Notes From The Field: Protecting Farmland & Water Rights

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By Olivia Romo, NMAA Staff

Paul Romero educates farmers on best techniques in preparing the field -Photo taken by Enrique Romero

On August 18th 2017 over one hundred acequia farmers and ranchers joined the NM Acequia Association in a dynamic workshop that energized participants to continue exercising their water rights and take concrete steps in restoring fallow lands to productive fields. Up until two generations ago, many of our families made most of their livelihood from their ranchitos, or small scale farms. However, with the advent of a global food system that favors agribusiness (and a host of other factors), our communities adapted by becoming wage earners and leaving the farm behind. Today, our acequia communities face commodification of water and land, gentrification, and the challenges of keeping land-based livelihoods economically viable for low-income families. This workshop was led by experts and community leaders from Northern New Mexico to demonstrate and share best practices, resources, and testimonies of land restoration to empower landowners to come back to the land and reap the benefits of engaging in agriculture. The workshop was held at the Historic Los Luceros Ranch in Alcalde, NM where abundant apple trees grow, the Acequia Madre de Alcalde runs full and functional, healthy pasture and livestock thrive.

The morning began with music by David Garcia and Jeremiah Martinez as newly hatched peacocks roamed the ranch and greeted participants.  Opening remarks were given Paula Garcia, Executive Director of NMAA who acknowledged the hard work and dedication of acequia farmers who continue to exercise their water rights, cultivate land, and preserve our cultural heritage.

Enrique Romero, NMAA’s new Staff Attorney, gave an insightful legal presentation on how to protect your water rights from non-use and some of the tax benefits of having and maintaining agricultural land. “The legal benefits of active irrigation include the prevention of the loss of water rights under state law, due to forfeiture or abandonment.”  Enrique then reviewed concepts of abandonment and forfeiture and emphasized that abandonment requires proof of intent to give up water rights. Although showing intent is difficult, it is not impossible.   Also, the longer irrigable land is fallow, the more difficult it becomes to rebut a presumption of intent.  "Essentially, the burden shifts to the landowner after long periods of non-use to show there is no intent to give up your water rights."  Enrique briefly discussed the benefits and limitations of water banking.  “While water banking is a temporary measure to protect against claims of non-use, the best way to legally protect water rights is to irrigate every few years at least.”

Legal presentation -Photo taken by Serafina Lombardi

Enrique then discussed the property tax benefits of having irrigable land valued as agricultural rather than residential or some other classification.  County assessors value agricultural land at a lower rate than residential land and will therefore impose lower taxes.  There are statutory and regulatory limitations on what counts as ag land, which Enrique briefly discussed.  While county assessors have the duty to accurately assess and reassess property values to ensure the agricultural valuation is allowed for those engaged in bonafide agriculture, assessors should not be overly strict in interpreting the statute or regs.  "The agricultural valuation statute clearly says that a land should be valued as ag based on its capacity to produce agricultural products.  You shouldn't have to be a successful farmer or a commercial farmer to qualify for the ag valuation." 

 Afterward, we had a beautiful testimony by Patricia Quintana, farmer/rancher and vice president of the Taos Valley Acequia Association presented on the challenges and spirit it takes to restore fallow land. As a single woman, Patricia has taken on a 20 acre restoration project with the struggle of finding little to no skilled labor, evicting prairie dogs, and moving water on land that had not been quenched in decades. “The earth is a grandmother, and when we work the land she sighs in relief, giving thanks!” Patricia reminded us to recognize the divine feminine when we are working mother earth and sister water. Only with respect, love, and dedication to all our women can we be good stewards of la madre tierra! After a full morning, the group broke out into outside demonstrational workshops.

Paul Romero, local Alcalde farmer led a group on preparing the field, where he discussed techniques in removal of invasive species, nurturing the soil, and disking. “If chile, green beans, and corn were as strong as bind weed we would be marketing our produce rapidly and have strong healthy fields. Generally, you need to begin by burning weeds or using a rotor tiller. To keep your place weed free and you will have a great garden, harvest, and a good time! After removal of any noxious weeds you can plant a cover crop that suits your goal providing nutrients to your soil. When you’re ready plow it back into the soil and plant the three sisters! If your land can produce strong alfalfa or grass, this is a testimony that you can grow anything and don’t forget to analyze your soil!”

Del Jimenez, Agricultural Specialist at the Alcalde Science Center and Mykel Diaz, Farmer and Farming Consultant led a Cover Crops and Elm Tree Removal group. From personal restoration experience, Mykel discussed his techniques in restoring land by first removing thicket, cactus, elm trees and other invasive species by cutting them down with a chainsaw, burning, and then using rippers to turn and contour the earth. “Trees such as elms, cottonwoods and willows are water hungry so removing these will help you irrigate crops instead of the noxious competition. Once that is done, you level, till and lay down your cover crop (oats or buckwheat are just some examples) and continue to be diligent in removing weeds or using techniques such as flood irrigation or green manure to keep invasives out!”

Del Jimenez reminded us that “the real philosophy behind cover crop is laying it down after a cash crop to give nutrients, stabilize, and stop erosion of the earth. Sorghum or Buckwheat are the first cover crops to plant when restoring a field because it grows really high and strong, building bio-mass with little maintenance.  Before you plant buckwheat you need to irrigate so that when you lay it on the ground, you will stimulate the seed to give a crop. For winter cover crops like oats, rye, and wheat they can germinate in 10 days so when you approach the fall months like October and November your livestock can graze. By the spring, you should be ready to disk it up and plant again.”

Irrigation methods with Donald Martinez- Photo taken by Enrique Romero

The third session was led by Donald Martinez, Rio Arriba County Extension Agent who spoke about irrigation methods for pasture and crops. “Before irrigating or having access to the water it is important to be in good standing with your Mayordomo. My most important technique is using a really flat shovel to move water; you want to begin from the back of your field moving the water forward. My favorite irrigation method is using bright colored 5×7 tarps to help navigate the water from the banks of your acequia. Set up your tarps first by laying down dirt on top of them so when you open the compuerta, you can easily direct the water to the portion of your field that needs irrigation. However, irrigating doesn’t just have to be with the shovel and tarps you can use sprinklers, pvc pipe, drip, and contour ditches. The most important thing about irrigating is responsibly watching the water so that you are not over irrigating which can lead to root damage. You could use a 4-6 inch probe to see if the water has penetrated the land effectively.” Another great technique that Donald recommended was irrigating at night to prevent evaporation. He highly encourages parciantes to send soil samples to FSA or your local Soil and Conservation district office to begin understanding the science of soil health and restoration. He also recommended a no till method for field production because tilling turns the soil too deep and you lose lots of the organic organisms.

Antonio Medina recites a prayer for all the farmers and ranchers before lunch -Photo taken by Seth Roffman

After wonderful outdoor demonstrations, a delicious local lunch was prepared by Sofia’s Kitchen. NMAA Staff also worked diligently to hold a zero waste event, assisting participants in composting food waste and recycling to reduce the impact on our sacred earth.

The afternoon had informational presentations by Kris Graham, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, David Griego, Rio Arriba’s NRCS Consultant and Commissioner, Bill Page of Acequia de la Cueva who talked about the services available for acequias: cost share programs for high tunnel installation, acequia infrastructure projects, and efficient irrigation installations. Anthony Chavez and Allen Mckrain from USDA Farm Service Agency discussed financing for farm improvements, equipment, and assistant programs. NMAA can also assist with FSA/NRCS applications. The day wrapped up with Enrique Romero answering any governance and legal questions regarding water rights.

NMAA is incredibly grateful for everyone who took a day during the busy irrigation and market season to be with us in Alcalde to learn, reinforce, and contribute to a day of celebrating and protecting water rights and agricultural land here in New Mexico. We look forward to seeing you this fall at our 18th Annual Congreso de las Acequias, November 4th in Santa Fe!

 El Agua no se Vende, El Agua se Defiende!