Summer is slowly fading into autumn, and farmers are beginning to harvest their summer crops before the cooler weather agriculture takes its place. For South Valley farmer Chris Altenbach, it's time for a new harvesting cycle at Ironwood Farm, which grows vegetables and fruit that can withstand the winter.
Ironwood Farm is a medium-sized local farm that has been around since the 1980s when Altenbach’s parents bought the land it sits upon. What makes Ironwood different than the many farms located in the South Valley is its aspiration to be organic in food and energy, Altenbach said.
Growing up on the farm, Altenbach said his family participated in organic farming methods before it was even called organic production — never using sprays, herbicides or pesticides in any of their farming practices. After going to college for work in fisheries and conservation biology, Altenbach decided to focus his energy on creating and promoting an environmentally friendly lifestyle.
"I really wanted to do something that would make a difference in terms of climate change, health and animal welfare," he said.
Altenbach said it's important to maintain local and small scale agriculture because each farm does things a little differently, bringing about more diversity and ways to solve challenges they each face including lack of water and the inconsistencies that come with climate change.
"We do need this local agriculture," he said. "I feel like especially small scale agriculture is good because you could employ a lot of people, and create green jobs."
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), green jobs constitute as decent jobs that contribute to preserve or restore the environment, either in traditional sectors such as manufacturing and construction or in new, emerging green sectors such as renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Green jobs help the environment in a variety of ways, from minimizing waste and production to protecting and restoring natural ecosystems.
Altenbach said one of the greatest conflicts he faces is having to compete for the water he uses on his farm with the water that could go toward saving the silvery minnow — a species of fish local to the water in the Middle Rio Grande.
"Obviously the fish need water, but they also need quite a lot of water, especially in the spring when they spawn in times of high (river) flows," he said. "So we’re taking water from the silvery minnows to use for agriculture. It conflicts with something I care a great deal about and work(ed) to help save for about 20 years."
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Rio Grande silvery minnow was listed as an Endangered Species under the delineation of the Endangered Species Act in 1994 and now exists in less than 5% of its native range.
Restoring and protecting natural lands is a goal of many local farmers including Altenbach, who said the land on Ironwood Farms was originally a floodplain. Although the land can never go back to its original state, Altenbach said he tries to preserve natural wildlife and give different species a place to exist.
Eating in season, eating local, creating jobs and maintaining a habitat where we can do that are all ways Altenbach said we can decrease our carbon footprint and support small farms. The problem comes with the expense of producing high-quality, environmentally friendly ways of eating.
Altenbach said small farms can use help from government subsidies because the price of food is artificially depreciated from what it ought to be.
"Food should be more expensive. It used to be a larger amount of our household budget," he said. "We wouldn’t want to think about that, but it would be better food, better for the environment and we really have to think nationally and globally about what our impacts are for food consumption."
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) New Mexico offers grants for socially disadvantaged or beginner farmers. According to the NRCS's website, such farmers are considered "Historically Underserved Clients who may have limited access to capital, land and farming resources and traditionally low participation in USDA programs."
The NRCS of New Mexico offers other financial assistance programs to local agricultural producers and landowners so they can get the resources they need for growing and maintaining their land.
Altenbach, who has been farming on his land for over 20 years, said he sees the future of farming and having access to water as more unpredictable than it is today.
"I anticipate not having water when I need it. We’re trying to build as much resilience to that as possible and work within the existing laws and farmer groups to try to change the ways we use water," he said.
Altenbach said the key to fixing these issues is to align our priorities with water and come together to form more innovative ways to solve problems.
"This is a global issue, so the more minds we have to talk about creating jobs, thinking and researching on what to do to fix things will be helpful."
Bianca Hoops contributed reporting and writing to this article.
Amanda Britt is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AmandaBritt__