Acequia irrigation practices originated in the highlands of Central Asia over 10,000 years ago and later traveled to places like India and the Middle East. As acequias were established in different areas from the Old World to the New, crops from these areas were incorporated into the diet and practice of acequia culture. By the time the acequia system arrived in the Americas in the 16th Century, it carried with it an entourage of crops and animals that represented its origins: apple trees and chickens from Asia, cattle and sorghum from Africa, and sheep and many legumes from the Near East, to name a few.
The Old World acequia tradition was matched by incredible agricultural development of the indigenous populations in the Americas. Indigenous peoples were practicing many kinds of agricultural production that relied on intensive management of the landscape including dryland agriculture, floating gardens, agri-forestry, terracing, and flood irrigation, to name a few. The acequia concept came northward with Spanish and Mexican settlers and later included the crops and practices of Puebloan cultures as it took root in New Mexico.
New Mexico eventually experienced many changes of modernization, many of which have interrupted agricultural practices and our relationship to local food and acequias. Some lands shifted to pasture and alfalfa production, feeding our desire for dairy and meat products. Today, acequia production can be measured in the production of bulk commodities and smaller-scale specialty production that feeds farmers' markets as well as the continuation of traditional agriculture and food traditions. Many foods from the acequia continue to be cornerstone of local culture and regional cuisine, with specialty foods like chicos (dried horno roasted corn stew), tamales, posole, and of course chile, making appearances at least for holidays. Many others consume atole and chaquegüe (blue and white cornmeal porridge) regularly, crops that were grown in or originated from an acequia landscape.
As a person looks to reconnect with local food, the best place to start is with what has worked in the past. The acequia tradition offers practicality and sustainability for food production in our environment that can be characterized by alkaline soils, limited water, and potential weather extremes. Over the generations of agricultural refinement, acequia culture offers examples for the expansion of our regional food system in terms of community organization, resiliency in practice, and its relationship with incidental food production in the landscape.
The term acequia not only refers to the physical irrigation channel, but to all the members who belong to it and help manage it. The local knowledge contained within the community and the organizational structure that keeps people connected to the acequia tradition will be important for strengthening our regional food system. Acequia communities manage resources like water and land together for mutual benefits in agricultural production. These relationships result in people coming together to continue the practices necessary in the production of food like cleaning acequias, picking up bales, or butchering animals (matanzas).
The acequia tradition of agriculture can be described by the use of diverse crop and animal types and land use techniques in the watershed. Production takes on a seasonal character with different activities meeting each season. Root crops and certain grains can be planted in the late Fall; certain frost-tolerant legumes, roots, and other grains can be planted in the late Winter/early Spring; and most grains, legumes, and fruits vegetables can be planted in the late Spring and early Summer. Working with different crops at different times of the year can take advantage of potential qualities of each season, like temperatures and moisture, and can create the conditions for more sustainable yields over the long term.
The jardín de riso is the collection of wild plants that serve as food and medicine that happen to propagate themselves in the irrigated landscape as "weeds." Several varieties of wild spinach (quelites) and purslane (verdolagas) flourish amongst the crops in the acequia fields. The relationship acequias have with the extended landscape provides a connection to other food resources such as piñon, chimaja (wild parsley), and other food and medicinal plants. In this tradition, gathering from the landscape can strengthen our regional food system by making use of wild plants such as four-wing saltbush and Indian Rice grass. These food sources were an important part of the diet of indigenous people of the region prior to European contact and thrive in our landscape.