Growing Strong in a Changing Climate

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By Serafina Lombardi

Temperatures in northern New Mexico this spring kept hopping around the thermometer – warming up enough for fruit trees to flower and cooling down enough to freeze most of the bloom. Cold temperatures delayed many outside plantings and damaged early crops. Abruptly, .  May 29th, it is 84˚ in Española. With warm weather and San Isidro Day behind us everyone feels full permission to get their chile and tomato seeds or starters in the ground. Now that we are clear of the dangers of frost we have anther element to negotiate – heat and low humidity, which is a recipe for more drought.

New Mexico had a record dry January, with a winter of below average snow fall. Last summer, the state was in extreme and exceptional drought. As of May 28 of this year, 84 percent of new Mexico is still in severe drought according to the USDA Drought Monitor. Yet in September of 2013 many areas experienced record torrential rain fall. So what does this season have in store? We don’t know for sure, but we can apply strategies that prepare us to weather the drought and make good on the rain.

Lessons from Dry Land Farming: While we might not all understand the weather, we know that patterns are changing. In fact the pattern isn’t really a pattern at all – it is erratic. This complicates some of our traditional strategies for planting while at the same time leads us back to them. Many acequia farmers have also maintained dry land fields. Dry land farmers are especially aware of weather patterns; we can all learn to have our seed ready for the chance of rain, while also keeping a close eye on the weather to avoid irrigating if rain is soon on the way. Last fall I planted 50lbs of inexpensive winter rye on an acre field in Chimayo with the September rains. It grew and survived the winter until we could irrigate with acequia water starting in April.

Saving Traditional Seed: Traditional farmers throughout the ages have saved their own seed adapting season by season to local soils, climates, pests, and community’s taste buds. “Hyper-local” heirloom seeds that we continue to adapt to our changing needs may be one of our greatest hopes and strengths we have. This means, cherish those family seeds and keep teaching all your relations how to save them. While we may also want to experiment with drought tolerant and adapted plants and seeds, or later blooming trees from other parts of the world – we maintain our history and sovereignty with our native seeds.

Catch What You Can: New Mexican farmers used to pile snow into depressions in the earth to help store the snow when it melted. Even without snow melt we can contour our land in ways that channel rain water to fields or other desirable areas and create “swales” or depressions in our gardens and fields that help capture water (and soil) where it can infiltrate, avoiding run off and erosion. Some farmers in northern Mexico have historically planted fields where arroyos will dump out creating a sort of dryland/irrigated hybrid. Roof top and other rain water harvesting systems are another option to consider. The well known waffle garden is another native New Mexico technique that bridges the water catchment and dry land techniques using indentation and rocks to help hold moisture for the smaller scale garden.

Cover Crop: Preserve your water rights even if you are concerned that you won’t have enough water for row crops this summer. Protect the soil and protect your water rights by keeping the soil covered and green. Cover crops generally need only a few waterings a season. When grown, they enrich soil, for forage, to attract and support pollinators. Poly-culture mixes that involve various varieties increase resilience. Organic matter in the soil, which cover crops add, can dramatically increase the soils ability to hold water, thus reducing the need to irrigate. A cover crop that is not widely used but highly praised is Sainfoin for those looking for something beautiful and multi-purposed to add to their cover crop mix. Anything you can do to keep the ground covered helps hold in moisture.

Easy on the Tractor Rides: Low and no till agriculture is become widely practices even on  industrial scales as water supplies become more scarce in many places and the documented benefits are irrefutable. Tilling deteriorates the carbon ie organic matter in the soil and can kill the good bacteria and fungi that are key to soil health among other concerns. There are special implements and techniques that can be adapted (both for farmers and home gardeners)  – but the main thing to consider is how to plan plantings and rotations that involve the least tilling possible.

Visit your Local NRCS office: The Natural Resource Conservation Service, of the United State Department of Agriculture is available to support  farmers in applying and supporting in the costs of conservation techniques. They can support you in considering various irrigation strategies, season extension techniques, recouping fields from laser leveling and even on farm renewable energy to name a few possibilities. Find the office in your county and let them know what your needs are and how they can support you.

This is just a sampling of some key strategies that might apply to you. Feel free to write us about what has traditionally worked for you to survive summer extremes as well as your experiments and how they are going. After a day of labor in the fields don’t forget to say your prayers at night requesting sweet rain to bless our sacred earth.