I have been living in a house on a piece of irrigated land known as Sol Felíz since 2001. This land I cultivate, lovingly known as Huerta Sol Felíz (Sol Felíz Farm), was set up for acequia gravity-flow irrigation by my grandfather with gates that guide water into my fields. In the 21 growing seasons I have participated in our acequia organization, I have seen many changes. The most important things I have learned have been about how to manage when water resources are scarce. This is of utmost importance in creating a resilient regional food system, especially in the desert Southwest. Central to creating resiliency is to work with a cropping system that is most suited for survival, as well as innovative ways of harvesting water from the landscape.
My first small garden was a success, with all the water I needed, usually provided to me once a week for a full day. In 2003, however, it was a different situation. Right when many crops were finishing up their lifecycle or ripening, I didn’t have any water! The level diminished in the acequia channel week after week in June and July, but not enough to notice. On the day of my awakening, it slowed to a trickle halfway down a row of corn, only to disappear into the subsurface. Calling the mayordomo (ditch boss) didn’t help. His reply was simply, “It’s one of those years when you won’t get any more water.” In recent years, the consistent river flows of my childhood have become ephemeral, due to upstream development, drought and a forest characterized by overgrowth due to mismanagement and the loss of fire ecology. How can I achieve my agricultural ideals if I can’t count on having enough water when I need it?
To deal with this harsh reality, it was helpful to learn that acequias didn’t really have consistent, season-long, water flows before the modern age. Our loss of water mid-season was due to the fact that our dams (presas) leaked to the point of not being able to divert water from the river channel. Constructed with logs, rocks and mud, the presas allowed for downstream river flows, riparian habitat and diversions. We have all but forgotten how acequias used to work, especially now that we enjoy massive concrete diversion structures with metal gates and wheels that allow us to divert the entire river.
The lesson from the leaky presas is that crops had to be able to withstand water shortage mid- to late-season because there simply wasn’t enough water. This created an agricultural system that relied on crops that could be established with winter precipitation, such as winter wheat, rye and garlic; in addition to those that could be well established with predictable springtime acequia flows such as alberjón (peas), habas (fava beans), lentils and garbanzos. Corn, beans and squash could also be started with the acequia flows in May, but after that, many crops had to subsist on little moisture until the monsoons in mid- to late July. During times of meager water, the saying goes: “Es más importante escardar y arrimar la tierra que regar.” (It is more important to cultivate your soil and pile it around your plants than it is to irrigate.)
Another important lesson learned over the years of cultivating the same land and saving seed is that no matter what you do, some years are just not good for certain crops. When I experience difficulty with particular crops, I always talk to other farmers and find that our experiences, for whatever reason, have been similar. There was a year when the corn grew really tall but did not produce ears. In another year, the beans failed. This year, almost every farmer had difficulties with squash. It is typical for us to want everything we think we should have, but nature often has her own peculiarities. This is where having a diverse garden can be the best insurance to withstand unpredictable environmental conditions. Some crops may not thrive, but others are likely to produce sufficient yields. Even in years that were bad for certain crops, individual plants were likely to survive and produce stronger seeds that hopefully have a better chance of survival next time.
Knowing that not all cultivated crops do well all the time, we started looking at useful food and medicinal plants that grow on their own. Quelites and verdolagas immediately and traditionally come to mind, but we also started looking at other plants that are comfortable with our land and conditions. No matter the water situation, we always seem to have robust stands and healthy individuals of alfalfa and clover in patches. Pollinating animals love these plants when they flower, and we are able to use many parts of these plants for food and medicine. We process the seedheads to make sprouts or to be able to reseed areas for ground cover and cover crops. Many other plants in our field have medicinal properties, and we allow them to coexist with our crops so that we can harvest them as remedios. This is a low-cost, low-impact way of using what works on our site, with stacked benefits to the soil, pollinating insects and birds— and us! However, some human visitors get confused when they see a messy garden not defined by strict, straight rows, and “weeds” that have not been eradicated.
In the traditional acequia form and function, irrigation channels were often constructed using the contour of the land. Large sections of irrigated land were structured in a series of terraces known as melgas and could be divided into smaller sections known as eras. Melgas were constructed so that irrigation water could be managed a section at a time. During dry years, not all melgas could be efficiently irrigated, so they would remain fallow. In times and places where eras were employed, little berms directed water into pockets where the plants could benefit from concentrated moisture. The berms also served as windbreaks and shade to further conserve water, similar to Zuni waffle gardens, but in a method developed by Arabs on the other side of the world and with flood irrigation in mind.
The irrigation systems on our acequias have been impacted by subdivision of land, so larger fields once defined by melgas are all but gone in many areas. Remnants of these systems can still be seen as terraced land and swales, some of which are defined by berms made of rocks. Knowing this, we re-introduced a melga-like system in our Huerta Sol Feliz by creating sections that are smaller versions of the melga system along the land’s contours and irrigating by splitting the water at the top of the field to run down each side of the section to meet in the middle. Instead of looking at our land as one big field defined by rows with one-way irrigation, we now think in sections that are managed to slow and hold water based on its relationship to the water’s source, to the sun and shade throughout the day; and accessibility.
To take the idea of water conservation and soil building a step further, we became intrigued with hügelkulture, a way of burying large amounts of biomass to make berms, swales, or mounds. Most of the hügelkulture I have seen, however, requires an incredible amount of excavation, and they are usually sited in areas characterized by more water than we have in the desert. As such, we are experimenting with what we are calling “desert-modified hügelkulture.”
We start by digging a shallow trench on the contour. We were able to create a wick of stomach wool from my neighbor’s sheared sheep and lay it continuously across the entire trench. On top of that, we laid small diameter cuttings from fruit trees and bushes. We then piled on more dry carbon from cut weeds and sprinkled chicken manure on top. We then covered the whole thing with mature compost, and finally, soil. The idea is that this low-impact hügelkulture will decompose over time and create a site of moisture retention and in situ composting. As the years go by, clearing the fields allows us to rake more residue on top of the berm and continue building it up with carbon, manure, compost and soil. We find that the crops grown closest to the berm do not suffer through dry spells as much as those that are farther away. Over time, we envision these berms growing in size to create large, fertile berms that define sunken planting areas by water conservation. The berms will eventually be cultivated, first with nitrogen-producing legumes, and later with crops that require more nutrients as the system decomposes and matures. The use of hügelkulture, in addition to water storage in cisterns, is intended to help us weather the most difficult times of water scarcity.
The most exciting part about farming on ancestral land with no intention of going anywhere is that our relationship to our place is strengthened, dynamic and responsive. We view the land as part of our body and think of its long-term health and happiness instead of a canvas for production, as many farmers are forced to do to meet the demands of the market or their own expectations. As in any healthy relationship, we experience setbacks and failures, and work toward repair for the best outcome for all parties (elements and organisms) involved. We have learned to defer to the conditions and the process, to watch and listen; to rely upon our imagination and artistry more than looking for inputs we can buy to try to control the situation and maximize yields. We build upon what works, not what we think should work. Every year is different and exciting, with surprises and losses, but the end result is always the same: There is more abundance on the land than we can handle, so we are happy to share that with our ecology and look for better ways to use our time and energy to create more potential and nurture more life.
Miguel Santistévan is a father, husband, educator and Permaculturalist. He sells traditional food products and offers consulting and online courses. More on his activities and consulting can be found at www.growfarmers.org