Planting Seeds in the Valley

Name: Eileen Mulvihill

Location: Villanueva, New Mexico

Topics: Farming, Organic, Science, Women, Community

Quote: “I’m worried about the valley. I’ve been a farmer now for 9 years and in those years I can see climate change.”

Early Life

My name is Eileen Mulvihill.

I started off in Wisconsin. I was born in a very small town in Wisconsin. As a kid I moved quite a few different places in Wisconsin. My father was a teacher and a coach in high school. At one point, I think when I was about ten we moved down to Champagne, Illinois where the campus for the University of Illinois is and that’s where I went to school as an undergrad and that was the first big informative time in my life because I graduated in ’68, so you can imagine my first year of college; Vietnam war, Black Panthers. it was a very exciting, growing time.

I was not able to get into graduate school. Title 9 hadn’t yet passed, and I had wanted to be a Marine Biologist but I couldn’t get into a graduate program that accepted females. So I started graduate school up in Madison. It lasted for about a year and a half and then I moved to Seattle. Was there for 3 years and then I moved to France. That was also a big moment in my life. One of my younger brothers died the year before I moved to France and I just felt like, “Oh, maybe I should just start doing the things that I want to do.” I went to France, did not speak a word of French when I got there but I ended up getting my Ph.D. from the University of Louie Pasteur and then ended up coming back to the states, to Seattle, in ’81.

My degree had been in Molecular Biology. I started working in the biotech industry, it was just getting started and I went to a start-up company. I was one of the first ten people at the company, probably scientist number 7, and was there for 13 years when I moved to another biotech company in the area where the people who started the Human Genome Project were starting this company. So at that point I was Assistant Director of Immunology and Molecular Biology. So my career from the time I started as an undergraduate, I was working in labs where we worked on various kinds of human disease.

I have a very deep background in all kinds of human illness but it was in 1998 that I discovered that I have a genetic disease. I had my first experience with it and it was…I survived it. Basically, for about the last 19 years now I have been surviving. and I’m a really good survivor.

So I moved here in 2007 after I had a third episode with this disease and I had been in a hospital for three months and I’d had a stroke and so I was starting off all new. I had to learn to talk again, I had to learn how to write. Actually I haven’t taught myself how to write. I print, I can’t do cursive and so my first three years here I was just recovering from that stroke primarily.

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Arriving in the Pecos Valley

I had seen the Pecos Valley in my early travels. I used to go from Urbana to California every summer. I would drive out with friends for a two-week vacation and one time it was a trip that included a trip through this valley and then my sister and her partner moved here, to Ribera probably in the mid-90’s. I used to visit and this valley is just so incredibly beautiful.

I know I’m a Pisces, I have to be on water so I knew I had to buy a place that was on the river.

One thing that was very different being here, as opposed to my previous life, I moved into a community where my sister, and I moved in with my sister and her partner, so I moved into a community where she had already been here for 15 years. And suddenly all of her friends were all of my friends and they were very accepting of me even though in the beginning I couldn’t talk and had to go through a lot of stuff. I had never felt so welcome anyplace before so easily.

And I sort of started in local politics. I was asked to join the wind task force because the county wanted to put wind turbines right up on the mesa and I had been very supportive of wind turbines in the 5 or 6 years previously when I was in Seattle. I really think it’s a very good alternative energy that should be exploited in the right place. I didn’t know anything about health issues as it relates to turbines but that’s what I did for the task force. Just by luck it turns out that wind turbines generate low frequency sound. It’s call infrasound. It’s actually a sound we can’t hear. So I used to get so angry with people at these county commission meetings because they would say how they have driven to one of the sites in New Mexico and walked around it. They didn’t think it was too noisy and I just wanted to sort of shake them because your body has the ability to pick up smaller vibrations, and I knew that from work I had done in cardiovascular disease.

Unfortunately, the wind task force totally failed. The county was corrupt from the start so I decided then that I could forget about the county and just do something locally and because I had started off about a year after moving here.

I started being treasurer of our acequia, I knew that, we have 34 small farms along our stretch of the acequia. And at the time that I got here, only 5 people were using their water. Now it’s up to about 11 but still we have so much land that is not being used. Water where we’re at risk of losing the water rights and I just felt like I had to try and get involved in bringing the acequia back.

So that was my motivation around trying to start up a youth farm-to-market program because I just thought, “Well if the kids could learn to love just being on the land and working with the land and improving the land,” because one of the first thing that I learned was that my fields are totally depleted. They have been over farmed and poorly farmed for 150 years and there was no topsoil. So most of what I have been doing is trying to regenerate the land here and that’s part of what I try to teach the kids, how to grow things more sustainably and how to grow things without adding pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers. You can make compost and grow very well.

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Challenges & Solutions

I’m worried about the valley. I mean I’ve been a farmer now for almost 9 years and just in those 9 years I can see climate change.

I know a lot of the other farmers, long time farmers in the valley, and they all tell me that things are… that they don’t know what is going to happen. And I also know that there are… the community is divided, not the whole community is divided but there are families, there’s a historical population some of whom just can’t accept that New Mexico became a state in the United States. And so that’s been a challenge especially in trying to get things to happen, especially because much of the political structure is made up of a lot of the families and it’s just hard, it’s very hard.

The main thing that is special to me is that I have recovered my mental health. I don’t have the mind that I had ten years ago. I can’t function as a Molecular Biologist, I can’t be a teacher to graduate students and professors but I’m good with kids. I love teaching kids that they can make mistakes and that it’s important to make mistakes because you learn when you’re honest with yourself and say, “Yeah, I made a mistake there.” It makes you think about doing things differently and that is one of the things that I see in the faces of these kids. This year we had 24 kids that showed up for the Youth Farm-to-Market, and the things I get to teach them about how I do not like bullies and I do not let bullies stay in the program, and how girls and boys can do the same things. Those are things that have been important in my life and I think because of that I am basically a very happy person. Any day that I can feel the sun on my face, and I love it when I turn on the irrigation because I hear the water, but I turn on the irrigation and hear the water going through the irrigation, that’s as special as it can get.

The El Valle Women’s Collaborative, has been a very new experience from the point of view of working mostly with women. As a scientist, as a molecular biologist, I’d say I was outnumbered by men 8 to 1. Most of my career I worked in a man’s world, I kept getting fired. I got fired twice. Because I didn’t like things that were happening and told people [laughing]. And the women’s collaborative, I don’t know if it was Yvonne or Shelly who said, you know, “Women Power.” I have always been that way myself in my career. If somebody told me that I couldn’t do something, if I thought it was the right thing to do I would do it.

And in my research it turned out to be very successful that way because I was good at what I did. I like, just the energy that the women have, the willingness to know that they can work hard but also take care of each other. So I wish that the women’s collaborative, the spirit of it, could infiltrate the two community centers here. I feel like it’s starting to happen down in Ribera, but it was starting to happen here in Villanueva but then it stopped. And I don’t know how this valley survives without the spirit of community really working because the women’s collaborative can’t do it all.

[Does gender play out differently in the valley?] Well it does, but I’m kind of, I kind of bulldozed my way through that and because I have worked I think hard to keep our acequia going, I think most of the parciantes know that I’m a hard worker and that I’m really trying to help their valley. I just went to a funeral this afternoon, and I only knew maybe half a dozen people there. I knew half a dozen gringos there. And then I knew Eddie Rodriguez, his mom died. But as I walked up, as I walked past, I don’t know, 6, 8, tables, and everybody just said hello. It’s something I see close up, something I see with the kids but I don’t experience it that much myself anymore. I think I’m too old [laughing].

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The Future of the Valley

Well ten years from now, not even ten, I’m hoping 7 years from now we have our first valley Lavender Festival. We might have one 5 years from now and we’ll combine it with an arts festival. But I really think lavender is a crop that could help bring back the economy of the valley. I think it could bring more people to get back on the fields I think that the ability to do hoop houses, whether you do growing in soil or in water, hydroponics, I think those are the future of this valley. Because these are not giant farms, but we could grow enough food for the whole valley and the whole city of Santa Fe and so I hope that’s what happens and I hope I start seeing more young kids staying here, going off to college or going off to get training but coming back. There’s too many old people here.

I think my view is much more influenced by what I see, well the impact that climate change is going to have on this valley. We have to get a solar network established up and down this valley. We’ve got to have everybody riding bicycles or walking. We have to have a walking path or a bike path because 20 years from now there’s not going to be fuel for all the cars and trucks so I feel like we have to start working now, really hard, and it’s going to be hard because I’d say most of the county commissioners and most of our legislative people really are not living in the real world.

I’m not really a farmer. I do have about 6 acres that I could, right now it’s in alfalfa. Starting this year I’m just going to stop cutting it and I’m going to work on replenishing it, replenishing the soil. I have tried quite a few new crops. I’m trying to find fruit that works here because I have seven different kind of fruit trees on my property but most of them don’t give me any fruit anymore because of the weather. I have found that raspberries and blackberries and gooseberries or currants, do well. So I’m going to expand those. Asparagus does really well here.

I’ve got raised beds, because it’s easier for me to work but it turns out it’s easier for the kids to work on raised beds, too. I’ve got a greenhouse so I can grow things all winter long. I’ve got a cistern, water cisterns, so I collect the water off of the roof of all the buildings that I have here. I also have compost piles using red wiggler worms to help treat the compost. Get it well worked, get it exposed to the microorganisms that will help heal the soil. Then there are always failures. This year it was the bean teepees. They were cute, the kids had a lot of fun making them, but the bean plants only got to be about 2 feet high. So I have since gone out and gotten some different kinds of seeds and that’s always an adventure because things don’t grow here the way that they used to grow when I was a kid. So it’s a learning process for me too.

I would like the parents to get more involved with the school. The valley school needs a lot of effort. So, that’s my wish for the valley.

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