By Staci Matlock, August 9, 2020 Taos News
On a hill overlooking the historic agricultural valley of Arroyo Hondo, Corilia Ortega squats to pull weeds among rows of vegetables under the midday sun.
Her nephew, Noah Gonzalez, and her friend, Aimee-Lynn Stearns, 28, are helping nearby amid the plot of potatoes, squash and other crops. Her brother, Nicanor Ortega, 32, walks to a different part of the field to check his peas, corn and beans.
Noah, 6, reaches down to pluck a zucchini.
“What do we say before you pick it?” his 33-year-old aunt gently reminds him.
“I have to give thanks for the beautiful food,” he says.
The Ortegas and Stearns are part of a renewed local food movement that’s been steadily growing across Taos County for a few years. It’s an effort to rebuild a network of farms, livestock producers and markets that once allowed this region to feed itself and bolstered an agricultural economy.
As more farmland is subdivided and lost to development, people are worried about the long-term impact on the region, from the loss of water rights to the end of centuries-old agricultural traditions.
Several of these farmers, like this trio, are young. For some, farming and ranching are traditions that stretch back generations in their families. Others are new to agriculture and are choosing it after years in other careers.
They feel a new urgency to this food effort. When the highly infectious novel coronavirus landed in New Mexico, prompting the state to shut down nonessential businesses and urge people to stay home, the weakness in Taos’ food supply chain was quickly apparent as store shelves emptied of basic goods every day for weeks.
“There have been rumblings in Taos County for years about reweaving the agriculture fabric of our communities that’s become full of holes over the last 20 to 30 years,” said Gillian Joyce, director of the nonprofit Alianza Agri-Cultura in Taos, which is focused on building a resilient agricultural economy and culture. “Coronavirus hitting really made people think about food insecurity and how to build redundancy into the system.”
What new farmers and livestock producers need to get started is often beyond their budgets — equipment and land.
That’s where LandLink New Mexico, a free service for farmers, landowners and farmworkers, comes in.
The Ortegas farm on family land, and Corilia Ortega has another plot of farmland in Ranchos de Taos. That access is critical to their foray into agriculture.
“We wouldn’t be able to be farming if we didn’t have property that family lent us,” Ortega said. “The money and capital you need just to start, it’s a lot. Just to buy seed. We don’t even own equipment. A lot of the ability to do our work is our neighbors giving us a really good deal.”
Ortega works for Alianza Agri-Cultura through a grant from the LOR Foundation to promote LandLink in Northern New Mexico.
LandLink New Mexico is a collaborative effort between the Agriculture Collaborative, New Mexico Farmers Market Association, Edible and other groups.
“It’s like Craigslist but for agriculture. You can post the land that you have that you want in production, whether it’s to protect your water rights or your ag land valuation. Or just because,” she said, sweeping her hand out across the field and the valley below — “look how beautiful it is.”
New farmers or those seeking to expand their operations can look for land that’s available to lease or barter for on the LandLink website, landlinknm.org.
“Land access is pretty challenging for anybody, but if you are a new farmer, it’s that much harder, if you aren’t inheriting a farm or ranch operation,” Ortega said.
Finally, LandLink has a spot where agricultural workers can post their skills and availability for people who need them. “If you have a tractor or disc [harrow], you can post that you have those,” she said. “It creates a little job market.”
Ortega has already mailed out 100 letters to landowners and has another 100 she’s ready to send, letting them know about LandLink. Plus, knowing not everyone has internet or computers, she’s made up 150 flyers to to put up at post offices, feed stores and markets.
Protecting land, water
Beyond helping farmers, the service can help property owners retain their agricultural property tax status — which reduces property taxes — by keeping the land in production. In addition, keeping the agricultural land productive can help a property owner retain water rights — which in New Mexico must be used to retain them.
Joyce said loss of Taos County agriculture land came to the forefront in a property reassessment several years ago. The assessment found many properties in Taos County had fallen out of production. For some, that was due to a drought. Others were out of production because the property owners couldn’t farm or ranch.
“This leaves our ag tradition and lands at risk to being lost permanently to development,” Joyce said.
Tobias Martinez of Ranchos de Taos and Darlene Vigil, a former county assessor, who both now sit on the Alianza Agri-Cultura board, looked deeper at the issue and found it was complex. A slow defunding of agricultural extension, which provided services to farmers, and a loss of neighborhood support for agriculture all played into the problem, Joyce said.
“It’s as simple as who shows up for ditch cleanings, who can till fields, who shows up to help with harvest,” Joyce said. “That all used to be ditch-level and neighborhood-level help.”
Connecting landowners with people who want to work the land and use the water can help everyone.
One step at a time
Corilia Ortega came to farming after earning a master’s in clinical psychology and working for years in suicide and violence prevention, including launching a program at New Mexico Highlands University.
Her brother, an Army veteran, was accepted to a farmer apprenticeship program paid for through the New Mexico Acequia Association. He encouraged her to try it, and she did last year.
“That changed the trajectory of my life,” she said.
This year, she coaxed Stearns, who has a master’s degree in English, into trying the one-year program where apprentices learn about farm techniques, irrigation and water rights from farm veterans — the acequia association’s Los Sembradores program.
Ortega now works with LandLink and helped start the local chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition along with Stearns and others. They are up to a dozen members from all over the county.
Agriculture isn’t easy. It’s a big commitment for all of them. They aren’t romantic about it. But they have friends like them who believe in this work and are willing to help.
“I think it is the way of the world that we are all going to be coming back to this,” she said.
“We’re fortunate that our family history and recent family memory of the land is still there. Our grandparents had farms and gardens and lived off the land. It’s those ripples of what it means to be from a small town that was once entirely independent and sustainable.”
This story first appeared in The Taos News, a sister publication of the Santa Fe New Mexican.