Community in Crisis Looks to Its Agricultural Roots

Taos, New Mexico – Renowned for its historic Native American pueblo, cultural ties to Spain, bohemian artists, and world-class ski resort, Taos is also one of the many communities in the U.S. facing food insecurity.

But the region was once the breadbasket of northern New Mexico, and a grassroots movement is seeking to position it as a model for sustainable agriculture. With food insecurity in the U.S. higher than at any time in recent memory, revitalisation of community-based agriculture may not come a moment too soon.

In the past year, Del Torres, executive director of the Department of Human Services in Taos County, has seen a 40 percent increase in the number of people served by the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Programme, or food stamps.

“People here are really hurting,” says Torres, citing rampant unemployment as a cause.

The amount of food benefits varies according to household size and income, but for many of the 4,634 families participating, even the supplement does not go far enough.

“People are hungry in our county,” Torres says. The problem, he adds, affects everyone, from Native Americans and Hispanic families, to more recent “Anglo” arrivals. Torres and his staff often refer clients to local church-run food banks to supplement their supplement.

Yet Taos has a long history of land-based cultures. Beginning at least a thousand years ago, the Taos Pueblos developed a rich agrarian culture here. Spanish settlers came in the 1500s, mixing with Natives and bringing with them the Moorish community system of water sharing known here as the acequias.

When the U.S. took over the territory after the Mexican American war in 1848, families of Spanish descent were granted land for communal use. The westward expansion brought many European Americans who took up ranching. During the countercultural movements of the 1960s more came, formed communes, and began to farm in the traditional ways later branded “organic”.

Challenges to sustainable agriculture are numerous. The high desert area has a short growing season. Decreased snow and rainfalls in recent years, combined with exponential growth in land values, pose serious threats.

With water and land for real estate in demand, Hispanic families that historically survived by farming and ranching find it increasingly hard to maintain this way of life. For the Pueblos, who have more secure access to land and water, the task is to bring back a way of life that came under threat from federal programmes that scattered families within and beyond the reservation and fostered dependence on commodities.

Grassroots organisations are taking on the forces that separate people from land and water in a variety of ways.

One recent cold Saturday in January, board members of a small non-profit gathered in a greenhouse heated with bio-fuel and bursting with ripe lettuces and spinach. Tierra Lucero’s mission, according to their website, is “to support food and energy sovereignty for our community”.

The organisation backs many local efforts, including community garden plots that supply local schools, bio-energy projects, and a new farm that Executive Director Bob Pederson says “will give away all its food”.

The greenhouse is located on the Red Willow Education Center at Taos Pueblo, which hosts a farmers’ market where tribal members earn 100 percent of the profits from selling their own produce. Education programmes here actively train Taos Pueblo youth in sustainable agriculture and energy practices, integrating modern and traditional agriculture with a goal of “restoring a measure of food security”.

Shawn Duran, executive director of the centre, says that on the Pueblo, “We used to have seven years worth of food stored.” The work, for her, is about revitalising the sense of community.

While much of the agricultural knowledge seemed all but forgotten as a result of federal policy, Duran says, “We’ve held the seeds of that knowledge all along.”

The following day, at the other end of town, the Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association convened over 250 predominantly Hispanic members. Presenters focused on regaining land base and accompanying water rights lost to land grabs and a broken treaty that preceded western expansion.

By one estimate, 800,000 acres was illegally stolen, and conflicts with the U.S. Forest Service over grazing rights pose continued challenges. Statewide, efforts to regain land are seeing success.

Ted Trujillo, an attorney for neighbouring Rio Arriba County, sees hope in efforts to show priority of ownership, that “irrigated parcels were serving the same purpose then as now”.

Although some environmental groups oppose all grazing, ranchers in New Mexico, according to many in attendance, have always been environmentalists.

Manuel “Rudy” Pacheco, at 82 a retired educator and active rancher and farmer, sees an increasing number of people growing their own food raising crops locally “because of hard times”.

Pacheco and his family run 250 head of traditionally managed, grass-fed, free range cattle and sells a third of his stock directly to local families. His son, Pat, says he grew up drinking pristine water from the acequias and that he has never eaten a hormone-fed cow in his life.

“The communities in northern New Mexico – Hispanic, Mexican, Native American – always had a subsistence lifestyle. We shared or traded what we had. That changed, but a lot of people still hold those traditional values close to heart,” Pacheco told IPS.

Now, he says, there is “a movement to grow food close and have it clean”.

Jack Meyers, a consultant for international agricultural programmes funded by USAID who also sits on local growth advisory boards, has seen enough “clever takeovers” of water and land internationally to worry about his hometown’s ability to preserve its resources.

But he believes that, with the right efforts, Taos could be an enduring enclave in a global disaster.

“I think we’re going to have food shortages,” says Meyers, who, in places such as Kenya and Ethiopia, has seen “whole rivers dried up due to [poor practices in] agriculture with no concern for the people downriver.”

Locally, Meyers supports mechanisms whereby Taos residents hold on to their water rights in the face of the demands of a growing population in cities to the south.

“If you factor in the value of water alone,” Meyers says, “Taos is the wealthiest county in the state instead of one of the poorest.”