Farming as the Climate Changes: Molino de la Isla, East Pecos, New Mexico

October 22, 2020

The world is facing a climate crisis and the changes this brings are dramatically impacting farmers across the world. As temperatures rise and rainfall becomes increasingly unpredictable, production is dropping and businesses are struggling. However, in the United States, climate change still divides opinion. Many still question its scientific validity, including the President who said climate change was ‘an expensive hoax’ and pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement.

However, in opposition to those climate-deniers, there are passionate and engaged people across America who are desperately working to keep us within the two-degree Celsius limit. In light of that division, we wanted to talk to farmers across the US to understand how they view climate change and what steps (if any) they were taking to address it.

The SFT will run this series over the coming months, featuring a diverse range of American farmers. This week we interviewed Ralph Vigil who runs Molino de la Isla in northern New Mexico. Molino de la Isla Organics is an organic farm created to promote and to protect the acequias of Nuevo Mexico through organic agriculture, regional marketing and consumer education for the socio-economic benefit of local communities. The acequias are an organised system of waterways for agriculture and there are over 100 throughout the state. Molino de la Isla runs a CSA veg share scheme and works with young people to preserve traditional agricultural practices.

What are your biggest concerns about climate change and its effect on your farm in particular?

Water. Water is everything for agriculture. Climate change has definitely put us in a bind when it comes to drought here in New Mexico. We’ve been in a severe drought for quite some time. I’ve noticed that the river doesn’t run off the way it used to, and if it does, it’s here and there. The summers are getting warmer, frost comes earlier. The seasons are totally off-balance and the farmers find it really difficult to predict them – what we call in the old days here in the New Mexico ‘las cabañuelas’, which is a way of predicting the weather later in the year, based on what is happening early in the year.

Our watersheds, which we live off of, in the Pecos Wilderness, if they’re not healthy, our rivers don’t flow, our springs don’t flow and we can’t get that water to our acequias, to irrigate off of. It’s been really tough with the water situation because it does start pitting neighbours against each other – larger farmers who have bigger fields against smaller farmers like myself who produce food for people to eat. There has to be some sort of balance. Those are some of the challenges – drought and the risk of wildfires that destroy everything and wreak havoc.

That’s why I fight so hard for the work I do with acequias because without clean water, nobody has anything. Every politician running for office says water is a precious commodity – it’s not. It’s a precious resource. You try to commodify water and you’re going to have the gentrification of water, when everybody needs water to survive including plant and animal life. Acequias play a big role in that system. They are basically ephemeral streams.

So, what we need to do with these acequias systems is keep them going and get more support for small farmers. The acequias are such a huge part, providing that system [of food production] to our communities, recharging our aquifers, providing habitat for plant life and ecosystems that are important for our luscious arid valleys. If it weren’t for the extensions of the greenbelt that the acequias create, our valleys wouldn’t be here. People don’t see that. They’re such an integral part of our landscape and they’ve been here so long, 400 or 500 years. They run with the land and it’s the lifeblood of our community. We have a saying: ‘El agua es vida ‘ – ‘Water is life’.

What climate issues have you encountered in your region? Have you had any particularly severe weather events that are climate change related?

I’m very fortunate that where I live, we’re blest. The last fire we had was six years ago, but there’s always that imminent threat. But other places in New Mexico have just been pounded, like the Gila Wilderness down south, the Capitan Mountains in Rio d’Oso, Los Alamos.

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There are parts of New Mexico that are getting vicious hail storms. They’re wiping out farmers on the I-40 corridor, all the way to Texas. I know farmers who have been losing a lot of crops yearly. What I’ve seen is extreme – it doesn’t rain soft anymore, it rains hard. It pours and there are flash floods. It doesn’t give us that steady moisture that saturates.

And the cold has changed. Last week, we had a freeze here, my corn wasn’t even ready. We got snow in the middle of September. I think it broke records, earliest snow in the history of the State. These are the types of events that I’m talking about. A lot of people don’t recognise it, but I’m out here working the land all the time. I see it, I can feel it, I can sense it, it’s a part of me.

Right now, these poor birds, we’ve had all these birds, dead, all the way to California. They’re saying it’s a mix of the smoke [from the fires] weakening their systems and drought – there’s no food for them – and the cold when they weren’t expecting it and they hadn’t developed their winter feathers. It’s like a triple whammy. They just didn’t have the strength to survive.

What have you done to prepare for more aggressive changes in weather and climate as global warming continues to intensify and what have you done as a business or individually to prepare?

My farm was created 12 years ago to teach kids about acequias and how to do a lot of the old traditional things, like saving seed. At that time, I was appointed to the New Mexico Acequia Commission because my family has always been involved with the acequias. My great, great, great, great grandfather was the first Hispanic territorial governor of New Mexico. He established these acequias. The acequia that I’m on, Acequia de Molino, was developed for a wheat mill.

So, it’s evolved to where I’m making a living. I have some high tunnels, so I can extend the season. In the winter, I do greens into the schools. It’s great because the watered-down iceberg lettuce that they get has no nutritional value. I’ve seen that we can create healing within ourselves, we can make money, we can keep our watershed great, I can educate at the same time and I can provide healthy food to my community that needs it, because stores like Dollar General have overrun Northern New Mexico and all our small communities. Fresh food is out the window and it’s all processed now – all people have access to, is junk. It’s not even food – there’s no nutritional value, it’s all full of fillers. Working together with the schools and the senior programmes, it’s been a blessing.

In relation to climate change, I’ve gone from flood irrigation to drip irrigation where I’ve used a filter and pump out of my acequia system – it’s a system I’ve been passing on to other farmers where they don’t have to put in big infrastructure. I’m also growing more tolerant crops for my area, getting seed that is drought tolerant. I’m doing more storage crops – beans, winter squash, onions, carrots, beets – things that hold longer. When there is more water, I do still flood irrigate. One thing that people don’t understand about our acequias systems that are near rivers, is that the rivers flow beneath the land. When I flood irrigate, those shallow aquifers are getting recharged. My water is going through the ground, hitting the river again and going back out into the river.

Climate change isn’t the only threat. Policy is also a huge threat. The state of New Mexico is promoting [migration] into the state, even though we don’t have the water. That [migration] is going to put pressure on our water. Small farmers like me are going to be in the middle of political battles on water adjudication.

Do you get any support from local or state government to help you negotiate climate change impacts on your farming?

I get a lot more from non-profits. Non-profits have really done the work. I don’t have time to be out there chasing grants, so they obtain them and distribute the money. So, Center of Southwest Culture in Albuquerque is a great one that’s really been helpful – they got me my high tunnels, and a lot of equipment and seed; they helped me find markets and put me in touch the New Mexico Farmers’ Marketing Association. They’ve been working together with Farm to Table and the New Mexico Acequia Association to try and shorten our food chains.

I wanted to feed more of my community at large, more of the people who are socially disadvantaged. I’m accepting EBT now – and we have ‘Double Up Bucks’, so they can swipe their EBT card for $10 and the Government will top that up to $20. With COVID-19, a lot of money got released to non-profits in grants to facilitate farm to table programmes in communities. I want to ride this wave – there’s an opportunity because of the need. People don’t want to go to the grocery store anymore – it’s created a fear – so I can provide that service.

I feel that there are a lot of different avenues from government to help subsidise small farmers to shore up the food chain, so the more disadvantaged have access to fresh food. It’s an investment in our State, it’s an investment in our Medicare and Medicaid and our insurance.

What do you think needs to be done to help mitigate climate change and how do you see farming playing a positive role in this?

We all know that healthy soil will help us capture carbon and that’s huge. We must find a way to incubate more farmers, we need to make it sexy. We need to find those people who want to do it. We need to gear our food system more to support our local food chain and quit depending on someone else’s water and take care of ourselves. If I’m eating food from somewhere else, that’s someone else’s water. Hyper-local is the way to go.

What is your major priority for future US farm policy?

Water. When you start looking at water, it’s clear this Administration wants to destroy every last stream. They just want to open it up to industry. It’s that whole dependency of what we’re using that water for. Where is it going? Just look at the Midwest or the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf, all the chemicals, all the pollutants, that huge dead zone. If we continue on this path there’s not going to be life for us here and mother nature’s going to do what she does best and shake us off her back.

Water is everything – the only reason we survive here is because of water, the only reason anything survives here is because of water. We’re not talking about it, we’re not thinking about it; we’re just using it and polluting it, not thinking about what it’s being used for and how it could be used better. Discussions are not being had and people don’t want to sit at the table and negotiate. So, we never get to the table and those that have the power and the money make the decisions. Water policy has to be the number one priority because there is nought that we can do in this country without water.

Photograph: Molino de la Isla 

Tags: acequias, building resilient food and water systems, climate change adaptation strategies, water policy