Nature’s Trust Fund: Preserve Land and Water

For generations, farmland and clean water have provided the bank account from which all humanity draws life. We must preserve land and water and make sure we don’t bankrupt the system.

| December 2012/January 2013

  • Dryland Farming
    Dryland farming in central New Mexico gave way to cattle ranching in the mid-1900s, when the rain stopped and homesteaders left in droves.
    Photo By
  • Lonnie Welch
    The author's father, Lonnie Welch, is the toddler in this photo, posing with his four siblings and Smart the dog. The Welch family's cattle ranch was in central New Mexico.
    Photo Courtesy Welch Family

  • Dryland Farming
  • Lonnie Welch

Central New Mexico, where my parents grew up, is arid and empty. Runty forests of piñon and juniper trees cover small mountain ranges. Dozens of miles of dry shortgrass prairie stretch between the hills. To support a herd of 100 cows, you’d need at least 5,000 acres of that arid land.

My grandparents moved to New Mexico around 1915 to homestead. They intended to raise cattle and grow pinto beans, and that’s mostly what they did for three decades while they also raised their 10 children. My father was their last child, and when he was in grade school, climate change altered their lives: The rain stopped.

Around the world, the history of agriculture is tied to the history of climate. Everywhere on Earth, temperatures have periodically risen and fallen. The rain has come and gone. Storms have destroyed crops. Floods have replenished the soil.

When the patterns shift, some farmers inevitably lose valuable resources while others gain a new advantage.

From about 1000 A.D. to almost the middle of the 20th century, the area where my grandparents homesteaded bustled with farmers. Local crops supported thousands of Native Americans, who were followed later by Spanish, Mexican and then Anglo settlers. But in the 1940s it stopped raining, and that was the end of dryland pinto bean farming — or farming of any kind in central New Mexico.

At the time my grandparents moved there, New Mexico’s homesteaders had been granted one square mile per family. When the rain stopped falling, most of the farmers left. They couldn’t make a living on 640 acres without consistent rains. Thousands of families left their farms and homes behind and the population plummeted. Between 1940 and 1970, Torrance County lost half of its residents. These days, the houses are almost all gone, but you can see clumps of trees where houses used to stand on each square-mile section — the only evidence of all those abandoned dreams.

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