By Quita Ortiz
"It was a choice I made when I was old enough to make the choice," mused Virgil Trujillo as we drove up to the Abiquiu Land Grant. He was referring to his reason for working the land. Virgil Trujillo is a bona fide northern New Mexico rancher. I attribute his calm presence to spending many years in solitude at his ranch, finding companionship only in those within reach: his Blue Heeler named Scooter, his waders, his pala, and the vastness of the uninhabited land that surrounds him. "They do worry about me being out here by myself," he says referring to his wife and children, "…but I enjoy it."
Virgil's Genizaro ancestors settled in the area in the 1700's with the purpose of creating a buffer zone to protect the Spanish colonies. As he drives up the long stretch of dirt road to irrigate grazing areas for his cattle, he tells me about the history of his village, demonstrating his connection to place while displaying an impressive knowledge of Abiquiu history.
There are no doubt many challenges attached to being a rancher, especially in the climate of the various economic shifts that have occurred over the last half-century or so. One might wonder why there are those who choose to endure it knowing there's the option to take up a day job in Los Alamos or elsewhere. "I want to be challenged, questioned, and have the opportunity to explain what I do and why I do it," said Virgil. But it's hard to get a straightforward answer about why some choose the ranch life because between the cracks it's a bit complex; but on the surface it's the familiar discourse of land-based norteños, and it's simple yet profound: love of place, love of land.
One of the challenges to ranching according to Virgil is the lack of the availability of USDA-inspected meat-processing infrastructure. Ranchers are basically obligated to auction their cattle to other facilities for processing. It's not all in vain though. There are still a few local auction barns, but with advances in technology making use of the internet to auction off cattle has become a convenient option for ranchers. He raises cattle for both sustenance and income. Generally, his family will butcher one cow that will last a year, and he'll market the rest of his cattle.
As we continue on up the mountain, Virgil continues to list the challenges, one after the other – like raising grass-fed cattle and taking it to a finished product in a short growing season, for example.
Another challenge, which refers to the dominant culture that acequias are enveloped in, is the contemporary (and unsustainable) view on food. "Unfortunately, we're all used to the corn-fed beef from grocery stores," he said. He's optimistic though, "We're in the perfect position to move past these challenges because we're becoming much more conscious and aware of what we're eating, and that will keep us in business." In the age of packaged and processed foods from grocery stores, Virgil hopes this consciousness shift will teach our kids an awareness of what we're consuming. And he adds that the more people understand about the benefits of grass-fed beef, the more they'll learn about grazing sustainably, thereby increasing the demand for it. He also asserts the importance of making it as economically optimal for both the producer and consumer.
Addressing the myriad of a rancher's economic challenges, Virgil uses a poetic analogy to sum up his view: "We all vote everyday and it is extremely powerful. We vote with our dollars. If we keep voting for chemically-produced foods, they're going to make more of it. But if you decide to go shop at the farmers' market, then your vote shifts." At the very least Virgil feels that we should all be aware of what it takes to produce food, "I don't know of a single kid who doesn't love fresh peas," he says. It's not that he expects everyone to work the land, "Not everyone from the city needs to be a farmer. There's work that needs to be done in the city, but if we can provide healthy food to sustain our communities, then we've done our jobs well."
Another challenge to ranching is the lack of authorization to manage lands historically designated as ejido, or common lands of Spanish and Mexican community land grants. Land management is something that Virgil is very familiar with, particularly in reference to those lands that were once managed by acequia ranchers prior to the formation of the U.S. Forest Service, which took over the control and management of these lands beginning in the late 1800s. When the topic of the Forest Service surfaces, it's an obvious bone of contention for Virgil, "Yeah, we have some issues [with the Forest Service]." Grazing permits, acequia easement rights, and general management are all matters that he's forced to deal with.
A current example of a land management issue surrounds the Las Conchas Fire in 2011, which devastated thousands of acres. "Fire is a very normal event," says Virgil, "but the intensity of how it happened should never have been the case because we expect the Forest Service, who took on the responsibility to manage these forests, to do their job and I don't feel they have." He's referring in part to the technocratic approach that the Forest Service takes. Meanwhile there are generations of ranchers who are on the front-lines of these lands everyday and they realize the fluidity of the land's habits and processes, yet they're excluded from the planning and managing process. The level of destruction caused by the Las Conchas Fire was so intense that one of Virgil's acequias was gravely affected by the massive erosion caused by monsoon flooding after the fire. "The damage has rendered one of my ditches ineffective," he said.
Despite all these challenges to ranching, Virgil just rolls with the punches and perseveres. "I grew up within a challenged area," he said, "and it's just a way of life for me." He continues, "People wonder why we do it because of economic and other challenges. I think economics is different for everyone. I'm not rolling in the money; but food is on the table, the lights are on, and there's a roof over my family's head."
After hours of discussion and observing Virgil irrigate and remove silt from his acequias, I began to wonder why he had brought along his horse, who stood in the trailer this whole time. Finally, toward the end of the day we arrived at a spot where he got out of his truck and released his horse to graze. I noticed Virgil as he watched his horse find its way to the others and they all galloped away together, a sight symbolizing pure freedom; no boundaries. In that very moment it became evident why it's worth all the challenges.