Reflections on the 2017 growing season

It can be said that the 2017 growing season actually started in the Fall of 2016 with the planting of garlic in late September, late October, and early November.  This year we were able to prepare the soil and plant with the moon, recognizing that root crops like garlic have traditionally been planted around the full moon.  We would have liked to have planted some winter wheat, but time got away from us and then the snows came…

We had some good snows in late November and some in December of 2016.  We always look to the snows in late Fall as being important to the overall snowpack that contributes to our acequia irrigation flows in the Spring.  Several elders have related traditional knowledge that believes that snowfall in late Fall and early winter will melt and contribute to the acequia flows, while later snowfall contributes more to flows in the Rio Grande.  We had two or three snow events in January and a couple in February.  We saw the Rio Don Fernando flowing in the second week of February and we saw our garlic emerge in the last week of February.  It seemed early for both of these events, which makes us think of the potential impacts of climate change to our environment and agricultural practices.

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The first acequia irrigation brings about life to the land and excitement for the growing season ahead.

We started preparing soil in the second week of March by sifting and moving compost, spreading it, tilling, and making rows.  In the last week of March we planted alberjon (peas) and habas (fava beans).  At about the same time we saw our apricot trees blooming and shortly thereafter we received some light snows.  Snow might protect blooms from freezing, but in our case this year we lost our apricot blooms.  We later lost all of our fruit blossoms to frost.  The only fruit that survived was a single peach, a single apple, and our tart cherries did alright.  We were eventually able to harvest some blackberries as well…

Anyway, we cleaned our acequias on the 17th and 25th of March and the irrigation season began the last week of March with acequia flows returning to the land.  We received some nice light snowfalls in early April which were technically the first irrigations of my peas and favas.  My first irrigation was the first week of April, mostly watering the garlic and my recently planted peas and favas.  I also ran the water on all of my lands to build up the soil moisture and help with the upcoming soil preparations.  I saw my first fava bean plant emerge the first week in April but this one came from a seed that must have been left behind and overwintered as the rest of the habas and peas were still subsurface.  We saw apple blooms emerge the second week in April.  We were blessed with our last light snow at the end of April.

At the beginning of May we did a pruning workshop and started breaking ground on a dryland garden in an arroyo at the Taos Charter School.  This “three sisters” garden was planted with students of the school on May 15, which happens to be “Dia de San Isidro” or the traditional planting day of northern New Mexico.  We did a series of workshops that were funded by the Los Jardineros Garden Club.  Accounts of those days can be read about in previous postings.  We weren’t quite ready to plant our fields at Sol Feliz by traditional planting day and were still getting rows ready for planting.

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Students from Washington DC learn about acequia culture and get a chance to prepare soil, plant, and irrigate in their visit to Sol Feliz Farm.

On May 22, we received a visit from the Washington DC Waldorf High School and were able to give a presentation on northern New Mexico agricultural traditions to the Senior class as they explored New Mexico on their Senior trip.  A highlight of this visit is that we were able to plant 6 rows of sweet corn and then irrigate from the acequia.  It was really satisfying to see how much fun the students had planting and running water down the rows of the recently planted field.  The students were also able to help me prepare three additional rows for planting buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa which we planted two days later.  At about this time we are also planting beans and squash.  At the end of May we planted another field of white corn for chicos.  In early June we transplanted our almasigos (seedling starts) of chile, cucumbers, and many flowers from our sunroom to the field.  At this same time we direct seeded some red and black sorghum as part of our heritage grain collection and efforts.

Some of our almasigos were a traditional melon known as ‘Melon Mexicano.’  When we first got this seed and planted it, we found that it must have been crossed with cantaloupes and honeydews in the past, as every melon looked different and had a mixture of characteristics.  We have spent the past four years ‘back breeding’ or looking for the ‘true to type’ Melon Mexicano.  Last year went really well and we look forward to continuing these efforts in search of this significant unique fruit.

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Diversity found in “Melon Mexicano” provides opportunity for future breeding in addition to finding “true to type” fruits like the ones at right with the stripes.

The planting of heritage grains is a focus of ours, especially after attending the Grain School at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs in January.  Heritage grains typically have more nutrition, do not cause as many allergic reactions in people, and are often more drought tolerant and hardy than most conventional grains in the dominant food system.  We have had success with amaranth in past and wish to expand our collection of heritage grains.  Of course we consider all of our native corn production to be considered part of our heritage grain collection.  Our hope is to continue experimenting with recipes using heritage grains and then be able to market some of these flours through our sister operation, Taos Real Food LLC (www.taosrealfood.com).

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Quinoa and amaranth are hardy grains that are exceptionally nutritious and grow well in our high desert environment.

We set up two research trials using yellow beans and black garbanzo beans.  With the yellow beans, we were going to compare production characteristics around locally adapted yellow beans, their un-adapted parent stock, and some others from a different location.  With our garbanzo trials, we were going to compare garbanzos grown at our farm in the early years and those that had survived drought conditions experienced in the last several years.  After all the crops were planted, then our focus shifted to hoeing weeds (escardando) and irrigating from the acequia.

One of the most exciting (and nerve wracking) times in farming is waiting for the crops to emerge.  To see seedlings emerge from all the hard work of farming is so satisfying!  Unfortunately some years are not as fruitful as others, and the causes are not always known.  This year much of our production took a hit in that many crops did not emerge.  Those hit hardest were my beans and corn.  It seemed as if my germination or emergence was very low, maybe less than 10%.  This happened to other farmers in the area as well and with some investigation it appears as if the daytime temperatures in May were sufficient for crop germination but the nighttime temperatures were abnormally low.

Again, we think of the potential effects of climate change and are grateful to have been able to harvest seed from the crops that did emerge and eventually mature, hoping that the resilience of survival for this particular season will carry forward through the future generations of seed.  It can be said that agricultural production in Taos is already on the edge.  Our climate has always been unpredictable as is characteristic of desert, semi-arid, high altitude environments.  In this way, Taos agriculture can be considered the “canary in the coal mine” in that the extreme nature of our climate is what could affect other more hydrologic- and temperature- stable environments where the bulk of our food is produced.  Seeds need certain conditions to germinate that depend on climate characteristics, and if those characteristics change too drastically, then it could result in low germination which could ultimately affect food security.

The lack of germination and emergence wrecked our research trials and resulted in the loss of seed but luckily for some of the crops it was know well enough in advance that we could replant the corn and some other beans in mid June.  Unfortunately we took a gamble with the yellow beans and lost many years of expanding the volume of seed for that particular variety.

Despite these challenges we were able to make two batches of chicos, the first of white corn and several weeks later, sweet corn.  The white corn we used is known as ‘relumbroso‘ or ‘shiny,’ and is a flint corn.  Some families like to make traditional chicos with the white corn known as ‘concho‘ which is more of flour corn.  In either case, the white corn chicos provide a particular flavor which is favored by many who can really appreciate traditional northern New Mexico cuisine.  Sweet corn chicos are really good as well, offering a sweeter flavor, and my family likes to eat those dry as snacks similar to corn nuts or parched corn.

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Locally adapted sweet corn is almost ready for harvest.

The dryland arroyo garden we planted suffered for most of the season.  We refused to apply water in that we were looking to test the capabilities of these crops to extreme drought.  The corn, beans, and squash all emerged which was interesting in comparison to our experience at Sol Feliz.  But the crops were not very productive until the rains came in late July and early August.  There was no squash production on the spindly plants until the rains came and unfortunately the two golf ball sized squashes were cut off by a frost that came two or three weeks earlier that in the fields at Sol Feliz.  Even though seed setting was meager, we were able to harvest a small handful each of white corn and white tepary beans which we intend to plant again in the same arroyo in the 2018 growing season.

A light frost hit Sol Feliz the third week in September.  The only indication was some burnt looking leaves on our squash and melon plants.  Fearing a hard frost was around the corner, I brought in all of the squash and melons to prevent their loss.  I piled them up in the sunroom and covered them with the plants they were attached to.  There is a practice of covering squash in the field with their plant material like a blanket or hat.  I think the idea is that the plant material on top of the squash not only protects it from frost but likely releases some kind of hormone or otherwise contributes to a process that helps the squash ripen to maturity.

Interestingly, and perhaps related to the same situation with corn and bean germination, our squash did not produce as well as in years past.  We harvested many fruits, but they were smaller than in years past.  Other farmers I know had a similar experience where even others still had typical production, and points to issues in micro-climate or perhaps in breeding.  We have been breeding our squash to be more light colored as we find these squashes tend to be creamier and sweeter than the average “calabasa mexicana.”  So it could be that our selection process over the past 5 or so years created narrow genetics that resulted in small fruits but I tend to lean more towards the idea that climatic effects creating this situation this year.

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Diversity shown in our variety of “Calabasa Mexicana” was the result of artificial selection for a lighter squash. Efforts in breeding were not as apparent in phenotype this year as in years past.

In mid-October we brought in the remainder of our dry crops such as the sorghum, dry peas, and the rest of the habas.  We were able to harvest green chile and roast it in early October and luckily some of it had already matured to red chile which will be good for that use in addition to seed.  We also brought in the amaranth and quinoa, some of which looked like it was affected by mold due to untimely rains in July and August.  A significant learning experience is that buckwheat, which we had never planted before, is really well adapted to this area and matured well before amaranth and quinoa, both of which had been planted at Sol Feliz in years past.

At the time of this writing we are experiencing some of the worst climate change-like conditions I have ever seen.  There is no snow to speak of this December 1 and a person can wear a short sleeve shirt outside during the day.  The Rio Don Fernando continues to flow as our acequia flowed the entire season and now the water got turned back to the river in October.  We had an exceptional water year in 2017 with acequia flows consistent all season.  Unfortunately a wet year followed by a dry year could mean exceptional fire danger.  So hopefully we will get more precipitation the remainder of Fall and Winter so that we can have good acequia irrigation in 2018.

Regardless of the climate or weather predictions, we at Sol Feliz, AIRE, and Taos Real Food will continue to work the land, strengthen and tighten our relationship with seed and food, and take the challenges as learning opportunities while we continue to try and develop the most sustainable, regenerative, and relevant agriculture and lifestyle practices we can…

 

Article and photos copyright 2017 Miguel Santistevan.

 

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About Miguel

Miguel Santistevan is a researcher, educator, and advocate for traditional agriculture crops and systems.
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