Farming the Desert with Acequias, New Mexico's Irrigation Canals

You can't talk about farming in the Southwest without first looking at water issues in the region, and that's especially true in New Mexico. The state is among the driest in the country, with one exception: The thin strip of land surrounding the Rio Grande River, which bisects the state and is the source of most of New Mexico's irrigation water. The Rio Grande River Basin contains some of the oldest farmland in the US; it's sort of like the Nile River Basin of America.

If you look at a map, most of the major towns in New Mexico are located on the once-mighty river, and that's because the Spanish colonists set up a system of irrigation ditches called acequias so that the surrounding areas could be farmed. Incredibly, the system of acequias that was set up in the 17th and 18th centuries hasn't gone the way of the Spanish Empire; instead, it's actually grown stronger. As water expert Robert Glennon writes in his book Unquenchable, "Acequias are not only the physical ditches; they are also community organizations managed by elected commissioners and a majordomo, who opes and closes the headgates as appropriate."

We first learned about acequias on the beautiful drive from Santa Fe to Melanie Kirby's home in Truchas, NM, which is also the town where Robert Redford shot the film The Milagro Beanfield War about a fight over water rights. Yesterday, we encountered them again in Albuquerque at the Rio Grande Community Farm, which is part of a 150-acre tract purchased by city residents for public use called Los Poblanos Fields.

We were lucky enough to catch up with farmer Dan Schuster (or Dan The Farmer Man, as he introduced himself) just as he was closing up for the day. Dan has been farming the 50 acres of Rio Grande Community Farm for about 10 years, and he uses a variety of irrigation techniques, all of which stem from the acequias. Using a technique known as flood irrigation, he completely inundates some fields with water. Dan acknowledged that flood irrigation isn't necessarily the most efficient way to water a field, but he says the technique has been used for centuries, and if done properly, most of the water will make it back to the aquifer. 

But not all of the water makes it back. Melanie explained to us that because so much water is diverted from the river in New Mexico, by the time it reaches Mexico, it's only a trickle. And although Dan's 50-acre farm is organic, not all of the farms that make use of the acequias are, so industrial agricultural runoff makes its way back to the river.



Flip Clip: Fascinating Facts About Bees

During our recent visit to Zia Queenbee Company, I learned some fascinating facts about bees from co-owner Melanie Kirby and dodged some close calls with bees who were very interested in my camera equipment! Luckily, Melanie decked me out in a special white head net so I could get close to the hives. Here are some things we learned during our visit: 

  • What's bees wax made of? Worker bees collect pollen from flowers as far as five miles around the hive. They have special wax-producing glands that covert the sugar from honey into wax, and the wax is then extruded through small pores in their abdomen. But I like Melanie's more poetic description: "Bees sweat out tears of gold to build their home."
  • How is honey made? Honeybees use nectar to make honey. Nectar is almost 80 percent water with some complex sugars. In North America, bees get nectar from flowers like clovers, dandelions, berry bushes and fruit tree blossoms. They use their long, tube-like tongues like straws to suck the nectar out of the flowers and they store it in their "honey stomachs". The honeybees return to the hive and pass the nectar onto other worker bees. These bees suck the nectar from the honeybee's stomach through their mouths (Melanie calls this "the bee kiss").  These "house bees" chew the nectar using enzymes to break the complex sugars into simple sugars. The bees then spread the nectar throughout the honeycombs where water evaporates from it, making it a thicker syrup. The bees make the nectar dry even faster by fanning it with their wings. This reduces the amount of water in the honey so it doesn't ferment.
  • What is propolis? Propolis is often called "bee glue." It's the sticky resin that seeps from the buds of some trees and oozes from the bark of others. Propolis has antiseptic, antibiotic, antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. Melanie and Mark make a propolis tincture that they swear by for helping cure infections and mouth sores.
  • Why is there only one queen bee in a hive? Queen bees are highly territorial and fierce! When a queen bee first emerges from her cell, she makes a peeping noise to see if any other young queen bees are nearby. If she hears a response, she will find the other queen bee's cell, chew through it and fight to the death! 

Stay tuned for our video about sustainable beekeeping at Zia Queenbee Company!



Zia QueenBee Co: Sustainable Beekeeping in New Mexico

We don't know if it's possible, but each stop on the Southwest Tour seems better than the last. A day after reaching Santa Fe, NM, we met up with Melanie Kirby, co-owner of Zia Queenbee Co, and followed her on a gorgeous hour-long drive to her home in Truchas, NM.

With her husband Mark, Melanie breeds Survivor Queenbees that are sold to beekeepers around the country so they can build healthy hives. They strive for sustainability in their day-to-day operations as well as by breeding queen bees that are strong, healthy, and docile. Their approach ensures that the bees are genetically diverse and by giving their queen bees extra time to mature, they prove themselves to be naturally resilient against disease, pests and weather fluctuations.

Here's a statement form the Zia Queebee Co website that sums up their approach to natural beekeeping and why it's so important to support:

Beekeeping is a dying art. However, as long as we require food to eat, there will be a need for honeybees and beekeepers. As new diseases, pests and challenges afflict honeybees, we need to be innovative and dedicated to conscientious management protocols. It is imperative that we cooperate as a local, regional and national community to ensure positive stewardship of our lands, resources and health.

In the four hours we spent with Melanie we learned more about bees, queen bee breeding, and honey than we could have imagined! One of the questions we raised was about Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been destroying bee hives across the country for the past four years. Fortunately, Melanie and Mark haven't been directly affected, and although Melanie doesn't claim to know the exact cause of CCD, she and Mark take careful precautions to keep their bees healthy and bred for resilience.

After filming an interview and dodging bees for a couple of hours (nobody was stung!), we joined Melanie and her 18-month-old daughter Isis for a honey tasting inside. Both of us have always enjoyed honey, but until yesterday, we never fully appreciated the complexity and difference of flavor that hives foraging from diverse flowers can produce.

Stay tuned for the video, which we'll post in the coming weeks, and be sure to follow Melanie on her blog.

-Mark & Dorothée


Today in Organic: May 19, 2010

We haven't been keeping up with the news as much while we've been on the road, but here's a roundup of some of the stories (most of them bad) that we've been following over the past week.


Pioneering Organics in the Texas Panhandle

The best organic farm you probably never heard of? Cimarron Organics, located within the city of Amarillo, TX. Finding Cimarron was pretty easy, because when I searched "Amarillo" + "organic farms" it was the only search result. That's because there aren't any other organic fruit or vegetable farms within a 120-mile radius.

The farm is owned by Ronnie Kimbrell, and his father, brother and son work on it, making it a true family farm. A bicycle accident eight years ago left Kimbrell paralyzed from the chest down, but he's one of the most knowledgeable and engaged farmers we've met.

Kimbrell is a true pioneer of West Texas organic farming, and he's also an innovator. Just before we arrived he had released a bunch of ladybugs into the tomato greenhouse for pest control. He also mulches with hay, uses drip tape to irrigate all of the crops, and plans to build more greenhouses and raise laying hens in the future. In addition to his work on the farm, Kimbrell acts as president of Amarillo's Golden Spread Farmer's Market where his farmstand has built a loyal following.

In the two hours we spent at Cimarron, Kimbrell gave us a tour of his two greenhouses and the surrounding fields, in which he grows fruits and vegetables including tomatoes, peppers, okra, asparagus, blackberries, lettuce, cantaloupe, watermelons, and peaches. At the end of our visit, he let pick fresh asparagus for dinner!



View from the Road: CAFOs in West Texas

Some things are difficult to ignore, and when you're in the Texas Panhandle, the stench of cattle feedlots is one of them. Driving from Odessa to Amarillo, we came across a highway rest are that was labeled "picnic area," but when we opened the car doors, we both nearly gagged.

When thousands of cows are kept in close confinement and fed grains they can't digest, they produce a lot of waste, and the smell is intensified when it rains. West Texas is home to countless Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs), and when as you get closer to Amarillo, they seem to blend together. I'm glad we got out of the car and took a closer look, because I'll remember that smell the next time I'm tempted by a cheap burger.



PHOTOS: Boggy Creek Farm in Austin, TX

We were rained out of one farm visit on Friday, but on Saturday morning we were able to swing by Boggy Creek Farm, one of the most impressive organic farms -- urban or otherwise -- in the country. When I learned that Boggy Creek was an urban farm, I expected it to be a quarter-acre or so of raised beds, but instead we found an actual farm, with large fields of vegetables, chickens, and even tractors.

Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler started growing organic produce back in 1991 when Austin didn't even have a farmer's market! They are true pioneers and have made their land (which was formerly a plantation with eleven slaves) into a vibrant hub for the community. Their twice-weekly farmstand turns out a huge number of customers buying everything from squash to poppy seeds and they also offer products like goat cheese from nearby Pure Luck Goat Farm.

It was fascinating to speak with Carol Ann about her work and philosophy that "fresh is just as important as organic." Part of her mission is to provide customers with produce that was picked just hours before selling. That's why she's happy to be running the farmstand right on her farm instead of packing up a truck and driving to a farmer's market. She also mentioned that early support from Austin's original Whole Foods helped to make her farm well-known in the community.

-Mark & Dorothée


Flip Clip: Update from Eastside Cafe in Austin, TX

We rolled into Austin, TX on Thursday night, and one of the first stops we made was to the Eastside Cafe, a restaurant that uses a lot of organic and local (some very local) ingredients. One thing that sets the Eastside apart from other restaurants is the organic vegetable garden located behind the restaurant. Most restaurant gardens I've seen consist of little more than a few rows of herbs and micro greens, but the garden at Eastside Cafe clearly produces a lot of food.

A large chicken coop abuts the restaurant, and there are several rows of raised beds with lettuce, cabbage, kale, herbs, and wildflowers. There are also lots of cool-looking bird houses and a couple of unconventional beds, like the bed frame pictured below. Coming from Chicago, we were amazed to see how far along the tomatoes are, but we've since learned that tomatoes are harvested in June and July in Texas.



Video Exclusive: Gulf Coast Braces for Oil

Earlier this week, we visited the Gulf Coast and filmed this video in Biloxi, Mississippi about the fast-approaching oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico. We met with Mike Murphy from The Nature Conservancy in Biloxi Bay to talk about local wildlife, and how environmental groups are working to protect valuable wetlands in the region.

When we shot the video, on May 12, the oil hadn't yet reached land, but the wind was ripping from the southeast, sending it towards the Louisiana barrier islands. Those southeasterly winds have continued, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now projects that the oil is heading straight for the Mississippi coast.

We've also learned that oil is gushing at roughly 10 times the rate of initial estimates -- at about 70,000 barrels per day, according to an NPR report. In addition, there is news that the latest measure to stop the leak involves shooting "pieces of tires, golf balls, knotted rope" into the broken blowout preventer. (What, bubble gum and duct tape didn't work?)

We also spoke with local fisherman Steve Cason, who works on a shrimp boat tour for tourists, for a perspective on how the spill might affect fishermen in the region. Cason stressed that even though the oil hasn't touched land on the Mississippi coast yet, tourist numbers are already down (they've had to cancel one out of two tours everyday since the spill) and many boats that are normally out fishing during this season are docked.

For information about how you can help, go to The Nature Conservancy's donation / volunteer page or the Audubon Society's Action Center.

-Mark and Dorothée


Organic Pick of the Week: Mary's Gone Crackers

During our travels through Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and now Texas, we've been spending a lot of quality time in the car -- about eight hours per day, to be exact. And as we roam around the southern portion of the Interstate Highway System, we're fortunate to have a full supply of some of the best organic snack foods at our disposal. One of our favorite foods to munch on while we're on the road is Mary's Gone Crackers, a small company that produces organic crackers, sticks & twigs, and now cookies.

Mary's Gone Crackers was founded by Mary Waldner about 10 years ago. According to a recent article in Organic Processing magazine, Waldner was diagnosed with celiac disease, which is caused by gluten intolerance, so she started experimenting in the kitchen, and selling her gluten-free crackers at a local natural foods store. As the company has grown, Mary's has (miraculously) managed to stay small, while sourcing organic, gluten-free, and vegan ingredients for all of their products.

We love the subtle smoky flavor of Mary's Gone Crackers and the Sticks & Twigs, and our favorite way to eat them is with goat cheese. The introduction of Mary's vegan cookies is welcomed too, because Dorothée is allergic to eggs, and a good vegan cookie can be hard to come by.


Full Disclosure: Mary's Gone Crackers is one of the fabulous organic food brands that has partnered with us for the Southwest Tour.


Local Seafood Still Available in New Orleans

This is the line we waited in at 6pm yesterday to get into the Acme Oyster House in downtown New Orleans. For now, local seafood is still available in the area (thankfully). I've heard that crab is becoming scarce in places, and wholesale seafood prices are rising because of an offshore fishing ban around the oil spill, but local oysters, crawfish, and other seafood specialties are still on the menu.

For dinner last night, we feasted on fried oysters, seafood gumbo, jambalaya, and hush puppies. Certainly not the healthiest food, but impossible to pass up when you're in New Orleans.



Flip Clip: Update from New Orleans, LA

First thing this morning, we headed out to the marshlands of Biloxi to interview The Nature Conservancy field rep Mike Murphy about the oil spill in the Gulf Coast. We haven't gotten acclimated to the heat (85-90 degrees) and humidity of the Gulf Coast yet, but our equipment has been having an even harder time adapting: As soon as we stepped out of the car, the video camera shut down, citing condensation overload.

We were able to film the interview eventually, using backup cameras, and we learned (first-hand) that southeasterly winds were kicking up, bringing oil towards the Barrier Islands off Louisiana. That hasn't affected the Mississippi coast much for the time being, but Murphy and other enviros are particularly concerned about coastal wetlands, which are the spawning grounds for much of the wildlife in the area.

We asked Murphy about the booms that TNC is using to contain the oil. He said that while they're useful, wind and waves can easily push oil over the barriers. Later, my dad (also a TNC member) told me about special "sea-grade" oil booms that have curtains extending down into the water to more effectively intercept oil. Those sound like a good tool for protecting coastal wetlands, but unfortunately there currently aren't many available.

Here are a couple of photos I took this afternoon. Stay tuned for the video.



Flip Clip: Oil Spill Impacts on Biloxi, MS

Greetings from Biloxi, Mississippi!

After the long drive from Memphis, we were greeted with sunny, 90-degree weather on the Gulf Coast. Neither of us had ever been to Biloxi, a small coastal town known for its beaches and casinos, and with the balmy weather and palm trees, it feels like paradise. Most of the property on the coast is still barren from Hurricane Katrina's destruction, and the only buildings that are standing appear to have been built within the past 5 years.

The first thing we noticed when we stepped out of the car was the ominous Sun Herald headline: LANDFALL COULD BE SOON. We then headed out to the beach and the harbor to see for ourselves. Oil booms could be seen in the distance, but the water seemed to be clean. We caught up with one fisherman at the docks, but he thought the media posed a bigger threat to his livlihood than the oil slick. We'll be chasing the story all day tomorrow.

-Mark and Dorothée


The Art of Urban Mobile Gardening

The local food movement has opened the door to a new crop of would-be gardeners who lack access to a patch of earth on which to plant a garden (myself included). For some, the land dilemma can be resolved by planting seeds in a shared community garden. Other space-challenged gardeners install planters and flower boxes on roofs and balconies, like this enterprising New Yorker, who developed a self-watering vegetable garden on his Manhattan fire escape last summer, using PVC buckets and two-liter soda bottles.

But what about the folks who don't have even an inch of outdoor space to call their own? Or on-the-go types, who for reasons unknown prefer to tote their pocket-size gardens around town with them? Eschewing the constraints of traditional, land-based gardens altogether, some gardening hobbyists instead choose to grow plants on mobile platforms that can be wheeled, carried or floated from place to place.

The most practical venue for a mobile garden is a wagon or trailer. In Portland, OR, for example, gardening educators use a 6- by 14-foot mobile garden that can be towed by a truck to teach about native species. Others can be pushed or pulled by hand, towed behind a car or bicycle, or chained to a street pole. Of these, the design firm Food Map created perhaps the most elegant (and at $255, easily the most expensive): a wheeled cart with a stylish white plastic planter box.

Limiting excess weight is a goal for most cyclists, but tricked-out bikes and motorcycles, laden with soil and plants are a mobile gardening staple. This prototype, described as a "bicycle window box- for the transient gardener" offers a simple solution for "the cyclist who is always on the move, or cycle tourist needing nutritious strawberries and beansprouts," according to the landless author. Other bike-garden inventions include the bicycle-mounted greenhouse, for the four-season grower, and the flower garden mounted on the sidecar of a scooter, photographed in Israel, which scores high marks for both form and function.

The French company Bacsac is the only business I know of that's entirely devoted to mobile gardening solutions. Their offerings range from cloth pots and satchels to a larger garden plot mounted on the roof of a car that looks like an overstuffed mattress (pictured above).

Click to read more ...


Today in Organic: May 7, 2010

  • The Gulf Coast oil spill won't affect the seafood counter at supermarkets around the country, reports USA Today, because 83 percent of seafood consumed in the US is from overseas. Except for oysters; about half of the country's oysters come from Louisiana.
  • In anticipation of the spill wiping out local fisheries, Gulf communities are snatching up four times more seafood than usual, according to Civil Eats.
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