All of the surface water in New Mexico is allocated. Almost all of the groundwater in the state is spoken for, too. A new venture that needs water almost always has to purchase water rights from a person or business with an existing allocation. Often, it’s farmers selling and other industries buying. As farmers sell off their water rights, they’re setting up the state’s agriculture industry for a dry future.
“It’s kind of a crazy thing to think about,” says Jasper Riddle, owner and winemaker at Noisy Water Winery in Ruidoso. “Water is such a finite resource. You hear about towns running out of water and people drilling deeper, which isn’t the solution because at some point they are going to totally deplete the aquifers.”
An El Paso Times report on the state’s water supply explains it this way: “All water that ends up in New Mexico’s water budget begins as rain or snow, which either runs off into rivers and streams (i.e., surface water) or seeps into the earth as groundwater, replenishing aquifers. As rain and snow dwindle, water supplies are acutely affected.”
The prolonged drought in the west—attributed to climate change—means that rain and snow will continue to dwindle. As water becomes scarcer, its value increases. Selling water rights becomes attractive to farm owners who might not be using all their allocated water. Riddle sees this as a problem.
“That water is never moving back to your farmland if you sell it,” he says. When he opened Noisy Water, he committed to buying existing fruit for his wines instead of planting new vines in order to incentivize some existing farmers in New Mexico to hold on to their water rights. “I wasn’t going to plant a single vineyard until I was consuming all the fruit [not spoken for] in the state,” he says.
Noisy Water opened in 2011. Until 2018, they only made wines using fruit from pre-existing vineyards. It was only when the winery’s need for grapes outpaced the existing supply for sale that Riddle planted his own vineyards. One is on the site of an older, abandoned vineyard in the state. The other is on what once was a pecan orchard. The vineyard uses less water but takes up more land than the former water-intensive pecan orchard.
Conserving an Apple-Growing Region With a Storied History
Then, Riddle turned his attention to other fruit, especially apples.
Riddle comes from an apple-growing family in upstate New York. His grandfather, a child of Italian immigrants, farmed apples for Motts while working three other jobs. His mother and uncles grew up in the orchards, and he spent many summers as a child among the apple trees. The apple wine the family made to get through the cold winters is one of the reasons he makes wine today.
In the 1980s, the price-per-pound of apples in upstate New York dropped to a 50-year low. Many apple farmers went out of business. Eventually, his grandfather sold the farm for pennies on the dollar.
“I saw that and never wanted to see another farmer deal with that,” says Riddle. “Land stewardship is undervalued in our country and unfortunately once those farms go away, they don’t come back. The land changes, the ecosystem changes, the world changes.”
Now living in New Mexico, he endeavors to save some regional farms from suffering the same fate as his grandfather’s farm.
“We have a production facility 30 minutes away from local orchards and backyard growers,” Riddle says. He looks to those growers for his apple wines like the dry “Don’t Tell Momma” apple wine that’s crisp and refreshing, as well as the sweet apple wines he produces. This year, Noisy Water produced 500 cases of apple wine. They also produced cider from apples and other fruit, selling it via tap and growler at the winery.
“Apples were historically a primary crop coming out of Hondo Valley,” says Riddle. The valley is home to big heritage orchards. According to Riddle, locals will tell of how Billy the Kid helped plant orchards. Whether fact or fable, it speaks to a long history of apple-growing in a region that’s now “going by the wayside,” as Riddle puts it, because orchards ceased to be profitable. As farmers stopped tending portions of their orchards, they had no reason to use water on those untended acres.
“All these farmers say there is no money in farming,” says Riddle. “They’re willing to make deals for their water rights, and that’s one more farm off the grid. One more person who can’t use the land agriculturally.”
When only a small portion of a farm receives water in a drought-stricken area, the rest goes to dust. “After a couple of dry years, this is the recipe for the dust bowl all over again in a new but very real way,” he says.
Wine as a “Soapbox” for Water Issues
His solution? Help the farmers he can by paying fairly for their fruit. He pays 40% more than anywhere else in the U.S. for apples, and those apples all come from local growers. He sees alcohol as his “soapbox” for talking about water.
And, as with grapes, he doesn’t plan on growing any of his own apples until he’s bought all that already exist.
“I’m not in this to see how many acres I can plant. I want to see how many acres that already exist I can take care of,” Riddle says.
In 2020, he processed 3.16 tons of apples from local growers to make apple wine and cider. In 2021, he processed 3.5 tons of local apples, a half-ton of local pears, and 15 gallons of pomegranates. This year, so far, he’s processed 22 tons of apples, a ton of pears, and about 4 tons of pomegranates— all local, of course.
“People are now taking care of their orchards,” says Riddle. Noisy Water is loaning out bins for orchard owners to bring them their apples. Riddle and his team are also going out and picking apples themselves.
“We’re seeing 30- or 40-foot-tall cider apple trees that these apples are coming from,” he says. Since many orchards now grow dwarf varieties of trees on a trellis for easy picking, the height of the trees speaks to their age – 70 to 100 years old in some cases. “I’m telling people not to spray. I’m not worried about how the apples look. I want good quality fruit. We can work around the rest of it. It’s cool because we’ve gotten the region to look at farming organically and sustainably again.”
Although Noisy Water hasn’t farmed its own vineyards long enough to receive organic certifications yet, Riddle is working on it. The vineyards use no herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides, and all fertilizers are organically derived. And, they’re no-till—a method that helps water get back into the system because it helps to retain water overall. Rain is sporadic in the southwest; but, when it does rain, weeds and cover crops in a no-till system help preserve moisture for weeks.
Now that Riddle has his own crops, he doesn’t just stand on his wine-soaked soapbox and talk about water, he practices what he preaches.