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New Mexico Farmers Face a Choice: Pray for Rain or Get Paid Not to Plant

While Duggins chafed at MRGCD efforts to take agricultural water for the silvery minnow and other wildlife in the ecosystem, he pointed out that other aspects of the fallow program have a direct impact on the long-term survivability of farmers. For example, Duggins pays $150-170 per acre to lease most of the land he farms. “Why should [a landowner] lease it to me for $170 when he can get $425?” he asked.

“To idle the farm, and think you’ll start it up next year, that’s a dream.”

However, Ish said there are rules in place to prevent this very scenario. The program requires that leasing farmers co-sign the agreement, and it is up to both parties to decide how payment is split. There are also rules on rotating land in and out of the program.

In fact, one of Duggins’ landlords did end up taking advantage of the fallow program and signed up 35 acres that have an irrigation system in need of an overhaul. “Duggins didn’t want to be part of the agreement and allowed the district to work directly with the landowner,” said Ish.

Duggins sees the fallow program as yet another threat to farming in the region. “You don’t have a farm without a farmer,” Duggins said. In fact, his son and farming partner has found other work; his farming future is uncertain.

And, Duggins said, it will take a lot more work to bring a fallowed field back to life. “To idle the farm, and think you’ll start it up next year, that’s a dream,” he said.

Small-scale regenerative farmer Kristen Couevas points to her cover crop field in in Tomé, New Mexico. (Photo credit: Virginia Gewin)

In late June, Kristen Couevas, a small-scale regenerative farmer in Tomé, New Mexico, agreed with Duggins that leaving the region’s highly alkaline fields bare is a recipe for disaster. She predicted that if the sun doesn’t bake the life out of the fallowed fields or winds and rains don’t erode the soil, invasive weeds will put down roots. “Instead of a $15 million fallow program, why don’t we get some cover crops?” she asked. Cover crops would not only keep the soil alive, they could also help the land absorb and store water, she added.

One goal of the fallow program is to create enough of an incentive that water wasters—ideally, the most inefficient endeavors—opt in, which helps alleviate unnecessary water demand on unproductive lands. “We hemorrhage water inefficiently in areas of this valley,” Casuga said of small-acreage homes that can take over a dozen hours to irrigate a lawn. And they can because they have an untouchable water right.

“A water right to zero amount of water is zero amount of water,” Casuga explained. The water wasters further frustrate farmers who are asked to reduce their water consumption. “Somewhere we need to define what’s a farmer and what’s a farm. A 2-acre lot is not a farm,” Duggins said. He believes larger operations that feed the nation should have priority when it comes to water.

Perhaps not surprisingly, alfalfa is often criticized for being an inefficient use of dwindling water supplies and misplaced in the Southwest. But farmers say it is a low-input perennial crop, lasting about seven years, which helps prevent soil erosion. The region’s large dairies also rely on alfalfa, so the question of whether it belongs in the state is inextricably linked to that larger, very powerful industry.

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