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.
But since September 15, 2010, we've received less than 5 percent of the average seasonal rainfall and were hit with the worst freeze in 54 years. On top of that, many of Arizona's reservoirs hit an all-time low last fall. At Lake Mead, irrigation engineers recorded the lowest water levels since 1938, and feared that a lowering of just eight additional feet would force water rationing over much of Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California.
Here in the desert, we live close to the edge.
And yet, most of the residents of the Southwest don't much behave as if that were the case in terms of food and water security. In December 2010, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that "the capacity for water to support cities, industry, agriculture and ecosystems in the U.S. West is near its limit," without even factoring in impacts from future climate change. The 15 distinguished scientists authoring the report suggested that the metropolitan areas of the Sun Belt where I live may now have the highest water "footprints" of any place in the world, and that they will need to cut their water use to a target level of 60 percent of what it is today.
Farmers, too, will need to cut their water use, but that means that their reductions in water use per acre will need to be twice the reductions that they've made over the last quarter century, or else they will have to retire some of their arable lands from food production altogether. Since 1982, the four U.S. states along the border have already lost more six million acres of farmlands to development, 26 percent of our nation's loss of food-producing capacity.
As my friend Peter Warshall constantly reminds me, our food security in the Southwest depends upon the security of water supplies being delivered to irrigable land. That capacity, we can now see, has been severely impaired by urban growth in the Sunbelt since World War II, and is likely to be further impacted by the vagaries of weather shifts.
Such problems in sustaining food production in a region are inevitably reflected in food prices and in food security. Arizona and New Mexico are already listed in the sixth states worst afflicted by child food insecurity, and are ranked with Mississippi in the three states with the worst poverty. Since 2006, Arizona's poverty rate has climbed to 5.2 percent, 3.7 times the national average. In other words, the limited capacity of the poor to purchase enough healthy foods at current prices is clearly affecting their food security and vulnerability to outright hunger.
As an orchardkeeper and chile grower, such trends are daunting. And while the production of food off my five acres will certainly not change these trends, I have committed to farm in a manner that reflects my humble response to such regional and global issues. I funnel nearly every drop of rain that falls on my property into the orchard-garden's soils or to storage tanks for use between rainfall events. I reduce the potential effects of drought by increasing the soil's moisture-holding capacity a dozen different ways. I grow drought- and heat-tolerant heirlooms—most of them perennials—which sequester more carbon in the soul. And I try in every other way I can muster to reduce the "carbon foodprint" of our production system.
Nevertheless, these localized efforts are but one isolated patch of the quilt unless stitched together with other efforts to change both policy and practice. Together with a dozen other farmers, food educators, scientists, and chefs, I recently released a food security agenda for the region, State of Southwestern Foodsheds, that offers 40 tangible recommendations for improving food and water security for the border states. We are now leading briefings for policy makers and town halls in rural communities so that they may more comprehensively envision what our destiny may be.
And yet, after the dozens of meetings I've been in since the foodshed report was released, the most reassuring gestures for me are the personal acts of planting, water-harvesting, and soil-building. These practices provide a sense of rootedness to a more resilient future. Whenever words fail to offer me much hope, I get down on my knees and put my hands into the earth.
Images (top to bottom): woodleywonderworks/flickr, tacobel_canon/flickr