Food Security & Resilience: Reclaiming the Acequia Landscapes of New Mexico

Jennifer Corlett (MLA I)

Project Overview

Acequias are a simple yet sophisticated system of ditches that carry snow runoff and river water to distant agricultural fields. Acequia hydrologic systems play an important role in creating ecologically healthy, agriculturally productive, and community-sustaining agro-ecosystems, and are a rich part of the region’s cultural heritage. Acequias have been used to manage and conserve scarce water resources for over 400 years, but today acequia landscapes are rapidly being abandoned due to population growth, expanding urban centers, and a shift from farming to salaried employment. Despite these changes, acequia farmland and infrastructure is facilitating the rebuilding of local food systems and boosting the rural economy. Food security requires water security, and in northern New Mexico, water security requires acequia security. This proposal explores the ways that the food security movement has re-engaged the acequia system and revived acequia culture. It examines how acequias are being used in relation to the food security movement by comparing three sites in Pecos, Taos, and Embudo.

Project Information

Food Security and Resilience: Reclaiming the Acequia Landscapes of New Mexico

An acequia, or community irrigation ditch, is a canal that carries snow runoff or river water to agricultural fields.  As simple as it appears to be, the acequia system is an incredible feat of landscape architecture and functions as an extension of the river. The construction of the acequias required enormous physical labor: ditches were dug with wooden spades and shaped with knives, and were designed to take advantage of gravity flow by diverting water upstream from the fields and digging the ditches around trees, large boulders and hills. This construction method resulted in a serpentine character that is common to many acequias. Acequias are also institutions common to the native people of the American Southwest. As Stanley Crawford discusses in his book Mayordomo, the term itself “can refer to both the actual irrigation channel and to the association of members organized around it, [and] derives from the Arabic as-saquiya.” (Crawford, 1993)An acequia organization is led by a mayordomo who administers water usage from a ditch and regulates which water-rights holders can release water to their fields on what days.

Acequias also benefit and play an important role in current developments of local foodsheds and provide economic opportunity for members of rural communities. (Buynak et al, 2008) As Sam Fernald, Assistant Professor in Watershed Management at New Mexico State University, states: “acequia hydrology plays an important role in contributing to an ecologically healthy, agriculturally productive, and community-sustaining floodplain agroecosystem.” They are part of the region’s cultural heritage, and there are approximately 700-800 acequias left in New Mexico, with most concentrated in the northern part of the state. (Arellano, 2011) This system and its culture, however, are at particular risk due to increasing urbanization pressures and associated impacts on water use, water quality, and vegetation along the rivers and irrigation ditches.

New Mexico’s rural communities (many acequia-based) were self-sufficient well into the 20th century, but after recent decades of rapid economic development and technological advances, today’s food system has concentrated power in few corporate hands and increased instances of food insecurity. Additionally, population growth has altered demographics: the majority of migrants to Taos County from 1990-1999 were older, Anglo, and wealthy people looking for “lifestyle amenities” (Mayagoitia et al, 2012), and do not necessarily understand or share native acequia residents’ attachment to water and land. The opening of Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1943 marked a shift from small-scale farming to salaried employment disassociated from the land, a trend which continues today. (Arellano, 2011) The ups and downs of acequia numbers reflect the settlement history of the state, including current trends of urbanization and reduced small-farm activity and farm population. Government-sponsored irrigation projects have also reduced the numbers of acequias. (Buynak et al, 2008) Small farmers and ranchers in New Mexico are now fully integrated into the urban wage economy, and few subsist solely by agriculture.

Despite these changes, agriculture remains vital to New Mexico’s acequia communities as both a livelihood for thousands of families and as a way of life. Aacequia farmland and water rights are increasingly serving as the foundation for rebuilding local food systems. They play an important role in current developments of local foodsheds and provide economic opportunity for members of rural communities. (Buynak et al, 2008) Acequia farmers and ranchers throughout northern New Mexico are beginning to step up and empower their communities by reclaiming control over the local food supply. The acequia is a place-based basis for sustainable agriculture, and it is also invaluable as the “cultural glue” that holds the rural community together. (Peña, 2012)

This paper looks specifically at how the burgeoning food movement creates moments of reclamation and rejuvenation within a broader context of acequia abandonment and deterioration. It compares three different sites in northern New Mexico: the Cicuye del Rio Pecos Farmers Cooperative in Pecos, Squash Blossom Farm in Taos, and a small farm in Embudo. The paper examines how acequia infrastructure is used in the three different sites, how each acequia was revived, how farming systems vary by site, who is currently practicing ancient farming techniques, and what role the acequia farms play in the social lives and cultural heritage of surrounding communities.

The first site is Cicuye del Rio Pecos Farmers Cooperative, newly formed and run by Ralph Vigil, parciante of the Acequia del Molino that irrigates a portion of the site. The farm is located in Pecos, NM, and produce is sold in El Dorado and Las Vegas, with plans to expand into Santa Fe. Sixteen people buy from the co-op weekly, as well as a few restaurants and the local grocery store. The co-op’s goal is to educate, pass on traditional knowledge, and rebuild a fair and sustainable local food system. Three sites make up Cicuye del Rio Pecos: the house plot in East Pecos, the Isla, and the onion garden. All the plots in the area bordering the river are long and linear, usually reaching from the acequia to the river. This is form is called a suerte, and was inherited from the Spanish colonialist government that in turn borrowed from ancient Middle Eastern tradition. Ralph Vigil, manager of the co-op, represents the 8th generation to work the land, and is among the 14th generation of the Vigil family who live in Pecos.

The second site is Squash Blossom Farm, a CSA (community supported agriculture) run by Gael and Ty Minton.  Gael is originally from Vermont, and Ty is a Southwest native from Roswell, NM. They moved to Taos to begin the CSA – an alternative, locally-rooted model of agriculture in which members pay at the beginning of a growing season for weekly shares of the harvest. The farm was begun in 2003 and is irrigated by the Acequia del Monte, which draws from the Rio Chiquito in Taos, NM. The previous land owners at the Squash Blossom Farm site were never able to get the ditches to function properly because they were uneven and had a number of raised areas that blocked water passage. The Mintons hired a team to dig the ditches out anew, and now use the acequia for irrigation (the first time in over 60 years) in addition to well and drip systems.

The third site is a farm in Embudo. The Dixon-Embudo valley is home to the largest population of organic farmers in the state, fed by 10 acequias with the potential to irrigate over 800 acres. However, only 25% of this land is producing, the rest overrun by Siberian Elms and Russian Olives. The two-acre farm site we visited is run by a woman named Loretta, who is originally from southern Colorado and has been farming all her life. Loretta began this farm two years ago, and now sells approximately 30% of her produce at the farmer’s market in Santa Fe. Loretta’s plot differs from the previous two sites because her site functions as more of a research farm than a commercial enterprise. Her primary concern is to keep the soil system in place and generate beneficial mycorrhizal relationships. In terms of farm management Loretta is moving toward a no-till system, which is an exception in this area – she is the only one who does not till; she uses cover crops and a crop rotation system to manage weeds and pests.

Acequia culture and practices are still alive but face a multitude of threats from development, an influx of outsiders who don’t share traditional farming values, urban migration of young people who want to seek opportunity elsewhere, and growing pressure to sell water rights. This research demonstrates that, despite these complex challenges, seeds of change are beginning to appear in a variety of forms. There is a new generation of farmers now beginning to emerge; many are new to northern New Mexico, and some are relatively new to farming. Others are new to neither the place nor the traditions, having come from long lineages of acequia farmers. Regardless their origins, this community represents a resurgence of interest by younger generations who are dissatisfied with current trends of urban migration and want to re-establish an agricultural way of life as viable in today’s economic context. The three farm sites explored in this research represent the new generation of acequia farmers, embody a growing local food culture, and demonstrate moments of rejuvenation and reclamation within the broader acequia context of disrepair.