Bread basket of El Norte

The history of Taos’ subsistence farming

By F.R. Bob Romero
Posted 9/28/18

In this modern age, it is somewhat romantic to aspire to subsist and feed ourselves as we once did in New Mexico. Subsistence farming, as a way of life and survival, was present in New Mexico for a …

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Bread basket of El Norte

The history of Taos’ subsistence farming


In this modern age, it is somewhat romantic to aspire to subsist and feed ourselves as we once did in New Mexico. Subsistence farming, as a way of life and survival, was present in New Mexico for a very long time. 

Once, some Native Americans decided to give up the nomadic way of life and settle down in one place where subsistence agriculture was part of the plan. The people worked hard and were productive. It was imperative to provide food for the entire village.

About 2,000 years ago, the Anasazi immigrated into New Mexico and lived in places like Chaco Canyon and Bandelier. After they experienced drought and societal conflict, the Puebloan People relocated to various sites along the Río Grande corridor where they built pueblos and continued to live and subsist. One thousand years ago, splinter groups of Native Americans moved into the Taos Valley and began to make permanent settlement. They first lived in pit houses, then small pueblos and then larger pueblos. They grew small plots of crops and hunted small game. So when the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, Pueblo Indians had long been practicing a form of subsistence farming.  

Initially, the Spanish Conquistadors main priority in New Mexico was the pursuit of precious metals such as gold and silver. Subsistence farming was a necessary secondary pursuit. They did, however, begin to issue land grants, build acequias (an extensive system of irrigation) and plant crops in the late 1500s and the 1600s. It was only after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and the reconquest of New Mexico that the Spaniards, by then people of mixed bloodlines, that Hispanos began to seriously establish extensive subsistence farming in El Norte.

During this time, drought, dry years and decades in a high-desert environment were common. In fact, a severe drought in the last half of the 17th century was a contributing factor to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. To survive drought, the people had to store food, work cooperatively and use drought-resistant methods and seeds. In the 1700s, when the Spaniards returned in earnest, they used the irrigation skills learned from the Romans and the Muslim Moors in Spain to cooperatively build the acequias. The monsoons were a godsend, especially in the years when they dumped substantial rains, thus producing bumper crops. This allowed them to develop a communal agrarian-based society that sustained them for two and a half centuries until about the 1950s.

In the later half of the 1800s, a particularly wet time period, a variety of crops such as native corn and foreign wheat were grown in abundance. Taos became known as the “bread basket” of the area. In addition to the large amounts of crops being grown, livestock that had been imported from Europe were also essential. Sheep, cows, hogs, horses and mules were domesticated animals not found in El Norte until the Spaniards colonized New Mexico. The settlers were able to survive and even thrive with the benefit of their crops and livestock. There was not much of a cash economy as barter and subsistence agriculture was the lifeblood of the economy. In addition, handcrafts, faith and large extended families were the norm.  

Many things began to change as early as the Mexican Period (1821-1846), when an abundance of scarce goods such as glassware and metal products became more available in New Mexico. These trade goods were brought in on the Santa Fe Trail from the eastern United States. After American sovereignty became a reality in 1848 in New Mexico, a free market economy began to take hold. Water rights began to become privatized as was the land, and as a result long-held Hispano communal grazing lands were eventually lost. From this point forward, subsistence agriculture began to decline, and surviving and subsisting strictly by producing virtually all of the societal needs became more and more difficult. As the land base was lost, the pressure applied by market forces became greater and greater. 

At the tail end of the 1800s, the people living in New Mexico still produced about 95 percent of what they consumed. Furthermore, during the “bread basket” days (1850s-1880s) they sold surplus crops to the U.S. government to feed soldiers. They even shipped sheep to the Midwestern states, throughout the Rock Mountain West and to California as New Mexico became the “Cradle of the Sheep Industry.” In the early 1880s, 5.3 million sheep grazed the mountain ranges and pastures of New Mexico and in 1880, 186,000 sheep were counted in Taos County alone. 

By the 20th century, New Mexicans were able to engage in raising sheep, but only by securing permits from the U.S. Forest Service. Much of the communal grazing lands that remained became public land under the Theodore Roosevelt Administration; to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. 

In the 1940s, Taoseños were still producing about 75 percent of what they consumed, but the drought and the changing economy of the 1950s dealt a death knell to subsistence farming in Taos County. Subsistence farming did not disappear instantly. Some people continued to farm for profit, and some continued their subsistence agricultural activities to supplement their wage incomes. But after the middle of the 20th century, very few families were able to raise and feed a family solely through subsistence farming. This dramatically changed the economy and the agrarian lifestyle in El Norte. The traditionally large families were no longer as common.      

Today, the old infrastructure that stills exits includes the acequias, water rights and some private agricultural land plots. Many people enjoy gardening and organic farming on a small scale and some still own livestock. The stores and farmers’ markets are usually teeming with homegrown produce, but subsistence farming as a way of life and a singular way to raise a family is a thing of the past; but perhaps some people are just waiting for an end to the drought, new economic conditions and a revival of agricultural production initiated by yet another wet time period.

F.R. Bob Romero is a ninth-generation New Mexican, local historian, lifelong educator and author of the book “History of Taos-Historia de Taos.”


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