A few years ago, Paul Skrak decided to research different growing methods that could help his plants better withstand the seemingly endless drought.
On the advice of an advisor, the Peña Blanca farmer began using cover crops to both protect the soil from the sun and loosen it for better water penetration.
On his 55-acre Hidalgo Farms, he plows as little as possible, and sometimes not at all, to conserve vital topsoil.
He began switching to more drought-resistant crops like soybeans and sudan grass and away from thirstier alfalfa. And whenever possible, he uses drip irrigation instead of the more water-intensive flood irrigation typically used in the middle Rio Grande Valley.
Recently, Skrak began applying a soil conditioner called Hydretain, which is said to cut watering in half by allowing plants to take up water more effectively.
Skrak has become a strong supporter of Hydretain. The state and irrigation district should subsidize farmers to buy this soil conditioner instead of paying them to leave their fields fallow, Skrak said, arguing that it would save water and allow growers to keep working.
“It has a huge economic impact,” Skrak said of growers not irrigating. “Farmers will lose their income.”
If farmers apply hydretain and other water-saving techniques during a dry season, they still get a smaller harvest, but that’s better than nothing, Skrak said.
Nothing Skrak has taken on is new. Hydretain has been around for about seven years and the growing techniques have been around for decades.
But they’re not common in the middle valley, either because growers aren’t familiar with them or they refuse to use unfamiliar methods, some of which require more work or significant upfront costs, said Kevin Branum, who owns Grants-based EAS Agro and advised Skrak.
Skrak was one of the first in the valley to try the techniques, Branum said.
And now they’re starting, as more farmers who were hesitant and wanted to see how well they were doing are jumping on board, Branum said.
It will be imperative for growers to adopt more water-efficient agriculture as a changing climate leads to warmer, drier weather that depletes the rivers needed for irrigation, Branum said.
Water manager at the fence
Still, the official who helps oversee the valley’s irrigation said there is no one-size-fits-all approach to farming in a prolonged drought.
“It really depends on what we find when we dig in the ground,” said Jason Casuga, acting CEO and chief engineer for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.
Hydretain might work well in one area but not in another, Casuga said.
And even if that product proves effective, the district couldn’t just divert other funds to subsidize its use, Casuga said. That includes money earmarked to pay farmers about $420 an acre for not irrigating their fields, he said.
The purpose of the fallow program is to increase the amount of water available, both for irrigation and for transmission downstream, to pay Texas what it owes under a water-sharing agreement known as the Rio Grande Compact said Casuga.
New Mexico ended 2021 owing Texas more than 100,000 acre-feet of water. An acre foot is enough to submerge a football field a foot in water.
The district will first discuss the set-aside with part-time farmers who don’t make a living from their farms, Casuga said.
At the same time, the district’s technical experts will examine how effective methods such as cover crop cultivation would be in the valley before recommending anything, Casuga said.
“Cover cropping could be a good thing,” Casuga said. “It just depends on the ground.”
Cover crops are beneficial but require more work
Branum insists the proof is in the results.
In the past two years, when the district shortened the irrigation season due to low water supplies, Skrak has been able to grow more than it otherwise would have, Branum said.
Using cover crops is a big part of that, he said.
Cover crops like radishes, turnips and wild peas help break up the tough dirt and use the roots to create small pathways that allow water to better penetrate the soil later, he said. The more absorbent soil reduces wasteful runoff and allows rainwater during severe storms to seep in instead of flooding fields, he added.
“We’ve gained weight [Skrak’s] By growing these cover crops, the rate of infiltration is increased tremendously,” Branum said.
Other types of cover crops, such as buckwheat and rye, retain the topsoil’s moisture, preventing it from getting too hot and killing the vital microbes, he said.
All of the different cover crops are planted at the same time to prepare the soil for planting the farmer’s market crops like corn, Branum said. The cover crops are cut and the main crops are then planted on the foliage, which helps suppress weeds and add nutrients to the soil.
Cover crops eliminate the need for deep plowing to dig up weeds and break up the dirt, he said. Plowing is not entirely dispensed with, but is minimized to conserve topsoil.
Farther north, such as in the Española area, cover crop farming has been used for more than a century but has not been embraced by farmers in the middle valley, Branum said.
Drip irrigation is slowly being introduced in the state, he said. Not long ago it was widely believed that alfalfa could not be irrigated this way, and now alfalfa growers in Deming are doing it.
One downside is that drip irrigation requires a significant upfront investment, Branum said, adding that a farmer generally needs to have a lucrative specialty crop to cover the cost.
Meanwhile, Skrak is replacing alfalfa with a sorghum grass that also serves as cattle feed but uses a third less water.
Skrak said he spoke to neighboring growers about how Hydretain and the newer farming methods could benefit them as the drought persists.
Some are receptive, but others resist the idea of switching to something like cover crops, which require more work, even if it improves the long-term health of their farms, he said.
He added: “I think a lot of farmers would rather plow the way they’ve been doing it for 300 years.”