Facing wild weather and dwindling water resources, a pepper grower says it's time to rethink agriculture
It is spring, and I am kneeling with a few friends in front of the composted soil of the hillside terraces in my orchard-garden in the desert borderlands of Arizona. It is planting day, and as we place each variety of pepper plant into the moistened earth, we say its name aloud, as if reciting a prayer in the face of uncertainty: Chiltepin, Chile del Arbol, Tabasco, Jimmy Nardello, Datil, Beaver Dam, Yellow Hot Banana, Chimayó, Sweet Chocolate, and Sheepsnose. We hand-water each member of this tribe of peppers, place a frost-resistant row cover over it like a monk's hood, and move on to the next, hoping for the best.
If you have farmed or gardened in the desert for any length of time, you sooner or later learn—in a thousand humbling ways, as I have—that you are not in control of even half of the most essential variables that most converge if you are to return in late summer to harvest a crop. In the face of accelerating climate change, my capacity to control critical factors and predict the outcome of my labors seems ever more limited.
When I moved to Patagonia, Arizona, in 2009, the land was suffering from the shock of severe drought. During my first summer season back in the borderlands after a decade away, virtually no rain fell between June 5 and September 15. There was the driest summer on record in 100 years. The rangelands around my home never greened up and neighboring ranchers sold off much of their cattle herds. But then the El Niño/La Niña transition began to happen, so that winter rains came late but storms continued into the spring. We ended up the cool season with the best spring wildflower show and most productive gardens that that had been seen in years. Last summer's monsoons dumped 14 inches of rains on my five acres in a matter of two months, allowing my fruit trees and pepper plants to flourish.