Rebuilding our local food system

(Editor’s note: This essay was posted by Devon Peña on his blog, Environmental and Food Justice, it is reposted here with permission.)

This essay by Quita Ortíz on the work of Ralph Vigil and his family to restore traditional food and farming systems in northern New Mexico first appeared in the October 2012 Newsletter of the New Mexico Acequia Association. Quita’s essay highlights one of the most significant qualities of acequia agroecosystems, their rootedness and adaptability to place.

As Quita notes: “Our traditional agriculture depends upon localized knowledge that yields to the various soil conditions, microclimates, and other local geographies” and as Ralph Vigil observes:  “I couldn’t just move to Dixon and start farming. It would take some time to learn their soils and microclimate.”

This is a well-spoken universal truth about the uniqueness of locality and the vital role of a local sense of place, especially at a time when everything seems to be driven by the blind pursuit of globalization.

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Acequia farmers lead in the struggle
to reclaim control of local food systems

By Quita Ortíz | New Mexico Acequia Association | Santa Fe, NM

Ralph Vigil’s family has grown maiz concho for many generations.

New Mexico’s rural communities were self-sufficient well into the 20th century. But after recent decades of rapid economic development and technological advances, we’ve found ourselves living in a society that largely supports a very flawed food system, one that concentrates food power in very few corporate hands resulting in decreased food security. The Census Bureau recently revealed that New Mexico is the poorest state in the nation; yet we have the means and knowledge to feed ourselves healthy, locally grown food. Fortunately, we’re seeing our acequia farmers and ranchers throughout northern New Mexico stepping up to empower their communities by reclaiming control over the local food supply.

Ralph Vigil, 34, grew up in Pecos and is President of a newly formed farmers’ co-op. “My dad was always involved in the [acequia] commission,” he said, “but I lost interest in the acequias by my early twenties.” When he stumbled upon a business school in California that taught students how to market products like ketchup, it suddenly made him realize that people in Pecos never really grew food to sell and that that aspect of farming was never practiced among the land-based people in northern New Mexico.

Mostly those who were still growing food did it for the sake of keeping traditions alive, like Ralph’s dad. “We grew to keep the acequia running,” he said. By the time he reached his mid-twenties he started planting gardens, experimenting and reconnecting with the land. Around that time a friend encouraged him to apply for a seat on the New Mexico Acequia Commission, which he successfully did and today he’s chair of the NMAC. In 2009, Ralph became one of NMAA’s Sembrando Semillas project mentors and has gone on to help to launch an effort to develop a farmers’ cooperative in Pecos.

Assisted by a member of an established co-op in Truchas who donated two hoophouses and helped to guide the process, Ralph pulled together three other members in his community and they formed Cicuye del Rio Pecos Farmers Cooperative.

Cicuye del Rio Pecos Farmers Cooperative’s hoophouses and vegetable plots.

“It’s kind of hard,” said Ralph, referring to the challenges of running the co-op with folks who all have their own schedules to abide by, including Daniel Lopez, a 23-year old college student, and Annette Alvarez who works full-time. He’s hopeful though, “we’re just going with the flow, rolling through the punches and trying to be as productive as we can.”

Many of the crops are being grown on Annette’s land, who is the Treasurer of the Cicuye del Rio Pecos Farmers Cooperative. She has about an acre of irrigable land, but they’re currently just utilizing a portion of it where the two donated hoophouses were constructed alongside other plots that support vegetable and herb gardens, and a small experimental plot. Together, it’s producing a wide variety of crops including tomatoes, lettuces, red orach, carrots, radishes, beets, alverjón, and much more.

The co-op’s more traditional crops are being grown on land that’s been in Ralph’s family for many generations, stemming from Doniciano Vigil, who was the first Hispanic territorial governor of New Mexico. Ralph’s a parciante on the Acequia del Molinoand his family has grown maiz concho for generations, mostly used for making chicos. His land is also home to calabazas mexicanas, beans, peas, onions, sunflowers, among other crops.

They’ve tried selling their produce in El Dorado, but have found more success selling at the Tri-County Farmers’ Market in Las Vegas. “It’s locals supporting locals,” Ralph said, “that’s who we are as gente.”

Cicuye del Rio Pecos Farmers Cooperative’s vision doesn’t come without its challenges. “We’re trying to focus this mainly on our indigenous and Hispano people, but many have become disconnected from the land. They’re used to commuting to Santa Fe for work,” he said. Ralph’s words remind us that we come from a place of identifying rural life with struggle and the false stigma that being a farmer is denigrated work. Ralph continues that newcomers “fall in love with this lifestyle and want to do this kind of work because it’s different for them. For us, this was a struggle.”

After World War II, many Hispanos were left with no choice but to leave their communities in search of work. And those who stayed were engulfed by the dominant culture that drove our land-based people toward wage labor. Despite the many Hispanos who have become disconnected from the land, there are far more who never lost sight in the first place, and many are now waking up from the slumber induced by wage labor.

The efforts of the Cicuye del Rio Pecos Farmers Cooperative is not just for imminent survival, but also to educate and pass on traditional knowledge because if it skips a few generations, it could potentially be lost. Agriculture in northern New Mexico does not follow a one-size fits all approach. Our traditional agriculture depends upon localized knowledge that yields to the various soil conditions, microclimates, and other local geographies. “I couldn’t just move to Dixon and start farming. It would take some time to learn their soils and microclimate,” Ralph said.

According to Ralph, future plans of Cicuye del Rio Pecos Farmers Cooperative include expanding the operation from selling at farmers markets to supplying restaurants in Santa Fe. Beyond that, they’d like to incorporate livestock and have a fully-functioning farm, including a small beef operation and establishing eco-tourism in the area. “We want to eventually have a co-op of outfitters of people who are knowledgeable about the sierra who can take people into the wilderness,” he said. Ralph hopes this undertaking will create more sustainable jobs in his community.

Beyond generating jobs and keeping cultural traditions alive, there’s a much larger picture to consider. About 7.6 percent of New Mexico’s adults have been diagnosed with diabetes, and roughly 23 percent are overweight or obese. Food is energy – it’s the fuel for our bodies, affecting our health and well-being. Discount stores have arguably plagued our communities with poor quality food and it’s become a crutch that we lean on, relying on the affordability and conveniences that they offer.

The industrial food system has the power to dictate the health quality of our bodies when they control the food supply. Additionally, the demand for water is ever present, “Water is a big issue and we’re going to have to defend ourselves now more than ever, and the best way to do it is by working the land and putting the water to use,” said Ralph.

Why is it that in our state, rich in its agricultural heritage, over 18 percent of its residents go hungry? The answer is part of a complex issue that requires a close look at New Mexico’s timeline and how its history has affected those whose roots have been here for many generations.

But for the meantime, there are steps we can take to re-establish a once stable food model. We can start by embracing our traditions that sustained us for centuries. By rejecting the current climate of our overwhelming dependence on a handful of large companies to feed us, we can reverse these trends by redeeming our cultural values that have made the land-based people of northern New Mexico thrive for many generations.

There’s no dishonor in the cultural practices of the acequia tradition. Digging ditches, sowing seeds, and preserving the harvest for winter consumption are all acts that should elicit pride and dignity, not shame.

Much work remains in the area of policy to address the food injustices that currently exist in our communities. New Mexico might be crowned the poorest state in the nation, but we have the rich advantage of fertile lands, historic water rights, and a vast library of practical knowledge that stems from generations of cultural wisdom.

Our land and water resources enable us to continue successfully contributing to the local food movement. As one community at a time takes back control by focusing on their food needs, we notice more and more people growing their food again, alongside the many who never stopped. All of which contribute to rebuilding a fair and sustainable local food system, securing a fruitful future for our communities.

About New Mexico Acequia Association

The mission of the New Mexico Acequia Association is to empower communities in defending water as a community resource and to inspire people in keeping acequia water flowing to provide families and children with healthy, locally-grown food.

In New Mexico Acequia Association’s vision, acequias flow with clean water, people work together to grow food, and communities celebrate cultural and spiritual traditions. People honor acequias as part of their heritage and express querencia through a strong connection to land and community. Knowledge and experience about growing food, sharing water, and saving seed are passed on from generation to generation.

Guided by its core values, the New Mexico Acequia Association grows a movement of people of all ages and walks of life to defend and protect precious water by resisting its commodification and contamination. Through involvement in NMAA, families and youth are inspired to cultivate the land, care for acequias, and heal past injustices. Communities have an abundance of healthy, locally-grown food because as a respected and dignified livelihood and way of life.

Learn more at New Mexico Acequia Association

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