Excerpt: Fruit, Fiber, and Fire

William R. Carleton is the editor of Edible New Mexico and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His book, Fruit, Fiber, and Fire: A History of Modern Agriculture in New Mexico (Nebraska, 2021) is new this month.

Chapter 1: Before There Were Aliens, There Were Apples

Myths, Moths, and Modernity in New Mexico’s Early Commercial Orchards

Roughly three and a half decades after her father gunned down the most famous outlaw in America, Elizabeth Garrett immortalized her beloved New Mexico in what would soon become the official state song. Her father would no doubt have appreciated the horticultural paradise the song depicts. Pat Garrett, whose landholdings included an orchard of over eight hundred apple and peach trees, had spent and lost a fortune trying to dam the Pecos River near Roswell in an effort to create a lucrative agricultural valley. His daughter’s portrayal of a “Nuevo Mejico” filled with rugged sierras, fiery-hearted “Montezumas,” and “dotted with fertile valleys” captured the mythic ideal shared by her father and many other eastern newcomers alike. At the heart of the vision was a familiar and thoroughly “American” crop; the smell of apple blossoms, not roasting green chile, filled the breezes of the visionaries’ minds.

Those four decades between Pat Garrett’s first fruit tree and the state’s official adoption his daughter’s blossom-filled song witnessed rapid agricultural industrialization that profoundly shaped the physical and cultural landscape of New Mexico. Fruit in general, and apples in particular, initially led the way. Apples brought in more money and were grown in more parts of the territory than any other crop, apart from grain or hay, in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. But even more than with crops such as alfalfa, wheat, or corn, apples required a highly industrialized landscape—physically and culturally—to grow profitably in a competitive regional and national market. Apple production relied on major irrigation and rail systems; modern technology to grow, market, process, pack, and ship; cooperation among growers; and federal and local governmental support in the form of land-grant college research, tax-funded horticultural boards, and spraying laws. While investors and farmers experimented with other industrial crops, including sugar beets, sweet sorghum, and even canaigre, no horticultural crop was planted more widely in New Mexico than the apple. In nearly every narrow mountain hamlet and broad irrigated valley alike, farmers gave apples a try.

No crop represented cultural change more than the apple. Yet, perhaps because the industry proved shorter-lived and less economically significant compared to other regions, historians have largely ignored the role of early industrial horticulture in New Mexico despite its significant cultural impacts on the region. The apple carried deep cultural meanings as a symbol of Anglo morality, virtue, and nation. Apples also required commercial growers to adopt the most modern technologies—involving irrigation, tillage, smudging, and pesticides—and therefore represented a force of modernization. The early industrial apple in New Mexico represents a widespread, pervasive, and at times coercive effort, only partially successful, to reorder and homogenize the physical and cultural landscape of the territory in the name of modernity, profit, and nation.

The Cosmopolitan Fruit

In the late nineteenth century many apple varieties took a cross-country journey that reflected larger migrations and transformations. Industrialization was changing where and how apples were produced, and who was producing them. Home orchards, mostly in the East, gave way to specialized commercial orchards, largely in the West. These newer, more western districts—or “fruit belts”—all vied for a share of the enormous national, and even international, market. Commercial western orchards were often large, flat fields with reliable irrigation, fertile soil, and, initially, an environment free of many pests common in the East. To offset the added costs of irrigation and long-distance rail charges, growers increasingly specialized in monocultures of a few varieties, grown and managed according to the most scientific methods of the day; they were supported by major infrastructure projects, such as the railroads, irrigation projects, and agricultural colleges. No longer a profitable side venture for the diversified small farm, fruit growing became a big industry requiring full-time commitment and a fair amount of capital to get started. A competitive fruit grower was at the forefront of modern agricultural science and industrialization.

The United States was the world’s top apple producer in the late nineteenth century. Several major fruit-growing sections of the country—including the Intermountain West, from southern New Mexico through Colorado and Utah—vied for supremacy during the four decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. High apple prices in the late 1880s spurred heavy plantings, which led to lower prices for much of the 1890s, exacerbated by the Panic of 1893, which swept the nation. By the turn of the century, however, as prices once again rose, throughout the West new orchards were planted, while throughout the East, old and inefficient ones were removed. For newly arrived settlers throughout the irrigated reaches of the mountainous West, a ready eastern market connected by a newly laid railroad, new irrigation technologies, extremely optimistic estimates of water supply, and the absence of virulent pests inspired hope that the apple industry would succeed.

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