Elk Run Farm: from an inspired pilot project to a beacon of regeneration and hope on Colorado’s agricultural landscape

Dec 2023

In 2015, Nick DiDomenico and his family acquired Elk Run Farm – a degraded 14 acre farm near Boulder, Colorado – so that he could follow his dream of living on the land and start using some of the skills that he had learned travelling. This was what they could afford at the time and it enabled Nick to be a tenant farmer. His then friend, now wife, Marissa Pulaski helped him fundraise in order to get the project going.

With only well water available for irrigation of only one acre, Elk Run Farm looked ostensibly like a poor choice for a planting project. Mostly, it was degraded for a similar reason to many lands in the region, which is historically intense overgrazing, leading to bare soils that rapidly erode with wind and water, making it impossible for vegetation to reestablish. This was exacerbated by being on a slope, and also increasingly long and hot periods of drought.

On the west side of the foothills of the Colorado Mountains, where they had very little water and poor soil, Nick planted 1000 fruit trees into the basins of contour swales and – against all odds – the trees survived and the model became so replicable that now, less than 10 years on, Drylands Agroecology Research (DAR), the nonprofit which has grown out of the success of Elk Run Farm, has five successful new partner farms.

This inspirational project has surprised many, including Nick and Marissa, by having an 80% survival rate of the trees planted on dry degraded land with no irrigation and is now expanding with five established partner projects and an additional five underway. The stage is set for this model to serve communities and projects even further afield.

Marissa and Nick at Elk Run Farm

A fruitful formula for land regeneration

By digging contour swales on the land, the 1000 fruit trees (apples, mulberries, pears) and nitrogen fixing nurse plants that were planted in the basins grew. The swales harvested the water making it possible to get the trees going and, despite flood and drought years, as the trees grew they provided shade and cooling for the whole microclimate so Nick was then able to grow more valuable food and practice regenerative grazing. While other practices are also happening at Elk Run Farm, the contour swales planting model is what the team are now trying to scale because it is so relevant to landscapes that are water poor, and it doesn’t need a lot of maintenance. 14 acres of degraded land was restored through this contour swale planting as well as a forest garden and grain fields fertilized by pigs and chickens. This provides 90% of the diet of the community of about 10 people who now live there, within a living ecosystem, in a land-based close community.

Elk Run Farm, the demonstration site, has partnered with five other properties since 2019 to expand this model. These new sites are now experimenting with different plants and also rotating different livestock species like sheep instead of cattle. The research aspect of Elk Run is also looking at how different landscapes require some adjustments to this model and how the needs of different communities can be met. This requires a lot of consideration because the interventions which they are introducing are major.

Nick and Marissa with sheep

Supercharged soil remediation

In addition to using contour earthworks to pool water, organic matter is added to swale basins to act as a living battery, soaking up spring and winter precipitation for the dry season. They are filled with compost and woodchips, freely available from arborists in the area and then pre-inoculated with oyster mushroom spores. DAR team member Amy Scanes-Wolfe explains, “Even if we didn’t pre-inoculate the woodchips, native mushroom spores would eventually arrive and colonize the wood chips – we are just accelerating the process! The mycelium colonizes the wood chips. The dense white web that forms acts like a highway for the transfer of nutrients, water, and even (some studies suggest) information between plants. Before planting bare root trees, we also soak them in a mixture of willow water (natural rooting hormone source), fish emulsion (fertilizer), and mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae are fungi that form an association with plant roots. In exchange for sugars, their mycelial networks extend far further into the soil than plant roots can and bring important nutrients and water back to the plants, increasing their health, vigor, and drought resilience.”

Earthworks to create swales on the land

Wise watershed management

Elk Run Farm’s non-irrigation, passive water catchment is essential in an area where there is a legal restriction on any water catchment due to the fact that 80% of all rainfall falls on the other side of the mountains and needs to be transported by tunnels through to the west side where the farm is situated. And this has been both a limitation and an enabler for the project. As Amy says, “I believe if it were legal, we would more actively develop catchment basins to hold excess rainfall in our wet months, that we could then drain into swale systems later in the year when they were dry. But we probably would still focus on designing systems not reliant on irrigation, because for us, this represents the resilience we need to introduce into farm systems, and water will certainly be unpredictable in this end of the world moving forward. In a way, because we are working with this model, we are insulated from a lot of the water management issues that more drastically affect farmers in our region who rely on often daily irrigation to keep their crops alive.”

2022 has been the wettest year in the region on record in since 1872, and the new swales at one of the partner farms (Yellow Barn) filled up with water “in a way that was beautiful to see because without the swales, the rain would have eroded land away instead of infiltrating, but unfortunately it did mean all of those saplings died and had to be replaced”, says Amy.

Rainwater gathering in a woodchipped filled swale

Buzzing biodiversity

An exciting consequence of the various regeneration projects is the increase in the amount of biodiversity on all the farms. One of the metrics they track through their research program is insect biodiversity as an indicator of full ecosystem biodiversity. They look at insect functional groups, including relative numbers of pollinators, decomposers, and predators. With native bee populations worldwide on a steep decline, it is beautiful to see significant increases in native bee populations in both their swale systems and forest garden, as well as increased numbers of predators, which suggests a greater abundance of prey.

Meet some of the DAR team

Amy got involved by co-facilitating a permaculture course on site.  She then managed to get funding for her position at Elk Run because she was inspired to work with Nick and Marissa.  Her journey began studying cultural anthropology. She says, ”I became fascinated by how closely our means of subsistence has been linked to human social structures, and felt that food production somehow held the answer to a lot of the world’s problems. That is why I started farming, and I have continued to understand on a deeper and deeper level how this is true. My knowledge has been almost entirely from being on-the-ground farming and observing and learning from my peers since.”

The personal stories of the founders of the project are also very illuminating of the reasons for the project’s success. Nick was heavily influenced by the time he spent with various Indigenous peoples in South America. It was that experience that shifted him off the “normal American” track and into one of seeking a deep relationship with the earth.

Marissa made the project possible by bringing very different but complementary skills to the table. With her events background, she saw no issue in hosting a fundraiser to make the money to plant the trees. While Nick was dubious about this, Marissa succeeded in bringing 200 people to the farm for a big party where $10,000 was raised, so that the initial planting project could be realized. Since then, they’ve been running the project together, with Marissa doing the people side while Nick runs the land side of the project. She also runs the education element at Elk Run which includes a school for young children and as the couple now have a baby due. There are so many beautiful and exciting developments on the horizon!

The Yellow Barn Farm earthworks team, with Nick on the left and Amy second from the right

Harnessing a wealth of Indigenous knowledge

Using contour patterning in farming is an ancient practice, from terraces in Peru to local peoples in this area laying burned logs on contour after a fire to catch topsoil, water and seed as it runs downhill off scorched slopes to set the stage for regeneration. The DAR team have learned from an elder permaculture teacher in the area that there are places in Colorado where these ancient terracing practices are still visible. They are collaborating with Shoshone tribal members at Wind River in Wyoming currently on a food sovereignty initiative and continue to learn from and collaborate with Native peoples in their region. “Ultimately, we see that we are trying to re-remember how to engage with place in an indigenous way.”, adds Amy.

Cultural changes and community events

While the land regeneration model’s impact is self-evident, the other more cultural changes are harder to scale but no less significant. Ways in which the public can find out about these new ways of living are through volunteer days which happen every two weeks at Elk Run Farm. All the trees are planted in April so that is a major opportunity for volunteering and finding out about the projects that they’re putting in. Four farm tours are offered every year. There are also community events throughout the year where any surplus food from the farms is used. While some of the meat from the regenerative grazing is sold, the rest of the produce, including amaranth and grains from one of the larger farms, is all given away to underserved communities in the area.

The inspiration of the land-based close community homestead is also becoming a model that people are coming to learn about. The land regeneration project largely funds the paid farm manager and volunteers who work for about 50% of the week at Elk Run Farm. They are mostly young people who also do part-time jobs elsewhere to supplement their income but, as the project grows, DAR plan to be able to bring more people into salaried positions and to start their apprenticeship program.

Amy calls Elk Run Farm an ‘incubation project’ and says it inspires people to initiate or become part of their own projects. Deeply inspired by Nick and Marissa’s work, she has used this pattern to begin a community with a nearly retired couple who want their land to be used productively and welcome volunteers to their home. Colorado is a state where there is a huge enthusiasm for land-based and community projects, and Elk Run is blessed to have thousands of volunteers for planting days.

Volunteers on a snowy, big planting day

In the last two years the previously slow acceleration of change has reached a crazily fast pace, which is proving a massive challenge to manage. All the team are pretty burnt out and trying to figure out how to restructure in a way that is more manageable and sustainable. They have employed a new managing director and everyone is hopeful that he can also help create structures to support their necessarily fast developments, figuring out how to transfer years of knowledge and delegate to inexperienced staff. The biggest challenges have been around how to grow a team that is effective and confident in a safe way. 

The team has managed to pull in a couple of substantial annual donors which enables them to pay more people on the team and therefore run more community events and put more energy into developing things. They have therefore managed to train more staff, advertise for land partners, and fairly seamlessly put the projects together. They now have 25 applications for land partnerships, which are really pulling them along. All the partnership projects, which are mostly partially self-funded by the landowners, enable DAR to train more people in how to regenerate the land using the dryland agroforestry model, which is applicable to most people’s land. Of these land applications, there is a blend between those who wish to learn the skills themselves, and those who wish to just make the land and property available for someone else to farm, which provides amazing opportunities for apprentices and farm workers.

A vision for collaboration and creating local livelihoods

DAR is now launching an incubation program that provides holistic training in land management and creates organic opportunities for landowners to pair with aspiring farmers. Doing this as a group program enables DAR to get everybody onto the same ground and understanding in terms of ecosystem development. It’s like a highly contextualized, permaculture design course, where everybody will be involved with site assessment and goal articulation, coming out of the process with the design for each particular site. All interns and apprentices will also be visiting sites which are already being developed with the land partners and collaborators. Five apprentices can also now be paid a stipend to be there full time. These apprentices will spend half their time farming, and the other half implementing new projects, getting the earthworks and planting the new trees, and collecting research data DAR will then also help them to create pathways into this livelihood.

Apprentices learning mapping from Nick (centre)

DAR has been largely unrecognised by the conservative government funding model who are not familiar with this new form of community and land management. As a result they have been reliant on funding from private foundations and one government fund, and would love to invite corporate donors. To learn more about DAR and get involved visit https://www.dar.eco/ or their page on the ERC website.

Volunteer blogger Fiona Shepherd is a writer, English teacher and climate & ecological emergency activist, as well as a permaculture and regenerative agriculture enthusiast.