Blog #82: Using less water for New Mexico farming
My father's cousin raised table grapes in California’s central valley, and many of my in-laws are farmers: of filberts, hazelnuts, pumpkins, corn, mint, strawberries, Maui onions, and herbs. But I am not a farmer, and was not raised on a farm.
However, my lack of experience should not disqualify me from sticking my foot in my mouth about farming.
It appears that many farmers decide what to grow based on water availability and local tradition. Does this make sense? Not necessarily.
Fifteen years ago, our eldest daughter’s soccer team gathered at one of the other parent's homes. Albuquerque was experiencing a drought, and watering of landscaping was being limited to a few times a week. As we walked up to the front door, the lawn was being flooded with irrigation water. They lived in the valley and had access to irrigation water from the Rio Grande. Their water rights came with the home they owned. So they viewed access to water as unlimited.
This is common. Water rights owners must exercise their rights or risk losing them, which means growing crops that use all the water you are entitled to.
Hay is the largest cash crop in New Mexico. (If you believe the numbers from the groups who want to legalize marijuana, cannabis is the second largest cash crop.) Hay is easy to grow, so if you have water rights, you are, as they say, in “tall clover.” Why hay? Because New Mexico’s history is rooted in ranching: cattle, sheep and horses eat hay.
So in both water rights and farming tradition, New Mexico encourages farming of a water-thirsty crop. That’s not good for a state poor in water.
What do we do?
One option is for the state to seize all excess water. The state can seize land under eminent domain; it can do the same with water. But the cost to society would be huge. You do not need to be a history buff to remember the water wars of the 1800 and early 1900s.
Better option? Find an alternate crop that uses less water than hay, and that is sufficiently profitable to provide a livable wage. Once that is accomplished, the state can purchase any excess water rights.
A possible alternative
No, I’m not going to recommend marijuana farming in New Mexico. But whatever happened to that other intoxicating New Mexico crop – green chile?
Harvesting green chile is labor intensive, and there is a lack of willing labor. Farmers have started to plant other crops. When farmers of other crops faced the same dilemma, agricultural universities have designed harvesters to do the work of low paid / low skilled workers. We need our ag schools to design an efficient chile plant harvester.
Next, we must increase the market for New Mexico grown crops. People across America are fans of California wine and Wisconsin cheese, and they are starting to be sold on New Mexico green chile. How do I know? On a recent trip to Norfolk, VA I came across a sign for Mew [sic] Mexico Green Chili [sic] in a national chain grocery store.
In sum: we must identify alternative crops, overcome any obstacles to efficient harvesting, and market our farm products nationwide. Then the state can purchase any excess water rights and use that water for residents and businesses, giving New Mexico more water security for the future.