Student Post: Spring Break in New Mexico, Day 1

21 Mar 2016 Student Post: Spring Break in New Mexico, Day 1


Author: Vivian Zhong, Class of 2019

Originally posted at ·


Seeking the Culture in Agriculture

Day One: In which we explore rumens and different ways of life

With such facetious thoughts in mind we embarked on our sojourn into the heart of the American southwest, where the chile to person ratio is approximately a million to one.
Skipping over a night of airport travel where things characteristically did not go quite according to plan, we made it to our first morning in Las Cruces, New Mexico not entirely well-rested, but ready to go nevertheless.

Our host on the first day was Shannon from New Mexico State University, and through her we got an excellent intro into the enthusiasm, consideration, and belt-buckle-fashion that pervades this part of the country.

MIT is an excellent place for research, but there are some things you just can’t do in a city, with having a ranch conveniently on campus chief among them. We received a heartwarming welcome through a furry, very huggable lamb; meanwhile a few graduate researchers spoke to us about their efforts to optimize feeding and breeding habits to raise productive livestock.

Then we went cow-diving. There are no pictures – the managers were concerned that people might misinterpret cannulation, a process in which researchers essentially open a hole (painlessly) into the animal’s side, as animal cruelty. In our case, the researchers were studying the cow’s to digest a variety of cheap, sustainable feeds, so they opened a window into the cow’s main stomach compartment, the rumen. In lieu of a picture of a bold Terrascoper sticking their hand down a cow’s voluminous stomach (the researchers assured us that we could sleep comfortably in a cow’s rumen, wampa-style), a few members of Terrascope Radio have recorded for the world the delightful gurgling of a cow stomach. Noises include the penetration of the mic through a later of partially digested silage and the cow’s heavy breathing.

*The recording will be added at some later date when the Wi-fi cooperates*


Poverty is a lot more prevalent in New Mexico than anywhere I’ve ever lived; the researchers at NMSU said that approximately a third of children under twelve lived below the poverty line. So when we visited a community outreach experimental farm later in the day, it felt so very urgent – here with the brown earth and dry land, the need seemed far more imminent than in the lush community gardens of Cambridge, MA.

A small portion of the farm can be seen here:

They utilize drip irrigation throughout, but even so, water supply and quality is still an issue. When their allotted supply of water from the surface reservoir in Elephant Butte is used up, they have to use aquifer water, which is more saline than optimal. The farm manager there said that fixing the salt issue would make a huge difference – MIT researchers, get on it! One thing that stuck out to me, though the manager didn’t complain about it, was that it takes two weeks for him to get pH results for a soil sample back from an university lab – is there perhaps some faster indicator that he could use right at the farm?


One of the first surprises of the day for me was learning about the abundance of pecan farming in New Mexico. We got to visit one such orchard late into the afternoon, where the owner assured us that the deliciousness of New Mexican pecans is unrivaled. As fascinating as pecan farming is, I think I can be forgiven for deciding to focus on other parts of his talk.
He had a complicated (or so it seemed to me) relationship with Mexicans. He appreciates their hard work when they come to his farms as contracted laborers, but he quite vehemently spoke of “Hillary Clinton and everyone else up in Washington” not understanding the situation at the border. I suppose if I knew someone who was murdered by a drug trafficker, I would take a heavier stance against border immigration too.

“I’ve been to your country, and it’s beautiful,” he told us. But he could never live in the northeast. “The traffic alone…” I could say the exact same thing – replacing “traffic” with “dust”.

Towards the end of the session, he asked how many of us believed in global warming. It took me a while to put my hand up – not because I wasn’t sure what I thought, but because I’d never been asked such a question before. Naturally, all of the Terrascopers raised their hands.

Then he asked us why. Burhan replied with an answer that, I think, applied to all of us: There has been much scientific evidence published by respected and validated sources. The farmer labelled this as “believing what we were told” and encouraged us, quite respectfully, to “think for yourselves”, saying that from his experience, it was doubtful that him using his tractors contributed to a change in climate.

Here was a man who studied science, who has embraced mechanization, and who has capably managed a profitable farm – and who, from all appearances, is also a climate change denier. It certainly gave us something to think about.

On the other end of the spectrum fell an entirely unplanned encounter. While we were sitting in the plaza of Mesilla, enjoying (or squinting against) the fading desert light, this fellow drove up to the sidewalk and beckoned to us.
We were initially very wary, but eventually a few bold members of our group approached him and struck up a lively conversation.

By his account, this man (we referred to him ever afterwards as motorcycle guy or biker dude) had travelled the country and the globe on his Harley-Davidson. One of the last things he imparted to us before he blasted off was his belief that none of us were really Americans; the land belongs to the Native Americans, from whom Europeans stole the land. “We destroyed this land,” he said with utter conviction, and said that his goal was to try and do his part in fixing it.

On my part, I don’t think any progress will come from such a drastic, backwards-looking way of thinking. Did the initial European settlers commit awful acts of violence? Certainly. But must we disavow centuries of life, civilization, technology, and progress that happened since? Why should we not be Americans? America is the land of immigrants, and that is what we all are – Native Americans included, millennia ago.


I’ve gone on numerous trips around the US with my family, but it was always more about nature, exciting sights, and adventures. There was history and culture, but only of the museum variety. On this trip, however – one day in, and already I feel more…cosmopolitan isn’t really the word, but I’ll put it here for now (I want to get to sleep eventually). There’s no replacement for actually talking to the people who live in the places you visit. This trip will definitely prove to be an excellent exercise in asking good, detailed, thought-provoking questions out in the field – we should really keep a running tally of the day’s best questions.