When it came to the unexpected expense of fixing my tiller, I thought I might do some fundraising since the tiller was ultimately a personal expense that has benefit several non-profit and community efforts over the years. So I created a GoFundMe page for our needed rototiller repairs, and to my elation we raised enough money to cover the expense in less than a month! My heartfelt gratitude to all these supporters!
The days of the early season ticked by as I was awaiting the tiller and debating the potential application of no-till and other low-impact methods of agriculture. Our agricultural practices come after other duties are fulfilled and so the tiller becomes an efficient necessity at this stage in our farm development. The tiller is used sparingly in our methods that also use crop rotation and small scale, in-situ, compost making and application. A Permaculture perspective is our guide in that we are trying to create a perennial garden landscape with robust soils that require minimal effort in human management for maximum effect by utilizing biological diversity to optimize ecological processes.
I was intending to wait until the first week of June to plant anyway, which is about the time I got my tiller back from Santa Fe Power Equipment who was doing the repairs. Though mid-May is the traditional planting time for northern New Mexico, I found that in 2017 the May temperatures were still too cold at night to allow for germination, it seemed, so I thought planting later would be a good strategy for 2018. There have been years past that I planted squash on June 21, maize in the first days in July, and several others seasons with early June plantings, all with success at harvest time. I am of the opinion that our growing season is starting later and shifting harvest time toward later in the Fall. I thought I could work with that experience and have success.
But the year 2018 was different. I had sufficient water for the season all through May, getting the water every 7 to 10 days, and I wouldn’t have guessed my last irrigation would be on June 3 given the amount of water I had on that particular day. I have been able to gauge when my last irrigation day will be based on the workings of water that diminished slowly over several weeks. During times of sufficient water, I am able to take water from the Acequia del Medio (middle), and push it up a lateral ditch about 8 inches to deliver water to a southern, more upslope field. There comes a time when there simply is not enough water to push it uphill, but I am still able to use all the water on the downhill side of the Medio. I am then able to run the water down several carreras (rows) at a time and expect that my next irrigation about a week later will still have enough water for one carrera at a time, but will be my last irrigation. In times like these in years past, the Mayordomo allows me to have the water for a longer than one day so I can try and irrigate as much as possible at the very end of the irrigation season. So I had sufficient water on June 3 to push it uphill and irrigate the lower field but one week later the water hardly reached my property, much less having any to run down the rows. Not only was this a particularly dry year, but the drying came on exponentially.
So then I found myself tilling dry soil, a practice I do not recommend and will hopefully never do again in the future, especially with a rototiller, if at all. Worse, after the soil was tilled and planted, there would be no irrigation waters to provide for the germination or establishment of the seed! Looking at the problem as the solution, I hoped for one good rain that would help me identify the most resilient individuals in the populations of the planted seeds. I would make and extra effort to escardar, or cultivate the soil around the crops, a practice I learned is more important than irrigation.
So we hoped for the best and rallied some participants for a planting event under the auspices of the New Mexico Acequia Association’s “Sembrando Semillas” (NMAA SemSem) program. We gathered three families with a collection of six children and an intern, also provided for by the NMAA, to plant the field and hopefully gather later in the season for garden care, harvest, and food traditions like making chicos. We planted some drought tolerant white corn and the traditional calabasa mexicana squash in several rows. Later, with the help of our SemSem intern, we prepared row for transplanting chile, gourds, melons, and tomato seedling starts; a row of buckwheat and amaranth, and two rows of several varieties of garbanzos as a trial. We installed drip lines for the buckwheat, amaranth, seedling starts, squash, gourds and melons while hoping that our beans and white corn, planted and harvested in past drought years, would have individuals that show resilience in our water stressed conditions.
It turns out that my attention to germination condition neglected understanding of the grave potential of water scarcity. Not a total loss, however, ultimately I brought in a good harvest of buckwheat, one incredibly drought tolerant squash, and a modest supply of green and red chile, small gourds, and a couple of melons. My landrace peas harvested and set seed as well as in any other year. Despite my past years’ successes with beans and drought, not a single bean plant emerged. The favas produced some but suffered, we barely recovered our seed. I have some numbers that could be compared to see which varieties produced better, but for the favas and garlic, it was a situation where I harvested a small percentage more than what I planted. The experience makes me think of how to characterize and compare yields of different crops to identify those that are most resilient and productive in adverse conditions. I guess my greatest harvest was experience and more of an idea of how to hopefully tweak our methods to have greater success in future seasons.
It is really important to note the abundance of fruit we had this year despite the water shortage. Though apricots did not produce this year, there were plenty of cherries, peaches, and especially apples to go around. There was so much fruit across the region that people were complaining that it was going to waste more than it was being harvested and processed. We spent days picking, peeling, and drying fruit and still did not have the capacity to make use of all that was bestowed upon us. It goes to show that in one lens the conditions look scarce, but from another the view is more abundant than you can handle.
Closing this meager season is the start of a hopeful one, having planted a good stand of winter wheat by mid October and five rows of garlic by the end of November. The winter wheat was planted in the rows that were tilled and planted with corn and squash, to little success. The soil was still workable and had more structure than freshly-tilled soil and was broken up and shaped with a hoe and fluffed with a digging fork. The wheat seed that survived crow and pigeon predation emerged and went dormant by end of November, but seemed to green up again with warm weather in December. Our garlic harvest of three rows in July was barely enough to replant plant five rows, illustrating again the interplay between how much harvest is reserved for planting a given area of land in the following years. I remember seasons of planting 7 to 9 rows of garlic, many of which were over 2.5 inches in diameter. This year our garlic harvest resulted in a handful of cloves over 1.5 inches in diameter and most around 1.25 inches. Some of our garlic was harvested looking like it was over a year old when it was peeled, presumably due to the lack of water needed for it to complete its life cycle. This year we mostly ate the runts of the harvest, garlic cloves under 1 inch. Sorry that there was not much garlic for gifts or for sale this year!
Besides the actual garden activity, there are some other notable developments to highlight this year. The treasurer of AIRE is Micah Roseberry who is an experienced farmer and owner of the Farmhouse Cafe in Taos. She is piloting a project called “Growing Community Now” that is currently feeding about 600 students local, organic meals to children in day care and schools here in Taos. She has acquired funding from the Lor and Thornburg Foundations to expand this project through education and a strategic planning process that includes local organizations Not Forgotten Outreach veterans-in-agriculture organization and the Taos County Economic Development Corporation which has certified kitchen facilities. We are looking forward to a year of collaboration around the goals of feeding children local healthy food and helping more farmers get active to support the program!
Another notable development this year is the revival of the “¡Que Vivan las Acequias!” radio program that is brought to the airwaves through a collaboration between AIRE, the NMAA, and Cultural Energy. Right now Cultural Energy is broadcasting our show the first Monday of the month at 8 AM on 90.1 FM in the Taos area. Shows can also be downloaded at http://www.culturalenergy.org/listenlinks.htm. This year we were able to produce eight 28-minute shows that highlight the work of the SemSem project and the NMAA, as well as other aspects of acequia culture in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. We hope to Podcast and YouTube the shows as well, some shows are on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/GrowFarmers.
At the time of this writing there is snow on the ground and it looks good for the irrigation season of 2019, with more snow now than this time last year I am sure. We got snow in October, something I have not seen in years. We have had two substantial snows since and the prediction is for a late El Niño season which would give us more precipitation starting in February 2019. I feel like agriculture has always been risky but now has a new challenging aspect of climate unpredictability. Despite that backdrop, we predict the next season will be better than the last and we will carry on and try new things, hoping to have ever-better years. To start, we will be making and applying more compost, compost extract, biochar, and working on terracing our irrigated garden beds for maximum moisture retention while moving forward with crops and methods that will best be suited, hopefully, for resilience and expansion in growing seasons to come. We also intend to expand our education program and offer more workshops so stay tuned for that! Thank you for reading about our efforts and stay posted for future developments!
A tough water year like the last means harvesting lot of learning. The only thing for certain in the current climate seems to be change. Those, who like you, are prepared to use best practices, pay attention to the results and adapt will help us survive. Thanks for sharing Miguel!