soil & water conservation
As many of us backyard gardeners look to the end of winter to turn our attention to the warm months hoped for green bounty, I am confident our local farmers have long since put their planting plans and contingencies into place.
This column is a short ode to our local farmers, in acknowledgment of the many benefits they bring to our community and to their tenacity in the face of challenges that today’s farmers face.
Locally-grown food is a vital and long-treasured commodity in our rural community — green chiles, ’nuf said? It is estimated that the peak farming era in Valencia County was back in the 1950s, so even though today there may be fewer small farms around, many of us still try to buy local at farmer’s markets and other venues where small farmers sell their wares.
We doubly value those who still work the land as a time-honored tradition, especially as there are many reasons younger generations are choosing not to farm.
Surely the current and persistent drought in the Rio Grande basin has contributed to the reduced level of actively-farmed lands. Over the past decades, many fewer people have chosen the life of a farmer, preferring other less demanding career paths that offer better pay and less uncertainties than the life of a farmer.
Indeed, the uncertainty of these dry times have many farming families considering tough choices. Some might plant alternative not-for-sale, low-water cover crops, while others will feel compelled to fallow their fields during the expected-to-be-droughty 2023 irrigation season. Of course, all farmers who irrigate will be concerned with the prospect of planting expensive seeds that need water to survive if the farmers are left mainly hoping for the arrival of monsoon rains (in the event that the river’s flows are insufficient to support irrigation of fields as again seems likely this year).
One option some farmers have taken in recent years is drilling deep groundwater wells, but that is an expense probably beyond the reach of most farming families. Tough choices.
The good news is, I doubt there’s a more industrious and tenacious group out there than our local farmers. They add to our community in many ways, including by connecting community members to the basic premise that healthy food comes from healthy lands (and clean water, of course). Seeing our local farm fields being well-tended and judiciously watered is a powerful demonstration of land stewardship, a core social value.
Vibrant farming communities create local job opportunities, especially powerful when doors are opened for youth to learn about how to work the land and make a viable career in farming. Farmers’ well-tended fields can foster improvement of soil and the ecosystem by growing a variety of crops, and employing healthy soil practices for better yields.
Local farming improves the health of citizens in the community by offering fresh food alternatives to fast food and other highly processed foods. Valencia County is blessed with a variety of crops, from many fields still in alfalfa, to diverse winter grains, to many kinds of fresh produce (such as Ronnie Moya’s mammoth green bell peppers, or Rocket Punch Farm’s long list of fresh delicious veggies and breads).
A diverse local food system can also help promote sustainability goals — less distance traveled to get food from the farm to our tables the better. Our local farmers do all this while supporting the health of America’s agricultural system by providing redundant food sources, so the market can help manage food availability when one region’s food production suffers.
As many of us anticipate soon getting dirt under our fingernails, I am happy to note that there’s help on the way for farmers and us backyard gardeners.
The New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program is offering grants of up to $20,000 to reimburse New Mexicans who are interested in improving their lands through implementation of at least one of these five principles of healthy soils:
1) Keeping soil covered;
2) Minimizing soil disturbance on cropland and minimizing external inputs;
3) Maximizing biodiversity;
4) Maintaining a living root; and
5) Integrating animals into land management, including grazing animals, birds, beneficial insects or keystone species, such as earthworms.
NMDA is accepting applications through March 17 (go to nmdeptag.nmsu.edu for more details).
Finally, with a full focus on our local farmers, on Saturday, March 25, the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District is hosting an Agriculture Appreciation Day. This event will feature a “no-till drill” demonstration, as well as talks on micro-farming, cover crops, dealing humanely with wildlife, and small animal farming. We will have booths by local growers and representatives from local, state and federal agencies who work with farmers and ranchers.
If you are involved in agriculture and are interested in having a booth at this event, please contact us at [email protected] by Monday March 6.
(Andrew Hautzinger is the district director of the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District.)
Andrew Hautzinger, guest columnist
Andrew Hautzinger has been the district director for the Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District since 2020. Prior to that, he was a volunteer VSWCD board member for 12 years and spent many years volunteering at the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area.
Hautzinger has a bachelor of science in watershed sciences from Colorado State University. He worked for more than 27 years as a federal hydrologist working for agencies within the Department of Interior including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. National Park Service, and for the final 20 years of his career, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services’ National Wildlife Refuge System.