Farming against the odds on the Rio Grande - Albuquerque Journal

Farming against the odds on the Rio Grande

SAN ACACIA – When the first drops of rain began pelting the alfalfa field at the north end of Corky Herkenhoff’s Indian Hill Farms on Wednesday afternoon, I figured it was probably a good thing, what with the drought and all.

Wrong.

“A good rainstorm down here at the wrong time can cost you 40 or 50 thousand bucks,” Herkenhoff said as he piloted his pickup along the edge of a freshly cut field of alfalfa that was supposed to be drying in the afternoon sun.

In this little pocket of Socorro County, it has been a very strange drought.

Of 700 acres under irrigation on Herkenhoff’s farm, 600 is in alfalfa this year. He had wanted to rotate some of the alfalfa to corn, but corn is a thirsty crop. Alfalfa has deep roots, reaching down 6 to 8 feet for water, and it can weather a dry year. With drought in the forecast, and dairies and horse-owners paying good prices for the bales of hay that come out of the alfalfa fields, Herkenhoff decided to wait a year to rotate the crop, toughing out the drought with the plants he’s got.

Then, just as the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District irrigation supplies ran out around the first of July, it started raining, and the irrigation ditches down here have been running full.

Corky Herkenhoff jokes that he’s “the fourth generation to go broke” on the family’s San Acacia farm. (John Fleck/Journal)
Corky Herkenhoff jokes that he’s “the fourth generation to go broke” on the family’s San Acacia farm. (John Fleck/Journal)

By way of explaining his family’s longevity on this farm alongside the Rio Grande, Herkenhoff jokes that he is “the fourth generation to go broke on this operation.”

A wiry 71, Herkenhoff has been farming this land since he arrived with a freshly minted degree from New Mexico State University in agricultural economics. Herkenhoff’s dad, a prosperous Santa Fe engineer, suggested the youngster find something else to do for a living, given the family’s mixed experience making a go of farming at San Acacia: “I didn’t take his advice.”

As he turned his pickup off the levee road, Herkenhoff pointed to the San Acacia cemetery, a dry-dirt affair tucked against a hillside out of reach of the Rio Grande’s periodic floodwaters, and began ticking off the relatives within: great-grandfather, great-grandmother, great-aunt, grandfather, mom, dad. Past the cemetery, the dirt road paralleled an irrigation canal following the counter of the flood plain heading west, away from the river.

“This is the ditch they dug in the 1800s,” Herkenhoff said.

If you’ve made the drive from Albuquerque to Socorro, you’ve blown through San Acacia on the interstate. It’s that first lovely patch of green past the desert arroyo we call the Rio Salado (“Salt River”).

In his book “The Desert,” the writer John Van Dyke a century ago described the transition between desert and river in a way that sounds very much like the Rio Grande at San Acacia: “The desert terraces on either side (sometimes there is a row of sand-dunes) come down to meet these ‘bottom’ lands, and the line where the one leaves off and the other begins is drawn as with the sharp edge of a knife.”

Much of that green these days is Herkenhoff’s alfalfa, a thick mat with pretty little purple flowers.

It’s never been an easy place to farm. Herkenhoff has tried corn and chiles and apples at one time or another. Wheat and oats work as a rotation crop, but sturdy alfalfa is the mainstay.

Herkenhoff: “We tried cantaloupes one year.”

Me: “How’d that work?”

Herkenhoff: “Not very well.”

The market was so lousy that he decided to get some pigs, let them eat the cantaloupes, then sell the pigs. But the price for pigs was no better than for cantaloupes. “That didn’t work out for me, either.”

You can trace the history of human presence in what we now call New Mexico by the geography of water. We go where the water is, then live with it in a state of perpetual frustration. Few spots on the landscape illustrate this better than San Acacia and the ebb and flow of Indian Hill Farms.

In 1929, a great flood out of the Rio Puerco and Rio Salado just upstream inundated his great-grandfather’s farm with 12 to 15 feet of water. You can see the evidence on old documents retrieved from the farmhouse after the water subsided. “We still have old deeds that have the Rio Puerco mud on ’em,” Herkenhoff said.

For years, so many irrigation ditches were diverting river water across the flood plain that the valley floor turned swampy, a classic problem in desert irrigation. Creation of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, which built drains to lower the water table, ended the swamp problem. San Acacia Diversion Dam, next to the cemetery, helped ensure a more reliable supply of water.

When Herkenhoff started farming in the early 1960s, the family’s San Acacia holdings were down to 139 acres in cultivation, and he’s slowly but surely built the operation in the five decades since, buying land, clearing salt cedars and rebuilding Indian Hill Farms.

And alternately using the water and fighting with it.

Last Wednesday, as we toured his farm, the rains that had been holding off all morning finally let loose, drenching the fields of fresh-cut alfalfa that were supposed to be drying in the summer sun.

“This is the downside of the hay business,” Herkenoff told me later. “These unwanted reminders that nature decides our successes and failures, though painful at times, are a good ego adjustment.”

UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Comment directly to John Fleck at 823-3916 or jfleck@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 


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