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.