Rebeldes: A Journey through New Mexican Agriculture

11 May 2016 Rebeldes: A Journey through New Mexican Agriculture

Photo credit: Ari Epstein

Photo credit: Ari Epstein

An engaging and informative look at farmers in a desert landscape, and at how their individual farming styles reflect their personal values. Explores modern industrial farming, centuries-old collective water-distribution organizations, ancient Navajo corn customs and semi-urban organic farming.

First aired: May 11th, 2016 ·






David: In a land dominated by desert, some things are easy to find.

Nalani: Sand?

David: Check

Nalani: Sunlight?

David: Check

Nalani: Tumbleweed?

David: Check

Nalani: But in New Mexico, you might find something else you wouldn’t expect.

David: Farmers

Nalani: Agriculture



And just about everywhere, but how?

David: My name’s David.

Nalani: And I’m Nalani.

David: We’re students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nalani: We’re part of a group that spent the past year researching solutions to some of the biggest problems in food security. And we went to New Mexico to get a better understanding of one of them: desert agriculture.

David: It might sound like an oxymoron, but looking at the crops in New Mexico, it’s clear that life finds a way.

Speaker: These sweet peas are what we call *rebeldes*, “rebels,” so they planted themselves. Whenever we get a random guy that pops up, we call them *rebeldes* because they just wanted to go for it, and they went for it.

[jazz music]

Nalani: It’s impressive enough that crops managed to grow in the dry climate.

David: Sure, we marveled at the carrots and the onions, but behind the scenes, how each farmer adapted to the challenges of the desert landscape is what really stood out.

So we drove across the state to explore a variety of places for farmers who, for one reason or another, chose to plant their roots

Nalani: From the highlands to the vast plains, from fields of alfalfa to little plots of radishes and carrots…

David: …we wanted to talk to the people who work this land.

Nalani: And after hearing about their struggles and their tough decisions…

David: …about their inventive ways of farming…

Nalani: …and, most of all, how much they care about their way of life and the work they do

David: There was something that we realized.

Nalani: The farmers of New Mexico…

David: …they’re *rebeldes* too.

[action-inducing guitar music]

[sound of wind with soft musical accents]

Lorenzo Candelaria: What we try to pursue here is not necessarily a head of lettuce, or a tomato. Because of the ancient properties of this land, because of the uses it’s been in for thousands of years, the work that we do here is sacred. When we plant something, we’re not necessarily producing a head of lettuce. Because we’re consuming this living, breathing creature, living energy becomes our own consciousness.

[flute sounds]

So what we raise here on this farm is not necessarily lettuce, or tomatoes, or chili, but consciousness.

Nalani: That was Lorenzo Candelaria, the owner of Cornelio Candelaria Organics, a farm near Albuquerque.

Travis: We just watered and we had a leak today, so just be careful, it’s a little wet, just be prepared for mud. Can you guys identify any of these crops?

[Travis continues talking in the background]

David: And this is Travis McKenzie, his employee, introducing us to the farm.

Nalani: Travis leads us through the densely packed rows of lettuce, kale, and arugula, picking leaves and eating them off the plant as he talks. Looking just ahead, the crowded rambling green of the farm fills our view.

David: Looking just a little farther, orderly rows of suburban houses come into view. In some ways, this farm is just a plot of land surrounded by a subdivision.

Nalani: Travis and Lorenzo view the land as much more than that, though.

Travis: We are totally organic, so if you want to pick a leaf and try it, please feel free…

Lorenzo: This farm has been in my family for a little over 300 years, and the care and nurturing that it has taken over a period of 300 years is very intimate. So this has become truly my mother.

Travis: This is all just live food. It’s just veggies. Like when Lorenzo was saying, it’s pure life. So really, what we’re doing is we’re harnessing the energy of the sun, the potency of the seed, the sacredness of the water, and the nutrition and the sustenance in the soil to create life. It’s beautiful.

Nalani: Here, nestled between suburban backyards and the growing sprawl of New Mexico’s largest city, their farm is advocating for an unconventional approach.

Travis: We’re all about keeping ancient practices and blending them with modern technology and techniques, but having a nice balance, and always respecting Mother Earth in those endeavors.

David: They have built a system based upon respect and recognition of the land, treating it as a living, breathing person.

[soft music, animal sounds, birds chirping]

Travis: Mother Earth will continue on.

[music intensifies]

We all gotta remember, by taking care of Mother Earth, we are taking care of ourselves and our future generations.

David: Life in the New Mexico desert can seem like a competition against the land. Travis and Lorenzo’s philosophy, working with the land instead of fighting it, stands out as different. It’s why they let the *rebeldes* grow instead of pulling them out.

Nalani: And this farm, in the middle of suburbia, provides a place for their philosophy to be shared.

Lorenzo: I’ve seen… people are coming here very anxious and very stressed and spend a couple hours pulling weeds. And by the time they leave, they’re happy people again. It’s a beautiful way to connect.

Nalani: Travis and Lorenzo have worked hard to make sure that a deep, personal connection to the land is not lost.

David: They keep this connection in an urban area. We visited another group of people who maintain a similar philosophy, far from the big cities.

[high anticipation string music]

Desiree (translated): My name is Desiree Descheniei. I am of the Tangle People Clan. I was also born for the Tangle People Clan. And my maternal grandfather, he’s of the Water Coming Together Clan. And my paternal-grandfather is of the Nicaraguan people.

David: Desiree is a member of the Navajo Tribe who grew up in the Northwestern New Mexico city of Farmington.

Nalani: The Navajo built their society over the course of centuries. The Navajo Nation currently spans a vast tract of land that occupies parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.

David: And the Navajo have used this land to their advantage. Farming is deeply ingrained in their society. In fact, their nation contains one of the largest irrigated farms in North America.

Nalani: In Farmington, the sandy brown of the desert land is broken up by expansive circles of green. This is a network of commercially irrigated fields.

David: But moving farther into Navajo land, the industrial fields disappear altogether. Instead, you might run into a small field, and a mother and father outside tending to it.This is a family farming on a small scale, growing native crops as they have for generations.

Nalani: Traditionally, the Navajo are known for growing corn, beans, and squash. These crops are often called “the Three Sisters” and the people use them to sustain both themselves and their cultural practices.

Desiree: Much of Navajo philosophy and life revolves around farming. There’s just a lot of sacred foods that you grow and then you utilize those for your nutrition, for your physical health, but also your spiritual health. Corn’s a big deal among the Navajo because we eat it, but we also pray with it. And so, to grow your own corn is just a very mindful way of trying to provide for yourself.

Nalani: This corn culture extends to daily routines. For example, at the school where Desiree runs a community garden, the students and teachers use corn in a morning ritual every day before classes start. This corn ritual is common among Navajo people, as she explains.

Desiree: The holy people, *Diyin Dine*, they are most listening during the dawn. And during that time, you’ll usually say a prayer. Sometimes you’ll have either corn pollen or even corn grindings to just kind of offer as a blessing.

David: She also told us about another, even more personal ceremony.

Desiree: It’s called *Kinaaldá*, it’s when a girl becomes a woman, and during that time, you spend 4 days preparing to bake. One of the big things is that a way to demonstrate as a woman your ability to cook, also to provide, is to make this cake made out of corn. Before you’re making this cake, you’re grinding the corn physically with rocks.

David: The continuation of Navajo culture relies on access to corn. So what happens when the corn that they use for ceremonial purposes is threatened?

Nalani: In the summer of 2015, a chemical mine spill released toxic waste into the river that feeds much of Navajo land. They responded by closing irrigation ditches to protect their fields. But the loss of water devastated production and posed a serious health threat.

David: We spoke to a Navajo Farm Board official, Joe-Ben Jr., to get some insight on how the spill has affected the community and the agriculture that supports it.

[machine whirring]

Joe-Ben: So if you have a culture that consumes corn for ceremonial purposes, and for domestic purpose—table use—and if you have only 10% of your normal yield, and you’re gonna still need to pray and need to do your ceremonies, you’re going to use that 10% for that. So what should’ve normally gone on your table will be gone, missing.

David: And yet, when it came to the survival of Navajo culture, he was optimistic.

[machine whirring]

Joe-Ben: The Navajo people come from a culture that has never been severed. A culture that has never been severed since the introduction of western culture. For that reason, you have to have hope. If it has gone this far without being broken, you hang your hope and your faith on that past history of endurance and resiliency.

[hopeful piano music]

[soft guitar music]

Nalani: There’s something we’ve been leaving out of this whole equation so far. Remember, we’re in New Mexico and getting food requires more than just putting a seed in the ground. You need a secret ingredient. One very specific chemical that’s a little hard to come by in a desert.

David: It’s called dihydrogen monoxide: water.

[flowing water]

Nalani: Tucked away in the Northern New Mexico highlands is a town called Chimayo, where agriculture means a lot more than just producing food…

David: …and where water is handled a little differently.

[birds chirping]

Nalani: The red-streaked hills nearby are covered in brush. Along their sun-beaten tops, small wooden crosses stand watch.

David: Further off in the distance lie snow-capped mountains whose spring melt will fill this valley with life.

[distant bells]

Nalani: Down here, a collection of fields, well-trodden dirt paths, and a cluster of pastel-colored houses. This is El Rincon Farm.


David: And that’s the sound of a ditch being cleaned.

Nalani: To all appearances, it looks just like any old ditch.

David: But this is an *acequia*, part of a centuries-old tradition of irrigation and community governance in New Mexico.

Nalani: On the surface, an *acequia* is just a network of irrigation ditches. But what makes them special is the way that communities band together to maintain them and share the water.

David: For instance, here is how the acequias are cleaned.

Nalani: A group of 20 to 30 members of the *acequia*, or *parciantes*, line up in the ditch 10 paces apart and clear up all of the debris from their section.

Teodoro Trujillo: As a person finishes his portion of the 10 feet, he stops and when everyone stops, you know they’re ready to move. And to move, the way we do it is yell out *“huerta,”* meaning shift.

David: That’s Teodoro Trujillo, or Ted, a farmer from Chimayo,

Nalani: As an *acequia* farmer himself, Ted is an expert on the philosophy and practice of the *acequia* tradition.

Ted: Everyone lines up at the beginning of the *acequia*. And the *acequia*, of course, is the irrigation ditch, but it’s really a bigger word in that it’s almost a form of government, it’s a form of land-based philosophy and practices. And actually, the whole business with water is sharing. You know, what else can you do with it? If someone else needed water, you need to accommodate them. It’s just sort of basic common sense that we’re here to help each other. So it worked out fairly well, and it’s probably the most important thing we’ve done because we’re trying to conserve water on the assumption that there will be less of it over time. *El agua no se vende, el agua se defiende.* Water isn’t to be sold, water is to be defended.

David: Ted is also an attorney who specializes in water rights law.

Nalani: His daughter Pilar is a Project Specialist for the New Mexico Acequia Association, an organization that works to protect the *acequias*, honor their cultural traditions, and feed their communities.

David: To learn more, we went right to the source of water for Chimayo’s *acequias*…

[flowing water]

..the Santa Cruz Dam.

Nalani: There, Pilar told us all about one particular success in the fight to preserve the *acequias*. A law passed in 2003 that gives the *acequias* more control over the water that flows through their ditches.

Pilar: A mechanism in the law was put in place to protect *acequias* from water transfers happening outside of the community. And so it’s a really crazy concept that there’s wet water and then there’s paper water. And that’s what we call—the paper water is the water right. And then you can take that piece of paper and sell it to somebody else. It can be a hard concept for some of our people to grasp because water can’t be separated from the land. That’s not how it works.

David: But that’s just it. What sets the *acequias* apart is that in other parts of the Southwest, water can be separated from the land.

Nalani: With the *acequias*, the community owns the water. They decide how to divide it up so that everyone gets their fair share.

David: And they almost lost that.

Pilar: And it creates a drive for all of these people who have traditionally been very cash poor and all of a sudden they find out that they can sell some water for some money, but you’re not actually removing the water, it’s still there, so it’s hard to be like “oh, that’s not a good thing to do,” it’s hard to get the concept that you will never be able to use that water again on your land, ever.

Before, all you had to do was show up at the State Engineer office with an application and say “I want to transfer my water, I want to sell it.” And then that was a loss to the community. And if four or five people on an *acequia* do that, that could just threaten the whole *acequia*, you know, because there’s not enough people farming. The land dries up and it’s a sad situation. We lose a lot of things.

Nalani: Five people may not seem significant, but with every *parciante* that leaves, some of the independence that fills the *acequias* leaves too.

David: And even if just a few people leave, that’s a lot of water that the *acequia* can no longer use to support agriculture in the community. It’s just gone.

Pilar: Now, the only thing we did is say “Listen, *acequias* have always been autonomous, they’ve always been sovereign, they’ve always governed themselves. Let us decide whether or not that water should be transferred out of the acequia.” So now, that’s it. That’s the simplicity of the law.

[chill music]

If you’re not from here and you don’t have a real understanding of the *acequias* then you can have a hard time understanding why we’re just gonna, why are we going to protect this ditch, you know?

Ted: It’s really a joy to see the water in it. It’s like having a waterway next to your house in, you know, in a desert. Can’t beat that.

[intense guitar music]

Nalani: At this point, New Mexico might seem like a patchwork of small self-sustaining farms.

David: The reality of farming today is that not all food comes from the Travises and Teds of the world.

Nalani: So what’s the other side of the story?

David: We visited some farms that were a little different than the ones we’d seen before. Like Lack Farms in the Southern part of the state. Just driving through the fields takes a while.

[car driving]

Nalani: Driving on dusty dirt roads, our path cuts through sharply-defined fields. Row after row of trees and plants are ordered with eye-catching geometric precision.

David: You could find yourself getting lost in the seemingly unending expanse of, well, food.

Nalani; We passed by pecan orchards, cattle corrals, vegetable fields, and processing plants.

David: At a stop to the side of an alfalfa field, we spoke to Clayton Creese and Jake Welmsma of Lack Farms about what farming means to them.

[machine whirring]

Clayton Creese: I’d say farming is really about feeding the world, you know?

Jake Welmsma: Grow the most possible in the least amount of land in the shortest amount of time.

Nalani: The truth is, by 2050, we will have two billion more mouths to feed.

David: Two. Billion. And being right there, surrounded by a sea of green in the middle of a desert, it’s not hard to see why Clayton and Jake have an appreciation for scale.

Nalani: But isn’t something lost in this kind of production? It’s hard to picture Travis or Pilar being on this farm.

David: It’s a hard question to answer. Larger farms like Lack, using more conventional, industrial methods do produce a lot of food.

Nalani: And that food ends up feeding a lot of people.

David: To the guys at Lack, modern technology is what makes it all possible

Clayton: Yeah, we use lots of different herbicides, well not “lots,” but you know. Everything has its own herbicide. You know, we have a herbicide that we spray on the grasses, we have a herbicide we spray on broad leaves. But you gotta keep your plant healthy, and insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are part of that.

David: For them, pesticides are just a tool to produce a quality product.

Nalani: When it comes to making decisions about what goes on their plants, the farmers at Lack speak from their own experiences.