A woman stands near her home and looks out at her garden of corn, squash and beans. She reminds herself to check the corn to see if it's ready for harvest and to look for damage caused by wildlife. Later in the evening, she will prepare a meal for her family with vegetables from her garden.Bat Cave Woman
This woman isn't a modern-day mom. She's New Mexico's first farmer, Bat Cave Woman. The date is approximately 1000 B.C., and she lives in the Mogollon Highlands of what will become New Mexico.
As one of the state's earliest agriculturists, Bat Cave Woman is the first person visitors will meet in the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum's permanent exhibit. The museum, located in Las Cruces and scheduled to open exhibits this year, will tell the story of 3,000 years of New Mexico agriculture through the lives of key individuals who practiced it.
During the time of Bat Cave Woman, four domesticated plants were introduced into the prehistoric Southwest. Maize, beans, squash and bottle gourd made their way north from present-day Mexico. "These crops were probably brought in by women from further south who married into the band of people at Bat Cave," says Tom Merlan, former state historic preservation officer and researcher for the museum exhibit.
"Over the next 1,500 years, people became more reliant on agriculture and communities became more settled," says Nigel Holman, the museum's exhibit coordinator. "They needed to remain near their fields to protect their investment in crops."
As the ancient people stayed in one area to tend their crops, they built permanent homes. Around 200 A.D., villages began to spring up throughout the Southwest. Corn, beans and squash were still grown, as well as cotton at lower elevations.
The Chaco Canyon region grew until, by 1050 A.D., a network of communities covered an area approximately the size of England, Merlan says.
"The Chaco phenomenon was characterized by the building of large planned towns; features for directing water to crops; a system of several hundred miles of roads; luxury trade items, including copper bells, macaw feathers and turquoise; and signaling stations located on high points that enabled the Chacoans to send messages across hundreds of miles," he says.
To irrigate their crops, the Chacoans developed sophisticated techniques for capturing rainwater. They created a system of dams, canals, ditches and headgates to collect runoff from the sloping cliffs above the canyon, and directed the water into rock-bordered gardens on the canyon floor.
"Around 1200 A.D., the ancestral pueblo people abandoned Chaco Canyon, probably because of climatic changes and reduced rainfall," Holman says. "People began moving into the Rio Grande Valley where they continued to use runoff irrigation and also dug shallow wells."
For the next 300 years, native people became more dependent on agriculture and tested new ideas to extend the growing season. "In the Chama River Valley, farmers used a gravel mulch to promote germination and growth of the plants," Holman says. They also carried water from the river in pots to irrigate their crops, so they were less reliant on rainfall.Juana Luján
SPANISH CROPS AND LIVESTOCK
In 1598, Juan de Oñate, descendant of a wealthy mining family in Zacatecas, Mexico, won the contract to settle New Mexico. "Oñate's expedition was a full-fledged colonizing enterprise, and the introduction of new animals and plants was an important part of the plan," Merlan says.
An inventory of Oñate's livestock before he left Mexico included 846 goats, 198 oxen for the carts, 2,517 sheep, 316 horses, 41 mules, 53 hogs, 500 calves, and 799 cows, steers and bulls, Merlan says. Some of the military officers were wealthy men who also brought their animals with them.
Various accounts credit Oñate with the introduction of wheat, barley, lettuce, cabbage, peas, chile, onions, carrots, turnips, garlic, radishes, cucumbers and a variety of herbs and spices. He also established an irrigation system reliant on an acequia madre, or mother ditch, to direct water from rivers.
Though the Spanish introduced important agricultural products, they often exploited the native people. The Spanish took what they wanted--from blankets to land--and used the native people for labor, Merlan says.
Ultimately, the Pueblos revolted against the Spanish and drove them out of New Mexico in 1680. Juana Luján, who will represent Spanish settlers in the museum, was 8 years old when she and her parents fled New Mexico. The Spanish family walked from their homestead near San Ildefonso Pueblo to present-day Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, which served as a refugee camp for revolt survivors.
Luján returned to northern New Mexico with the Spanish reconquest in 1693, Merlan says. Over several years, Luján acquired agricultural land near San Ildefonso to support her three children and their large families.
The Pueblos protested questionable land deals among Spanish settlers. In one case, elders of the San Ildefonso Pueblo had loaned a parcel of land to a Spanish settler, Merlan says. The settler built a house, cultivated the fields and tried to sell the property back to San Ildefonso. When the elders refused to buy their own land, he sold it to Luján.
The prosperous ranchera left an extensive will detailing all her holdings. She owned houses, gardens, fields, livestock, implements and carts in San Ildefonso, Chama and Albuquerque, Merlan says. The home where she lived had 24 rooms, a stable and a fruit orchard enclosed by a wall.
When Luján died in 1762, she left a significant estate, worth almost 6,000 pesos, including status items like ivory, porcelain, jewelry and religious images.George McJunkin
In the westward expansion, U.S. troops conquered Mexico's land between Texas and California. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, and New Mexico came under U.S. rule.
To protect its interests, the U.S. government established military forts throughout the state. "The arrival of the army created a ready market for agricultural produce and livestock," says Bob Hart, the museum's curator of history and interpretation. "At the time, New Mexico was very cash poor, so farmers and ranchers were eager to sell supplies to the forts because they paid in cash."
An increased demand for meat brought more ranchers to New Mexico, including George McJunkin, an African-American cowboy who will be featured in the museum's permanent exhibit.
McJunkin's father was a slave on a Texas ranch before the Civil War. George was about 14 when slaves were freed in 1865, Merlan says. He had experience training and shoeing horses, so he got a job as a horse wrangler on a trail drive going to Dodge City, Kan. Another drive brought him to New Mexico, where he was offered a job training thoroughbreds for Thomas Owen near the Cimarron River. McJunkin taught himself to read and write, speak Spanish and play fiddle and guitar.
Owen was one of the first ranchers to fence his range, and he put McJunkin in charge. McJunkin helped create the modern system of fenced pastures, Merlan says. "He also discovered the Folsom Site, an arroyo in northeastern New Mexico containing human bones that date back to 8000 B.C."Thelma Cone
The arrival of the railroad in 1879 brought new immigrants who were anxious to make their mark in the livestock industry. In 1880, about 160,000 head of cattle grazed New Mexico territory. By 1900, there were approximately 1 million. Ranchers needed more land.
Around the turn of the 20th century, it became obvious that the federal Homestead Act, which allotted only 160 acres of land per claim, was a failure in New Mexico, Hart says. Midwestern farmers who settled in the eastern plains of the territory expected similar growing conditions as in their home states.
But dryland farming was difficult, and after a few unsuccessful seasons with limited rainfall, many homesteaders sold their land to ranchers. "The homesteaders who did succeed branched out and did other things," Hart says. "They were no longer strictly farmers."
The farmers who remained created small towns, schools and churches. Thelma Cone's father was a Texas contractor who moved his family to the eastern plains, near Portales, when he heard about the land available in New Mexico. Cone will represent homesteaders in the museum's exhibit.
In her personal writing, she described their home as a dug-out, basement-type hole, about 8 feet deep, with a 3-foot wall extending above ground. "It was warm and comfortable," she wrote.
The Cones raised corn and pinto beans. They also harvested cotton in Texas. "We would travel and live in two covered wagons for several months, following the harvest," Cone wrote. In 1913, her father bought a small cow herd in Texas. Two of her brothers walked the 350 miles home, driving the cattle.
"With the sale of cream from the cows, Papa bought more farm equipment," Cone wrote. He began to grow sorghum cane and purchased a mill to make sorghum syrup. "Everyone loved Mr. Cone's syrup, so it sold pretty good. With the new equipment, we could clear more land and raise more crops, so we didn't have to go back to Texas to pick cotton."
Most New Mexico farm families were poor during the period between the wars. During the Great Depression, nearly 10,000 Hispanic villagers from the northern part of the state migrated to work in beet and potato fields, mines and smelters, and the sheep and railroad camps of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana, Merlan says. As these jobs disappeared, the workers came home to worse conditions. Communities, counties and eventually the state itself ran out of money. New Mexico became insolvent in 1933 and turned to the federal government for help.
By 1935, half of New Mexico's farm operators held second jobs off the farm. Many subsistence farmers quit the business, and commercial agriculture expanded. The government stepped in to help producers overcome hardships. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration financed a program to plow the ground to prevent wind erosion, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation bought cattle as a price support measure, the U.S. Department of Agriculture bought land to reseed and return to grazing, and the U.S. Forest Service initiated a Shelterbelt Project to plant trees on the eastern plains. Government vocational programs trained agricultural workers for other jobs.
During this tumultuous time, traditional agriculture continued in some parts of New Mexico--the Indian reservations, where land was held for tribes by the U.S. government, Merlan says. Many Native American farmers still prepared the land using wooden planting sticks and weed cutters.
Prayers and ceremonies accompanied May planting. Native American farmers sowed 10 to 20 seeds in each hole. The emerging clump of seedlings protected inner plants from the wind. Farmers often placed stones in a circle to shelter corn seedlings. In 1940, the Hopis and Zunis still practiced flood irrigation and grew corn, wheat and alfalfa. The Zunis also grew peach trees.Ruby Gobble
FEWER, LARGER FARMS
As the number of farms and ranches throughout the state has declined steadily in the past few decades, the size of remaining operations has increased.
Cattle production has become more popular. In 1956, the number of cattle exceeded the number of sheep in New Mexico for the first time, Merlan says. Wheat production was 704,000 bushels in 1879. By 1961, more than 8 million bushels were produced.
Following in the footsteps of Bat Cave Woman, women continue to play an important role in New Mexico agriculture. Ruby Gobble, foreman of the Chase Ranch in Cimarron, has been a cowgirl since she was 3 years old. She and several others will exemplify 20th-century ranching in the museum's exhibit.
Gobble was born in 1930 on her family's ranch in Arizona. "I always knew I wanted to rope and compete in all-girl rodeo," she says. "I've also known ranching was my deal."
At 12, she was doing riding tricks in local variety shows on a horse she trained herself. By 19, she had picked up roping and was soon recognized by Hollywood as the "Glamour Girl of Rodeo." Gobble won world champion team roping honors from 1951 to 1953.
She began working on the historic Chase Ranch in 1963. "I needed some pasture for my horses," she says. "The ranch owner had a good stud horse she wanted to breed, so we made a deal."
In 1982, Gobble was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center for her roping talents. Today, she uses those skills to tend livestock, irrigate alfalfa, operate heavy equipment and perform basic veterinary procedures like artificially inseminating cattle and pregnancy testing. "Ranching is more expensive and scientific today than 40 years ago," she says.
Across New Mexico, agricultural innovations are allowing farmers and ranchers to expand production, Hart says. Specialty crops such as pecans, pistachios, lettuce, onions and ornamental corn have been added to the traditional cornucopia. European and Mexican cattle breeds compete with native herds for their share of the market.
"One interesting change in recent years has been the growth of the dairy industry," Hart says. "Both the Pecos and Rio Grande valleys are good indicators of the transition our state is making." Dairy producers are choosing New Mexico because of inexpensive land and favorable climate.
"What makes our state's agricultural history unique is the blending of cultures," Hart says. "For example, when we think of Navajos, it's hard for us to picture them without their weaving and sheep. But these items were introduced by the Europeans." This cultural mix allows New Mexican consumers to enjoy wholesome dairy products, quality meats and a variety of nuts, fruits and vegetables that are locally produced.
"The time frame of agriculture in New Mexico also is unique," Hart says. "Agriculture spread from the south, so we had crops like corn here for some time before they made their way east."
Today, New Mexico agriculture has many faces, including Roosevelt County peanut farmers, Catron County cattle ranchers, Doña Ana County dairy producers and Navajo sheep herders. Their stories and their predecessors" inspire future generations of agriculturists--just as Bat Cave Woman inspired her descendants to coax a stable food supply from an often unyielding earth.