December 2013

Challenges Facing Rural Villages in New Mexico


Juan Estévan Arellano


In comparison to other states, New Mexico, due to its vastness and diversity, does not have the resources or a big foundation to support the work that needs to be done in the rural villages. Three big challenges face the rural villages in New Mexico:


1) Availability of water

2) Lack of traditional seeds, both corn and chile, that are not genetically modified (GMO), in order to prevent the hunger low-income families are facing today

3) Involving more youth in agriculture


This is where community foundations such as the New Mexico Community Foundation can be instrumental in helping communities battle the hunger crisis: by helping to set up seed libraries, assist communities in continuing their acequia systems to protect the water, and to get the youth involved in growing food.


New Mexico is last among states when it comes to food security. A community cannot be self-reliant and sustainable if it cannot feed itself due to the lack of open-pollinated seeds, a steady supply of water and young people to do the work.


In 2009, Loretta Sandoval, a farmer from Cañoncito, and I met with some people from Santa Fe interested in helping local communities get more of their produce to the farmers’ markets. In the course of our conversation it became apparent that before more people would be coaxed into abandoning the couch for the farm, we need more seed, especially if we want people to plant native northern New Mexico landrace chile. Some of this chile goes for up to $50 a bushel, which weighs about 20 pounds. The community simply does not have enough seed if someone is interested in planting 10 or 20 acres of local chile.


Not only is there not enough native chile seed; there is also a lack of maiz Concho seed, what has been traditionally used for making chicos. Though today people are making chicos out of sweet corn and almost any type of corn, it does not have the same taste as horno-made maiz Concho chicos, and connoisseurs can immediately tell the difference.


Both native New Mexico landrace chile and maiz Concho chicos are money crops. Today not enough are grown to satisfy the local market, much less to export to the diaspora of nuevomexicanos living in Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and other places they call home.


But even if we have plenty of seed, we also need water, and at present many of the acequias are not functioning the way they should, with most having a myriad of problems with their infrastructure, governance, and possibly most important, the fact that very few youth are involved or participate in the acequia culture of their communities. One cannot prosper without the other.


In terms of promoting the local landraces of chile, we have to change the marketing strategy we see in New Mexico today of Hatch versus Chimayó chile. At the recent FUZE food conference in Santa Fe, I participated on a panel about the north-south chile wars, which made it seem like only two areas grow chile: the commercial varieties developed by New Mexico State University grown in Hatch and the landrace Chimayó chile. Yet chile is grown throughout the state, not only along the Río Grande Corridor, but also along the Pecos River and in the Gila. And since the local landrace chiles sell for more and are preferred by more people, according to recent survey conducted by the Santa Fe New Mexican, everyone is trying to capitalize on the allure of Chimayó chile. Today even chile grown elsewhere is sold as Chimayó chile to the unsuspected consumer.


This summer when I was in Phoenix there was a big promotion for Hatch chile, and the same happens in Los Angeles and other big cities, even though the chile might come from the state of Chihuahua in Mexico.


What I propose is that the landrace chiles from northern New Mexico be marketed as Chile del Río Arriba; and the chile grown in the Middle Río Grande from Cochiti to Socorro as Chile del Río Abajo. At the conference, this area, which produces a lot of chile, was left completely out of the “chile wars” debate. Meanwhile, chile grown from Elephant Butte to El Paso should be known Mesilla Valley Chile (this would include Hatch chile). There is no cultivar known as Hatch chile, which is the name of the town where chile developed at NMSU is grown.


Though David DeWitt, founder of Fiery Food Show, denied NMSU is attempting to develop a genetically engineered chile, he did admit that the university is trying to develop a pod that can be harvested by machine, is uniform in size, and has the same taste and texture, unlike the real chile we find in the north.


But seeds cannot grow if there is not enough water, and the lifeblood of the small rural areas are their acequia systems, which, like chile, date back to 1598 and even earlier, as there was irrigation practiced by the Native Americans in pre-colonial times.


What foundations such as NMCF and others in New Mexico should do is work together with the New Mexico Acequia Association ( and set up a separate funding source to help acequias with short- and long-term planning. This includes doing GPS mapping of all acequias, such as was done in the Embudo Valley with the help of the Arid Land Institute of Woodbury University from Burbank, Calif. Before doing any acequia infrastructure work, it is of utmost importance to have the acequias mapped so that it is known where the problems lie and what needs to be done. Then the Acequia Association can go to the Legislature and seek funds from Capital Outlay.


But for these lofty goals to become a reality we need more youth to take up the mantle of working the land and taking care of the seeds and water. Only then will hunger be a thing of the past. It can be done if we all focus our energy on seeds, water and youth, who need to recapture the traditional knowledge from their elders before it is lost.



Author and community leader Juan Estévan Arellano has devoted most of his life to documenting the traditional knowledge of the Indo-Hispano in northern New Mexico, especially as it relates to land and water.



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