Growing Nuts in NM

In the morning we visited the Haley Pecan Farm, just west of Roswell. The 1,600 acre farm is owned and operated by Bruce Haley, who recently received an $891,000 USDA Rural Development loan guarantee/grant package for the installation of a 350 kW solar voltaic system. Bruce showed us around the array, which was constructed in 2010 and is currently the largest sole proprietor solar project west of the Mississippi River. It consists of 1,518 solar panels that generate more than enough electricity to power the pump on a large well that provides water to irrigate the neighboring pecan orchards. The cost of the 350 kW solar system was $1.5 million (compare that to $1 million for a 1 MW wind system – a better deal, but the wind potential is low in the Roswell area), but Bruce estimates payback in about four and a half years – thanks to the grants, tax credits, checks from the local utilities company (rather than bills) and renewable energy credits ($10,000 to $13,000 per month) he receives.

From the solar array, we walked across the road to a lush, shady pecan orchard where Bruce described the history of Haley Pecan Farm. The land was once farmed by his father in alfalfa and cotton production. Over time, his father saw how lucrative the pecan business was becoming in New Mexico and slowly started transitioning his fields into orchards. This move required some patience – and faith – as it takes about 12 years for pecan trees to become established and begin producing. It was at this point that Bruce became involved in the farm, and eventually took over.

Bruce estimates that there are about 40,000 trees in his orchards; in total, he and his staff manage 92 separate fields in the area. Pecan orchards require a certain amount of maintenance: the orchards must be flooded every two weeks (pecans require 5 acre-feet of water for maximum production), fed with zinc foliar sprays four to five times per season, and thinned regularly so that sunlight reaches through the canopy. Bruce sells his nuts to New Mexico pecan shellers and also directly to Chinese buyers after the harvest in late November. Pecan production is extremely variable from year to year. Last season, the farm brought in a bumper crop of about 6,000 pounds of pecans per acre; this year Bruce is expecting to harvest 500 pounds per acre. In total, the farm produced 6 million pounds of pecans last year – about 10% of New Mexico’s entire pecan crop. Because of the variability of pecan farming, Bruce hedges his bets by getting creative. He owns specialized equipment like tree-spades (used for transplanting full-grown trees) and tree-shakers (used for harvesting nuts) that he contracts out to local farms. He also helps smaller growers in the area by buying their harvests at a fair price and then aggregating the nuts with his product. This is necessary because the smallest sale that most distributors or buyers will make is on the order of 48,000 pounds. It was great to see such creative and thoughtful management of an orchard this size.

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After we bade Bruce goodbye and had a quick roadside picnic lunch, we headed northeast toward Portales. Our next destination was the Sunland Peanut Butter Plant. Sunland Inc. was formed in 1988 and aggregates, processes and distributes Valencia peanuts grown by local farmers in eastern New Mexico and west Texas. Portales is known as the Valencia Peanut Basin of the Nation, as about 90% of the Valencia peanuts produced in the US are grown within 120 miles of the Sunland Plant. Veronica gave us a tour of the processing facility and warehouse, where both organic and conventional peanut butters are made and stored. Sunland makes its own brand of peanut butters, and it also has contracts with numerous other brands, such as Trader Joe’s, Costco and Sunflower Farmer’s Market. In fact, most of the organic and additive-free peanut butters available in the US are made at the Sunland plant. We also toured the roasting and shelling facility, where both in-shell and shelled peanuts are roasted, bagged, stored, and then shipped across the world.

We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak briefly with the Sunland Inc. CEO, Jimmy Shear. He has been managing Sunland since its inception in the late 80s. Even though the company has grown substantially over the past two decades (it now has 100 employees), Jimmy still operates Sunland as a small, family-owned business. In order to save on operation costs, he is currently looking into investing in some form of onsite renewable energy – preferably wind – to generate electricity to run the energy-intensive plant. Jimmy has also found an economically viable way for Sunland to coexist with the expanding local dairy industry. Peanut hulls are now sold to local dairies to use as cattle feed, and some of the Valencia peanut production has moved just across the border into west Texas, where arable land is plentiful and more affordable.

Our last stop of the day was at a recently planted peanut farm in Portales that sells its harvest to Sunland. For most of us, it was our first time seeing a field of peanuts! Peanuts are legumes that, unlike beans and peas, grow underground and are irrigated by center-pivot systems. They are usually planted in May and harvested in the early autumn. Each plant grows about 20 peanuts that have three to five kernels per shell. The sandy soil of the Portales valley and surrounding high plains is favorable for plentiful peanut production.

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Ranney Ranch Grassfed Beef

Today was the day that many of our students had been looking forward to from the outset of the field school. We were going to visit the Ranney Ranch, a grassfed beef operation to the southeast of Corona that practices holistic rangeland management techniques. As we headed northeast out of Las Cruces to Corona, we passed through the sparkling White Sands National Monument, drove by the verdant Sacramento Mountains and finally reached the more arid Gallinas Mountains. Nancy Ranney, one of the ranch owners, met us at the entrance to the ranch and led us up the dirt road to the headquarters where we were offered drinks and snacks. After introductions to Sara Ranney (Nancy’s niece) and Melvin Johnson (the ranch manager for 27 years), we settled in to learn about the ranch’s history.

In 1968, George Ranney bought two adjoining properties that became the Ranney Ranch. Upon his death in 2002, he left the ranch as a family partnership to his four children and their spouses and his ten grandchildren. At that point in time, Nancy and Melvin began seriously looking into holistic management practices, in order to improve the ecological condition of the rangeland. They decided to combine the 21 separate herds of cattle that were once dispersed across the ranch into one, and move the larger herd on a planned rotational grazing basis in order to give the 18,000 acres of land ample time to recover and the vegetation regenerate. Originally the ranch had been dominated by a blue grama grass monoculture; within three years of practicing rotational grazing, over 25 species of native perennial cool and warm season grasses and legumes had returned. At the same time the ranch was seeing increased biodiversity and soil organic matter, it decreased its fuel costs associated with checking on the herd by 50% and feed costs by 60%.

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The ranch sold its first range-raised, humanely handled, grassfed beef in 2004. Now most customers come to Nancy via the internet or through word of mouth. Calves are 100% grassfed; they have never been given any grains, hormones or antibiotics, and their meat is low in fat and cholesterol and high in vitamin E, beta-carotene, antioxidants and heart-healthy fatty acids. Each fall, beeves are sold to customers and humanely slaughtered and dry aged by the Mennonite-run Fort Sumner Processing Facility.

Recently, Ranney Ranch has made a foray into alternative energy. On a smaller scale, they have replaced several older windmills at watering troughs with efficient solar powered pumps. On a larger scale – and in conjunction with the Southern Corona Landowners’ Association – the ranch has signed a contract with FirstWind, a wind power company out of Boston, to install turbines and transmission infrastructure on their property. Although Nancy knows that this decision will negatively impact the land in a number of ways, she is hopeful that the revenue generated from the lease will allow the ranch to be more profitable. This move may also help convince other landowners in the area to move toward a more sustainable future by investing in renewable energy.

After the in-depth overview of the ranch, we loaded into pickups and headed overland across bumpy dirt roads to get a sense of the ranch’s scale. We stopped at a number of water tanks to see the cattle and horses. We also explored an ancestral Puebloan ruin and searched for potsherds. The highlight of the day was a lunch of home-made Ranney Ranch brisket sandwiches in a shaded side canyon, and an afternoon adventure into a cave with a freshwater spring seeping out of the sandstone wall. At the end of the day we were physically exhausted, but mentally invigorated. We had seen a progressive, sustainable model of ranching that really seemed to work! The excitement among the students was palpable, and dissipated little as we pulled into Roswell that evening.

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Self Reliance is Empowering

The final week of the field school will be spent exploring community gardens, ranches, dairies, orchards and processing facilities in southern New Mexico. Our group reconvened on UNM campus early Monday morning and headed three and a half hours south to Anthony, located near the Texas border. We arrived at the Anthony Community Garden and met up with Rebecca Wiggins-Reinhard, a staff member of La Semilla Food Center. According to their website, La Semilla strives to “build a healthy, self-reliant, and sustainable food system in the Paso del Norte region of southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.” The center works to address hunger, food insecurity and healthy food access through community education and partnerships.

Rebecca gave us a tour of the Anthony Community Garden, a project created by the grassroots Colonias Development Council and maintained in partnership with La Semilla Food Center. The community garden was founded in December 2008; the quarter acre site has a greenhouse, a compost area, numerous family garden plots, a small orchard, a functioning horno (built by YCC youth), and an outdoor adobe ramada classroom in progress. Out of the community garden initiative have grown school gardens and garden clubs at nearby elementary and junior high schools. Community members and youth associated with the garden have also helped Anthony families establish backyard gardens at their homes. A new program – Raíces de Tradición – now engages community garden youth and their families in gardening, cooking and nutrition activities, and is held at the neighboring Women’s Intercultural Center.

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After our tour of the Anthony Community Garden, we walked over to the Women’s Intercultural Center for a delicious Tex-Mex style lunch (prepared by women in the facility’s commercial kitchen) and more conversation about youth and community food initiatives. The center is a fascinating organization that “intertwines learning opportunities, economic development options, and relationship building with the larger community for purposes of mutual consciousness-raising.” Its mission is to provide bilingual education and economic opportunities to women who have recently migrated to the US from Latin America. Center participants have created viable handicraft, food-based, and other entrepreneurial businesses, and have become well-respected border/immigration/human rights advocates. The feeling of empowerment in the center is tangible – in fact, local women were trained in alternative construction techniques and in 2001 built the center’s beautiful 7,000 square foot rammed earth/recycled tire structure themselves!

After lunch we headed north to Las Cruces, to the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum (with a quick detour past fragrant onion fields, and through shady tree-lined roads to Stahmann’s Pecan Farm and Store). Students explored the Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum exhibits – some of the highlights being the green chile, New Mexico dairies, and Dust Bowl exhibits – and then spent the remainder of the afternoon working in a museum classroom crafting their research posters. After the sun set and the temperatures dropped below 100° F, the group enjoyed a delicious New Mexican dinner in Old Mesilla and strolled around the plaza in the sultry evening.

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Sheep is Life

From Chinle we headed east through the Navajo Nation to Tsailé, where a branch of the Diné College is located. There we gathered with a dedicated group of fiber addicts and culture seekers for the Sheep is Life festival. Churro sheep, first brought to the Southwest by the Spanish conquistadors in the mid-1500s, have become an important part of Navajo culture. These sheep are extremely hardy: they are highly resistant to disease, require little water, and eat a diverse selection of vegetation. Today Navajo-churro sheep are considered a rare heritage breed and are raised for both wool and meat.

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At the Sheep is Life festival, informational booths and vendors were spread across a shady field next to the college rodeo grounds. Workshops on spinning, felting and weaving were taking place. Assorted fleece, yarn and weaving supplies were for sale. Churro sheep were being shown in the rodeo grounds. Bags of fleece were being judged on their quality. A weaving exhibition – Chant of the Spider: A Holistic Journey into Diné Fiber Arts – and weaving sale were set up in the campus museum. The group spent a few hours enjoying the activities at the festival, and then jumped back in the vans and headed home for a brief reprieve before the final week of the field school. Next week we’ll be wrapping things up in the southern part of the state.

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Canyon de Chelly

Although the field school is mainly focusing on the New Mexico foodshed, we did feel it necessary to make a foray into northeastern Arizona to learn more about indigenous lifeways. Just outside of Chinle, we met up with Navajo guides Adam Teller and Harris Hardy (from Antelope House Tours) at the Canyon de Chelly visitor center. They agreed to take us into Canyon del Muerto, down the Stacking Rock Trail, to learn about native dryland agriculture in the National Monument. We drove east on the North Rim Drive for a few miles, parked the vehicles at a lone stone hogan and headed down into the canyon  by scrambling over steep orange sandstone ledges that were once ancient sand dunes. Our guides pointed out Anasazi paths – zigzagging trails of hand- and toe-holds chipped into the sandstone walls – and small caves at the top of the cliffs where Navajo had sheltered (with seedling fruit trees) when Kit Carson and his troops invaded the area in the 1860s. As we descended, the wide flat canyon bottom came into view and we got our first glimpse of agriculture in the canyon – orchards of fruit trees, rectangular fields of grass hay and small gardens of corn, beans and squash.

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In the canyon we visited with Adam Teller’s aunt, who raises sheep and grows much of her own food. She no longer works and lives in Chinle, having decided to farm full time in the canyon and make a living by selling her weavings. We watched her weave part of a small rug of naturally-dyed fiber on an upright loom, and listened to the story of Spider Man and Spider Woman (the holy people who taught the Navajo how to weave). We also got to try our hand at turning carded wool into coarse yarn using a wooden spindle. Next, we viewed the verdant fruit orchards, the small vegetable garden and the corn fields. The water table is surprisingly high in the canyon – less than a few feet below the sandy wash. Even during periods with little rain, the high water table allows plants to grow relatively easily in the canyon. When more water is needed, large trenches are dug into the sand; the water that collects is then carried in buckets to the fields, and each plant is watered sparingly.

After our farm visit we continued walking in the sandy canyon wash, passing by Junction Ruin and First Ruin, ancient Anasazi cliff dwellings. After a few hours of hiking through the spiritual landscape we climbed triumphantly out of the canyon, emerging at the Tunnel Overlook on the South Rim Drive. Feeling refreshed after a rest and a number of iced teas, part of the group decided to make the most of the remainder of the day by taking in the viewpoints on the South Rim Road. The highlight, of course, was the last: the sacred spire of Spider Rock where Spider Woman is said to live.

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El Agua es la Vida

We all know that water is an integral part of sustaining life. We also know that average annual rainfall is relatively low throughout the Southwest. (Currently, the Albuquerque area is on day 130 with no measurable rainfall.) Ironically, because there is an abundant supply of surface water stored in a series of large reservoirs – paired with an expert system of distribution – much of the public assumes that water scarcity is not an issue. The public also tends to think that water managers and environmentalists are fundamentally at odds. Our visit to the Navajo Dam brought some of these misconceptions to light and put the issues into perspective.

The Navajo Dam is an earthen dam that was constructed on the upper San Juan River during 1957-1962.  It was built as a part of the Colorado River Storage Project, a system of dams and reservoirs across the Southwest that manage the water supply and distribution in the Colorado River Basin. The reservoir behind the dam, Navajo Lake, is 35 miles long and stores 1,708,600 acre feet of water at full capacity. The Navajo Dam provides flood control and water (municipal, domestic, industrial and agricultural) to northern New Mexico and water to the middle Rio Grande Valley (including the City of Albuquerque) through the San Juan-Chama Diversion Project. The City of Albuquerque, with a population of almost 550,000, has annual rights to 48,200 acre-feet of San Juan-Chama Diversion water. Compare that to the 508,000 acre-feet from Navajo Dam that is allocated to NAPI on an annual basis!

An interesting fact to ponder is that most US dam/reservoir systems have been constructed to have an expected lifetime of 100 years, based on average siltation rates. Some may last as long; some may not (a good example of a reservoir that has experienced faster-than-expected siltation rates is Lake Powell). Very little planning has taken place to prepare for that point in the future when the large dams of the Colorado River Storage Project can no longer function at their present capacities. One has to wonder how Southwestern cities and large-scale desert agriculture can be sustained when the current water supply cannot be guaranteed much past the year 2050.

For environmentalists, Navajo Dam has been a mixed blessing. Although the reservoir affects the fluvial and terrestrial ecosystems of the San Juan River up to 35 miles upstream of the dam, the flows are now carefully monitored to ensure that enough water is released downstream – and diverted through the San Juan-Chama tunnels – to keep up the flows of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque in order to sustain the endangered silvery minnow.

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After a roadside picnic lunch in Farmington, we drove back in the direction of NAPI on our way to the NMSU Agricultural Science Center Experiment Station. The landscape was a strange juxtaposition of things both sacred and profane, traditional and modern. In the foreground the Four Corners Power Plant belched black smoke, slightly obscuring the more distant monolithic Shiprock, which solemnly towered above the gently undulating desert plain.

At the NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station, we were given an in-depth tour by station researchers Drs. Kevin Lombard and Mick O’Neill. Although the Experiment Station was originally established in collaboration with the Navajo Nation (and NAPI) to research which crops grew best in the sandy soils of the Four Corners region, it now serves a much larger community – from small agricultural producers to industrial operators, as well as rural and urban homeowners and growers.

The diversity of research performed at the station, and the progressive nature of much of the work was extremely impressive. Numerous viticulture trials of both wine and table grapes are underway. Linear forests of fast-growing poplar are being cultivated for the fibrous filling in swamp cooler pads. In other sections of the poplar forest, studies on the uptake of heavy metals and pharmaceuticals from humanure (biosolids from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority) are being performed. Offsite, the phytoremediative properties of poplar are being tested in areas contaminated with nitrates (dairies) and free product (natural gas exploration and extraction wells). A number of hops varietals are being cultivated for high yield production in the arid Southwest, for the benefit of numerous regional microbreweries. Researchers are also experimenting with trendy, high value specialty crops like goji berries.  In addition, the Experiment Station maintains an urban xeriscaping demonstration garden and various low-water use turf grass trials. Sometimes, scientific research can seem gratuitous and irrelevant; however, the projects at the NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station are especially relevant to the current (economic and climatic) condition of our region. In all, researchers at the facility strive to expand the economic opportunities available to local growers and value-added producers, as well as develop low water use crops better suited to the area.

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Navajo Pride

The third week of the field school, which will be spent exploring the Four Corners region of New Mexico and Arizona, began at the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI) just south of Farmington. On our way to NAPI, we stopped for lunch at the desolate Angel Peak Scenic Area, a part of the beautiful San Juan Basin Badlands. The students were kind enough to indulge my geology-related tendencies and even pretended to be impressed with the scenery – and the picnic lunch, for that matter.

As we approached NAPI Headquarters from the east, we left the dusty pastel desert behind us and entered a geometric landscape of green center-pivot irrigated fields. Steel grey water towers and pumping stations dotted the lush terrain, which was dissected by lines of shimmering blue canals. A noticeable barren spot in the verdant landscape was the NAPI Feedyard, a 10,000-head cattle operation leased by the Brazilian multinational meat company, JBS. For many of us in the group, this was our first opportunity to get up close and personal with industrial scale agriculture.

Upon our arrival at NAPI we were ushered into the boardroom, where our tour guide, Robbie, gave us a brief overview of the facility’s history: In the early 1960s, construction of the Navajo Dam was completed on the upper San Juan River and subsequently, the US Congress authorized the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (NIIP). NIIP consists of a series of 70 miles of canals, tunnels and siphons (plus another 300 miles of lateral canals) that deliver water from the Navajo Dam to the 110,630 acres of irrigable land known as NAPI. NAPI was created by the Navajo Tribal Council in 1970, in order to provide a “self-sustaining, profitable and culturally and environmentally sensitive farming and agricultural processing business for the benefit of the Navajo Nation, the Navajo workforce, and regional and national economies.” NAPI does not exclusively employ Navajo; a small percentage of NAPI’s fields are leased to outside contractors.

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At the Operations & Maintenance (O&M) Department we met manager Lionel Haskie, who described the irrigation system in some depth. We saw the computer systems that remotely manage the complex water distribution from the canals to the fields, and learned about the nightly water orders that each farmer must submit to the O&M control center (which are then relayed to the Bureau of Reclamation office at the Dam). NAPI has an annual diversion right of 508,000 acre-feet of water from Navajo Dam, although on average just 100,000 to 200,000 acre-feet per year are used. Only 70,000 of the 110,630 acres are currently being cultivated, and complete build out of the remaining acreage will occur during the upcoming decades. Upon completion, the NIIP canals will be owned and operated solely by the Navajo Nation (rather than by the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Indian Affairs).

Next we visited the onsite lab, where crops are tested for quality and analyzed for various nutritional components. Numerous crops are grown by NAPI, including alfalfa, wheat, potatoes, barley, corn, beans, squash and chile. These crops are sold nationally and internationally through corporations like Del Monte, Purina, Campbell’s, Frito Lay and Wal-Mart. NAPI even has contracts to sell pinto and black beans to Cuba, as the Navajo Nation is not bound by the US embargo. Ironically, it is rather difficult for the Navajo themselves to access the food that is grown at NAPI.

Last, we toured the bean plant, where pinto beans are shelled, dried and stored in silos so that they can be sorted, packaged and shipped year round. Bean crop manager Roselyn Yazzie described her lifetime involvement in agriculture at NAPI, and her belief in the quality of the Navajo Pride brand. She was extremely proud that the Navajo Pride beans were being sold through Wal-Mart (so, Wal-Mart does sell local products!). The bean fields were being planted during our visit, and Roselyn agreed to let us see the process in action. Large tractors pulling planters 12 rows wide were traversing the sandy orange fields as we arrived. NAPI plants 6,000 acres of beans dryland agriculture style, meaning that these fields are not irrigated but rather depend on rainfall to be productive.

Our visit to NAPI exceeded all of my expectations, and forced me to take a step back and reconsider a number of my preconceived notions about industrial-scale agriculture. Here’s what I came away thinking:

  1. Industrial agriculture is “local.”
  2. There is a lot of pride, care and personal investment that goes into farming at a large scale, just as there is when farming at a much smaller scale.
  3. Industrial scale agriculture creates specialized skills (as opposed to holistic knowledge), compelling everyone to work as a team in order to get the best results.
  4. Employees can be paid fair, living wages to produce a high-quality product.
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