Nearly 1,000 apple trees at Dixon's historic orchard are still alive. Their young, reddish branches are flexible and show signs of fruit to come at harvest time in the fall. Yet after an incredibly rough three years in Cochiti Canyon southeast of Santa Fe, only about an eighth of the total orchard remains. Many trees are dark, dry and dead. A creek trickles gently toward the orchard, and to the north skeleton silhouettes of burnt pines line the steep hillside.
The rich and painful history of the canyon is palpable for Becky and Jim Mullane, who have lived and worked on this land for more than two decades.
The Mullanes know about nature's devastation. Nearly all of their possessions and most of their apple trees were destroyed in Las Conchas Fire and subsequent floods of 2011. After the flooding, the Mullanes left the brutal mood swings of the New Mexico climate to grow apples for a time in Wisconsin, where the fruit comes easier but is harder to sell.
Running an orchard there got them on their feet again, yet their lives are far from stable. The family's ties to the desert are rooted in memory and knowledge.
"There's still something, there's a missing link in us, and it's New Mexico. It's our history," says Becky. "We're not done yet."
More than climate and circumstance is at play. The Mullanes are embroiled in a court battle with the State Land Office over the fate of the property.
In May 2012, the Mullanes would have transferred their rights to Dixon's to San Felipe Pueblo in exchange for enough money to buy another orchard. The pueblo had agreed to take over the apple trees and gain access to historic tribal ruins on the property. The State Land Office rejected the lease assignment, saying the pueblo was unqualified to run an orchard. Now, the Mullanes are still trying to keep their struggling trees alive, but they lack the equipment and funding to do so: namely, a new irrigation system.
What was once a place with signature apples that drew visitors from miles around is now in danger of falling by the wayside if one more year of the unresolved legal dispute continues.
A SWEET LEGACY
Dixon's Apple Orchard dates back to 1944, when Becky's grandfather Fred Dixon came from Colorado to be foreman of a dude ranch near Peña Blanca, NM. Dixon went into a partnership with the landowner James Young, working to grow a developed orchard on the property where Dixon and his wife Faye would live for more than 40 years.
They grew apples the whole time, battling hail, bears, late freezes and the dry desert heat. The couple had two sons who eventually left the orchard to attend New Mexico State University. One son moved to Idaho, and the other, Becky's dad, moved to Minnesota where she grew up. When Faye passed away in 1986, a then 18-yearold Becky quit college and left Minnesota to be with her grandfather in New Mexico.
Becky had a warm welcome from her grandfather when she arrived. "He greeted me at the airport with a dozen roses and said, 'Howdy partner!' and said, 'There's no reason why a girl can't run this ranch!' I just couldn't believe he said that. I had always dreamt of having an opportunity to live on the ranch and to be a part of it, but I never thought it could really happen."
Dixon taught his granddaughter everything about running an orchard, from caring for the cattle and the trees to marketing the apples. "It was the best education. I could have never learned that at any college," she says.
It was such a satisfying life, she says, but it took a lot of work. Every season there was a different job to do: Irrigating, pruning, picking and taking care of the animals were a few of the many tasks at hand. After years of working on the orchard, Becky met Jim and they married under apple blossoms in 1993. Fred Dixon handed down the operation to the couple three years later.
Becky was pregnant with their first son when the family initially encountered drought and fire. Smoke from the 1996 Dome Fire billowed through the canyon close to home.
"It was a bad experience and really our first one," she says. From then on, the drought continued. As the Mullanes began to lose trees, they realized they had to do something. So, they put in a new irrigation system fed by a deep well to keep the orchard alive.
The orchard continued to grow because the Mullanes had figured out a way to water the trees in the harshest months of summer when the creek ran dry. Becky says the apples were worth the work.
"If you're farming and you truly love what you're doing, you're just going to fight the fight and find better ways of irrigating to get through sometimes."
Jim Mullane was home to witness the raging intensity of Las Conchas Fire. Becky and their three children were in Minnesota. On the morning of June 26, 2011, Jim began to see plumes of smoke on the Jemez Mountains. A county sheriff showed up at his door with orders to start evacuating, and 20 or 30 people arrived at the orchard to help out. Later, however, the US Forest Service predicted the fire was moving away from the orchard to the north and called off the Cochiti Volunteer Fire Department. Most everyone went home.
Several of Jim's friends who owned cabins in the canyon near the orchard then headed out to attempt to rescue at least some their property from flames. They set off on ATVs, but after just a few miles met the fire head on.
"It was just an inferno," he says. "The heat. The noise. It sounded like a jet plane." Jim insisted that the group turn back before they got trapped in a fiery vortex. They sped away and looked back from a creek crossing to witness things they'd seen for years go up in flames. Behind them, they could hear propane tanks exploding. The mountain was aglow.
"I've probably never driven that fast in my whole life," says Jim, who remains traumatized by the memories of that day. "It was a scary ordeal."
To save the trees in the orchard, he turned on the irrigation pumps so there was water flowing on the ground. His buddies loaded up what they could from his house. A young Sandoval County Sheriff's deputy arrived to urge evacuation again.
"He was white as a ghost," says Jim. "He didn't know what to do."
In the middle of the night, Jim called Becky. She returned to New Mexico with the children the next day. The house was gone and most of their property was destroyed, but a lot of the trees had survived. The family got busy putting out small fires that were still smoldering. They worked to see better days, replacing irrigation that was destroyed and renting out a place to live near Cochiti Lake.
It was August when the floods hit. Dark clouds formed and rain poured out of the sky. Water rolled through the slick of the charred Santa Fe National Forest, transforming Cochiti Creek into a river through the canyon that wiped out most of the remaining trees at Dixon's orchard.
"It was so unexpected," says Becky. "We just sat up on the mountain and watched it, because there's nothing you can do."
The next day, the floods came again.
"All we could hear is the crack and rumbling in the distance, and we knew it was coming," says Becky.
Once again, Becky, Jim, and the kids went up to high ground and helplessly watched the destruction unfold as the water took out any remaining structure in its path. Three-thousand-pound water barriers floated down the canyon like rubber ducks, says Jim, and the structures exploded with the force of the water. After the second flood, the onslaught in the canyon proved too much for the family to bear.
"That's when we knew it was time to move on," says Becky.
It was "the first year that I can remember since I was 19 that we didn't harvest a crop," Jim says, "It was a really weird feeling."
The Mullanes stayed in Minnesota with relatives, working day jobs to make a living until they could lease another orchard in Wisconsin. Growing and harvesting apples in Wisconsin the next season provided the Mullanes relief from the stalemate in New Mexico, where they were still at high risk for future flooding, in a legal tangle with the State Land Office, and had few apples left to pick.
It got them raising apples again, but the lease in Wisconsin was still more costly than they could afford and a partnership with another couple didn't pan out.
SHIFTING SANDS OF LAND OWNERSHIP
One of the biggest challenges to restoring the Dixon's orchard in New Mexico is that Jim and Becky Mullane don't own the land.
James Young, who owned the dude ranch where Fred Dixon started the orchard as fore man in the 1940s, maintained ownership of the land where the orchard grew. In 1964, he granted the property and its improvements to the University of New Mexico. Then, in 2006 when Pat Lyons was land commissioner, UNM swapped the orchard and surrounding 8,500 acres with the State Land Office for property on the southern edge of Albuquerque, known as Mesa del Sol.
The land trade was out of the hands of the Mullanes, who had to accept the State Land Office as their new landlord.
"Mr. Young gave it to UNM. They were supposed to abide by that," says Becky.
Fred Dixon was flabbergasted by the deal. Though he was already suffering from emphysema that would claim his life a few years later, Dixon attended some of the UNM meetings with Jim and Becky as the trade was happening. Becky tells of Dixon's reaction to the land swap: "'He gave them this land in perpetuity,' he said. 'What does perpetuity mean? I looked it up in the dictionary, it means forever!'" Under the current lease with the State Land Office, the Mullanes pay an annual base amount of about $8,500 for the orchard, 10 percent of apple sales and $100 for the adjoining 8,500 acres of "non-productive" stewardship land. The barn, the original log cabin, the well, the irrigation system, the packing shed, and even the house Becky's granddad built became State Land Office property after the trade with UNM.
NO TRANSFER TO SAN FELIPE
In dire straits, the Mullanes proposed a lease assignment in 2012 that would have handed over the orchard and surrounding land to San Felipe Pueblo for $2.8 million that the family could use to start over somewhere else.
The proposal was rejected by Land Commissioner Ray Powell, who by then had reassumed this elected position in 2010. Powell ruled that San Felipe is unqualified because the current lease requires 20 years experience running an orchard.
"If we were going to want a casino out of the site, San Felipe would have been a natural because of their experience," Powell tells SFR. "They didn't have the experience of 20 years running an apple orchard."
The Mullanes appealed Powell's rejection of the San Felipe lease assignment at a hearing at the State Land Office in December 2012. The hearing officer, retired District Judge James Hall, found in favor of the Mullanes, but Powell as commissioner had final authority in the land office and rejected Hall's findings.
Thomas Hnasko, the Mullanes' attorney, says it's clear the State Land Office doesn't want the orchard operational or they would have allowed the pueblo to get it running again. "This whole thing is a ruse," says Hnasko, noting there might not be anyone in New Mexico with the two decades of prior experience the land office requires.
San Felipe is capable of running the orchard, says Hnasko, as at least 40 members from the pueblo have worked there, some since the '70s. Hnasko says Fidel Comacho, foreman of orchard for over 20 years and taught by Fred Dixon himself, was dedicated to continuing as foreman when the lease was to be transferred to San Felipe.
The land office was not considering assignments of the lease and wanted to make more than $100 a year on the stewardship lands, according to an email from 2012 used as evidence in the land office hearing. Powell says the only way around the 20-years-experience clause is for the Mullanes to give up their lease and allow the State Land Office to do an open bid so a new lease can be written. The next lessee would pay the Mullanes for the improvement value of the trees, says Powell.
"The Mullanes, the bottom line, will have to relinquish their lease in order for the area to be used for different uses," Powell tells SFR.
MIRE OF LAWSUITS AND POLITICS
The State Land Office watered the trees using a truck last year, and installed a temporary irrigation system that was later washed out by flooding. Commissioner Powell warned that the risk of flooding in the future is a danger possible lessees and the land office will have to consider before putting new improvements back in.
"With this fire and flood, which nobody could have anticipated, it pretty much changed the whole ball game," says Powell. "We're trying to be as fair and as transparent as we possibly can be with anyone."
Now, there is no house or permanent irrigation system on the land to water the trees. The Mullanes are also partly in such a bad position because they did not purchase business insurance, says Powell. "It's not the government's responsibility to bail them out," he says.
The Mullanes say they insured the items that were their personal property but not the assets owned by the land office. "How can we have insurance on their improvements?" asks Becky. The State Land Office has a pending insurance claim for lost income on the orchard. It's unclear whether the agency would reinvest recovered money in orchard infrastructure.
The lease has become somewhat of a political football between changing administrations at the land office and UNM. At the heart of the dispute is whether the State Land Office, which has a mission of earning “sustainable revenues” to help New Mexico public education institutions, has the right to split up the Young Ranch Trust by separating the apple orchard from the stewardship lands.
San Felipe allegedly lost interest in taking over the Mullanes' lease after the State Land Office told them it would remove the 8,500 acres from the lease that the pueblo was particularly interested in.
Publicly, what has been clear is that the current administration at the land office laments the land trade of Mesa del Sol for the orchard property made under the previous leadership.
"As we have discussed, the Powell administration would have never done such an unfavorable exchange," writes Harry Relkin, general counsel for the State Land Office, in a letter to the Mullanes' lawyer. "The revenue potential and actual earnings of the acquired lands is extremely limited compared to developable urban land at Mesa del Sol."
Becky Mullane says her family shouldn't be punished over political disagreements with past administrations.
"Jim and I had no choice in the matter. All we wanted to do was raise apples." Becky and Jim say they hope the land office takes a common sense approach to healing the land as opposed to strict diligence to policies that were created before the disasters occurred.
"They look at this from a cookie-cutter approach. They don't look at it for what's happened," says Becky.
The case has moved to District Court and could have a hearing before Judge Sarah Singleton as soon as March. Its outcome could uphold the Mullanes' right to assign their lease or put pressure on the land office to reinvest in the orchard if the Mullanes decide to stay.
For the Mullanes, negotiation with the land office is a struggle against the slow pace of paperwork, politics, and the natural erosion of untended trees.
"What we have fought from the very beginning is time," says Becky. "Every day that goes by is another day that those trees aren't taken care of….What we've been through with the State Land Office is far worse than both the fires and the floods that we went through."
ONE ROCK, ONE TREE, ONE DAY AT A TIME
The ongoing legal turmoil has made moving forward difficult. Eddie Velarde, who owns his family orchard in the town of Velarde, toured the Dixon's ranch last year. He said he had some interest at one point in stepping in to run the ranch, but Velarde says he'd like to see the
Mullanes fairly compensated before he made any deals with the land office.
"They're probably like me; they have all their money invested in it," says Velarde. "(The court case) could drag on forever, and those poor people need to eat."
The Mullanes' legal expenses, rent, and the cost of rebuilding may be greater than they can afford. If they run out of funding, the family might be forced to give up their lease. They paid rent for 2014 in December.
Last month, Jim Mullane stayed in a trailer on the property to prune the live trees and to speak with various agencies about flood mitigation. Hydrologists from the Army Corps of Engineers suggested barricading rocks on the eroded side of the creek in order to protect the living orchard from future floods. The Mullanes are considering selling some of the rock and wood materials that were washed up in the floods to generate income for the orchard —and to clear out some of the debris—if they can get permission from the land office.
The couple says they love running an orchard and want to do again, but it could be years before it can support a family again. In the meantime, Becky is working at a dairy in Wisconsin to keep the family with three teenagers afloat.
Dixon's was once a place for weddings, school field trips, and yearly pilgrimages. In brighter days, New Mexicans from all over the state drove up every year for apples, including Dixon's patented Champagne apples. If they can, the Mullanes say they would like to return to New Mexico after their oldest son graduates high school.
"We see the history and what it means to the state, what it means to all the people. It has a lot of pull on the heart," says Becky. "We're still forging ahead, and still hoping that this will work out with the land office someway."
Robin Brown is a freelance journalist based in Albuquerque.