Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge this spring is beginning the second season of a backtothefuture agricultural experiment that its proponents believe could change the way farming is conducted on refuges.
In an effort to green its farming of food for migrating birds, to provide an alternative to genetically modified crops, to foster crop genetic diversity and to engage Native American partners, the New Mexico refuge is growing Aztec corn from heirloom seeds.
These crop plants have been bred over many generations and therefore are well adapted to the specific regions where they originated, says Grant Harris, the Southwest Regions chief biologist.
Farming has been in this valley for a long time, says Bosque del Apache Refuge wildlife biologist John Vradenburg. The Pueblo Indians were a farming people who used these floodplains. Their challenges werent different from ours. This caused us to think: If they could do it, it is realistic to try their type of crops and their more holistic way of farming.
The projects longterm goal is: To grow enough Aztec corn seed to feed the refuges own birdsprimarily sandhill cranes. To supply surplus corn to other refuges. To do both with minimal environmental disturbance.
We need farming to meet the energy needs of sandhill cranes and other birds, Vradenburg says. We dont want farming to become a negative word.
Growing corn for seed is vital because if the refuge doesnt provide enough food for its cranes in a given year, they stray. Thats bad because it diminishes wildlife observation opportunities for 166,000 annual visitors and it increases depredation on nearby farms. Sandhill cranes can destroy a chili field.
Corn seed is only part of the crane diet. I call cranes the great white shark of the migratory bird world, says Vradenburg. They eat anythingplant tubers and roots, amphibians, invertebrates, snakes. Corn seed gives cranes quick energy, he says. Its like carboloading for a track runner to deal with the stress of an upcoming event. A cold nighttime roost, say.
The Aztec corn experiment is tiny. It is being conducted outside the cooperative agreement under which local farmers grow 1,200 acres of alfalfa and conventional corn at the refuge.
Last year, the refuge planted the Aztec corn on a 12acre plot in cooperation with Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tucson nonprofit seed bank that calls itself a leader in the heirloom seed movement. Native Seeds offers 1,800 varieties of aridland adapted agricultural crops, many of them rare or endangered. We promote the use of these ancient crops.
The refuge chose Mayo Tosabatchi, a flour corn with big seed. The first season was illuminating. Vradenburg learned that heirloom seed, which is in short supply, is orders of magnitude more expensive than conventional corn.
He learned that Aztec corn requires patience. Its growing season is May to November, compared with 90 days for some conventional corn. He learned that flooding the plot doesnt work in New Mexico because weeds can outcompete Aztec corn. He learned that hungry elk can ruin everything. Last fall, with a decent crop ready to harvest, elk came through and denuded the field, leaving just a few intact ears of corn.
This is an adaptive management process, says Vradenburg. We have learned from our first years successes and failures and will continue with the projectplanting leftover seeds on 10 acres in furrowed, lightly irrigated rows (not a flooded field) surrounded by a fence to keep out elk.
The Aztec corns hardiness impresses Vradenburg. Conventional corn couldnt have endured the soilnutrient and lowwateravailability stresses that Aztec corn did last summer. When other corn was wilting, this was growing nice and green, he says. It still produced a small cob with some seed production. Its surprising how strong and resilient these things are. Aztec corn produces a tighter husk than conventional corn and seems more resistant to most pests, he says.
Vradenburg envisions a day when Bosque del Apache Refuge produces enough Aztec corn to supply other refuges, when Aztec corn draws tribal partners into the cooperative agreement, when a National Wildlife Refuge System partnership with seed companies increases the inventory of heirloom seeds for corn and other produce, such as milo.
That all would be good, he says, because we know these crops are not genetically modified.