By Tony Farkas
Agriculture is the foundation for eastern New Mexico’s economy.
The cotton gins that didn’t stop production even on Thanksgiving Day, the farm implements seen along the roads and highways every spring and fall, and the aroma from the local feedlots and dairies offer plenty of physical evidence to support the statement.
Statistics offer more proof.
Sales of farm commodities in 2000 amounted to $364.4 million for Curry, Quay and Roosevelt counties. By way of comparison, retail trade for the same area was $524.1 million, the state Economic Development Department reports.
Curry, Roosevelt and Quay counties are ranked third, fourth and 12th, respectively, in the state for cash receipts for farm commodities. They are a large part of the state total of $2.1 billion, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture reports.
Floyd McAlister, Roosevelt County agriculture extension agent, said agriculture has been the county’s main industry since it was formed a century ago, and it continues so to this day.
Former Quay County Agriculture Extension Agent Jeff Bader, who recently took a job with the Bernalillo County Extension Office, agrees. He said agriculture is the lifeblood, the basis for the area’s economy.
Few in Curry County could claim otherwise. But agriculture does take its toll on the region, especially on the water.
The most recent statistics compiled by the State Engineer’s Office (1995) show agricultural interests used approximately 95 percent of all ground water pumped in the region. The statistics for the three counties:
— Curry County: 247,551 acre feet used of 257,660 pumped (96 percent).
— Roosevelt County: 155,210 acre feet used of 160,819 pumped (97 percent).
— Quay County: 28,683 acre feet used of 30,893 pumped (93 percent).
One acre foot is about 326,000 gallons.
Since experts agree the region could be out of clean, drinkable water in just a few decades, farmers and ranchers are feeling pressure to limit water use.
At the same time, they remind city dwellers the region’s economy will likely dry up without the agriculture interests.
Living with limitations
McAlister said water use by area farmers has been declining in recent years because users have been converting to more efficient application technologies.
Even without that, farmers haven’t been reckless with water, especially since the 1950s when the State Engineer’s Office placed limitations on water use for agricultural interests, McAlister said.
A farmer is permitted 3 acre feet of ground water per year per acre of irrigated cropland, McAlister said. That number is halved for dairy water use.
Bader said agriculture interests in his area, especially farmers using irrigation, rely more on surface water than ground water, as the Canadian River, Conchas Dam and Ute Reservoir are all in Quay County. With surface water, the state allocation for irrigated cropland is 18 acre inches per year, he said.
“I have people tell me dairies use all the water,” McAlister said. “They’re not accelerating water usage; when a dairy is built, it has to have water rights, and the state engineer converts rights from 3 acre feet to 1.57 acre feet per surface area. That’s not just water for cows, it’s total water for dairies. They have to live with that allocation.”
March of technology
Curry County Agriculture Extension Agent Stan Jones said changes in technology, and advances in weed control have helped keep water use down.
“Twenty years ago, we had water running down rows, running out the tail end,” he said. “Now it’s not, and there’s been government help in that regard.
“There’s some additives that tie water up in the soil where it doesn’t leech down; a gel-type substance which keeps water where it needs to be for the plant to use. Advances in weed-control technology will also help, as weeds tend to sap out water faster than crops. Bindweed is particularly nasty, especially for dryland farmers.”
Bader said that for Quay County, farmers going to center-pivot irrigation systems have been leaders in conservation.
Most Roosevelt County irrigation is by sprinkler, McAlister said, but virtually all water is applied efficiently, such as releasing water low to the ground to minimize wind loss, or running sprinklers under lower pressure, which increases the size of water droplets and lessens evaporation.
The changes, he said, have increased irrigation efficiency from 60 percent to about 90 percent.
“Then there’s the LEPA (low-energy precision application) system; these systems approach 95 percent efficiency,” McAlister said. “We’ve got a large number of systems in the county set up for that.”
Changes to cropping systems that use reduced tillage, which leaves crop residue on the soil surface, also reduces water use by reducing evaporation, he said.
Even so, crops require a certain amount of water, with corn and alfalfa requiring almost the total allotment set by the state. McAlister said farmers grow corn and alfalfa because there’s a demand for them and they can make a bit of money.
Other crops, such as peanuts, wheat and sorghum, don’t need as much water.
For animals, water intake varies. A milk cow will consume about 30 to 35 gallons of water a day; ranch cattle and young cattle don’t require as much.
What the future holds
“Crops have to have water to grow,” Bader said. “This county is primarily ag-based, and there’s a lot of sympathy for ag interests.”
But that could change if water starts running out.
Jones said if the state begins monitoring wells, and if certain crops were found to be using more than the allotted amount, farmers probably would convert to crops that are more forgiving about water.
“If water becomes a restricted issue, you don’t have many options,” he said.
Options shrink as well in times of drought, placing an even bleaker hue on a complicated issue.
“We haven’t had any rain at the right time to speak of in three years, and even if the drought is over, it will take several years for the land to come back,” Jones said. “It’s having a huge effect on the cattle market, and we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.”