August 11, 2014

Mrs. Boots Berries Farm & New Mexico's Democratic Acequias

Environs of Chimayo, NM
Mrs. Boots Berries is a U-pick raspberry farm in Chimayo, New Mexico. The drive up to the farm is relatively lush compared to the surrounding sandy, juniper-dotted hills. The farm exists on four terraces. Irrigation water flows down the hillside, watering the highest terrace first. That's where the raspberries are. The water is then "recycled", moving down to the next terrace, where young fruit trees grow. Doug Clark, who is giving me a tour of the farm, lives in a house on the third terrace. And the fourth terrace is boggy pasture land. Access to water defines the farming landscape here.

No water was flowing onto Doug's fields on the day I visited. But looking downhill at a neighboring property, water was flooding a pasture area. There were a handful of cows and a thin layer of water over their large grazing area.
Doug pointed out that his 85-year-old neighbor uses dirt to divert water from the open community irrigation channel onto his property. Today was his neighbor's day to water. At the end of his designated watering period, his neighbor would move the dirt to block the water and let it flow through the community channel for others to use. According to Doug, this diversion method is old-style. Doug, like many others, makes use of valves to redirect the water flow. My eyes were glued to the field below, where water was spreading far and wide in a very thin layer.

Flood Irrigation
I was dismayed at what appeared to be a senseless waste of water. With such flood irrigation in this arid part of the country, a significant portion of the water would be lost to evaporation. Did the native plants that were growing there even need to be irrigated? At least it looked like a flat area, so I wouldn't expect much soil erosion. It is a wonderful testament to democracy that Doug and his neighbors have figured out a way to equitably share the limited water that runs down from the mountains, but surely it should be used responsibly as well.

Doug's wife, Shelley Winship, a.k.a. Mrs. Boots, gave me the lowdown on their organic practices. Before planting raspberries, they wanted to build up the soil. For two consecutive years, they grew cover crops to increase the organic matter. The liquid fertilizer they move through their irrigation lines meets organic standards. Every spring, they lay down a top-dressing of manure, mushroom compost, alfalfa pellets and humates. Their diversified fruit orchard is full of young trees - five to seven years old. I noticed that the weeds were having their way with the raspberries. Shelley explained that that's what happens when she and Doug take a vacation away from the farm. The two of them do most of the farm work, including weeding by hand. But, when critical weeding can't wait, they hire someone to help out. All of these measures cost a little more than conventional farming, but Shelley loves looking out at a healthy farm that harbors wildlife. She also knows that it is safe to let children run barefoot in the clover, while their parents pick raspberries. Although Mrs. Boots Berries farm follows organic practices, they are not certified organic, because it would be too expensive.

Even if they used pesticides at Mrs. Boots Berries, there is no pesticide available for their biggest pest - bears. Last year, bears destroyed a bee-hive that one of their neighbors kept on their property. I have a clear image of Winnie-the-Pooh joyously feasting on honey straight from the hive. But, upon further research, it turns out that bears may be even more fond of bee larvae. More importantly to Doug, last year bears ate about 1/4 of their raspberry crop. Doug appreciated that they were "clean" pickers, only taking what they ate. That left the rest for his customers.

Doug Clark

Climate chaos in this part of the country means extreme weather events and less precipitation. Shelley explains the havoc their harsh weather has wrought. Three years ago, just three months after setting in 800 raspberry plants on freshly prepared soil, the entire field was inundated with 10 inches of mud during a 45-minute monsoon rainstorm. They had to start all over again with the field. And Doug reports that due to the late frosts each spring, many of their fruit trees never bear fruit. They may have to rethink their choice of fruit varieties. Doug feels that climate change is most obvious in considering the overall reduction in snowfall. And of course, the amount of snow, affects the amount of water available from snowmelt each year. This trend is extraordinarily worrisome for farmers here.

I asked Shelley if they could make make a living off their land. She said that even if they doubled their acreage, there was no way it could provide a livelihood. Even a high value specialty crop like raspberries only takes in $3-5,000/acre in their area. They would need many acres to make a living with raspberries. And that assumes they could ward off the bears, the monsoon floods, and the worsening drought situation. Did I mention gophers? Shelley also pointed out that there are virtually no financial incentives afforded small farmers. The federal government typically serves larger farms with 500+ acres. Rather than seeing it as a source of income, Shelley appreciates the non-monetary benefits, while she goes off to work to earn the money she needs to sustain themselves financially.

Doug was an excellent host, showing me how he controlled the water flow onto his field of raspberries. He improved his irrigation capabilities by installing a large pipe down one side of the field. Each hole in the pipe could control the flow of water to one row of raspberries.

Like his neighbor, Doug uses flood irrigation. He supplements with buried drip irrigation lines. He can apply a liquid organic fertilizer through these drip lines. In stark contrast to flood irrigation, a drip system minimizes evaporative water losses. The way it is being used at Mrs. Boots Berries farm, drip lines direct water and nutrients to the plant roots, where they will be utilized without much waste at all.

Shelley tells me that flood irrigation is not as bad as it first appears. The open water channel, which looks prone to evaporation, also supports native vegetation along its banks. This vegetation, in turn, stabilizes the landscape, prevents erosion, and even lowers area temperatures. Flooding helps to recharge the local aquifer, which in turn keeps local wells from running dry. Some of the water also returns to the Santa Cruz river, which serves other farmers downstream.

My visit to Mrs. Boots Berries farm led me to research the sustainability of their irrigation practices. In New Mexico, the ditches used for snowmelt irrigation are called acequias. I easily found recent research to support Shelley's claims concerning acequia irrigation. A 2010 study showed that, on average, in one high elevation acequia-irrigated valley in northern New Mexico nearly 60 percent of the total water diverted from the main acequia returned back to the river as surface return flow, 33 percent returned back as shallow ground water return flow, and 7 percent was lost to evaporation and plant use. Acequia seepage and deep percolation from irrigation contributed to a seasonal recharge of the aquifer. The aquifer then slowly released water back to the river. The acequia system essentially extended the runoff season without using a lot of water. I was only able to access the abstract, so I do not know if the valley studied was meaningfully representative or cherry-picked in some way. But these results demonstrate the remarkable efficiency of one valley irrigating with acequias.

In addition to efficiency, the acequia system manifests a resiliency to change. According to Paula Garcia, executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association, New Mexico has more than 800 acequias, some dating to the 1600s. Over the course of centuries, they have continued to function in much the same way. Each association is self-governing and is responsible for distribution of water and maintenance of the ditches. The landowners who have derechos (rights) in an acequia elect a mayordomo, who controls the allocation of water, enforces any rules about waste and theft, and settles conflicts. The mayordomo is responsible for reacting to drought conditions and making fair distribution decisions. Generally, when there is more water, everybody gets more water. When the water is in short supply, everybody gets less. Landowners either do the maintenance themselves or supply laborers. Typically they gather each spring to clean debris from the system and make repairs where needed. Each landowner contributes to the maintenance of the system in direct proportion to the benefits they receive. I imagine that if the acequia associations continue as vital institutions and drought conditions continue to worsen in New Mexico, the associations will continue to adapt by looking into water conservation techniques that will use less water than the flood irrigation in use today.

Have acequia associations truly embraced democracy and provided for the common good? It is a romantically inviting notion. However, I am no longer an innocent when it comes to organizations. I would wager that every acequia association must deal with its own internal problems, the pettiness and power-grabs of particular individuals, the scofflaw who regularly transgresses just a little bit, and powerful outside influences that would love a share of that water. Regardless, it does sound like democracy is alive and flourishing in the acequia system. Time will tell whether it will be able to withstand the increasing power of large corporate interests and the general abandonment of farming by younger generations.

Doug and Shelley hinted at some of these struggles. Doug explained that his acequia has what I would call a class system. The upper class consists of those along the upper half of the waterway. They tend to get more water and they are required to do less maintenance. All those with derechos must help maintain the upper part of the irrigation channel. Additionally, those downstream along the lower half of the channel maintain the channel down to their land. The poor landowner at the end of the line must work on every portion of the channel and maintains the last section all alone. Perhaps there is an historical reason for this division.

Shelley explained what's going on concerning buying, selling, and keeping water rights. Water rights can generally be bought and sold within watersheds/basins. But in New Mexico, like most places, "money talks and deals are struck." When it comes to larger municipalities and large developments, the rules are waived and water rights are transferred far, far away. The New Mexico Acequia Association has been encouraging acequia associations to amend their bylaws to stipulate that individuals cannot sell or lease their acequia water rights without permission of the Acequia Commission - in an effort to keep local water rights in the local watershed for local water use. The legality of adding such stipulations comes from a 2003 state statute. I was surprised to find that such basic tenets of water rights legislation are still being codified. Many Native American pueblos claim water rights based on seniority - they were there first. Disputes arising from these claims are being settled in court. Doug also explained that in 1938, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas drafted a compact dividing water from the Rio Grande between the three states. This compact means that the State of New Mexico also has an interest in the water rights of the acequia system.

From just this short discussion, it is clear that conflicts over water rights existed from the get go. I would suggest that part of this stems from differing philosophical perspectives of water rights. When Doug and Shelley bought their land, they also received 7.5 derechos in an acequia. When described this way, water rights sound like a property right. By this line of thinking, it should be relatively easy to buy and sell water rights. On the other hand, the acequia controls the distribution of water based on a principle of fairness. The underlying philosophy is that water is a community resource. Doug and Shelley must pitch in with the rest of the community to maintain the acequia, establish the acequia rules and schedules, follow those rules, and make use of the water. Such a community resource would be harder to sell to somebody living 3000 miles away, pass down to your heirs, or hoard. Water rights can be perceived as either a property right or a community resource. In talking to Doug and Shelley, it would seem that, in practice, they are perceived both ways.

In researching what has held acequias together over the centuries, I came across a court case concerning voting practices. At its heart, the acequia system is exceedingly democratic. In general, it is one person, one vote. In a community north of Taos, one large landowner made a power grab by declaring the voting procedure to be one derecho, one vote. That would be similar to how most publicly traded corporations are run. Each shareholder gets one vote per share. If such a change were enacted, the power dynamic would shift to favor larger landowners who hold more derechos. The court decision was to leave voting procedures up to each acequia association. This was a victory for the community. Subsequent to the ruling, most associations formally changed their bylaws to reflect the democratic one person, one vote standard.

Unfortunately, that is probably not the end of the story. In other words, there is more than one way to make a power grab. Over time, land changes hands. It may be divided up between family members or it may be sold to folks living far away. New owners, who might not be farmers might lease their lands to others, leaving the actual owners with less interest in water rights and responsibilities. In such a situation, it is possible for an acequia member to gather up votes, by acting as a proxy for family members and absentee owners. As many of us learned in a high school government class, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Perhaps it is also the price of keeping democracy alive in the acequia system.

  • If you live near Chimayo, New Mexico, and you want to pick your own raspberries, call Mrs. Boots Berries to find out their u-pick hours, 505-351-4412.
  • For a fascinating look at the history of the acequias, click here.