The peculiar economics of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District

Pinto beans, Lemitar red chile, and bait in Albuquerque’s South Valley

I was talking to a friend last week about the work Bob Berrens and I are doing for our new book on the origin stories of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

I’m deep into a chapter on the failed 1920s efforts at tobacco farming (I’ve told that story before here), and we were talking about the failure when my friend asserted that, despite the failure of tobacco, “agricultural production is a significant contributor to the local economy”.

When I pointed out that, according to the relevant government measures, net income from farming (revenue from the stuff farmers sell minus the cost to grow it) is generally negative, it gave my friend pause.

Getting defensive, my friend thrashed around a bit for reasons for the whole net negative income thing – high input costs, low crop prices, competition from other agricultural regions. But the more we talked, the more my friend came to realize that things like “net cash farm income” are maybe the wrong measure for the societal benefit we’re talking about.

I was scribbling as fast as I can, so don’t take this as a literal verbatim quote of my friend’s thoughts, but I think this roughly captures the trajectory of their thinking:

The non-market values of agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande are numerous and include environmental, social, cultural, and recreational benefits that are not captured by traditional market-based measures of economic activity. Some examples of non-market values of agriculture in the region include:

  1. Environmental benefits: Agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande can provide a range of environmental benefits, including the maintenance of soil health and fertility, the preservation of local biodiversity, and the sequestration of carbon. Additionally, the preservation of agricultural land can help to reduce the risk of soil erosion, improve water quality, and protect natural habitats.
  2. Social benefits: Agriculture is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of many communities in the Middle Rio Grande. It provides a sense of place and identity, and can foster social cohesion and community engagement. Additionally, agriculture can provide opportunities for education and skill-building, particularly for youth and marginalized populations.
  3. Cultural benefits: Agriculture is an important part of the cultural heritage of the Middle Rio Grande, particularly through the practice of acequia irrigation, which has been used in the region for centuries. The preservation of traditional agricultural practices can help to maintain cultural diversity and identity, as well as promote intergenerational knowledge transfer.
  4. Recreational benefits: The agricultural landscape of the Middle Rio Grande can also provide recreational opportunities for residents and visitors. This includes activities such as hiking, birdwatching, and wildlife viewing, as well as agro-tourism and farm-to-table experiences.

These non-market values are an important aspect of agriculture in the Middle Rio Grande, and they should be taken into consideration when assessing the broader social and ecological impacts of the agricultural sector. By recognizing and valuing these non-market benefits, policymakers and stakeholders can work to ensure that the region’s agricultural practices are sustainable and equitable, and that they support the long-term health and well-being of local communities and ecosystems.

I think my friend’s on to something.


  1. There is always a large difference between what many farmers think they are doing and what they are actually doing.

    I watch the actual fields, I see how they treat their livestock.

    There is still a rather too large a gap between what is claimed and what is happening.

  2. John

    All of the values you have set forth are interesting but they don’t matter one whit to a guy who is subsistence farming. His main objective is to raise enough produce to eat and to trade his produce for what he needs but has not. A moldboard plow in 1898 cost about $8.50. The cash economy only arrived with the railroad in the 1880s. Navajo Traders took blankets in exchange for the needs of the Navajos and then sold the blankets for cash back east. This still goes on at the international art market in Santa Fe for example. For example. CD buys glass bottles from street urchins in Acra, turns them into glass beads and strings them and sells them here and all over western Europe. His family has been doing this for 400 years and is still at it. He and his wife have been our house guests. Barter to cash. As long as one can survive and trade for barter goods there is no negative. When my wife and I lived in Cyprus in a small village, I bartered my knowledge of where to find water for buckets of oranges, cucumber, tomatos and watermellon.

  3. Except for #4, I think the others may not be sustainable as kids leave their parents’ farms, get additional education, and move to where appropriate jobs are. It would be interesting to know how the ages of active farmers have changed over the last few decades.

  4. I can’t say I buy the “range of environmental benefits” argument for chemical-based agriculture.

    Conventional agriculture is poor at carbon sequestration, compared to natural ecosystems. And monocultures provide poor wildlife habitat.

    Agriculture is certainly the foundation of local culture and economy. But I can’t buy its environmental benefits.

  5. Recently argued Michigan Native Plant ‘local genotype’ talking point is a stale argument. Better would be the effects of a dollar spent at a Michigan Nursery on a Michigan plant: worth $3.74 if spent in Michigan; if locally grown and sold worth +$5.00 (per an Oregon study) since it circulates immediately in the local economy (same for local ‘specialty agriculture’, Farmers Markets, Slo-Food Movement). That its socio-economic value cannot be gauged by conventional standards. Greatest unknown is the sense of “Community” where applicable.

  6. “Ag” in the MRG (outside of permaculture practitioners) may De-value at least as many non-market measures. Fertility is too often derived with tons of fertilizer, and gallons of pesticides. The monocultures that “pay” to plant reduce biodiversity, and the petrochemical carbon footprint far outweighs any being sequestered. The social fabric in Corrales, where/when I grew up was intact, but has been rent by the developed tracts that taxed families out. Cultural diversity, and intergenerational knowledge transfer was largely lost in one generation. Residents disappear into their homes behind the three-car-garage doors. It CAN be a good place to raise kids, if you could still put them in 4-H. MRGCD is about as far removed from acequia traditions as I can perceive. Ditch riders are not the mayordomos my grand-dad was. The path I took to the clear ditch is fenced now, the pheasant and fox gone where the corn field was. The best natural habitat left by the bosque is at risk by May when every drop gets diverted onto alfalfa fields. Sorry to rant. I’m not just railing on ‘Burque, the same is true in LRG but for the pecan groves. My $.02 Thanks John Fleck, for hosting this illuminating forum.

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