Reflections on the 2017 growing season

It can be said that the 2017 growing season actually started in the Fall of 2016 with the planting of garlic in late September, late October, and early November.  This year we were able to prepare the soil and plant with the moon, recognizing that root crops like garlic have traditionally been planted around the full moon.  We would have liked to have planted some winter wheat, but time got away from us and then the snows came…

We had some good snows in late November and some in December of 2016.  We always look to the snows in late Fall as being important to the overall snowpack that contributes to our acequia irrigation flows in the Spring.  Several elders have related traditional knowledge that believes that snowfall in late Fall and early winter will melt and contribute to the acequia flows, while later snowfall contributes more to flows in the Rio Grande.  We had two or three snow events in January and a couple in February.  We saw the Rio Don Fernando flowing in the second week of February and we saw our garlic emerge in the last week of February.  It seemed early for both of these events, which makes us think of the potential impacts of climate change to our environment and agricultural practices.

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The first acequia irrigation brings about life to the land and excitement for the growing season ahead.

We started preparing soil in the second week of March by sifting and moving compost, spreading it, tilling, and making rows.  In the last week of March we planted alberjon (peas) and habas (fava beans).  At about the same time we saw our apricot trees blooming and shortly thereafter we received some light snows.  Snow might protect blooms from freezing, but in our case this year we lost our apricot blooms.  We later lost all of our fruit blossoms to frost.  The only fruit that survived was a single peach, a single apple, and our tart cherries did alright.  We were eventually able to harvest some blackberries as well…

Anyway, we cleaned our acequias on the 17th and 25th of March and the irrigation season began the last week of March with acequia flows returning to the land.  We received some nice light snowfalls in early April which were technically the first irrigations of my peas and favas.  My first irrigation was the first week of April, mostly watering the garlic and my recently planted peas and favas.  I also ran the water on all of my lands to build up the soil moisture and help with the upcoming soil preparations.  I saw my first fava bean plant emerge the first week in April but this one came from a seed that must have been left behind and overwintered as the rest of the habas and peas were still subsurface.  We saw apple blooms emerge the second week in April.  We were blessed with our last light snow at the end of April.

At the beginning of May we did a pruning workshop and started breaking ground on a dryland garden in an arroyo at the Taos Charter School.  This “three sisters” garden was planted with students of the school on May 15, which happens to be “Dia de San Isidro” or the traditional planting day of northern New Mexico.  We did a series of workshops that were funded by the Los Jardineros Garden Club.  Accounts of those days can be read about in previous postings.  We weren’t quite ready to plant our fields at Sol Feliz by traditional planting day and were still getting rows ready for planting.

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Students from Washington DC learn about acequia culture and get a chance to prepare soil, plant, and irrigate in their visit to Sol Feliz Farm.

On May 22, we received a visit from the Washington DC Waldorf High School and were able to give a presentation on northern New Mexico agricultural traditions to the Senior class as they explored New Mexico on their Senior trip.  A highlight of this visit is that we were able to plant 6 rows of sweet corn and then irrigate from the acequia.  It was really satisfying to see how much fun the students had planting and running water down the rows of the recently planted field.  The students were also able to help me prepare three additional rows for planting buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa which we planted two days later.  At about this time we are also planting beans and squash.  At the end of May we planted another field of white corn for chicos.  In early June we transplanted our almasigos (seedling starts) of chile, cucumbers, and many flowers from our sunroom to the field.  At this same time we direct seeded some red and black sorghum as part of our heritage grain collection and efforts.

Some of our almasigos were a traditional melon known as ‘Melon Mexicano.’  When we first got this seed and planted it, we found that it must have been crossed with cantaloupes and honeydews in the past, as every melon looked different and had a mixture of characteristics.  We have spent the past four years ‘back breeding’ or looking for the ‘true to type’ Melon Mexicano.  Last year went really well and we look forward to continuing these efforts in search of this significant unique fruit.

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Diversity found in “Melon Mexicano” provides opportunity for future breeding in addition to finding “true to type” fruits like the ones at right with the stripes.

The planting of heritage grains is a focus of ours, especially after attending the Grain School at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs in January.  Heritage grains typically have more nutrition, do not cause as many allergic reactions in people, and are often more drought tolerant and hardy than most conventional grains in the dominant food system.  We have had success with amaranth in past and wish to expand our collection of heritage grains.  Of course we consider all of our native corn production to be considered part of our heritage grain collection.  Our hope is to continue experimenting with recipes using heritage grains and then be able to market some of these flours through our sister operation, Taos Real Food LLC (www.taosrealfood.com).

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Quinoa and amaranth are hardy grains that are exceptionally nutritious and grow well in our high desert environment.

We set up two research trials using yellow beans and black garbanzo beans.  With the yellow beans, we were going to compare production characteristics around locally adapted yellow beans, their un-adapted parent stock, and some others from a different location.  With our garbanzo trials, we were going to compare garbanzos grown at our farm in the early years and those that had survived drought conditions experienced in the last several years.  After all the crops were planted, then our focus shifted to hoeing weeds (escardando) and irrigating from the acequia.

One of the most exciting (and nerve wracking) times in farming is waiting for the crops to emerge.  To see seedlings emerge from all the hard work of farming is so satisfying!  Unfortunately some years are not as fruitful as others, and the causes are not always known.  This year much of our production took a hit in that many crops did not emerge.  Those hit hardest were my beans and corn.  It seemed as if my germination or emergence was very low, maybe less than 10%.  This happened to other farmers in the area as well and with some investigation it appears as if the daytime temperatures in May were sufficient for crop germination but the nighttime temperatures were abnormally low.

Again, we think of the potential effects of climate change and are grateful to have been able to harvest seed from the crops that did emerge and eventually mature, hoping that the resilience of survival for this particular season will carry forward through the future generations of seed.  It can be said that agricultural production in Taos is already on the edge.  Our climate has always been unpredictable as is characteristic of desert, semi-arid, high altitude environments.  In this way, Taos agriculture can be considered the “canary in the coal mine” in that the extreme nature of our climate is what could affect other more hydrologic- and temperature- stable environments where the bulk of our food is produced.  Seeds need certain conditions to germinate that depend on climate characteristics, and if those characteristics change too drastically, then it could result in low germination which could ultimately affect food security.

The lack of germination and emergence wrecked our research trials and resulted in the loss of seed but luckily for some of the crops it was know well enough in advance that we could replant the corn and some other beans in mid June.  Unfortunately we took a gamble with the yellow beans and lost many years of expanding the volume of seed for that particular variety.

Despite these challenges we were able to make two batches of chicos, the first of white corn and several weeks later, sweet corn.  The white corn we used is known as ‘relumbroso‘ or ‘shiny,’ and is a flint corn.  Some families like to make traditional chicos with the white corn known as ‘concho‘ which is more of flour corn.  In either case, the white corn chicos provide a particular flavor which is favored by many who can really appreciate traditional northern New Mexico cuisine.  Sweet corn chicos are really good as well, offering a sweeter flavor, and my family likes to eat those dry as snacks similar to corn nuts or parched corn.

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Locally adapted sweet corn is almost ready for harvest.

The dryland arroyo garden we planted suffered for most of the season.  We refused to apply water in that we were looking to test the capabilities of these crops to extreme drought.  The corn, beans, and squash all emerged which was interesting in comparison to our experience at Sol Feliz.  But the crops were not very productive until the rains came in late July and early August.  There was no squash production on the spindly plants until the rains came and unfortunately the two golf ball sized squashes were cut off by a frost that came two or three weeks earlier that in the fields at Sol Feliz.  Even though seed setting was meager, we were able to harvest a small handful each of white corn and white tepary beans which we intend to plant again in the same arroyo in the 2018 growing season.

A light frost hit Sol Feliz the third week in September.  The only indication was some burnt looking leaves on our squash and melon plants.  Fearing a hard frost was around the corner, I brought in all of the squash and melons to prevent their loss.  I piled them up in the sunroom and covered them with the plants they were attached to.  There is a practice of covering squash in the field with their plant material like a blanket or hat.  I think the idea is that the plant material on top of the squash not only protects it from frost but likely releases some kind of hormone or otherwise contributes to a process that helps the squash ripen to maturity.

Interestingly, and perhaps related to the same situation with corn and bean germination, our squash did not produce as well as in years past.  We harvested many fruits, but they were smaller than in years past.  Other farmers I know had a similar experience where even others still had typical production, and points to issues in micro-climate or perhaps in breeding.  We have been breeding our squash to be more light colored as we find these squashes tend to be creamier and sweeter than the average “calabasa mexicana.”  So it could be that our selection process over the past 5 or so years created narrow genetics that resulted in small fruits but I tend to lean more towards the idea that climatic effects creating this situation this year.

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Diversity shown in our variety of “Calabasa Mexicana” was the result of artificial selection for a lighter squash. Efforts in breeding were not as apparent in phenotype this year as in years past.

In mid-October we brought in the remainder of our dry crops such as the sorghum, dry peas, and the rest of the habas.  We were able to harvest green chile and roast it in early October and luckily some of it had already matured to red chile which will be good for that use in addition to seed.  We also brought in the amaranth and quinoa, some of which looked like it was affected by mold due to untimely rains in July and August.  A significant learning experience is that buckwheat, which we had never planted before, is really well adapted to this area and matured well before amaranth and quinoa, both of which had been planted at Sol Feliz in years past.

At the time of this writing we are experiencing some of the worst climate change-like conditions I have ever seen.  There is no snow to speak of this December 1 and a person can wear a short sleeve shirt outside during the day.  The Rio Don Fernando continues to flow as our acequia flowed the entire season and now the water got turned back to the river in October.  We had an exceptional water year in 2017 with acequia flows consistent all season.  Unfortunately a wet year followed by a dry year could mean exceptional fire danger.  So hopefully we will get more precipitation the remainder of Fall and Winter so that we can have good acequia irrigation in 2018.

Regardless of the climate or weather predictions, we at Sol Feliz, AIRE, and Taos Real Food will continue to work the land, strengthen and tighten our relationship with seed and food, and take the challenges as learning opportunities while we continue to try and develop the most sustainable, regenerative, and relevant agriculture and lifestyle practices we can…

 

Article and photos copyright 2017 Miguel Santistevan.

 

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Dryland garden care and summer pruning workshop planned for August 1, 2017.

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Dryland three-sisters garden created at school

Garden mounds were prepared with digging forks, compost, and hand tools.

On Saturday, May 6, about 12 people came to learn about possibilities in dryland agriculture and help implement a ‘three-sisters’ garden in the arroyo next to the Taos Charter School.  This workshop and garden was the second in a series that included the tree pruning workshop on March 20, the post that can be read here.  The workshops and this garden were funded by a grant from Los Jardineros de Taos, a local gardening club that supports projects like these in the area.  The workshop would not have been possible without the support and enthusiasm of Principal Jeremy Jones of the Charter School, so we extend our thanks to him and the staff of the school as well.  The Taos Charter School serves grades K-8 so we are happy to be able to enrich the grounds and the experience of the students…

The idea behind this kind of agricultural style is that there is enough residual moisture in an arroyo along with rain (and maybe flood) events that will be sufficient to grow and harvest a crop.  There are large check dams of rocks to slow down the flow of flood waters if that should occur, we hope.  The mounds are planted with three seeds each of corn and beans and every third mound contains a squash.  In the traditional three sisters gardens I have studied, corn and beans are in every mound and squash, since it can vine out and cover large areas, is planted in every third or fourth mound.  The crops are mutually supportive with corn needing nitrogen and providing structure, beans providing nitrogen and climbing the corn, and squash shading the ground for moisture retention, soil cooling, and weed suppression.  This can be considered the ultimate form of companion planting or what is called a ‘guild’ in Permaculture.

Edward Gonzales exhibits strength and proficiency in all aspects of northern New Mexico culture from raising crops and livestock to adobe construction and other skills.

This workshop was assisted by Edward Gonzales, a lifelong northern New Mexican who has spent his life living from the land.  Edward was representing NIFI, the National Immigrant Farmer Initiative.  He gave a presentation on his life experience farming al temporal, or the traditional dryland or secano agricultural traditions that are connected to acequia culture.  He spoke of how his mom raised him and 7 siblings with farming, plant gathering, and other land-based traditions.  He talked about raising acres of crops in this dryland strategy in the highlands near the mountains of beans, fava beans, peas, barley, wheat, and corn.  His mom, the late Donne Gonzales, was a traditional yerbera (herbalist) and partera (midwife).  Her knowledge was featured in !Que Vivan las Acequias! radio program # 88 and can be heard here.  I have known this family for almost 20 years and am always impressed by the depth of their knowledge and tradition.

We also received a presentation from 6th grade student Mariel who also received a grant from Los Jardineros to install a butterfly or pollinator garden at the school.  We partnered on this workshop to incorporate some of her goals into our three sisters garden.  We prepared a bed within the garden to put in some plants for the pollinators, namely milkweed and cota.  We will also assist Mariel with the construction of a raised bed that will be put near the entrance of the school that will have more plants and flowers for the pollinators.

It was a great day with great company, conversation, and good work.  We look forward to sharing the results of this garden planting with you all, hopefully showing that agriculture is possible in a dryland context in areas that might not have been considered suitable for agriculture.  As a local northern New Mexican who has studied and practiced traditional agriculture of the region, I know that this kind of agriculture has been successful for many centuries by Native American and acequia farmers alike and offers lessons for food security and resilience in the face of Climate Change…

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Permaculture workshop planned to create a school garden 5/6/2017

A Taos non-profit organization Agriculture Implementation Research & Education (AIRE) is coordinating a workshop in the basics of Permaculture and arid-lands agriculture. The workshop is a collaboration between AIRE, the National Immigrant Farming Initiative (NIFI), the Los Jardineros Garden Club, and the Taos Charter School. It will be held on Saturday, May 6 from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM at the Taos Charter School located at 1303 Paseo del Cañon East. The workshop is to prepare a “three-sisters” garden site in the arroyo on the school grounds for the students of the School to plant in late May.

Jeremy Jones, principal of the Taos Charter School, is excited about the workshop noting that a garden, in combination with the trees that were pruned last month, provide an opportunity for students to learn about and experience local food while engaging in hands-on education. Miguel Santistevan will take the lead in the workshop and has been practicing Permaculture and acequia agriculture for over 20 years.

Miguel Santistevan, Executive Director of AIRE, was awarded a grant from the Los Jardineros Garden Club for the establishment of a “three sisters” garden to be located on the grounds of the Taos Charter School. The “three sisters” method of farming is planting corn, beans, and squash together in an arrangement where all the crops compliment each other’s needs. Corn provides structure for the beans to trellis and benefits from the nitrogen provided by the beans. Squash helps retain moisture and suppress weeds for the corn and bean plants. The site in the arroyo at Taos Charter School likely has enough moisture to support plant growth given that it receives runoff from the surrounding area and the rooftop of the School.

NIFI is helping new immigrant farmers become successful sustainable farmers through training, advocacy, networking, capacity building, and new projects. Edward Gonzales, outreach coordinator for NIFI, will be assisting with the logistics of the workshop and letting participants know about other agriculture workshops his organization is hosting in the area. Edward grew up practicing traditional agriculture in the acequias as well as in dryland settings known as “secano” or “al temporal” and will be sharing his experience and knowledge around this important agriculture practice.

Miguel is known for initiating the gardens at Parr Field and the Chrysalis Alternative School in addition to hosting visitors at his Permaculture/acequia site known as Sol Feliz Farm. He sees this workshop as an important effort to bring like-minded people together for beautifying the landscape and creating opportunities for local food security while learning about the history and potential of dryland agriculture. “Traditional agriculture has always been characterized by water harvesting on the landscape and making the best use of precipitation for agriculture. This workshop is a chance to teach people about ways of planting and harvesting they might not have considered possible,” says Miguel. More information on future workshops can be found on AIRE’s website, http://www.growfarmers.org.

AIRE’s mission is “To gather the people, plant the fields.”

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Acequia cleaning 2017. Part II.

Photo copyright Miguel Santistevan 2017 and cannot be used without permission.

Every year is different in terms of the length of the irrigation season. We actually got some snow yesterday, March 24, and made me wonder if our scheduled acequia cleaning would be cancelled.  But like they say around here, “If you don’t like the weather, give it 5 minutes, it will change…”  The extent of our Springtime moisture makes me think that this year will be particularly good for irrigation, our river is running full blast from the runoff and recent precipitation (snow) events.

On March 25, 2017 was the official annual cleaning of Acequia Madre del Sur del Río de Don Fernando de Taos.  This cleaning continues a tradition of cleaning this acequia that is at least 221 years in the making.  This is a great time to reconnect with neighbors and rekindle fires of friendship and community.  It has been a year since I have seen many of my neighbors, the last time being at last year’s acequia cleaning.

The annual acequia cleaning is vital to the continuation of our acequia infrastructure, community, and culture.  We clear out the weeds, debris, and open up the channel for the water to flow in a few days.  The first flowing of the water is one of the most exciting times of the year and signifies the official start of our agricultural livelihood that depends on us working together.

Today was a great day under the leadership of our Mayordomo, who made sure that all of our ditches are clean and ready to deliver water.  As soon as the water comes and my own lateral ditches are ready, I will call the Mayordomo and ask for a turn at the water.  The two days I spent working to help clean the ditches pay off my water rights dues, but I will still have to pay a small fee to help with Mayordomo, postage, and Taos Valley Acequia Association costs.  The work and the fees are a small price to pay for the wealth gained in acequia participation as well the potential for agricultural production over the season.

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Preparing the acequia garden soil

March is a good time to get the soil ready for planting and irrigating.  We got this process going in early March and like to get started as soon as the soil can be worked.  In years past, we have done some soil cultivation and even planting of peas and favas in February!

To articulate the process we use might be helpful so some people who also have small landholdings of an acre or so and do flood irrigation.  We use a BCS 8 Horsepower tiller with a sickle-bar mower and hiller/furrower attachments for most of the work.  A Stihl brushcutter is also used to cut weeds and even clear lateral ditches with metal blades, plastic blades, or the line trimmer, depending on the type of vegetation to be cleared.

So first the land is cleared of weeds by cutting them down by hand, with the brushcutter, or the sickle-bar mower.  Then they are raked into piles and removed.  This cut vegetation is good for the compost pile, especially mixed with a little bit of chicken manure.  Finished compost is applied to the land to be incorporated with tilling and the making of rows.  I typically put one full wheelbarrow of compost per row, so that is about 6 cubic feet per 7o foot row.  Then the tiller comes through and breaks up and mixes the soil.  Then the hiller/furrower attachment is put on the tiller to make the rows, as seen above.

The rows are constructed on the level or slight downhill using an A-frame or water level to identify the contour of the land.  Often times the level points are identified on the lateral ditches on each end of the property and the irrigation row connects those points with a slight half-moon or bow shape to channel the water to the center.  The irrigation row then also serves as a swale in the off-season.

After this process, the rows are ready for planting.  They will have to be cleaned up and connected to the lateral ditches by hand using a shovel or a hoe  before irrigation can occur.  As a final step for soil preparation, it is nice to use a digging fork or broadfork to pierce the soil and allow for water penetration into the subsurface.  Depending on the amount of time available, I like to poke into the soil about every 2 or 3 feet down the row as shown in the picture below.

Hopefully this post was helpful in giving you ideas about soil preparation, let me know if you have any questions!

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Tree pruning workshop a success

On March 20, 2017, about 20 participants gathered to learn about tree care and the pruning of trees under the instruction of Ben Wright and Paul Bryan Jones.  This workshop was held at the orchards at the Taos Charter School and was a collaboration between the School, AIRE, Los Jardineros Garden Club, the Heartwood Coalition, and the Taos Tree Board.  The workshop was coordinated by AIRE and funded by Los Jardineros, who gave a grant to AIRE for the workshop in addition to a the establishment of a “three sisters” garden for the students at the school.

We are grateful to all who made this workshop possible.  We learned a lot about how to assess tree health, how to strengthen the structure of trees, and how to encourage fruit production.  This was the first workshop of the season, we look forward to more!

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