Agriculture diversification is vital to valley

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Tractors rattle down main streets and country roads, verdant fields yawn in pale morning light, cattle graze lazily, fat bellied goats bleat cheerfully and small produce stands gleam along the roadways.

Ungelbah Daniel-Davila-New-Bulletin photo: Autumn sunlight plays on Belen farmer Mike Mechenbier’s pecan orchard on a late fall morning. Mechenbier says farmers need to seek more economical crops if agriculture is to survive in the county.

Signs that Valencia County is a community rooted deeply in agriculture are evident at every turn. From the alfalfa, chile and pecan farmers to the ranchers, bee keepers and master gardeners, the valley is a vibrant greenbelt, teeming with life.

And yet, this rural setting is a prized and fragile commodity, performing a delicate balancing act between conserving its agricultural resources and the inevitable need to grow commercially and residentially.

“I think you have so many demands on our agricultural land today,” says farmer and land developer Mike Mechenbier. “It really needs to become a more concerted effort to preserve it. You’ve got demands on the water; every municipality wants this water that we’re using. You’ve got urban demands, people come in and see the pretty green and they want to chop it up and live on it.

“It’s a resource that we don’t put enough value on, this greenbelt, and there needs to be an emphasis to preserve it. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever, it’s never going to go back to agriculture at a later date.”

On a sunny autumn morning on Mechenbier’s pecan farm south of Belen, light filters through the leaves of the young trees and bounces off the dew collected on the grass and rogue corn plants carpeting the orchard floor.

To the east lays the lush Rio Grande Valley. Beyond that, the majestic Manzano Mountains reach skyward, and to the west the comparatively barren mesa lays in stark contrast, dotted with prickly pear and rabbit brush.

Mechanbier waves his hand westward, “Look at all this land that isn’t farmland,” he says. “You move that development out of the valley, keep it off the agricultural land.

“Once you build a house on a piece of this agricultural land, you’ll change the nature of it into perpetuity. It’s never coming back. It’s never agricultural land again.”

The average age of farmers in the county, he says, is “pushing 60,” and their land is their retirement, which is one reason many farms are being sold and subdivided. In many instances, subdividing is their most economical decision.

“They don’t have enough money for retirement and so they have to look at their land and say this is my only asset and how do I maximize the value of this asset, and it’s subdividing it,” said Harvey Crowley, farm manager at Mechanbier’s farm.

Both men agree the solution lays in farmers finding new ways to utilize their land by moving toward more high value crops, such as raspberries, chile, wine grapes and pecans.

“I think the only way you’ll preserve the greenbelt here in Valencia County, or anywhere on this river bottom, is agriculture needs to change,” says Mechanbier. “It needs to become economical and sustainable. You’re seeing higher dollar crops go in … Agriculture needs to economically compete against other development uses for this land for it to survive.”

Crowley uses pecans as an example, which can bring in as much as $4,000 an acre. If you harvest 10 acres, he says, that’s $40,000 a year, and $400,000 over 10 years, which ends up being more than what you can sell the land for.

“So it actually becomes a better value than subdivision,” he says.

Another side effect of subdivision, said Crowley, is the loss of water rights. If you have a 10-acre farm and sell one acre, that’s an acre of water you can’t get back, as an individual, but sometimes also as a community.

“If we don’t use (that water) here, it goes to Texas,” he said.

According to Max Khiene, founder of and associate broker at Centerfire Real Estate in Los Lunas, 90 percent of Valencia County is in agriculture and he doesn’t see that changing any time soon.

“Our county, for many, many years, will be primarily agriculturally oriented and a minority of the area will be residential or what you might think of as developed,” Khiene said, adding, “but the whole valley has been developed in one way or another, either for residential purposes, commercial purposes, agricultural purposes, schools, highways, roads, all of that.”

Valencia County Planning and Zoning Community Services Director Jacobo Martinez agrees with the need for agriculture to diversify in order to survive in the county, citing winemaking as a product that has a history in the valley and is now making a “resurgence” as a high value crop and product.

He said in this year alone, he has received three or four applications from local winemakers to make and distribute their product.

He, like Mechanbier and Crowley, says in order for agriculture to survive, individuals need to find “economically viable” uses for their lands.

“I think there’s a definite culture that’s built around agriculture in Valencia County,” says Martinez. “It’s been here for generations — it’s been here for years and people feel it in their hearts. We’re an agricultural community. We hold that type of country value in a lot of ways and it’s kind of ingrained in the DNA, it’s ingrained in the built environment with the acequia system and it’s ingrained with the type of flood irrigation that we do for alfalfa.”

One of the ways the county is doing its part to preserve agriculture and Valencia County’s greenbelt while still allowing for growth, says Martinez, is through a comprehensive plan that was developed in 2005, which calls for creating “activity centers” in areas not within the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

For example, he says, the Belen Alexander Municipal Airport and the Rio Grande Industrial Center are both considered activity centers and are located away from the greenbelt.

“And that’s where the comprehensive plan has kind of defined growth areas so that those areas are more urbanized and that would maintain the agricultural preservation of the valley floor itself,” he said.

Another method the county uses to preserve agriculture is through zoning laws themselves that Martinez says define two-acre and five-acre minimum lots in the valley.

But, all over the county, Martinez says individuals and communities are finding creative ways to prevent further subdivision and preserve existing agricultural lands.

He gives the example of the community association of San Clemente, which is working to establish the San Clemente Rangeland Trust, a conservation trust that would legally protect the designated rangeland from subdivision forever.

“They’re actually working on creating an agricultural land trust where they want to a make a greenbelt easement for cattle and cattle grazing and using that cattle for local markets and trying to get local restaurants to buy into the local market of cattle,” says Martinez.

According to the association’s website, www.sanclementenm.org, similar rangeland trusts have been accomplished in California and Oregon and that, “Our community is at a crossroads, but we can steer our destiny and create a brilliant future for San Clemente. We have the potential to become a national model for progressive land use, upending the trend toward a subdivided west.”

As a “fringe” community, somewhere between rural and urbanized, Martinez says people are moving in out of an attraction to the rural setting while still wanting more “urbanized” services, such as centralized water and paved roads.

As of now, Valencia County doesn’t have the tax base to fund those services that could further urbanize certain communities, but that could change down the road. However, he, like Khiene, doesn’t expect a complete transformation over night.

“We’re seeing a lot of conflict between land uses, traditional-type land uses and urbanized land uses, and services that people expect,” he said. “I think there’s always a fear of a complete urbanization that might occur at any given area, but I think because of the will of the community members that really want to maintain that agricultural lifestyle and just knowing their strength and their passion for agriculture, I see that as being a very key element of the future identity of Valencia County.

“Not only that, but maintaining lands for future agricultural use is probably important for our resiliency as a community in New Mexico.”


-- Email the author at udavila@news-bulletin.com.