In a year that has already seen an underwhelming winter, wildfires and an increasingly severe drought, the state’s hottest commodity—green chile—may be the latest fatality. Earlier this year, irrigation allotments were pushed back, and for many farmers, this summer will be one of their greatest challenges yet.
“We started a month later with the water, and it affected the growth of our crops because it was a dry winter. Everything was just so dry,” Chris Lopez said. Lopez farms near San Antonio, a few miles south of Socorro. A dry river is nothing new for farms south of Albuquerque, as they have had to historically face periodic droughts and flooding, but the severity of the last few dry years is something new. “They shut the water off a month early in 2020. I probably lost 80 percent of my winter wheat.” Many farmers grow throughout the year, and another dry winter has many already worrying about the upcoming months.
According to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, the value of chile production statewide in 2020 was $51.9 million, up from $50.0 million in 2019. While production was up just a bit, the amount of acreage planted was two percent lower than in 2019. In Hatch, the green chile capital of the world, farmers planted and produced less than any other reporting county in the past two years.
The state is preparing for even less acreage this year. For smaller farms south of Albuquerque, the significant reduction in irrigation water has led some to abandon their field for the year. The New Mexico State Engineer’s Office has even implemented a southern Rio Grande Valley program that will pay farmers not to farm this year. Many have had to embrace new and creative ways to maintain their crops for those who are still choosing to farm.
Glen Duggins, who owns one of the larger farms near Lemitar, N.M., has said that this is the first year where he considered transplants—already grown plants that save time and water. Duggins has already planted 300,000 transplants this year. “Transplants save water. Transplants are the way of the future. You’ll also get to the market earlier,” Duggins said. Transplants, although a relatively new trend that has arisen in the Rio Grande Valley, can save farmers time and water in the upcoming months. Under traditional farming, farmers have to water the soil in preparation for planting before seeds are even planted. With the season starting a month later and irrigation expected to be shut off in June, traditional farming may not be feasible this year.
Irrigating with groundwater has been a common—albeit temporary — solution for many farmers during dry years. This method has come with its own host of challenges, particularly with the price of operating. “I’m one of the few that has irrigation wells, and they’re very pricey to run. They’re thousands of dollars. I’m thankful to have them. They’ve saved me more than once,” Duggins said. Many see the use of wells as exacerbating an already difficult situation. “They’re not going to have the production. If you have to rely on a well, it’s just not cost-effective. Unless you really increase the price of the crop. We’ve already increased the price of our crop. We finally had to go up on our crops,” Lopez said about the effects of drought and using wells on his crops.
Reservoirs up north, which have historically provided the more arid southern portions of the state with water security, were severely depleted in 2018 and have yet to have a chance to recover in the wake of several dry years. A common criticism of water policy in the Middle Rio Grande Valley is New Mexico’s obligation to meet a certain water debt to Texas. Established in the early 20th century, this policy has been a point of contention between the two states. But this year may be different, given the challenges that farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley face. “It’s the right thing to do to help New Mexico farmers in the middle valley,” Texas Compact Commissioner Robert Skov said. According to the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, last year, “New Mexico struggled to meet compact deliveries resulting in additional debits bringing the total to 96,800 acre-feet.”
To weather the challenges of an unforgiving drought, many have come together to find solutions. “Back here where my farm is, two of our neighbors are working together to maintain wells,” Duggins said about decreasing the costs and labor it takes to run the wells. Many in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, especially those with the resources, have shared what they can to support their neighbors. Still, pumps are seen as more of a hazard than as a solution to weather the drought. “Even with pumps. They’re only meant to be a band-aid. The price of running them is outrageous,” he said.
Farmers in the valley are depending on a robust monsoon season to compensate for the lack of runoff. In February, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District sent a letter to irrigators, notifying them that “State water officials are asking for those farmers that do not absolutely need to irrigate to seriously consider resting fields and perhaps using this year to improve delivery systems and prepare soils for this fall or next spring planting.” For some, the news comes too late. They didn’t replant from last year.
The Middle Rio Grande District announced that irrigation will be shut off on June 30 this year. Harvest season begins in August.