Planting Three Seeds

Para mi, para vos, y para los animalitos de Dios

– Miguel Santistevan

The 2011 growing season was approached, as any, absolutely enthusiastically in anticipation of what a growing season will bring; what crops we are growing-out and how many students’ lives might be changed as accomplices to creating life through the planting of seed, nurturing of plants and harvest. As a farmer rooted in acequia technique, looking at the relatively meager snowpack, I was also excited to see how my crops would differentially survive. Lack of snowpack is not enough to deter us. We believe that if we do our part to work the land and plant seeds, rains will always come at the right time. This 2011 season was of particular significance, as we were bringing two new groups of students onto “new” pieces of land in two communities. The purpose was not only to teach and inspire youth while expanding our seed stock; it was also to conduct research on the relative resilience of landrace crops compared to imported seed – especially knowing that drought would likely ensue.

We planted two fields in Taos County; one in Taos and one in the Peñasco area – each with different crops and different youth groups but with the same basic goals: involve the youth, grow-out seed, and conduct research on crop production. As with any growing season, it is impossible to predict what successes and challenges lay ahead. As the growing season comes to a close, reflecting on the last several months offers perspective on the realities of revitalizing agriculture. This season was a hard lesson in what that really means in the context of climate change and drought, along with considerations of youth-in-agriculture programming.

A fundamental belief espoused within the activities of our non-profit Agriculture Implementation Research & Education is that landrace crops, or heirloom varieties that have been maintained in particular communities or regions for generations, are fundamentally resilient to adverse climatic conditions. These landraces have been associated with their soils, waters, farmers’ generations and climatic events for so long that they have practically seen it all: late frosts, hailstorms, drought, floods, early frosts and the like. Throughout their years of cultivation, the most extreme climatic events have “thinned the herd” of the genetic base of the population, leaving only the strongest and most resilient members to propagate future generations of seed that most likely share the qualities of strength and resilience of their parent generation. This process has resulted in inherently adaptable strains of crops in the hands of traditional farmers in regions throughout the world.

Northern New Mexico and the greater Southwestern U.S. is such an area, containing cultures and crops that are well adapted to the extreme and uncertain climate patterns of the region. Knowing this, we strive to continue to develop agricultural practices that honor the experience and capability of the crops and cultures we have inherited from past generations. We never use a prediction of drought to deter our plans of planting; rather,+ we embrace the difficulties as an opportunity to discover the “champions” in our crop populations while we hone our techniques to learn how to meet the challenges of drought and climate change. This is a viewpoint of agricultural interest and luxury, as we still can go to the store and buy our food if, perchance, our perspective and crops absolutely fail. This so far has never been the case. Our crops have survived several years that were characterized by drought, pest attack, competition with weeds, and freak storms. In these kinds of years, sometimes the crops are hit so hard that the totality of production has to be saved for seed. It is too much of a risk to satisfy our culinary interests. With our future research, we have an opportunity to compare production of crops that survived the challenges of the year with their parent generation, which doesn’t necessarily have that degree of experience.

So this year we set up our fields for spring planting, irrigated with regularity while there was acequia water, and resorted to cultivating our soil (hoeing weeds and mounding soil around our crops) while waiting for the rain to come after the acequia went dry. The Río de Don Fernando and her Acequia Madre del Sur in Taos went dry the third week in June. Irrigation water in our Peñasco-area field also dropped to the point that it lost its utility. We began to watch the clouds on the horizon as well as the weather outlook on the Weather Channel in hopes of watching the situation turn around. We heard that the monsoons were due to arrive in early July. When that didn’t happen, the predictions turned to later in the month, then August was supposed to hold promise…

What really happened is that no substantial rains came. Every one of our four or five rainstorms was less than half an inch, so the moisture never reached the subsoil. It seemed as if our suffering crops had to resort to utilizing the drops of moisture that came in contact with their bodies, running down their leaves and stems to the roots. Surprisingly, this turned out to be enough for many of our crops. Our alberjon (peas) were flowering with the last irrigation in the third week in June and were able to set seed in the next several weeks without substantial water. We were also able to feast on fresh peas during that time. The maíz blanco (white corn) looked shorter than usual with water stress-inflicted leaves, but when it was all harvested, we had several ears of corn that were obviously unaffected by water shortage, confirming all my beliefs in the potential resilience of this ancestral staple. Some other crops, such as lentils and fava beans, shriveled up in the heat as if they were burned under a magnifying glass. Surprisingly, we were still able to bring in a few dozen seeds of each.

But the real challenge in weathering the drought was not the persistence of the crops but rather the persistence of other herbivores. We came to realize that, as the drought began to take a toll on the crops, it was also taking a toll on other organisms that began to view our crops as a resource for their own survival. One of our fields in Taos was completely obliterated by prairie dogs. Similarly, the corn in our Peñasco field was taken out by magpies. A member of our “living seed library” program reported that her entire field was eaten by elk.

The loss of seed, effort and time are the obvious setbacks, but this whole experience forces us to look at the real challenge of reinvigorating the local food system. Those of us who have been on the land a while are able to consistently produce and deter most threats because of our constant presence. But as an organization who values having more land in production by the hands of more people and in more crops, it becomes increasingly difficult to anticipate and prevent these kinds of threats in the face of this uncertainty, especially if there is not a constant vigilant human presence on the land. We were not the only ones with this experience. I was able to speak with several farmers who had similar problems with predation by animals who were also suffering the drought.

My biggest question, however, was if this experience diminished the enthusiasm of the youth involved in our agriculture projects; youth who watched the fruits of their labor disappear week by week (literally). As I explained to them about the inherent gamble in agriculture, especially in the context of climate change, the students assured me that they are in this for a while longer yet and are looking forward to our fall and spring planting activities. This growing season was marked by the especially difficult challenges of water stress and competition for our crops, but it could be said that the real harvest was a realization of the potential extent of the challenge that lies ahead.

As we continue to develop agricultural methods that are resilient to water stress and climate change, we have to keep in mind the impact of these conditions on wildlife that will need our crops as a source of food and water as well. I am reminded of a dicho (saying) that is common to our region during planting time: that we plant three seeds in each planting place “Para mi, para vos, y para los animalitos de Dios (Planting three seeds for me, for us, and for all of the animals of God).” This saying reflects much wisdom and ethic, but was likely developed at a time when local agriculture was abundant and the effects of suffering wildlife could be spread out over a larger area during years of drought. With fewer areas in agriculture compared to then, we will have to be vigilant and innovative about how to secure a harvest for us human beings while also providing for “los animalitos de Dios” in a way that (hopefully) brings about more balance to our ecosystems and for all the organisms therein.

Miguel Santistevan, Executive Director of AIRE, is mayordomo of the Acequia Sur del Río de Don Fernando de Taos and a Ph.D. candidate in biology at UNM. He is a featured mentor at the upcoming Quivira conference. solfelizfarm@gmail.com, www.solfelizfarm.org