Trying to keep New Mexico farming traditions alive through the 2023 farm bill

Federal legislation under debate could help address agricultural inequities

By: - May 2, 2023 5:05 am

A vineyard in the town of Dixon in northern New Mexico. (Getty Images)

Fear of losing generations-old farming practices and traditions to gentrification drove agriculturalist Joseluis Ortiz y Muniz to move back to his hometown Dixon in northern New Mexico.

He’s a landowner now and takes on leadership roles within the local ag community. Ortiz y Muniz (Genízaro) is also focused on farming the land as his ancestors did hundreds of years before him. He wants to make that same opportunity more accessible to those who can’t afford it.

One route to do that is through the 2023 farm bill.

The first farm bill was passed in 1933 as a New Deal initiative, with an attempt to set fair market rates for a surplus of crops that were dwindling in price due to the Great Depression. The subsidy paid farmers to reduce the production of some crops to help stabilize the ag industry.

While that practice remains in some capacity, the farm bill has grown to offer more support for farmers such as agricultural training, crop insurance and even supports food aid programs for low-income Americans.

Congress is authorized to renew the farm bill every five years. The current farm bill expires in September, and federal lawmakers are fighting over how much money the U.S. will spend to maintain programs.

As D.C. fights over the framework for a new farm bill, agriculturalists like Ortiz y Muniz want to see greater support for younger farmers and agriculture practices that date back hundreds of years in places like Dixon.

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“We need to be provided support that is relevant to our acequias and traditional life ways, and not support that is replicating conventional 10,000 acre farm-type systems,” he said.

He’s a water fellow with the National Young Farmers Coalition, a nonprofit organization that wants the federal government to make one million acres of land available to the next generation of farmers. That could impact over 52,000 young people, according to a policy brief from the coalition.

It’s clear farm bill subsidies have created inequality for young and small land farmers like those that are part of the coalition. Over the last 25 years, more than 79% of federal farm subsidies went to just 10% of farms and individuals that qualify, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group.

Corilia Ortega, a council member in Taos, grows on less than an acre of land. Still, she said, that food supports herself and a few other community members.

She said it’s becoming more common for young farmers to grow on small plots of land like that, largely because people can’t afford to purchase huge properties.

“For many people, when we talk about food systems, agriculture, the mentality is these big ag lands — these big parcels that are 50 to hundreds of acres. And that’s truly a thing of the past,” she said. “I will never be able to buy 50 to 100 acres.”

And, she added, people of color and women have historically been discriminated against in accessing loans. Communities of color were also displaced from their land, affecting who owns property today.

“If you already have capital, if you already have an operation that you’ve inherited, you then have even more access to resources and funding mechanisms and loan programming,” Ortega said. “But that isn’t something that one individual has built. It’s a family legacy of many generations building that to exist in 2023.”

Ortega said being able to qualify for more grants or loans would make a big difference. She said the farm bill could address racial and gender inequality within these loan programs so more people can access land ownership.

“We can definitely support and uplift small-scale growers,” she said.

Ortiz y Muniz encountered his own challenges to get land in his hometown. For a long time, he didn’t even realize farming could be a sustainable career. Upon learning more about the industry, he said he realized he needed to go back to Dixon to help revive the traditional land-based culture.

It took Ortiz y Muniz seven years to get back to Dixon, and even longer to buy property. He eventually became a parciente, using acequias to irrigate his farm, and is now a mayordomo who watches over the acequia system.

He said the farm bill needs language about acequias and land grants that are largely unique to New Mexico, and broader support for Indigenous land-based principles that don’t view land and water through a capitalistic lens.

As money dominates small communities and replaces traditional practice, Ortiz y Muniz has also noticed broader issues. He said gentrification is erasing this rich culture in places like Dixon. It’s also happening throughout New Mexico.

“I gotta get back home,” Ortiz y Muniz said, recalling his push to go back to Dixon, “not only to do the community-based work, but also to revive my family’s land and to work in the communities, to help curb gentrification and to create opportunities for traditional families to be able to stay and make a living.”

Inequitable land access

In 2021, the National Young Farmers Coalition launched a campaign called One Million Acres for the Future, which pushes for equitable land access in the new farm bill. This is the biggest challenge for young farmers, especially those of color, according to the coalition’s 2022 survey.

The federal government could help with this, but another issue could be inadequate outreach. Some farmers aren’t even aware dollars are out there to help, which Ortiz y Muniz said is true in northern New Mexico. Not knowing about subsidy programs means missing out on much-needed money.

David Howard is the policy development director of the National Young Farmers Coalition. He said that’s true, and a lot of agricultural communities aren’t aware that a program that helps farmers get land is already up and running through the Inflation Reduction Act.

The Increasing Land, Capital, and Market Access Program is an effort through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that funds projects for underserved producers. Although that program is already going, Howard said the farming coalition’s biggest priority is ensuring that gets included in the farm bill so it has a longer lifespan.

Applications for that program closed last year. The farm bill could keep funding going for that program for at least half a decade, even longer if Congress renewed it beyond 2028.

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“We want folks to be able to see USDA as a resource that is going to be there for them and that sees the challenges that they’re experiencing clearly,” Howard said, “and that also sees the value that they bring to our food and agriculture systems.”

Historical discrimination and straight-up land grabs by the U.S. could also be a deterrent for some communities of color that have a distrust of working with the federal government.

Howard said there’s a well-documented history of discrimination against farmers of color that continues to impact people today.

Ortega agreed. She said Black and Native people being displaced from their lands hundreds of years ago resulted in those same communities lacking land today, while white, wealthier families handed down property through the generations.

The voices that have been left out of the conversation for generations are the ones still suffering, she said.

Even with recent efforts to address these past inequities, huge gaps still remain, Ortega said.

“Those outcomes and consequences have real day implications,” she said. “Because now who is operating those lands and who does live on them and benefits from the land wealth?”

Howard said he hopes the new farm bill will boost access to resources and accountability on a federal level. But it’s a long path to complete restitution from these discriminatory policies, he added.

“It’s going to take time to fully address that disconnect in terms of the trust for the agency and the resources that are there,” he said.

Howard said the National Young Farmers Coalition believes the 2023 farm bill will pass on time this year, despite the debt ceiling fight.

“Farmers need it,” he said. “This needs to happen.”


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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.