It is becoming an annual tradition to reflect on the growing season in this blog. Writing this helps me close and reflect upon the season and prepare for the next one. I also hope that the documentation of this information can serve as data and be appreciated by those looking for trends and ideas in the impacts of climate change. I feel like Taos, and the high desert region in general, has always been on the edge of stable climate and therefore could be considered a “canary in the coal mine” for climate change. I feel like the climate around here that up until recently has been considered “normal” has always been punctuated by extremes and local cultures and her agri-cultures have evolved adaptations in practice and management of resources that have buffered the effects of outlying extremes and created resiliency. These practices have to be augmented given recent extremes, and we feel like our agricultural efforts are part of an evolution that has to occur if we are to weather the coming storm of climate change and the potential impact it could have on our food security.
With recent developments in water administration coming to a close in Taos (i.e. the Abeyta Water Settlement) and all kinds of water issues near and far, many people are becoming more aware that the water issue will take center stage for adaptation in our future of changing climate. Where elaborate and costly infrastructure is planned to provide water from deep aquifer sources here in Taos, we have been watching wells and the river run dry periodically for at least the last 16 years in my experience. These episodes were likely part of the motivation for negotiators of the Water Settlement thinking that mining deep water would be a viable option for the future. From the perspective of a dry river that is needed for irrigation, I understand the motivation though I don’t agree on the remedy.
I don’t want to be dependent on infrastructure that requires fossil fuel energy to grow food. I am also not convinced that these bureaucratic approaches will be successful in circumventing ultimate water shortages before the need. I look to the Hopi in Arizona to show me what resilient agriculture in the face of water shortage looks like. With this in mind we emulate those methods to adapt both crops and methods for our clay soils and higher elevations and latitudes. Knowing the importance of organic matter as it relates to moisture retention, crop production, and carbon sequestration; we incorporate practices that involve compost, vermi-compost, compost tea & extracts, and biochar. With this overview and context, I will detail as best I can the observations, challenges, and insights gained this 2018 growing season in Taos, New Mexico.
The season always starts with the crop that is planted the earliest of the season: garlic! We were able to prepare three rows with a broadfork and plant on November 19, 2017. We might have used the rototiller, but unfortunately a leak in the engine seal created a condition of apprehension that I would leak oil in my soil and figured since I was ahead of the season, so to speak, that I would use my human power instead of my tiller’s horsepower. The investment of time and energy using a broadfork will pay off for seasons to come, I will incorporate compost into this particular area by hand for several years and don’t feel the need to till or turn soil again for many seasons.
Once the garlic cloves are nestled in their soil environment, every snowfall of the winter takes on additional meaning. Snow covering the ground looks like a white down comforter on the land and I imagine the individual garlic cloves tucked in an envelope of soil, covered under inches of snow, sleeping but half awake. I imagine some of this snow moisture percolating into lightly thawed soil and garlic cloves absorbing the moisture to support metabolism and growth. Unfortunately the snows of the 2017-2018 winter were meager, leaving the garlic to fend on memories of past survival and success.
My photo and note-taking records only show three snowfalls before the irrigation season began on March 26 and one snowfall after. These were not substantial snow events and created the driest winter conditions I have ever experienced. An interesting point in the lack of moisture and warm temperatures is that the Río Don Fernando never stopped flowing in 2017. I irrigated in 2017 until the very end of the season the first week in October. I don’t know if it is lack of moisture or low temperatures that freezes water in the upper watershed that makes the Río dry out in our lower reaches by late Fall. I then look for runoff in the early Spring, something I have written about in the archives of this blog.
The winter of 2017-2018 had the Río Don Fernando flowing consistently all winter. I remember thinking that the water I was watching flow downstream would have been irrigation water if it had been a colder winter. I contemplated the mechanisms behind a series of impacts to the river channel and upper watershed that has forever altered its hydrology. There was a familiar feeling of anticipation looking at the water and thinking of the coming efforts of cleaning acequias, preparing fields, and digging channels to maneuver that gushing water across the land.
The acequias were cleaned in mid-March and flowing by the 26th. The day the water came I was preparing some rows with a digging fork of alberjón (peas). My kids came running and screaming, “the acequia is coming! the acequia is coming!,” alerting me that the growing season has officially started. I honored the event by planting a landrace variety of alberjón that I have been working with for over a decade alongside a variety of organic sugar snap peas from Oregon the last days of March. I finished my planting activity with the help of my kids listening to the flowing water down the acequia.
My first irrigation was April 4. The feeling of putting the first water on the land is euphoric. The water flows across the land and paints a wake of life everywhere it goes. The challenge is to get the water to all corners, to all patches of land that will quickly consume the life giving water for the exchange of bubbles of air once trapped in soil spaces. Birds come to frolic in the waters, looking for worms trying to escape drowning. There is a sound of flowing water underneath the sound of absorption and release in the exchange of irrigation water, soil, and interstitial space.
All the peas and habas (fava beans) were planted by the first week of April and shortly thereafter emerged the volunteers: peas, favas, and garbanzos from seed that must have spilled or shattered early from Fall of 2017, over-wintered, and emerged when germination conditions were favorable. I was pleased that the timing of my early Spring planting matched what nature showed me was adequate, if not optimal. It made me think that I could plant even earlier, like later than garlic planting time but before the ground is frozen, and let the crops emerge in Spring when they are ready. I was also pleased to see garbanzos emerging, I had read once that garbanzos, and maybe even lentils, are somewhat frost tolerant and so this occurrence was welcomed evidence. The thoughts now are to explore the cultivation of frost tolerant legumes even further, to identify the most resilient and productive individuals in the population, in addition to identifying those that might be amenable to being planted in late Fall and over-wintering.
By mid-April the apricots were flowering and froze a few days later. The peaches were also flowering but mostly escaped frost effects. I was able to get the water about once a week and had irrigation as good as any year but it was clear shortage was coming as our Acequia Madre Sur (South side) started repartiendo el agua (sharing the water) del Río de Don Fernando with the Acequia Madre Norte (North Side). As is customary on our acequia, the water is divided three ways: two thirds to serve our Acequia Madre Sur and the Randall Community Ditch, and one-third to return to the river to serve Acequia Madre Norte. When reparto (sharing) starts, Acequia Madre gets all the river water for one-third of the week, or 56 hours, and the South side gets all the water for the remaining two-thirds. This year we started sharing just after the third week in April, the earliest I have ever seen the need to share water. The end of April saw the emergence of all the planted habas and alberjón, and the beginning of flowering of the apples.
In the first week of May we planted garbanzos. We might have prepared fields and planted earlier but our tiller ended up in the shop with the need for a new motor. This was regrettably unexpected and created a further delay by a back-ordered engine and so in the meantime some rows were prepared by hand, planted, and seedling starts made in the second half of May. Irrigation continued regularly throughout May, but I had no idea how fast the water might run out as I waited for my tiller to be repaired so I could prepare rows for the main planting of corn, beans, squash, and transplanted seedlings that would hopefully receive two or three irrigations before the water ran out.
As I waited for my tiller engine to be replaced, I thought of all the miles I put on the 8 horsepower machine that is known as “Fierce” and “Atiller the Hunn.” I thought of all the gardens put in, row by row, with that tiller, cutter bar, and hiller/furrower. Notable gardens were prepared at Parr Field in Taos, the Sanchez Farm in Albuquerque, and a few other garden plots in Albuquerque for charter schools, youth programs, and friends. We had gardens put in and tended by high school students in Taos on the North and South side acequias over several years. And of course Fierce has been cornerstone to production at our base of Sol Feliz where dozens of students come to learn about acequia agriculture, Permaculture, and our methods in seed and soil management. All of these gardens have included hundreds, likely thousands of youth over the years. I have cultivated as much community and friendship around these efforts as land. As we continue the saga of Growing Season 2018 in Part 2 of this series, I express gratitude that you are reading this blog and to the many supporters who make this work possible.