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Belen millennial gambles with Mother Nature to carry on farming tradition

The bright red seeder is full and ready to go as storm clouds fill the sky. There’s one more field to be sowed along Gabaldon Road in Belen before Zach Montaño can call it a day.

That is if it doesn’t rain first.

With a decade of farming under his belt, Zach Montaño, 25, is one of a handful of millennials in the valley continuing the traditional farming life. (Rebecca Martinez/Valencia County News-Bulletin)

“It’s all a bit of a gamble,” Montaño says of farming. “If you cut hay, will it get rained on three or four times and ruined?”

Other questions are part of the picture too: Will the seed take? Will there be enough water for the season? Will hay prices hold?

These questions have answers, but not until the work is done and the money paid out.

“It’s all paid for up front. Then you have to wait and see,” Montaño said.

So what led a 25-year-old who hesitantly uses the term “millennial” to describe himself to take up a line of work that often comes down to the mercurial mood of Mother Nature?

It seems to come from a natural love of playing in the dirt and heavy equipment. Montaño grew up on Chavez Lane in Los Lunas with his parents, Roger and Joell Montaño.

Carrying the mark of the modern farmer, Zach Montaño takes a call before finishing for the day.

Family friends David Chavez, a chile grower, and Russell Romero, an alfalfa farmer, were people the young man watched and learned from, as well as his father’s earth moving and demolition business.

“When I was 9 or 10, I took a big interest in what they were doing – baling hay, planting, laser leveling,” he said.

Montaño now does all those things, with help of two farm hands, one of whom is Florian Olguin, a former ditch rider for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, who handles the irrigation.

With the fields laser leveled, it takes 36 to 48 hours to irrigate the whole spread – about 300 acres – which is a combination of land Montaño owns, leases and some he sharecrops with the owner.

However he comes into the land, Montaño is responsible for making sure whatever goes in the ground will be profitable and healthy.

For instance, he will be planting Brutus grass this year, a tall fescue, in the fields on Gabaldon. Montaño explained that alfalfa will self-toxify the soil with nitrogen. After about seven years of alfalfa, the soil is loaded with nitrogen, so growers have to switch to a nitrogen-loving crop, like the Brutus grass, to pull the excess out of the soil.

Farming, by its nature, is a hurry up and wait enterprise. Fields are prepped, planted and irrigated. Then, farmers wait for weeks for the crop to show signs of life.

“After we plant, then irrigate, there’s really not much to do but wait for a few weeks,” he says.

While he’s waiting, Montaño works with his father on big, commercial jobs and does smaller side jobs on his own.

On a typical day on the farm, Montaño says if he’s not out of the door by 6:30 a.m., he’s late.

“You work until the work gets done,” he says.

That might mean he’s having a beer by noon or returning home at six the next morning.

Montaño has been saving up for equipment for the last 10 years, and it’s paying off. He recently dropped $130,000 on a new tractor and has sold his first cutting to a South Valley dairy.

Getting those kinds of buyers is crucial to keep the operation running, to getting to the second and third cuttings in a season.

Then there are the day-to-day costs. On average, the operation can run through 150 gallons of diesel a day, which currently costs about $300.

Equipment, fuel, seed, fertilizer – it all has to be paid for up front, then Montaño hopes the gamble pays off.

“I can make a living at this but the excavation work helps,” he said. “And no matter what you have, it’s a lot of work.”

The work is worth it, Montaño says.

“Every day is different. You never do the same thing,” he says.

Montaño says he has a handful of friends his age who are interested in farming, but it’s different than previous generations.

“The way millennials are interested, it’s small, organic operations,” he says. “In the valley, I see some younger people taking over but the acreage of farms is going down. A lot of land is being subdivided. Older farmers are dying and the people who inherit it don’t want to farm.”

As Montaño eyes the gathering clouds, he says he sees the tradition of farming in the valley dwindling and eventually becoming mostly a hobby.

“Probably 100 years from now, I don’t think there will be the big farms,” he says.

For now though, he continues the tradition, bringing verdant fields to the valley.