Photo by Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

Young people in Farmington may not want to leave, but find few reasons to stay

It’s been 10 years since I left Farmington, and at first glance U.S. 64 looks just like I remember it: a six-lane highway lined with pipefitters and pump-jacks, still bucking, still pulling every last drop of crude out of the earth.

 

The only thing that’s missing are the white work trucks — those once omnipresent vehicles that rutted up all the unmarked, unpaved service roads in San Juan County. 

 

Big-box chain stores, including two Walmart Supercenters, have replaced the Mom-and-Pop businesses on Main Street, and the parking lots are largely empty, especially at the dozen or so hotels hastily erected to house seasonal oil and gas workers.

 

Those workers are no longer in demand, as the industry has taken a sharp turn toward the Permian Basin in the opposite corner of the state. The change has led to a spate of plant closures, and the imminent shutdown of the San Juan Generating Station has made Farmington one of the fastest-depopulating cities in the country. 

 

Since 2010, the year I graduated Piedra Vista High School, the population of Farmington has fallen 2.6 percent — from 46,000 then to 44,000 in 2018, the latest year for which Census figures are available. Over that same period, San Juan County lost 4 percent of its population. 

Standing in front of Piedra Vista High School, I noticed few physical differences from when I was last there. The community, however, has changed more dramatically. / Photo by Don J. Usner

I think that practically everyone in the Class of 2010 saw the writing on the wall. Of the 75 members of my graduating class that I was able to track down, at least 60 have moved away.  We recognized that our hometown, not to mention New Mexico, ranked at the bottom of nearly every measure for family prosperity and wellbeing. 

 

We wanted all the things that Farmington couldn’t give us — things like a university education, high-paying jobs, and careers in industries that didn’t include oil and gas. When my guidance counselor told me in senior year that I should join the oil and gas industry or enter the military, I wanted to run for the hills.

 

“Everybody there is pushing you to go into a field that’ll put you into either the oil and gas fields or the coal mine,” says Preston Decker, my best friend — who, like me, left Farmington soon after graduation. He shipped out to become a nuclear engineer in the Navy, and recently settled down in Charleston, S.C. 

 

“There’s no blue-collar jobs, there’s no sustainable lower or middle-class economy in the area,” he says. “I miss New Mexico as a whole, but Farmington itself is one of those cities that I never want to go back to.

Boomtown

My grandmother, Bonna Bond, arrived in Farmington from Utah when she was 4 years old. At the time, in the late 1930s, the city was nothing more than a few dirt roads with a single traffic signal. She shared a dirt-floor house with six brothers and sisters, right in the middle of the city.

 

Given the growing prospects for oil production, the population was primed to explode. Decades before the Permian Basin became synonymous with oil and gas, the San Juan Basin was named one of the hottest oil patches in the country. 

 

By 1970, the county’s population had jumped to more than 50,000, up from only 18,000 two decades earlier. Oil and gas drilling, power generating stations and two coal mines drove the growth, all through high-paying blue-collar work. My grandfather, Dean Bond, supported a large family on the salary of an electrician at the San Juan River Gas Plant. He worked up until the day he died of a heart attack at the age of 59.

Even then, Grandma managed to raise her seven children without ever leaving home — thanks in large part to Grandpa’s pension. Looking back, no one really thought the money would ever stop flowing. 

 

The fossil fuel industry paved Farmington’s streets, built its infrastructure, funded its public schools and financed its local businesses. It also provided for my family, buying our clothes, putting food on our table and contributing spending money so I could spend weekends hanging out at the mall eating breakfast at my favorite restaurant, Blue Moon Diner. My personal favorite: the New Mexico Skillet, a sizzling pan of potatoes, eggs, sausage and veggies, smothered in red or green.

I stopped at Blue Moon Diner to grab lunch and ran into my sister’s best friend from high school, Brooke Payne. We spent a few minutes catching up, and I learned that she and her family still live in Farmington. / Photo by Don J. Usner

By the time I was born in 1992, the local economy was almost entirely dependent on oil and gas revenues and the population in San Juan County broke 90,000. When I graduated high school, the economy had reached a boiling point. 

 

The recession of 2008 and the subsequent oil crash hit the community hard. My parents’ retirement funds were wiped out in a few weeks, as were the retirement savings of most of my friends’ parents. That is when, for the first time in decades, the population of Farmington started to plummet.  

 

“I was baptized by fire,” recalls my mother, who had returned to school as an adult to become a financial advisor a few years earlier. “My biggest fear during that time was that I would not be able to help my clients navigate the uncertain times.” 

My former English teacher, Laura Easterday, and I looked through the collages of student senior photos that she has proudly collected on her classroom wall. Ms. Easterday was one of the only familiar faces in the school after 10 years. / Photo by Don J. Usner

Upward mobility

Long before that, I had become aware of the difference a change in location can make. In 2006, my family — me, my parents and five siblings — had moved into “town” from the smaller and considerably poorer community of nearby Kirtland. This short relocation and subsequent school transfer upended my life, mostly by introducing me to a drastically different environment.

 

Piedra Vista (rock view in Spanish) High School is set on a rocky outcrop on the northern edge of Farmington. When I arrived as a freshman, the student body had a reputation for being well-off, but statistics show it was just as economically divided as rival Farmington High. Which is to say, appearance isn’t everything. 

 

Though it sure helps. To the east is Foothills Drive, a hilly meandering road characterized by half-a-million-dollar homes hidden behind juniper trees and sagebrush. To the west is “F Hill,” a neighborhood lined by white sidewalks, street lamps and manicured city parks — the closest thing to middle-class suburbia I’d ever seen.  

Standing in the hallway at Piedra Vista when the bell rang, I was passed by students who poured out of classrooms heading to their next class. / Don J. Usner

These neighborhoods filled my head with possibilities and I began to realize, probably for the first time, that my options in Farmington were limited. So when my guidance counselor recommended that I join the oil and gas industry or enter the military, I rejected her advice and enrolled at New Mexico State University. It was the furthest place I could escape to and still be in New Mexico. 

 

A few years later, my whole family left for Dallas. After 10 years on and off the market, my childhood home still hasn’t sold. 

 

“On any given street there is at least one house sitting vacant and a couple more for sale,” my old classmate Brooke Garcia tells me. She’s one of the few people I know who still lives in Farmington. “We see a lot of vacant properties, and a lot of properties with squatters.”

 

After graduating from the University of New Mexico in 2017, my brother joined the rest of our family in Texas. They’re all trying to convince me to relocate, too.  

Farmington is in the midst of a $9 million revitalization project to stimulate growth and investment in the downtown area. The project aims to use funding under the Complete Streets federal program, but has since shifted to municipal bonds to foot the bill. The project will completely redesign the six-block stretch of downtown from the ground up. Meanwhile, there are several vacant storefronts lining the street where construction is underway. / Photos by Don J. Usner

A microcosm of rural America  

As the “black gold” rush slows down, Farmington is trying other ways to reinvigorate the economy.

 

“Jolt Your Journey” is emblazoned across 40-foot billboards along U.S. 550, which connects Farmington to Albuquerque. The slogan, aimed at bringing hikers, mountain bikers and fly-fishermen to the county, has become something of a joke to those of us who spent our adolescence looking for a different kind of jolt.  

 

For me and my friends, that usually meant taking my 1992 Toyota 4Runner into the open wilderness of Chokecherry Canyon, where we fantasized about escaping our hometown. For too many of my classmates, however, it meant seeking a jolt with alcohol and drugs. 

 

My friend Alex (who asked that his last name be withheld) left Farmington to escape that lifestyle and start fresh. “It wasn’t a choice,” he says. “I had to leave to get away from the drugs. I needed to get away from everyone involved.” 

 

He didn’t need to explain himself. Farmington has twice the rate of alcohol -related deaths as the rest of New Mexico. In 2011, nearly one-third of high school students in San Juan County said they had been offered drugs at school, according to the New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey — a rate that puts the county at 10 percent above the national average. 

 

While I had a few experimental encounters, for me, keeping these threats at bay was easier than it would be for many. Being the son of an addict and alcoholic, I was familiar with the damage that could result.

 

Growing up in Farmington exposed me to many of the systemic problems which are all too common in New Mexico and rural communities throughout the country. While our state ranks at or near the bottom of every list for education, poverty, substance abuse, lack of healthcare and more, I saw the reality behind the statistics firsthand in Farmington. 

 

Of course, leaving did not mean escaping those problems. But it did offer me a chance to break out of the limited growth options and explore ones not tied to the turbulent fossil fuel industry. 

 

Back in Farmington, with change on the horizon, the community is growing uneasy about what the future holds. The imminent shutdown of San Juan Generating Station has put hundreds of jobs at risk. No one I encountered is putting much stock in the state’s transition plan.

 

“We don’t have any reason to stay here, we don’t need to stay here, but we have all of our family here,” Brooke says. “When the mines and power plants close, if they do close, what’s this town going to be?”