seed Group members and project partners to solve the complete puzzle of how to practice regenerative/sustainable agriculture in each Seed Group area.  

In response to technology requests from Seed Group members, engineers and scientists at Cruces Creatives makerspace work to develop technologies for regenerative agriculture that are easier to use, open-source, and affordable. Currently, the tech team is working on the following projects:


  • Easier-to-use Johnson-Su composting bioreactors, which cultivate beneficial soil microbes
  • Cloud-connected soil temperature sensors that send planting notifications based on soil temperatures and safe planting windows, and that also aggregate data for scientific research
  • Grain cleaners that can process small grains such as amaranth, a drought-tolerant crop native to New Mexico, along with multiple other seeds and grains, including hemp
  • A thresher to work with the grain cleaner
  • A contour-line plow coupled with an injection system for beneficial soil microbes
  • An online platform to help Seed Group members gather and share their collective knowledge about how to turn the general principles of regenerative agriculture into specific local practices


As working prototypes are finished, they’re shared with Seed Group members for feedback, and the tech team uses the feedback to improve the designs. Currently, the soil temperature sensor, the small grain cleaner, the contour-line plow, easier-to-use Johnson-Su composting bioreactors, and the online platform for knowledge sharing are in the field testing phase.


When the designs are finalized, they will be shared as open-source files and instructions. Completed technologies will also be commercialized through the Arrowhead Center, a business incubator, to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers who would prefer to buy a pre-built machine. 

Within the Seed Groups, sustainable/regenerative agriculture isn’t unusual–it’s the norm. As Seed Group participants do satisfying work and bond through field days, meals, and the partnerships that grow out of the Seed Groups, sustainable/regenerative agriculture seems more and more normal, more and more comfortable. The Seed Group grows, and new participants experience the same effect: as participants invite their friends, as neighbors come over during field days to see what’s going on, and as other farmers and ranchers see a flyer and come to a workshop or field day, the new Seed Group participants experience the same environment, and social pressures aren’t as much of an obstacle anymore. After all, the neighbors are doing sustainable/regenerative agriculture, and it works. 


The more Seed Groups grow, the more they normalize sustainable/regenerative agriculture within their local areas, de-politicizing sustainable and regenerative practices into normal practices that plenty of neighboring farmers and ranchers are doing successfully.

To build scientific knowledge about sustainable/regenerative agriculture, SRA coordinates research with Seed Group members and agricultural scientists at the Sustainable Agricultural Science Center at Alcalde and the Institute for Sustainable Agricultural Research (both of which are branches of New Mexico State University). Research projects currently in progress include

  • Seasonal experiments on how the cultivation of beneficial soil microbes affects crop yields under different fertilizer treatments
  • Five-year studies on how regenerative agricultural practices affect indicators of soil health 


The data from these experiments let farmers and ranchers know what is and isn’t working locally, and when the experiments identify a successful local practice, Seed Group members can cooperate to quickly adopt it.


To get good evidence on what’s working, what isn’t, and to what extent, we need more scientific research, and we need it to be localized.

Compared to conventional commodity crop producers, who have access to well established markets and distribution chains, sustainable and regenerative producers often face more challenges in selling their produce because the markets and distribution channels for sustainable and regenerative agriculture are young and often underdeveloped.

Additionally, economic conditions for sustainable and regenerative producers are challenging (as they are, in general, for producers throughout New Mexico).

Through the SRA network, we have partnered with Seed Group member Backyard Farms, LLC, to secure over $300,000 in Federal funding and establish an industrial freeze drying operation in southern New Mexico. The operation buys especially from small producers and can make productive use of “seconds” and blemished produce, while creating a value-added product that is as nutritious as fresh produce and that can be stored at room temperature for up to 25 years. 

There are likely several areas where laws and policies related to sustainable/regenerative agriculture can be improved, to the satisfaction of all stakeholder groups in New Mexico’s agricultural system.


Local policy barriers can sometimes be addressed by contacting policy makers with the unified voice of participants in SRA: farmers, ranchers, agricultural scientists, food distributors, engineers, non-profit organizations, and more.

For more complicated, state-level initiatives, our plan for achieving consensus-driven policy changes is as follows:


  1. Involve stakeholders from across the agricultural system–farmers, ranchers, agricultural scientists, policy makers, grocers, chefs, restaurateurs, farm supply store owners, anyone who self-identifies as a stakeholder–in consensus-driven discussions of possible policy changes, starting from problematic policy areas identified through earlier work. These discussions will be held at agricultural sites over gourmet meals prepared by local chefs using local ingredients, an approach that the MESA Project (developed by Cruces Creatives personnel) used successfully from 2017-2019 to engage and organize 250 stakeholders from across the agricultural sector in southern New Mexico.  Through the discussions, we can begin to make progress on consensus positions, and we can identify a diverse, representative, and inclusive group of stakeholders for a three-day program.
  2. Host a three-day  program for 40-60 participants that will allow for extended explorations of multiple viewpoints, the creation of new ground for consensus, and the training of participants in consensus-driven practices. This event can be held online, if necessary, or in the form of smaller group meetings, if large gatherings are restricted.

    Carefully facilitated in-depth discussions among these stakeholders will be used to create a consensus vision for policy improvements. The program will also provide opportunities to address longstanding, underlying conflicts within the agricultural system, laying the groundwork for future policy.


  1. Draft proposed legislation based on the consensus positions produced through discussions at the stakeholder meals.


  1. Mobilize behind and advocate for the successful passage of policy, leveraging the substantial cross-sector support built by the community discussions as well as the networks of partner organizations in the Seeding Regenerative Agriculture Project.


Through this consensus-driven approach, we aim to ensure that regulatory changes aren’t zero sum, but that they create better opportunities for all sectors of New Mexico’s agricultural system.

So far, the SRA approach to policy change has leveraged the network to help pass the 2019 New Mexico Healthy Soil Act and the 2020 expansion of the New Mexico Healthy Soil Act, as well as to successfully advocate that the City of Las Cruces legalize the commercial collection of food waste.

As a general rule,

the solutions within SRA interact complementarily. For instance, the Seed Groups can request and field test technologies developed through the project; the larger community meals, organized primarily for policy change, also provide a forum for knowledge sharing and partnership formation for business or research; the multiple partner organizations brought together under the umbrella of SRA build relationships that can support further positive interventions; the list goes on.

The total scope of interventions undertaken through SRA is ambitious, but achievable thanks to the coordinated efforts of the more than one dozen partner organizations who cooperate through SRA.

Together, the tactical activities in SRA work toward a comprehensive, three-stage theory of change, described below.

SRA Theory of Change

Strategically, the SRA tactical approach is part of a larger, three-stage theory of change within the agricultural sector:


Establish localized, thriving models of sustainable and regenerative agriculture through the Seed Groups and support services.


Grow the Seed Groups by involving more producers, with the goal of moving the local market to a tipping point beyond which sustainable/regenerative agriculture is a new normal. Building on the initial Seed Group members, we expand the Seed Groups by drawing from existing participants’ social networks and other interested producers within the local area. As new participants enter the Seed Groups, they’re introduced to a viable model of sustainable/regenerative agriculture and a peer group for whom regenerative agriculture is the norm–consequently, the new participants are more likely to adopt sustainable and regenerative practices themselves. As more and more participants are involved in the local Seed Groups, the number of sustainable and regenerative practitioners eventually reaches a critical point beyond which sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices are a new normal that can spread into mainstream markets.


Establish new Seed Groups in other geographic areas, and repeat the local growth process. As Seed Groups proliferate, sustainable/regenerative agriculture becomes a new normal in more and more local communities; as the local communities aggregate, sustainable/regenerative agriculture becomes a new normal in larger and larger market sectors, rapidly expanding the number of producers able to implement it.

SRA is currently employing this model throughout New Mexico, with the goal of making sustainable and regenerative agriculture a new normal throughout the state. If the SRA model proves successful in New Mexico, we plan to expand regionally and nationally within the United States.