Profile of Contemporary Agriculture in Costilla County

From Environmental and Food Justice (Devon G. Peña):

Moderator’s Note: This is the last in a three part series and includes the source bibliography. The author is Co-Founder and President of The Acequia Institute and prepared this report during August-September 2015. The report is intended as a contribution to local agricultural, scientific, and environmental education for Costilla County residents, farmers, and public officials. The information or views presented in this report do not reflect the official views or policies of The Acequia Institute or its Board of Directors and Officers or the University of Washington. [ed. Part 1 and Part 2 here]

Profile of Contemporary Agriculture in Costilla County

According to the San Luis Valley Development Resources Group (2007), agricultural income remains a vital component of our local economy as indicated by the fact that more than 21 percent of Costilla County income is directly earned from the direct sale of farm produce and livestock. This includes sales of beef cattle and sheep; row crops like fall potato and spring wheat; field crops like alfalfa; specialized grains (maize, barley, canola); and some legumes (soybean, common bean). Costilla County is the third largest producer of fall potato and fourth in alfalfa and hay output among SLV counties. According to the USDA Agricultural Census for 2009, Costilla County in 2007 had crop sales of $22,840,000 and livestock sales of $3,820,000. The same census shows that Costilla County sales of vegetables, melons, potatoes, and sweet potatoes ranked 5th in the state in 2007 while sales of livestock varied between 46th for beef cattle and 37th for sheep, goats and their products.

The USDA census found that the biggest subsector of the Costilla County agricultural economy remains forage, or land used for all hay and haylage including alfalfa, grass silage, and ‘greenchop’. With more than $30 million in sales for 2007, Costilla County alfalfa and hay producers still only ranked 23 out of 64 in sales statewide.

Together, the alfalfa, and to a lesser extent today potato producers, in Costilla County are a substantial local presence especially in the northernmost third of the county comprised of modern industrial monoculture operations in the vicinity of Ft. Garland and Blanca and in the southernmost third of the county with a smaller number of similar operations centered around the railroad grid towns of Jaroso and Mesita.

More recent data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (2013) indicates a modest increase in alfalfa production: Alfalfa was set at 86,000 tons harvested on 25,000 acres in 2013 compared to 76,500 tons on 17,500 acres in 2012. The NASS data further indicate that beef cow production held steady in Costilla County between 2008 and 2013 in total sales with a low of 5000 (in 2009, 2010, 2013) and a high of 5300 (in 2012). In the Culebra acequia communities, local alfalfa production largely goes toward winter feed for modest individual herds ranging between 30 and 400 cows.

The Upper Rio Grande/Rio Arriba Watershed  (highlighting location of center-pivot sprinkler circles)  Note: Green dots are center-pivot farm and ranch operations, most with junior groundwater withdrawal rights and subject to court-ordered mandates designed to mitigate damages to farmers with senior surface rights (including acequias) and to augment deliveries to the Rio Grande Interstate Compact.  Source: NASA/MODIS files at: http://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/baumanpr/geosat2/Dry_Land_Water/Dry_Land_Water.htm
The Upper Rio Grande/Rio Arriba Watershed
(highlighting location of center-pivot sprinkler circles)
Note: Green dots are center-pivot farm and ranch operations, most with junior groundwater withdrawal rights and subject to court-ordered mandates designed to mitigate damages to farmers with senior surface rights (including acequias) and to augment deliveries to the Rio Grande Interstate Compact. Source: NASA/MODIS files at: http://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/baumanpr/geosat2/Dry_Land_Water/Dry_Land_Water.htm

GMOs in Costilla County

As noted above, defined by tonnage at the farm-gate, the principal crops grown in Costilla County are alfalfa and potatoes with legumes (soybean) and grains (maize, barley, sorghum) a very distant third. In Costilla County, we are fortunate to be moving ahead of the curve as commercialized crops currently do not include significant acreage dedicated to GMO alfalfa . Presumably, most alfalfa acreage has not gone into a wide rotation cycle so that farmers anticipating the replanting stage have not yet widely tapped into the two-years of marketing of the Monsanto version of herbicide-resistant alfalfa (the Roundup Ready trademark). We have an opportunity to block Monsanto’s entry into the market for alfalfa before it gains traction. Acreage dedicated to GMO potatoes remains unconfirmed since the Simplot GMO potato is only now starting to be marketed. The proposed ordinance under review in Costilla County does not ban GHMO potatoes. It is worth noting, however, that of the 64 counties in Colorado, Costilla has been ranked as high as the State’s third largest potato and fourth largest producer of spring wheat. The closure of a potato processing plant located in Fort Garland appears to accompany a shift among a growing number of newer commercial operators adopting alfalfa, canola, soybean, and maize in their crop rotations.

The production of conventional non-GMO potatoes has been big business in Costilla County’s northern Trinchera watershed and most of these operations are historically located between the Ft. Garland-Mountain Home Reservoir area and the irrigated circles along U.S. 160 and including the areas south, all the way to the western county line at the turn-off to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Our pilot field inspections (conducted during the summer growing seasons between 2013-15) reveal that there are two principal locales with potential for GMO alfalfa, maize, and potato production in proximity to the Culebra Center of Origin and Agrobiodiversity. One set is approximately 10 miles north/northwest of the Acequia Institute’s own 181-acre farm in the Viejo San Acacio bottomlands off Highway 142. This set includes a string of 8 large center-pivot sprinkler circle operations along County Rd. 12 northbound toward Blanca. One of these operations, about 18 miles north/northwest of the Acequia Institute, and operates more than two dozen center-pivot circles producing a rotational mix of alfalfa and specialty grains including oats for intercropping with new alfalfa. These are successful fairly large-scale commercial producers and most appear open to the adoption of GMO crops and their associated adjutant and chemical treatment protocols. The southern part of the county appears to have only one area where GMO alfalfa, and possibly maize, may be produced but most producers so far remain nonGMO. This area consists of about two dozen center-pivot monoculture operations located in and around Mesita and includes alfalfa production as close as 6 miles SSW from the Culebra acequia villages; The location of these operations is plotted in Figure 8 above and Figure 9 below. We note that as of November 2015, we have only two confirmed growers that have adopted GMO alfalfa and GMO corn. If the county adopts a ban on GMO crops, it will be fortunate to be getting ahead of the curve by adopting controls before the threat of transgenic contamination becomes a widespread problem.

Center-Pivot and Acequia Farms. The green belts along the Río Culebra and tributaries in San Acacio, San Luis, Chama, Los Fuertes and other unmarked villages are the principal acequia farm bottomlands in Costilla County. The  center-pivot circles are concentrated in the Blanca-Ft. Garland vicinity to the N and the Mesita-Jaroso vicinity due W and SW of the acequia bottomlands.  Source: Google Maps (screenshot).
Center-Pivot and Acequia Farms. The green belts along the Río Culebra and tributaries in San Acacio, San Luis, Chama, Los Fuertes and other unmarked villages are the principal acequia farm bottomlands in Costilla County. The center-pivot circles are concentrated in the Blanca-Ft. Garland vicinity to the N and the Mesita-Jaroso vicinity due W and SW of the acequia bottomlands. Source: Google Maps (screenshot).

Implications for Culebra Center of Origin and Agrobiodiversity

The Costilla County Land Use Code and Comprehensive Plan finds it to be in the public interest to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens. Among the parameters the County has established to attain and sustain this goal is the protection of acequias and acequia farmlands.

The biosafety and other scientific risk assessment of GMO crops has demonstrated that the planting of genetically engineered crops is not a reasonable and prudent farm practice because genetic drift from windborne and insect carried pollens from one farm can create significant economic harm to organic farmers and other farmers who choose to grow non-genetically engineered crops (Quist and Chapela 2001; Gepts and Papa 2003; Cleveland et al 2005; Mercer and Wainwright 2008). One recent meta-analysis of gene flows between transgenic (GMO) and land race cultivars found that maize accounts for 25 percent of all introgression events since 2001 (Price and Cotter 2014).[i] The contamination threats posed by GMO crops is thus of special concern to the indigenous acequia farmers of Costilla County who are seed savers and plant breeders of several land race and introduced naturalized ‘heirloom’ parent lines of maize, bean, squash, fava, and other culturally and ecologically significant crops.

Farming practices that utilize GMOs are likely to compromise the welfare of the organic and acequias farmers of Costilla County. Acequia farmers, many of whom cannot afford the costs associated with USDA organic certification but who nevertheless play vital roles in the agricultural economy, are the principal seed savers and plant breeders of original locally adapted varieties of corn, bean, and pumpkin/squash.

Maíz de concho from Almunyah Dos Acequias.Viejo San Acacio, CO Photo by Devon G. Peña
Maíz de concho from Almunyah Dos Acequias.Viejo San Acacio, CO
Photo by Devon G. Peña

Pollen drift from genetically engineered maize and alfalfa can and eventually will contaminate the native land race, conventional hybrid, organic, and heirloom plants and seed stocks of Costilla County farmers and gardeners. This is an effect widely documented by scientific studies and termed “introgression events” (Gepts and Papa 2003; Cleveland et al 2005; Mercer and Wainwright 2008). The acequia and organic farmers working within the rules of our adopted and extant Culebra watershed protection overlay zone, do so in such a manner such that the new transgenic technologies interfere with the citizen’s use of their lands within the Culebra watershed protection zone boundary in the manner to which they are historically and culturally accustomed.

The acequia farmers of the Culebra watershed are celebrated as multigenerational seed savers and plant breeders. Over the past 164 years, we have developed unique land race varieties of maize including maíz de concho. Chicos del horno are listed in the Slow Food USA ‘Ark of Taste’ as an endangered food and artisan production practice and these land races constitute part of the center of origin for native populations of maize. These local center of origin varieties are known to possess several unique and invaluable genetic characteristics including: adaptation to a very short growing season (with an average of 74 days from sowing to harvesting); adaptation to diurnal temperature extremes; and resistance to the desiccating effects of intense UV radiation at Costilla County’s high elevation. These land race varieties thus constitute an important gene pool of diversity and part of the in-situ and in-vivo conservation of our country’s seed stocks, and as a northern extension of the Mesoamerican/Aridoamerican centers of origin and diversity for Zea mays.

Given the proven and widespread environmental impacts of introgression events caused by gene flow, and the center of origin status of local maíz de concho and other traditional heirloom crops, there is a need for Costilla County to implement a science-based regulatory policy. This can proceed as a land use and zoning matter to ensure that indigenous acequia farmers protect their property rights to the genetic integrity of seed stocks for production, seed saving, and plant breeding activities in a manner that eliminates the threat of contamination from transgenic introgression events that can alter the integrity of the genomes of native seed stocks.

The creation of a GMO-Free Protection Zone to protect the vital land races pertaining to the Culebra Center of Origin and Agrobiodiversity could become a first step toward an alternative and realist policy based on the extension of equal protection to indigenous acequia, organic, and conventional non-GMO farmers and home kitchen gardeners in Costilla County. Such a policy would be consistent with federal environmental justice standards and guidelines for all federal agencies promulgated by four different administrations since Clinton signed Executive Order 12898 in 1994 and Obama re-affirmed and strengthened interagency collaboration in 2009.

Such a step would also complement the substantial land and water conservation projects that are already unfolding across Costilla County. These include 167,000 acres donated by Louis Bacon to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and encompassing a significant swath of the northernmost section of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant from the summits of Mt. Blanca/Sisnaajini to the piñon-juniper woodlands north of Blanca-Ft. Garland and montane, alpine, and subalpine forests south by southeast of the same. There are also two new unique conservation easement projects completed in 2014 and arranged by Colorado Open Lands, a non-profit land trust and conservation organization. These protect several hundred acres of historic acequia bottomlands and water rights in the Río Culebra watershed at Almunyah Dos Acequias in Viejo San Acacio and the Culebra Creek Ranch in Chama.

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