Click the link to read the article on the High Country News website [October 31, 2022] (Marissa Ortega-Welch):
It was 10 a.m. in San Luis, a small town in southern Colorado, and the grocery store had only been open for an hour. But already owner Devon Peña was dealing with a lot. Two workers were out with COVID-19, and the guy he’d hired to operate the forklift in the stockroom was proving unreliable. Then the butcher burst into his office and told him that all the freezers were down.
“Oh, crap,” Peña said. “We’re going to lose thousands of dollars’ worth of meat.”
The butcher and another employee began frantically moving food from the freezer into the fridges. Melting blueberries dripped blue goo onto the floor.
For the past few months, Peña had faced a string of similar emergencies. Running a business isn’t easy. “I’m a professor and a farmer,” he exclaimed. “I don’t know how to run a grocery! I’m learning now.”
This is not a typical grocery store, and Peña is not a typical grocery store owner. He’s the founder and director of The Acequia Institute, a not-your-typical environmental and food justice organization that purchased the market earlier this year. Started in the 1980s and incorporated in 2006, the institute has tackled projects ranging from land restoration in the San Luis Valley to scholarship support for local students entering environmental and health fields. Peña himself is a professor of environmental anthropology at the University of Washington who divides his time between San Luis and Seattle. He sees the market as a way to merge the institute’s many goals.
Luckily for Peña, Romero still lives upstairs, and he was in the store when the freezer broke down. “It’s nothing major. Don’t panic,” he said. The freezer, which Romero purchased in the 1960s, had simply iced up. It happens all the time, he said calmly. And he asked someone to bring him a space heater, a box, and the mirror above the desk in the office.
“This is a trick I don’t know about, so I’ve got to learn this,” Peña said. Romero set the heater on top of the box in the back of the freezer and plugged it in. Then he used the mirror to look behind the freezer coils. “See? It’s all iced up,” he told Peña. “Now we’ll just check on it and wait for it to melt. Take about an hour.”
Like Romero, most people in San Luis can trace their roots back to the mid-19th century, when the valley was part of Mexico. But as in much of the rural U.S., the valley’s economy — and consequently its landscape — has undergone radical changes over the past century. In the 1960s, the mountain where people had hunted and fished for more than a century was purchased by a private owner, who cut off all local access. Many residents shifted from polyculture vegetable farming to monocrop agriculture and cattle ranching. Soil health suffered, and as people ate less homegrown produce and more processed food, Type 2 diabetes, once a rare complaint here, became common.
The effects of privatization and industrialization are an old story in the rural West. Here, however, residents still remember how their grandparents — even their great-great-great-grandparents — used to farm this land and how they used to eat. By helping to revive and strengthen local traditions, Peña hopes to help conserve not just the land itself but the ways in which residents relate to the land and to each other. “I want to reawaken that cultural memory,” he said.
The Acequia Institute, with its myriad projects, can seem chaotic, but that’s because its goals are so far-reaching. Ultimately, Peña said, it’s determined to do nothing less than “change the basic structures that have to do with the well-being of this community.” First, though, he needs to upgrade the freezers.
THE SAN LUIS VALLEY is a bowl of high desert enclosed by two towering mountain ranges, the Sangre de Cristos and the San Juans. Besides the grocery store, the town of San Luis has a Family Dollar, a couple of restaurants, a post office, and a beautiful Catholic shrine that sits on a mesa above Main Street. From almost anywhere in town, it’s easy to see Culebra Peak, the 14,000-foot-tall mountain that locals simply call “La Sierra” — The Mountain. La Sierra, and the water from its snowmelt, have always loomed large here.
Culebra Creek, which begins high on La Sierra, runs down the mountain and through the valley on its way to the Rio Grande. After it passes through the town of San Luis, some of its water is diverted into a diagonal canal — the San Luis People’s Ditch. On the valley’s main highway, just above the point where the canal ducks under the road, a commemorative plaque lists the names of the 29 settlers who founded San Luis and dug the ditch.
In the 1840s, the Mexican government granted almost a million acres of valley land to settlers living near Taos, in what we now call New Mexico, to encourage them to move north. The land grants displaced the Ute, Jicarilla Apache, Diné and other tribes, forcing them to the west and south. When Mexico ceded the territory to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War, the U.S. honored the land grant, and San Luis later became the first town in the state of Colorado. From its start, the town was multicultural and multinational, including direct descendants of Mexicans, Indigenous peoples and Spanish colonists.
The town organized itself around an acequia system, a Southwestern institution influenced by Spanish, Arabic and Indigenous cultures. Practically speaking, acequias are irrigation ditches that deliver water from streams to agricultural fields. Culturally, however, they are much more than that. The irrigators agree to share the available water equally, and each participant contributes equally to ditch maintenance. The land-grant recipients divided the valley into long skinny strips called varas, so that every landowner had access to acequia water. The mountain itself was communal land, where all valley residents could graze their animals, hunt and gather firewood. Year after year, residents rotated their livestock between the valley and the mountain, giving the pasture in each place a chance to recover. These traditions continued on La Sierra well into the 20th century.
Shirley Romero Otero remembers going to the mountain as a kid with her family and neighbors. “We would bring a lunch and have a picnic, and the kids would run all over the place while the adults gathered wood,” she said. The usual practice was to gather firewood for one family one day and for another the next, so that everyone had enough to get through the long cold winters.
Otero is a retired classroom teacher, a community organizer and the executive director of the Move Mountains Youth Project, which provides educational opportunities for local youth. She’s a descendant of the original land-grant settlers. She drove me from town up toward the mountain, parking where the road ended at a gate, beyond which lay the meadow where she played as a child.
In 1960, when Otero was 5, Jack Taylor, a lumberman from North Carolina, purchased Culebra Peak and almost 80,000 acres of surrounding ridgeline. He put up locked gates and “No Trespassing” signs across the roads that led from the town up the mountain.
Otero left the valley for college, but then, inspired by the era’s Chicano rights movement, she came home to organize a lawsuit against Taylor for blocking local access to the mountain. In 1981, a group of valley residents called the Land Rights Council filed a class action lawsuit. The battle would last two decades.
IN 1984, a few years into the struggle to regain access to La Sierra, Peña began visiting San Luis. At the time he was a professor at Colorado College, a liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, and a fellow professor brought him to the area to meet some solar power activists. The region interested Peña as an environmental anthropologist, and it reminded him of his hometown, Laredo, Texas, which was also settled through a land grant. He began spending more time in the valley, and he moved here permanently in 1991.
Peña and Otero did not start out as friends. In the 1990s, while Otero’s organization continued its lawsuit against the Taylor Ranch, Peña became involved in a separate fight to purchase the mountain for the community. Otero’s group opposed this effort on principle, because they believed that the mountain should not — indeed, could not — be bought or sold.
The movement to buy La Sierra fizzled when Jack Taylor’s son, Zach, inherited the property and refused to cooperate. Later, Peña sent a pound of coffee and a box of cigars to Otero as a peace offering and asked to meet and talk. That was when things began to shift between them, Otero said.
In 2002, the court finally ruled in favor of the town residents. The owners of the vara strips that had originally had access to the mountain could once again gather firewood and graze their animals there. Since then, the mountain has changed hands many times, with the most recent owner being Bruce Harrison, heir to a Texas oil fortune. Each new owner inherits the land’s legal history and often ends up back in court with the locals.
Otero now has a key to the gate on the road to the meadow. She can collect firewood on the mountain, but she says it’s not the same as it used to be. Since her access is limited to a few utilitarian purposes, she can’t experience the land the way she did as a kid. “We didn’t get the right to hunt, fish, picnic or gather our medicinal herbs,” she said. “And those are big losses.” As a Chicana with both Spanish and Jicarilla Apache ancestry, Otero sees the privatization of the mountain as part of a cycle of displacement. “We displaced the Indigenous folks for the sake of land grabbing,” she said. And then, after the United States took over the region, the Mexican land-grant descendants were viewed as second-class citizens and were pushed off their land.
Otero and Peña say that the lack of access to the mountain dramatically changed both the town’s economy and the surrounding landscape. Ranchers who previously followed the life cycle of the grasses up and down the mountain had to keep their cattle in the valley, which led to overgrazing. To replace the native grasses the cows used to eat on the mountain, farmers began growing alfalfa, which took a toll on the soil. No one was growing vegetables anymore, so the locals had to buy produce that came from elsewhere. Many farmers gave up and moved away.
“It’s not just the soil that’s been eroded,” Peña says, “but our customary norms of conservation. They’ve been severely eroded as well.” He thinks people forgot how to live in close relationship with the land: “Being kept off the mountain for about 50 years created a kind of weird disconnect.” Now, both Peña and Otero are trying to repair that disconnect.
DOWNSTREAM FROM THE ROADSIDE PLAQUE that commemorates the establishment of the town’s water rights, the People’s Ditch and Culebra Creek run almost parallel to each other. Just west of Main Street, they cross a large plot of land owned by The Acequia Institute. In 2005, Peña’s father used his estate to help Peña purchase this 181-acre vara strip and start the institute. The creek meanders through the land’s meadowy center, while the ditch borders the northern side. On one side of the creek is a field planted with beans and peas; on the other, the land slopes upward into sagebrush and then piñon habitat.
When Peña first bought the land, it wasn’t pretty. The previous owner, a cattle rancher, grew alfalfa and irrigated his fields using a center pivot, the giant rotating sprinkler systems common on industrial farmlands. He let his cattle graze in the creek bed. “It was a disaster,” Peña said. “The river was so degraded. All the banks were caving in.”
Peña put up a fence to keep the cattle on one side of the ranch and allow the creek and upland habitat to recover. Almost 20 years later, willows and cottonwoods stand along the creek. Native blue grama grasses are growing among the sagebrush. “It’s all come back,” Peña said. “A beautiful regenerative ecological restoration is happening. And it’s basically the land doing it itself. All we did was kick the livestock out.”
He’s switched the farm from a monoculture to a polyculture — growing vegetables like corn, bolita beans and peas, all of which will be sold at the San Luis People’s Market. Peña says polyculture farming is better for the soil. And he’s returned to the traditional method of flooding his fields with water from the acequia. Flood irrigation is not the most efficient use of water, but it mimics the creek’s natural flooding processes, enriching the soil with mineral sediment from the mountains and creating wetland habitat for birds and other animals. In dry years, Peña said, he’ll still need to use drip irrigation, but he’ll switch to flooding whenever he can.
The land serves as a working classroom for Peña’s students and the local farmers, modeling the agricultural traditions of the valley and of acequia culture in general. The Institute also helps fund Indigenous food sovereignty efforts across the country, from Texas to Alaska. Peña believes that cultural history is key to environmental conservation. “My whole theory is that you cannot pull this off unless a community has a cultural memory of certain things,” Peña said. “And people here remember how they used to eat.”
What about those who lack those memories, or have no other connections to a landscape? “We can draw from our own ancestors,” Peña said. “You have to find out who your great-great-grandma was.” He added that it’s possible to learn — and learn respectfully —from customs that aren’t your own: In the San Luis Valley, for example, farmers grow Native American crops and use a water-governance system with Arabic roots. The system of vara strips is believed to date back to 5th century Europe, when it was developed by the Visigoths.
There’s a lot to be learned from the work of The Acequia Institute, but it is not something that can necessarily be scaled up or easily replicated. Rather, the institute represents a radical way of thinking about environmental conservation, one that is less about finding the most efficient way to use water or grow food and more about imagining, or reviving, an economy within which people create meaningful relationships with each other and the land.
Ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan, who has worked with Peña, said The Acequia Institute is teaching living history. “This isn’t just retro or nostalgia,” he said. “It has importance in the future.” In a future with more demands on a decreasing water supply, the ability to work together through times of scarcity will prove crucial to survival.
“OUR LITTLE FARMERS! Good morning, gentlemen!”
On a Tuesday after a three-day weekend, Otero greeted a group of teenage boys, all of whom had somehow managed to arrive on time for their summer job at 8 a.m.
“Thanks for showing up. I know it’s rough,” Otero said.
The institute received a grant last year to partner with Otero’s Move Mountains Youth Project. The grant pays local farmers to convert an acre of their alfalfa or hay to vegetables, and the farmers train the youth in exchange for help in the fields. The farmers get to keep a percentage of the crop, and the rest will be sold at the market.
On this day, the teens used a seeder to plant lines of corn in a plot of county-owned farmland. Alonzo Lobato, one of the adult farmers, guided the boys. “Make sure you guys don’t get too excited planting the seeds, because then they come out too close,” he told them.
Fifteen-year-old Amado Montoya used a hoe to make rows in the field for planting. He was wearing a Cabela’s ball cap and red suspenders over his T-shirt. Montoya, who lives on a ranch with his grandfather, said he enjoys this work because it teaches him about the land. “Land is a way of life. And it just provides for the people — like the corn that we’re planting now is gonna go to the San Luis People’s Market.”
“The youth we’re working with are one of two generations that have been removed because of people not growing food anymore,” Otero said. “We’re trying to revive those practices and keep them alive in order to come up with the next generation of farmers.”
Even more than teaching young people to farm, though, Otero wants to use farming as a way to help them connect with the land and their community. It’s a connection that she formed when she was a child, spending her summers on the mountain, running in the meadow and playing in the creek. “Our youth have not been able to go up there and enjoy that,” she said. “I would love to take them camping up there, to teach them mitigation, forest restoration, the love of the resources — just so they could set their feet on the ground.” Instead, she ends up driving them three hours to Crested Butte every summer to camp. “That’s the irony, when it’s all right here.”
“We’re going to turn on this pipeline pretty soon,” Lobato told the youth. Because of the drought this year, Lobato is using well water to irrigate this plot. The teens helped him line up the irrigation with their planted rows of corn. “OK, I think we’re ready to rock and roll!” Lobato said. He switched on the electrical pump to the well, and water gushed out of the pipe gates, flowing in glistening lines down the rows of corn the youth planted.
“I love that sound!” Otero said. “Irrigating — it’s like a ritual. We’re lucky we got water.”
IT WAS 8 A.M., and the grocery store wouldn’t open for another hour, though the customers didn’t seem to know that. As Peña pulled baskets of Red Delicious apples and navel oranges out of the produce fridge and set them on shelves at the front of the store, someone popped in to ask if he could buy tripa for menudo. “Let me see what I can do,” Peña said. He went back to the office, where the staff were having a meeting, and asked the butcher. But she hadn’t had a chance to prepare the meat counter, so Peña returned to the customer. “Do you mind waiting?” he asked.
Peña helps out a lot at the store. His goal, however, is for the business to one day be run as a cooperative by the staff, many of whom have worked there for years. Peña has a lot of other plans, too: By the end of the summer, the Red Delicious apples on the shelves will be replaced by local produce grown by farmers working with the institute. Within a year, the store expects to open a commercial kitchen, complete with volcanic rock corn mills for making traditional tortillas, and it will start offering cooking and nutrition classes featuring valley produce. And The Acequia Institute just received an endowment from the Ceres Trust to provide no-interest loans to local women and young adults who want to start their own farms — an echo of the mutual aid society that started in 1900 to support valley farmers through times of hardship. Every project is ambitious, and each will require time, effort and lots of supporters.
“What’s up, brother?” A few minutes before the store opened, another young man popped his head in. He’d supplied the cement for the store’s new floors, but today he was a customer, hoping to have a key made in the hardware section.
Peña told him they weren’t quite open yet, and thanked him for waiting.
“You’ve got my business, brother,” the customer assured him, as he left to wait in his car.
“Gracias, hermano. I truly do appreciate that.”
“I love that sort of relationality,” he said after the man left. “In a way, it slows down what we do. But that’s OK. You can have all the refrigeration up to date and the nicest building, but if the relationships don’t work and people don’t have the commitment, it won’t survive.”
Marissa Ortega-Welch is an award-winning radio and print journalist reporting on science and the environment. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at email@example.com or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.