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FARMING THE LAND OF LITTLE RAIN ARTICLE BY JOEL JOHNSON PHOTOS BY AJO SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE, ALEXANDER MEMORIAL FARM AND GABRIEL VEGA ~

Every ecosystem is ultimately defined by its limits. In the dense understory of tropical rainforests, plants are shaped by their need to shed moisture and compete for light. In the artic tundra, only the most resilient organisms can eke out a living in the presence of permafrost. And in the Desert Southwest, the region Mary Austin famously dubbed “The Land of Little Rain,” life is shaped by the presence—and much more, the absence—of water. Of course, you might never arrive at this conclusion simply by observing modern life in the Sonoran Desert. An aerial view of Southern Arizona is peppered with green fields, green lawns, and bright swimming pools, even in the heat of summer—a beautiful warning that in the last hundred years, farmers alone have removed more fossil groundwater than had previously been pumped from aquifers over the entirety of human history. News of the recently signed drought contingency plan is perhaps the only reminder many of us receive that desert life as we know it is dependent upon the infrastructure of hundreds of miles of underground pipes that usher the Colorado River to our fingertips. PG. 4 :: SUMMER 2019

However, this extravagance wasn’t always the norm. Gabriel Vega, Farm Manager of the San Xavier Co-op Farm south of Tucson, AZ reminds that alongside the now dry banks of the Santa Cruz River, “O’odham from this area, were [once] able to use the river to irrigate their crops. They would build channels and essentially flood irrigate. Other O’odham traditionally would use the rain and they would use dryland agricultural methods for their crops.” Ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan writes in Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land that he was “both humbled and surprised to learn that as late as the 1970s, desert-dwelling Native Americans such as the San Xavier O’odham of Arizona were using as little as 50 gallons of water a day to meet their basic needs, while residents in nearby Phoenix were consuming as much as 300 gallons a day, including their flood-irrigation of lawns and filling of swimming pools.” The reality is “newcomers to the desert are likely to consume four to six times the water that traditional desert dwellers have historically consumed.” This excessive use of precious water resources, Nabhan argues, “has therefore become an environmental and social justice issue.”

Profile for westernaglife

Western Ag Life Magazine - Summer 2019