New Mexico Farmers Face a Choice: Pray for Rain or Get Paid Not to Plant

Published by
Virginia Gewin

As the summer of 2022 began, 90 percent of New Mexico was in a severe drought. The largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history raged in the northern part of the state. Snowpack melted weeks early, leaving reservoirs throughout the Southwest running low. In late May, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District (MRGCD), the authority that manages water for agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, announced that it would not be able to guarantee farmers any water past June. The outlook for farmers was dire.

The conservation district had, over the previous two years, piloted programs to pay some farmers and landowners to stop farming and fallow their fields. The water savings is meant to maintain flows for both aquatic species and downstream states, but adoption has been slow. This year, it boosted the payments. Facing bleak prospects, farmers had to make a choice: plant and take their chances on the monsoon or play it safe and secure a payment to fallow.

The arid Southwest gets the bulk of its precipitation during the summertime monsoon—when Gulf of California moisture is lured northward as temperatures rise and is then converted into afternoon thunderstorms. It typically occurs sometime between June and September, but its duration and intensity are all but impossible to predict.

“I’m not going to be paid not to farm; that’s just not in my DNA.”

Mark Garcia and his brother farm just shy of 400 acres in Los Lunas, New Mexico—a rotation of oats, grass, and alfalfa, one of the thirstiest crops. When he heard the news, he grappled with the decision to put over half of those acres—those that were in oats—in fallow for a year. His knee-jerk reaction was to dismiss the idea. “I’m not going to be paid not to farm; that’s just not in my DNA,” he recalls saying to himself.

Then Garcia crunched the numbers and decided the $425 per acre offered by the district was a safer option than betting on the monsoon during an unprecedented drought that rattled the region. “It was with a heavy heart that I agreed,” he said.

Mark Garcia, pictured at his farm in Los Lunas, New Mexico, worries that the fallow program is a first step toward losing precious agricultural land to development. (Photo credit: Virginia Gewin)

A lot of other farmers gambled on their chances this year, Casey Ish, the MRGCD water resources specialist in charge of the fallow program, told Civil Eats in April. “We were honest about our inability to guarantee late season water. When we run out of instream flow, farmers will be at the mercy of monsoon,” Ish said at the time.

Everyone was well prepared for continued drought. Then, a historic monsoon season hit, bringing more rain than parts of the state had seen in 130 years. In late June, Garcia’s alfalfa fields, both established and newly-planted, had soaked up the initial rains, lush and green. By October, he was second-guessing his decision to leave unplanted acres idle. “Hindsight is 20/20,” he said as the above-average rains continued. If he could go back in time, he added, “I wouldn’t have done it.”

“This valley is wholly unprepared for the dynamic nature of water going forward.”

Garcia is one of the 190 irrigators who signed up over 2,500 acres for the 2022 fallow program. There are a growing number of fallow programs being offered at the state and national levels to pay farmers throughout the Southwest to idle their operations to save water. And while they reduce water demand, they’re also costly and can increase dust emissions during droughts. But as farmers increasingly face a monumental decision each season—whether or not to farm every acre—it threatens to alienate them and take more and more farmland out of commission.

“This valley is wholly unprepared for the dynamic nature of water going forward,” said Jason Casuga, CEO of the MRGCD.

More Demand Than Supply

Sandwiched between Colorado and Texas, New Mexico is hamstrung by limited options to satisfy all of the state’s water demands.

Years of drought along the Rio Grande have coincided with the renovation of the El Vado dam 160 miles north of Albuquerque, a project that has further hampered the district’s ability to store water for dry periods. And then there’s the elephant in the room. MRGCD is legally obligated to supply water to the Elephant Butte dam, the point of water delivery to Texas. The amount of water varies annually, depending on actual flows and precipitation run-off in the region.

The agreement is part of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact—on which New Mexico is dangerously close to defaulting. If the debt reaches 200,000 acre-feet, the state will incur a costly violation and litigation. For these reasons, the state’s fallow program offers a way for MRGCD to decrease demand by, hopefully, discouraging irrigators, particularly the least productive farms.

In addition to irrigation water for farmers and compact debt, the MRGCD is obligated to provide enough water for the endangered silvery minnow in the middle Rio Grande reaches that are prone to drying out. “The acreage that was enrolled in the fallow program this year is only going to support the minnow at strategic [river] outfalls,” said Ish.

Several farmers were adamantly against the fallowing program—despite the dismal forecast. “Every time there’s a shortage of water, it comes from the farmer; they take agricultural water and give it to endangered species,” said Glen Duggins, who farms chiles and alfalfa in Socorro, New Mexico. He’s also a MRGCD board member.

While Duggins chafed at MRGCD efforts to take agricultural water for the silvery minnow and other wildlife in the ecosystem, he pointed out that other aspects of the fallow program have a direct impact on the long-term survivability of farmers. For example, Duggins pays $150-170 per acre to lease most of the land he farms. “Why should [a landowner] lease it to me for $170 when he can get $425?” he asked.

“To idle the farm, and think you’ll start it up next year, that’s a dream.”

However, Ish said there are rules in place to prevent this very scenario. The program requires that leasing farmers co-sign the agreement, and it is up to both parties to decide how payment is split. There are also rules on rotating land in and out of the program.

In fact, one of Duggins’ landlords did end up taking advantage of the fallow program and signed up 35 acres that have an irrigation system in need of an overhaul. “Duggins didn’t want to be part of the agreement and allowed the district to work directly with the landowner,” said Ish.

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Duggins sees the fallow program as yet another threat to farming in the region. “You don’t have a farm without a farmer,” Duggins said. In fact, his son and farming partner has found other work; his farming future is uncertain.

And, Duggins said, it will take a lot more work to bring a fallowed field back to life. “To idle the farm, and think you’ll start it up next year, that’s a dream,” he said.

Small-scale regenerative farmer Kristen Couevas points to her cover crop field in in Tomé, New Mexico. (Photo credit: Virginia Gewin)

In late June, Kristen Couevas, a small-scale regenerative farmer in Tomé, New Mexico, agreed with Duggins that leaving the region’s highly alkaline fields bare is a recipe for disaster. She predicted that if the sun doesn’t bake the life out of the fallowed fields or winds and rains don’t erode the soil, invasive weeds will put down roots. “Instead of a $15 million fallow program, why don’t we get some cover crops?” she asked. Cover crops would not only keep the soil alive, they could also help the land absorb and store water, she added.

One goal of the fallow program is to create enough of an incentive that water wasters—ideally, the most inefficient endeavors—opt in, which helps alleviate unnecessary water demand on unproductive lands. “We hemorrhage water inefficiently in areas of this valley,” Casuga said of small-acreage homes that can take over a dozen hours to irrigate a lawn. And they can because they have an untouchable water right.

“A water right to zero amount of water is zero amount of water,” Casuga explained. The water wasters further frustrate farmers who are asked to reduce their water consumption. “Somewhere we need to define what’s a farmer and what’s a farm. A 2-acre lot is not a farm,” Duggins said. He believes larger operations that feed the nation should have priority when it comes to water.

Perhaps not surprisingly, alfalfa is often criticized for being an inefficient use of dwindling water supplies and misplaced in the Southwest. But farmers say it is a low-input perennial crop, lasting about seven years, which helps prevent soil erosion. The region’s large dairies also rely on alfalfa, so the question of whether it belongs in the state is inextricably linked to that larger, very powerful industry.

To increase water use efficiency, the region also needs appropriate infrastructure. The aging, intricate web of dams, canals, and ditches was built for a different climate. “The dams are in the high elevations to capture snowmelt,” said Casuga. And deluges in the lower elevations not only have the potential to damage crops, but the water flows into the river below the point at which MRGCD can store and make use of it. “How we get [our precipitation] is going to change,” said Casuga. Forecasts predict the state will lose 70 percent of its snowpack by end of the century.

“[MRGCD] is stuck between a rock and a hard place, but farmers are not happy at all.”

Unfortunately, farther down the river, the federally managed infrastructure serves little function, in part due to changing conditions. The Low Flow Conveyance Channel was built in the 1950s to increase the efficiency of water going to Elephant Butte reservoir, but sedimentation leaves it prone to overbanking when flows are high, which threatens endangered species. As a result, it hasn’t been viable for anything other than drainage in years.

Monsoon: Miracle or Curse

In late July, while the region was struggling to keep the Rio Grande flowing through Albuquerque, the monsoon rains began in earnest. MRGCD banked enough water from the fallow program to satisfy the support needed for the silvery minnow—and it may even have a substantial amount leftover to apply to compact debt, said Ish.

By mid-October, west-central New Mexico finished the season with the wettest monsoon on record, according to New Mexico meteorologist Grant Tosterud. Still, after a series of very dry years, it wasn’t enough to fully lift the state out of drought.

Casey Ish (pictured left), a MRGCD water resources specialist in charge of the fallow program, said the program next year will likely offer more flexibility to respond to farmers’ needs. (Photo credit: Virginia Gewin)

And those record-level rains were a mixed bag for farmers, said Ish. Some alfalfa farmers were able to get multiple cuttings, while other operations saw lower yields due to stress. Farming has always been a gamble, but the stakes are getting higher as climate change alters water management. Ish pointed out that any farmer enrolled in the fallow program this year had the potential for a big year—a guaranteed $425 per-acre payment and the ability to make any feasible cuttings on established alfalfa stands that produced without irrigation. And, he says, there’s nothing in the program that would prevent anyone from taking advantage of monsoon rain conditions to put in a fall crop.

At the same time, the deluge decimated Duggins’ green chile harvest due to wet conditions that invited disease and made managing the proliferation of weeds impossible. He hopes the red chile harvest (which happens later in the year) will salvage his season. Either way, he plans to reduce his chile acreage from roughly 35 to 15 acres next year. “We’re one of the best known chile growers. But financially, I can’t do it anymore,” he said.

Duggins dismisses talk of drought following this year’s monsoon. Not surprisingly, wetter conditions have complicated water conversations with farmers.

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“We’re trying not to be ‘the district that cried wolf,’” Ish said. “There have been a couple of times now when we’ve warned farmers that we are still at the precipice of a significant water shortage, and so far, Mother Nature has provided.”

Couevas, however, predicts that few farmers will take advantage of the fallow program again next year. “Everybody’s done,” she said. “[MRGCD] is stuck between a rock and a hard place, but farmers are not happy at all.” Still, MRGCD will have to wait to see how winter snowpack will shape up its ability to deliver irrigation water next year.

Although the monsoons mean that New Mexico’s water debt likely didn’t grow, it didn’t get any smaller either. And the only thing that is certain is that climate change will make conditions less certain. “What we experienced this year is consistent with what we expect to see in the future,” said Ish, of the more variable snowpack and the location and timing of precipitation. And that’s why MRGCD developed programs that offer farmers flexibility.

Still, driving home in an October storm as irrigation ditches brim with water, Garcia was frustrated to see his fallowed fields full of weeds like goat head and pigweed. Couevas consults for other farmers who are grappling with similar outcomes, and she says the fallowed fields often require deeper tillage and laser treatment to level the ground. Farmers thought they were saving money, but next year they will likely spend more to get the fields back into production, she added.

Garcia wants a fallow program that serves as an emergency lifeline that farmers only have to reach for when absolutely necessary.

Garcia is among the many growers who fear the fallow program is a first step toward losing precious agricultural land to development. “I don’t feel we’re being pushed out,” he said, adding “but I don’t think we’re being helped to stay in either.”

Garcia will have to make the same decision whether to fallow or not next year—knowing that there are long-term water shortages despite plentiful monsoons the last two years. “It’s a great program,” he said. And he’s grateful to have options. But he hopes MRGCD will continue to tweak the program so that “effectiveness meets efficiency,” he said. In other words, he wants a fallow program that serves as an emergency lifeline that farmers only have to reach for when absolutely necessary.

Ish said that next year’s program will likely offer more flexibility to respond to grower’s needs. “For a reduced payment, growers could be allowed one or two waterings in the shoulder of the season so they can establish a fall crop,” he said of the pending change.

Either way, until the El Vado dam storage is back online—likely around 2026—conditions will be at their most uncertain along the middle Rio Grande. And that will most likely leave Garcia and other growers’ rolling the dice on the monsoon.

The Water Desk, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder, supported this reporting.

Virginia Gewin

Virginia Gewin is a freelance science journalist who covers how humans are profoundly altering the environment – from climate change to biodiversity loss – and undertaking extraordinary endeavors to preserve nature. Her work has appeared in Nature, Popular Science, Scientific American, The Atlantic, Bloomberg, bioGraphic, Discover, Science, Washington Post, Civil Eats, Ensia, Yale e360, Modern Farmer, Portland Monthly and many others.

Published by
Virginia Gewin

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