Miguel Santistevan

 

I look forward to every growing season as another chance to learn from Mother Nature about refining my agricultural techniques. Unfortunately, learning about agriculture today is becoming increasingly more challenging. It is not enough to have access to all kinds of information and even infrastructure when the more typical agricultural techniques may not adequately serve us in terms of food security, energy reduction and the conservation and regeneration of agricultural lands and soils. In many ways we are venturing into uncharted territory. The practice of agriculture today is complicated by a multitude of “natural” and human factors.

 

The human factors in agriculture range from local politics to larger economic forces. I am a proponent and practitioner of acequia agriculture. One of the historical foundations of acequias is our tradition of sharing water: el reparto. But the reality is not so romantic; not everyone agrees on when and how to share water. The state has created a system of water management that fosters competition in the administration of water. Rather than everyone having equal access, as in acequia culture and tradition, the State has adopted a system of Priority Administration, meaning “first in time, first in right” when it comes to access to the increasingly scarce water. This overarching policy can translate into people feeling like winners or losers, depending on their hierarchy in the priority system. When there is very little water, it would make sense that everyone would “share and share alike,” but this ideal is complicated when it comes to deciding which irrigators and when they should get the last drops of water when the river eventually goes dry. In my experience, our acequia has gone dry in June for three of past 10 years, with two of those years being the last two growing seasons.

 

Which brings me to the more pressing question. What does agriculture and food security look like in the face of climate change? This question is further motivated by the fact of unsustainable groundwater depletion. Climate change in my experience so far feels like scarce water from droughts, intense heat and UV radiation during the peak of the season, more potentially late and early frosts, and competition with other organisms for our agricultural yields. Competition from rodents, birds, insects, and even herds of animals like elk, comes from their suffering the effects of water and food shortage during dry years when they see our agricultural systems as sources of food and water.

 

Because of my experience with agriculture that becomes increasingly more difficult with the onset of water shortage, I am a proponent and practitioner of agricultural practices that seek to be as sustainable and resilient as possible. Part of this goal relies on learning from the expert cultures who practice dryland and milpa styles of agriculture. I figured I could find a balance between what is acequia-irrigated and dryland-style by employing techniques that take into account both the needs and benefits of each to try and create an agriculture practice that can still yield in the most adverse of conditions.

 

So, armed with experience from 2011, a growing season whose irrigation water ended the third week in June, I looked forward to experiencing growing success with adapting my agricultural methods to potential ongoing drought. But unfortunately, it seems that the conditions are harsher, making the stakes higher. I was able to hear predictions of drought in the greater Southwest—drought that is predicted to become more of the norm. I heard presentations from Dr. David Gutzler of the University of New Mexico and author William deBuys at the 17th Annual Xeriscape Conference in March 2012. Bill deBuys wrote a book called A Great Aridness, which compiles much information in the modeling and understanding of climate change. His analysis integrates the problems of increased temperatures, forest mortality, fires, lack of moisture and other desertification effects, and illustrates a challenging future in which we will have to contend with potential water and food shortages. In circumstances coupled with rising energy costs globally, we as citizens of Earth will have to make some hard choices that will affect the livelihoods and happiness of our future generations.

 

The choice I make is to dig in and try to create agricultural and livelihood choices that strive for balance and abundance within the context in which we will live. Things like water harvesting on the landscape using swales on the contour, cobble/sand mulch and other innovative soil-management techniques are becoming more and more important. I am inspired by dryland agricultural techniques that rely on ample crop spacing and the inherent abilities of crops to find their own soil moisture while supporting each other.

 

So in 2012 we, the Sembradores Youth-In-Agriculture team, planted three milpas in three acequia-irrigated fields, two in white corn and one in blue. We also conducted an investigation into drought adaptation in fava beans. All of my fields are irrigated from the local acequia, though one of the white cornfields is irrigated by the more distant Acequia Madre and did not enjoy as much water. Each of these fields was irrigated about five times. Six varieties of maize were planted in three separate fields, with the two varieties in each field separated in their maturation times. Two of these varieties had never been planted in this area and are totally new to my agricultural system. Two of the varieties have been planted for several years in my fields and are originally from landrace seed stock from villages of the eastern and western slopes of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. One of these varieties has been planted almost every year since 2003.

 

To summarize the results, we found that the limiting factor for production in extreme drought conditions was more due to soil quality than the importance of working with locally adapted seed. Our least-adapted maize variety (the variety with no Taos experience) received the least amount of irrigation water yet did the best. I attribute these results to the fact that this corn was planted in a field that had been fallow for over a decade, whereas one of our other fields completely dried up and did not produce but two cobs, apparently due to lack of organic matter in the soil. Another limiting factor to production in each field was adequate pollination. So in the coming season we will be planting more seeds in each planting spot to increase pollination potential.

 

In another trial, we found that fava beans saved from seed that had weathered drought in 2011 had a 40 percent increase in yield over the fava beans from the same seed stock that had been in storage for the same year.

 

As is typical of our research projects, we investigate the answer to a question and then ask many more. So we are gearing up for another year of production, complete with elaborations to our research interests. We now have several generations of seed with varying experience in drought, and we are looking forward to conducting comparison trials with these additional generations in replication of our previous results and developing a dataset over time. In addition, we are looking to augment our soil quality through the application of compost tea and biochar to address soil fertility and moisture.

 

Biochar is basically created by reducing carbon from wood to a charcoal-like state and then using it to amend the soil. It has been demonstrated that biochar can improve soil quality and moisture retention, and thus crop yields.  

 

When we use the horno mud oven, we typically “drown” the fire and seal off the horno with mud. It seems like these conditions are conducive to the creation of charcoal and biochar.  We gathered the charcoal left over from the horno cooking process to test its application.  We are also looking at ways to turn our left-over corncobs into biochar using a woodstove. We understand that it is important to inoculate the biochar with compost and water before its use in the soil. We will be doing trials on garlic, wheat and maize production this year to see if indeed it improves our soils and crop yields. As we move into the uncertain future of agriculture and food security, we still believe that relatively low-tech, simple and accessible techniques can be developed to nurture resiliency and weather the potentially negative effects of climate change.

 

 

 

Miguel Santistevan, executive director of the nonprof it AIRE (Agriculture Implementation Research & Education), is mayordomo of Acequia Sur del Río de Don Fernando de Taos, runs the Sol Feliz Farm (www.solfelizfarm.org), and is a Ph.D. Candidate in Biology at the UNM. Email: solfelizfarm@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

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