Cultivating a sensible food system in the face of Climate Change and COVID

Greetings readership!  I hope you are well during these unprecedented times!  Sorry it has taken me so long to post, life is exceptionally busy when the focus is on family and the land!

Following is an article I wrote for the Green Fire Times (Sept/Oct 2020).  If you want to read my original draft, see the text after the .pdf window below, it is a much more elaborate version… Enjoy!  Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Sincerely,

Miguel Santistevan

Click to access GFT_SepOct2020_Web.pdf

 

 

Cultivating a sensible food system in the face of Climate Change and COVID

By Miguel Santistevan

 

Our relationship to food is the most intimate relationship we have with our Earth and our bodies. Our flesh and bone is made of the elements of the Earth; recycled through the influences of sunlight and water; and coming into us through our sources of food and water. In times past, we worked together in relatively isolated communities to procure the essentials of life. Our survival and sustenance required cooperation through collective organization and labor. Life was often tough and uncertain, but we relied on each other and in the process have created the monuments our Human culture represented by the awesomeness of our diverse cuisine, art, dance, and folklore manifested by global humankind over time.

Our relationship with the abundance of food found on Earth eventually resulted in the development of agriculture which afforded our human population even more food and allowed our human population to thrive. An abundance of food allowed for the development culture which included the development of tools and technology.   The development of technology eventually created the means for us to have all the things we take for granted today. An abundance of food and other means of extracting materials and energy from the planet has ultimately given us technology like electricity, transportation, and plastic goods. Unfortunately this development has created an imbalance in our planet’s natural systems and has created all kind of problems such as Climate Change, other forms of pollution, and arguably our current Covid crisis. Though our opinions of Climate Change and Covid span a spectrum from terror to disbelief, it is impossible to deny the impact of loss and/or destruction that comes from the impact of storms and disease for those who feel their effects directly.

Rather than trying to understand the intricacies and complexities of the problem, I would rather focus on solutions. A superficial analysis of our food system in the contemporary context reveals the potential impact of Covid and Climate Change and should inspire motivation to address the problems now. We have already seen harvest failures, food shortages, and a rise in food prices due to the effects of extreme climate/weather events. With the coming of Covid, this situation is even worse. The impact of lockdown and sickness has resulted in a shortage of agricultural workers and created gaps that revealed weaknesses in our food system. Accounts of fields of vegetables being plowed under and similar losses in meat production were some of the impacts of Covid that are still rippling through our food system.

Knowing that this possibility became a reality, and that things are likely to get worse before they get better, it behooves us to actualize solutions as fast as possible. In order to change the food system, the average consumer (you, me, everyone) will have to be willing to do their part and “vote with their fork” by supporting local farmers. People are going to have to realize that we cannot have such a diverse array of foods in our diet at all times of the year. People who are used to processed foods are going to have to learn to prepare whole food alternatives. It is necessary for food to become regional, localized, specialized and adapted to its particular area. More people will have to become farmers, get into the food business, or otherwise support farmers and participate in a local food economy.

People will have to defer to the capabilities of the environment in which they live. This will become even truer as water shortages become more apparent, especially in the desert regions of the world (which are increasing.) In areas where climate extremes become the norm, season extension in the form of greenhouses along with the use of wind breaks, thermal mass, frost covers, and hail protection will be needed. Hoophouses are great for season extension, but we must find alternative means that do not rely on plastic. Extreme weather events that include wind, flooding, and hail are starting to get more and more problematic for food production so innovation and adaptation is required.  We are likely to see more problems with insects, plant diseases, and competition from invasives so we should not act surprised.  We will have to see these events and setbacks as evolutionary bottlenecks that are the guardrails for the direction of our adaptation.

Many wild plants, such as these “verdolagas” (puslane), are known to many just as weeds but actually have incredible food qualities .

At some point we will likely get serious about cultivating insects for protein, either for ourselves or for animal feed. There was a time when I spent much time and energy trying to figure out how to raise insects and other arthropods, or at least gather up as many bugs as possible. When I was growing crops and raising fish in a Grow Dome (see some of my past Chrysalis posts), the pill bugs and earwigs were in such abundance that I was losing my seedlings to their predation. I started to look at them as a problem that was actually an unmet need. I was buying fish food for aquaponics and chicken feed for my flock and realized that if I could create the conditions to encourage, breed, and contain insects and arthropods, I could have a significant source of calories and protein available to me and my fish and chickens. I won’t have a problem eating arthropods if I had to, but if a person does not want to eat the little beasties, then they can feed them to fish or chickens and eat their meat and eggs. When it comes to feeding fish, I once saw a system where roadkill was harvested; hung over a fishpond in a chicken wire basket; and the maggots living in the carrion would fall into the pond and feed the fish. The roadkill was carried to the far end of the pond on a pulley system, so the wafting odor of decay was minimized. For those who think it is not worth enduring occasional smells from this form of food production; I invite you to visit a Confined Animal Feedlot Operation to see how good our industrial food smells.

All cultivated food ultimately comes from seed, so in order to have a strong, resilient food system, we must have strong, resilient, and localized seed stock. Even meat depends on crops or grass that is ultimately produced from seed so our concept of a local seed stock has to extend beyond crops and also include forage and other useful wild and native plants. Unfortunately we find that seed is often produced separately from the farms that produce food and then that food is transported all over the world using fossil fuels to deliver it to the people who consume it.

Various pulses (legumes) such as these (L to R) “alberjón” (peas), beans, and “habas” (fava beans) are traditional to this region and are drought tolerant sources of protein and seed.

We need farms in every region that are dedicated to producing seed for the other farms in the area. We should not be relying on seed grown in the plains to produce food in the desert. I envision a cooperative model where a local seed farm not only provides seed to local farmers, but also serves as an educational center for everyday citizens who want to learn about agriculture (hands-on) and could get localized seeds and native plants to be grown in their own gardens at home. In a best-case scenario, local governments would see the importance of this for the citizens and lands under their jurisdiction and it would be funded and operated with the same importance as schools, citizen centers, and medical facilities. This model could be expanded to where the farms are engaged to produce food directly for school lunch, senior citizens, hospital facilities, and local food banks. You can’t always have your cake and eat it too, but we can often produce seed and still be able to eat the food in the case of many fruits and vegetables. We would have to be intentional about the creation and monitoring of such programs, however, to avoid the co-option by the Food Industry to make such programs subservient to their goals of profit and control.

With Climate Change, people are going to have to realize that you cannot have such a diverse array of foods in your diet at all times of the year. Our near future food system will likely not support things like mangos in temperate areas or fresh tomatoes in the winter, for example. Food will have to become regional, localized, specialized, and adapted to its particular area and people who live there will have to defer to the capabilities of the environment they live. This will become even more true as the effects of water shortages become more apparent, especially in the desert regions of the world (which are increasing.) This is going to be difficult for your average United States American, who seems to have a sense of entitlement, privilege, fear, and impatience when it comes to many things…

But I digress. The good news is that I believe there is plenty of good eating to be done even if it specialized and localized to the point where many foods we are used to and like are not readily available. I remember the oral histories told to me by my elders in rural northern New Mexico about how special it was to get an orange in a Christmas stocking, very likely the only orange some would get to eat all year. Today it is not uncommon to go to a cafeteria and see dozens of half eaten oranges in the trash or to allow oranges to get moldy and rotten on our kitchen counters. Our wasteful relationship to food has to be a thing of the past if we are to have a future. It has been said that about one-third of the food produced in United States is wasted, and I would argue that it is considerably more than that.

Amaranth (foreground) and maize (background) are drought tolerant crops that can be incredibly productive in harsh conditions when locally adapted and cared for traditionally.

But I digress again. There is plenty of good eating if you know your place in the region you live. The desert is actually the best example of neglected abundance since most people think the desert is defined by scarcity when the opposite is actually true. There are plenty of examples of indigenous people being able to grow and gather plenty of food in desert regions of the world. Even delicacies such as melon and peaches can be grown with little to no extra water if special attention is applied. Hopi and the Natives of the Pueblos have proven it so. But beyond that, drought tolerant and frost tolerant crops will be cornerstone to our caloric intake in regions such as ours. We will not be able to produce enough food from the farmland we have so we will have to view the landscape as a garden in and of itself. We should manage and cultivate the “wild lands” to support the proliferation of native or other useful plants that serve our food, medicine, and utilitarian needs. We can do this while also providing habitat and food for other organisms in the environment. Yes, we can have our cake, eat it, and share it too! As the planting dicho in acequia culture goes: “Para mi, para voz, y para los animalitos de Dios!” ([Planting] for me, for us, and for all of God’s animals).

The strongest crops I have found are of course the Native crops of North America such as corn, beans, and amaranth to name the champions, but many legumes and grains from the other side of the world hold incredible promise as well. For example, I have such great success with peas (alberjón) and lentils, even in the worst years of drought, that I could see these as the staple crop of our unpredictable Climate Change future. Much like dry beans, peas can be eaten fresh or allowed to dry for a soup pea (or sprouts!) in the winter months. Lentils are best as a dry crop but can also be sprouted for extra nutrition. Peas and lentils have a special place in my heart because, unlike beans, they are frost tolerant and can be planted earlier than any other crop. Garbanzos are also somewhat frost tolerant and have been described as the most drought tolerant pulse in the world.  Lentils are the most humble producer in the field, emerging before anyone else in early March before there is even any irrigation available in the acequia irrigation channels, which usually starts early April. The first irrigations of peas, lentils, garbanzo beans, and fava beans (which can all be planted before the first frost date) comes from winter and early spring snows that ultimately melt into the soil.

Garbanzos (right) and lentils (left) are resilient crops that are frost- and drought- tolerant.

Our concept of the food shed will have to be reduced to our region but expanded to the wild plants of the region along with the expansion of our concept in the capabilities of agriculture. Domestication is presented as a thing of the past and modernization, with its dependence on chemicals, machinery, and genetic manipulation, is presented as a thing of the future. But this is false to a true sense of food security. We cannot depend on anything that relies on fossil fuels anymore, I am sorry to say. The good news is that there can be abundance if we can participate in the expansion of our food consciousness and the health of our watersheds.

Before the market-based economy, gathering from the landscape was cornerstone to food security over the winter. Gathering piñon nuts is a great example that provided many calories over the winter and allowed family members and neighbors the chance to interact with each other and the landscape in the acquisition of this important food source. It could be said that in the early days, the relationship with the landscape to gather piñon was not just the taking of tree nuts, but nurturing of the landscape so that the stands of piñon trees became more robust over time. Just as it is believed that the Amazon rainforest is actually a cultivated garden developed by the indigenous people who lived there over generations, I believe the diversity and abundance seen in the desert landscape is first a result of our Native American neighbors managing this landscape for millennia. Later, the acequieros descended of Spanish and Mexican tradition carried this activity forward with the management of the upper watershed and surrounding common lands of the merced, or land grant. During these times, the land and waters were managed with the goal of cultivating biological wealth to sustain the local population, rather than the management of the land and water we see now whose goal is to cultivate and maximize profits from resource extraction for themselves or their corporation.

The loss of piñon stands to the bark beetle, like rampant “wild” fires in the forests, are indicators of lack of management (care and nurturing) of the landscapes in our backyards. Just as a sick person is more likely to heal with caregiving, we must turn our attention toward caring for the landscape instead of just “protecting” it as wilderness or expecting it to withstand its abuse for recreation.

But I digress again. There are many other Native plants that can serve as food crops that are in our midst but currently overlooked. How many “weeds” are out there that are actually edible? The wild spinach varieties (quelites) of the “jardín de riso” (wild plant garden) are the perfect example. But in the past we only looked at quelites for a fresh vegetable available as a weed in between our cultivated crops, or maybe we would dry (and later blanch and freeze) this abundance in the summer to make use of in the winter. But did my ancestors ever realize that the seeds gathered from the plants allowed to go to seed could also likely serve as a food source? I am interested in the food science that could show that many of our weeds could produce seeds that could be ground into flour and/or sprouted in a sunny window to provide a food source in the winter. We are surrounded by wild quinoa (lambsquarters) and wild amaranth (pigweed), that would likely serve as food sources if we were to start working with their natural cycles and seed.  Many patches of alfalfa have gone wild and produce seed each year that can be used for sprouting and perhaps made into meal.  Unfortunately, alfalfa in certain regions may have crossed with GMO alfalfa so beware!

Seeds from “weeds” like this wild spinach known as “quelite de burro” (mountain orach) could serve as a substantial source of food.

When it comes to food in the desert, we don’t need to look too much further than our iconic plant of the dryland: the cactus. Nopal (cactus pad) tacos anyone? The fruits from cholla and prickly pear cactus are also delectable and nutritious if you know how to process them so you don’t get thorns in your mouth!

This idea of cultivating “wild plants” could be expanded to shrubs and trees as well. Natives would gather the seeds of four-wing salt bush which surrounds many of our populated areas in New Mexico. The seeds have to be processed to remove the papery hull and then ground into flour to make crackers or porridge and then provide a substantial, but overlooked, food source. I assert that four-wing salt bush could provide the bulk of our carbohydrate needs in the desert if we had landscape management and attention to this mostly-ignored resource. Mesquite is another example in even drier areas than northern New Mexico.

A similar situation can be achieved with some plants and trees that are considered invasive, such as Siberian elm. Most anyone who has eaten fresh green Siberian elm seeds will agree that it is a good food source. Young and tender Siberian elm seeds can be eaten fresh in salads or even sautéed to make excellent eating. Again, a substantial but overlooked food source. If a person doesn’t want to eat Siberian Elm seeds, maybe they would be interested in a goat to eat the seeds AND the tree! The problem of many invasive plants can be a solution to a goat-meat shortage.  I am sure there are many other examples that we have not even thought of because we are not looking in that direction for food.

When it comes to “invasives,” we have to starting thinking “the problem is the solution” (as is said in Permaculture), and look for hidden opportunities in food and medicine acquisition from the landscape; or as feed for animals that will eat them. I am aware of techniques to turn small diameter timber into hemi cellulose that can then be fed to sheep, pigs, and goats. We could solve our overgrown-forest and fire-danger problems and create food security at the same time. The process to create hemi cellulose from small diameter timber also results in cellulose to grow mushrooms and lignin to provide us biodegradable solvents. When you start to view Nature and diversity as wealth, you will find we have almost infinite potential to create yields from resources we didn’t even know existed.

We also have to expand our ideas of agricultural methods and capabilities. It has been traditional to plant some crops in the Fall such as garlic, rye, and winter wheat. I have tremendous success with these crops, even on dry land in the case of wheat and rye (garlic does much better with water). These crops are tough, especially at higher elevations, and take advantage of all precipitation until they emerge in the Fall (rye and wheat) or in the early Spring (garlic).

Winter wheat is planted in the Fall, emerges before Winter sets in, and goes dormant until early Spring. By the time our water runs out in our high desert environment, the wheat has already finished its life cycle.

I have always noticed “volunteer” crops emerge in the spring, especially those from frost tolerant legumes mentioned earlier. So I tried planting these in the Fall as well and got a jump start on the agriculture season. When the Fall-planted peas emerged I was surprised at their capabilities but immediately did a second Springtime planting. So I already had crops growing in the field in the early spring while most farmers and gardeners were combing through seed catalogs getting ready for their planting in April and May. I have had similar results with corn and sorghum, though more incidental than intentional. Buckwheat is another crop that most farmers view as a cover crop, but actually produces abundantly as a pseudo grain in a self-seeding manner, year after year.

So in the earlier idea of having a farm to produce seed for other farmers, it would also be beneficial to have a farm or farms dedicated to research and pushing the envelope of what we think is possible with agricultural production. We have to create opportunities for farmers to innovate, but figure out how those farmers do not have to absorb the risk. I have met conventional and GMO farmers who might be willing to transition to “organic” production, but farmers of extensive farms do not have the time or the resources to take on this kind of risk. Conventional farmers are on a “commodity treadmill” and do not have the luxury of innovating when they have bills to pay and crops to produce. We as a society have to figure out how to support our farmers in the transition, rather than have them foot the blame and the bill when it comes to environmental damage from industrial agriculture.

Small farm research can contribute to the understanding of the resilient capabilities of crops grown in varying conditions and over generations.

Our relationship to food is a litmus test for our relationship to the Earth and to each other. Food was once about relationships to family, community and the landscape but has since mostly been transformed to a relationship with your wallet. The process has created collateral damage that looks like corporate control and slave labor on the production side; and disease, addiction, and depression on the consumer side. Not to mention the environmental devastation that results from extraction of water and minerals, the application of agriculture chemicals, and post-consumer trash from food packaging.

So, as we work to solve the problem of the food system, we will find we can solve many problems with this one effort. Local food creates attention to your local land, water and extended environment, including wildlife. Done correctly and with vision, we can simultaneously improve water quality, build soils, sequester carbon, and create habitat for pollinators and other organisms. Eating locally improves your health and increases your chances of surviving this and the next epidemic. And nourished children will better be able to develop in a changing world if they know where their food comes from and have a relationship to it. Whether it is in the fields, in the kitchen, at your dinner table, and/or in the halls of government; we need more focus and the priority has to be on our most basic needs, namely our sources of food, water, and our relationships to them.

Miguel Santistevan is a father, husband, educator, and farmer in Taos, N.M.  He completed a Master’s degree in agriculture ecology from the University of California, Davis, and practices Permaculture and acequia-irrigated farming with his wife and daughters.  He is the founder of the non-profit organization Agriculture Implementation Research & Education.

All text and photos copyright 2020 by Miguel Santistevan, reproduction by permission only.

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Reflections on the 2018 growing season in Taos, New Mexico. Part 2.

Much needed tiller repairs resulted in a new 10 horsepower engine that was able to prepare the soil with a noticeable increase in power.

When it came to the unexpected expense of fixing my tiller, I thought I might do some fundraising since the tiller was ultimately a personal expense that has benefit several non-profit and community efforts over the years. So I created a GoFundMe page for our needed rototiller repairs, and to my elation we raised enough money to cover the expense in less than a month! My heartfelt gratitude to all these supporters!

The days of the early season ticked by as I was awaiting the tiller and debating the potential application of no-till and other low-impact methods of agriculture. Our agricultural practices come after other duties are fulfilled and so the tiller becomes an efficient necessity at this stage in our farm development. The tiller is used sparingly in our methods that also use crop rotation and small scale, in-situ, compost making and application. A Permaculture perspective is our guide in that we are trying to create a perennial garden landscape with robust soils that require minimal effort in human management for maximum effect by utilizing biological diversity to optimize ecological processes.

I was intending to wait until the first week of June to plant anyway, which is about the time I got my tiller back from Santa Fe Power Equipment who was doing the repairs. Though mid-May is the traditional planting time for northern New Mexico, I found that in 2017 the May temperatures were still too cold at night to allow for germination, it seemed, so I thought planting later would be a good strategy for 2018. There have been years past that I planted squash on June 21, maize in the first days in July, and several others seasons with early June plantings, all with success at harvest time. I am of the opinion that our growing season is starting later and shifting harvest time toward later in the Fall. I thought I could work with that experience and have success.

An intern from the Sembrando Semillas program cultivates weeds and supports plants that were able to emerge despite drought conditions. Biomass from cultivated weeds feeds the soil and provides some moisture to the subsurface soil environment.

But the year 2018 was different. I had sufficient water for the season all through May, getting the water every 7 to 10 days, and I wouldn’t have guessed my last irrigation would be on June 3 given the amount of water I had on that particular day. I have been able to gauge when my last irrigation day will be based on the workings of water that diminished slowly over several weeks. During times of sufficient water, I am able to take water from the Acequia del Medio (middle), and push it up a lateral ditch about 8 inches to deliver water to a southern, more upslope field. There comes a time when there simply is not enough water to push it uphill, but I am still able to use all the water on the downhill side of the Medio. I am then able to run the water down several carreras (rows) at a time and expect that my next irrigation about a week later will still have enough water for one carrera at a time, but will be my last irrigation. In times like these in years past, the Mayordomo allows me to have the water for a longer than one day so I can try and irrigate as much as possible at the very end of the irrigation season.  So I had sufficient water on June 3 to push it uphill and irrigate the lower field but one week later the water hardly reached my property, much less having any to run down the rows. Not only was this a particularly dry year, but the drying came on exponentially.

So then I found myself tilling dry soil, a practice I do not recommend and will hopefully never do again in the future, especially with a rototiller, if at all. Worse, after the soil was tilled and planted, there would be no irrigation waters to provide for the germination or establishment of the seed! Looking at the problem as the solution, I hoped for one good rain that would help me identify the most resilient individuals in the populations of the planted seeds. I would make and extra effort to escardar, or cultivate the soil around the crops, a practice I learned is more important than irrigation.

So we hoped for the best and rallied some participants for a planting event under the auspices of the New Mexico Acequia Association’s “Sembrando Semillas” (NMAA SemSem) program. We gathered three families with a collection of six children and an intern, also provided for by the NMAA, to plant the field and hopefully gather later in the season for garden care, harvest, and food traditions like making chicos. We planted some drought tolerant white corn and the traditional calabasa mexicana squash in several rows. Later, with the help of our SemSem intern, we prepared row for transplanting chile, gourds, melons, and tomato seedling starts; a row of buckwheat and amaranth, and two rows of several varieties of garbanzos as a trial. We installed drip lines for the buckwheat, amaranth, seedling starts, squash, gourds and melons while hoping that our beans and white corn, planted and harvested in past drought years, would have individuals that show resilience in our water stressed conditions.

Different crops show varying success with background drought conditions. The application of drip lines helped the survivorship of buckwheat and chile but not amaranth.

It turns out that my attention to germination condition neglected understanding of the grave potential of water scarcity. Not a total loss, however, ultimately I brought in a good harvest of buckwheat, one incredibly drought tolerant squash, and a modest supply of green and red chile, small gourds, and a couple of melons. My landrace peas harvested and set seed as well as in any other year.  Despite my past years’ successes with beans and drought, not a single bean plant emerged.  The favas produced some but suffered, we barely recovered our seed.  I have some numbers that could be compared to see which varieties produced better, but for the favas and garlic, it was a situation where I harvested a small percentage more than what I planted.  The experience makes me think of how to characterize and compare yields of different crops to identify those that are most resilient and productive in adverse conditions.  I guess my greatest harvest was experience and more of an idea of how to hopefully tweak our methods to have greater success in future seasons.

It is really important to note the abundance of fruit we had this year despite the water shortage. Though apricots did not produce this year, there were plenty of cherries, peaches, and especially apples to go around. There was so much fruit across the region that people were complaining that it was going to waste more than it was being harvested and processed. We spent days picking, peeling, and drying fruit and still did not have the capacity to make use of all that was bestowed upon us. It goes to show that in one lens the conditions look scarce, but from another the view is more abundant than you can handle.

Despite drought conditions, apples of many varieties produced at Sol Feliz as well as across the region.

Closing this meager season is the start of a hopeful one, having planted a good stand of winter wheat by mid October and five rows of garlic by the end of November. The winter wheat was planted in the rows that were tilled and planted with corn and squash, to little success. The soil was still workable and had more structure than freshly-tilled soil and was broken up and shaped with a hoe and fluffed with a digging fork. The wheat seed that survived crow and pigeon predation emerged and went dormant by end of November, but seemed to green up again with warm weather in December. Our garlic harvest of three rows in July was barely enough to replant plant five rows, illustrating again the interplay between how much harvest is reserved for planting a given area of land in the following years. I remember seasons of planting 7 to 9 rows of garlic, many of which were over 2.5 inches in diameter. This year our garlic harvest resulted in a handful of cloves over 1.5 inches in diameter and most around 1.25 inches. Some of our garlic was harvested looking like it was over a year old when it was peeled, presumably due to the lack of water needed for it to complete its life cycle. This year we mostly ate the runts of the harvest, garlic cloves under 1 inch.  Sorry that there was not much garlic for gifts or for sale this year!

Besides the actual garden activity, there are some other notable developments to highlight this year. The treasurer of AIRE is Micah Roseberry who is an experienced farmer and owner of the Farmhouse Cafe in Taos. She is piloting a project called “Growing Community Now” that is currently feeding about 600 students local, organic meals to children in day care and schools here in Taos. She has acquired funding from the Lor and Thornburg Foundations to expand this project through education and a strategic planning process that includes local organizations Not Forgotten Outreach veterans-in-agriculture organization and the Taos County Economic Development Corporation which has certified kitchen facilities. We are looking forward to a year of collaboration around the goals of feeding children local healthy food and helping more farmers get active to support the program!

Another notable development this year is the revival of the “¡Que Vivan las Acequias!” radio program that is brought to the airwaves through a collaboration between AIRE, the NMAA, and Cultural Energy. Right now Cultural Energy is broadcasting our show the first Monday of the month at 8 AM on 90.1 FM in the Taos area. Shows can also be downloaded at http://www.culturalenergy.org/listenlinks.htm. This year we were able to produce eight 28-minute shows that highlight the work of the SemSem project and the NMAA, as well as other aspects of acequia culture in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. We hope to Podcast and YouTube the shows as well, some shows are on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/GrowFarmers.

At the time of this writing there is snow on the ground and it looks good for the irrigation season of 2019, with more snow now than this time last year I am sure. We got snow in October, something I have not seen in years. We have had two substantial snows since and the prediction is for a late El Niño season which would give us more precipitation starting in February 2019. I feel like agriculture has always been risky but now has a new challenging aspect of climate unpredictability. Despite that backdrop, we predict the next season will be better than the last and we will carry on and try new things, hoping to have ever-better years. To start, we will be making and applying more compost, compost extract, biochar, and working on terracing our irrigated garden beds for maximum moisture retention while moving forward with crops and methods that will best be suited, hopefully, for resilience and expansion in growing seasons to come. We also intend to expand our education program and offer more workshops so stay tuned for that!  Thank you for reading about our efforts and stay posted for future developments!

Over eight inches of snow in two days holds even greater promise for the snowpack in our upper watershed. This snow primers our soil for early springtime moisture absorption and the upper watershed snow will supply our acequia irrigation waters in the early Spring.

 

 

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Reflections on the 2018 growing season in Taos, New Mexico. Part 1.

The first irrigation in the Spring brings needed water to Fall-planted garlic.  Volunteers of peas and garbanzos from last year’s harvest emerged and will be tended alongside the garlic for the season.

It is becoming an annual tradition to reflect on the growing season in this blog. Writing this helps me close and reflect upon the season and prepare for the next one. I also hope that the documentation of this information can serve as data and be appreciated by those looking for trends and ideas in the impacts of climate change. I feel like Taos, and the high desert region in general, has always been on the edge of stable climate and therefore could be considered a “canary in the coal mine” for climate change. I feel like the climate around here that up until recently has been considered “normal” has always been punctuated by extremes and local cultures and her agri-cultures have evolved adaptations in practice and management of resources that have buffered the effects of outlying extremes and created resiliency. These practices have to be augmented given recent extremes, and we feel like our agricultural efforts are part of an evolution that has to occur if we are to weather the coming storm of climate change and the potential impact it could have on our food security.

With recent developments in water administration coming to a close in Taos (i.e. the Abeyta Water Settlement) and all kinds of water issues near and far, many people are becoming more aware that the water issue will take center stage for adaptation in our future of changing climate. Where elaborate and costly infrastructure is planned to provide water from deep aquifer sources here in Taos, we have been watching wells and the river run dry periodically for at least the last 16 years in my experience. These episodes were likely part of the motivation for negotiators of the Water Settlement thinking that mining deep water would be a viable option for the future. From the perspective of a dry river that is needed for irrigation, I understand the motivation though I don’t agree on the remedy.

I don’t want to be dependent on infrastructure that requires fossil fuel energy to grow food. I am also not convinced that these bureaucratic approaches will be successful in circumventing ultimate water shortages before the need. I look to the Hopi in Arizona to show me what resilient agriculture in the face of water shortage looks like.  With this in mind we emulate those methods to adapt both crops and methods for our clay soils and higher elevations and latitudes.  Knowing the importance of organic matter as it relates to moisture retention, crop production, and carbon sequestration; we incorporate practices that involve compost, vermi-compost, compost tea & extracts, and biochar.  With this overview and context, I will detail as best I can the observations, challenges, and insights gained this 2018 growing season in Taos, New Mexico.

Three rows of garlic were prepared using a broadfork and hoe. This deep and thorough cultivation will not have to be repeated for several years but will still have to be managed for weeds and structure.

The season always starts with the crop that is planted the earliest of the season: garlic!  We were able to prepare three rows with a broadfork and plant on November 19, 2017. We might have used the rototiller, but unfortunately a leak in the engine seal created a condition of apprehension that I would leak oil in my soil and figured since I was ahead of the season, so to speak, that I would use my human power instead of my tiller’s horsepower. The investment of time and energy using a broadfork will pay off for seasons to come, I will incorporate compost into this particular area by hand for several years and don’t feel the need to till or turn soil again for many seasons.

Garlic is emerging under fresh fallen snow of the early Spring. Snowmelt serves as irrigation before the acequia irrigation waters come.

Once the garlic cloves are nestled in their soil environment, every snowfall of the winter takes on additional meaning. Snow covering the ground looks like a white down comforter on the land and I imagine the individual garlic cloves tucked in an envelope of soil, covered under inches of snow, sleeping but half awake. I imagine some of this snow moisture percolating into lightly thawed soil and garlic cloves absorbing the moisture to support metabolism and growth. Unfortunately the snows of the 2017-2018 winter were meager, leaving the garlic to fend on memories of past survival and success.

My photo and note-taking records only show three snowfalls before the irrigation season began on March 26 and one snowfall after. These were not substantial snow events and created the driest winter conditions I have ever experienced. An interesting point in the lack of moisture and warm temperatures is that the Río Don Fernando never stopped flowing in 2017. I irrigated in 2017 until the very end of the season the first week in October. I don’t know if it is lack of moisture or low temperatures that freezes water in the upper watershed that makes the Río dry out in our lower reaches by late Fall. I then look for runoff in the early Spring, something I have written about in the archives of this blog.

The winter of 2017-2018 had the Río Don Fernando flowing consistently all winter. I remember thinking that the water I was watching flow downstream would have been irrigation water if it had been a colder winter. I contemplated the mechanisms behind a series of impacts to the river channel and upper watershed that has forever altered its hydrology. There was a familiar feeling of anticipation looking at the water and thinking of the coming efforts of cleaning acequias, preparing fields, and digging channels to maneuver that gushing water across the land.

The acequias were cleaned in mid-March and flowing by the 26th. The day the water came I was preparing some rows with a digging fork of alberjón (peas). My kids came running and screaming, “the acequia is coming! the acequia is coming!,” alerting me that the growing season has officially started. I honored the event by planting a landrace variety of alberjón that I have been working with for over a decade alongside a variety of organic sugar snap peas from Oregon the last days of March. I finished my planting activity with the help of my kids listening to the flowing water down the acequia.

The sound of children laughing and playing along acequia waters is part of the song that comes with Springtime irrigation that includes birds and breezes in addition to bubbling, flowing waters.

My first irrigation was April 4. The feeling of putting the first water on the land is euphoric. The water flows across the land and paints a wake of life everywhere it goes. The challenge is to get the water to all corners, to all patches of land that will quickly consume the life giving water for the exchange of bubbles of air once trapped in soil spaces. Birds come to frolic in the waters, looking for worms trying to escape drowning. There is a sound of flowing water underneath the sound of absorption and release in the exchange of irrigation water, soil, and interstitial space.

All the peas and habas (fava beans) were planted by the first week of April and shortly thereafter emerged the volunteers: peas, favas, and garbanzos from seed that must have spilled or shattered early from Fall of 2017, over-wintered, and emerged when germination conditions were favorable. I was pleased that the timing of my early Spring planting matched what nature showed me was adequate, if not optimal. It made me think that I could plant even earlier, like later than garlic planting time but before the ground is frozen, and let the crops emerge in Spring when they are ready. I was also pleased to see garbanzos emerging, I had read once that garbanzos, and maybe even lentils, are somewhat frost tolerant and so this occurrence was welcomed evidence. The thoughts now are to explore the cultivation of frost tolerant legumes even further, to identify the most resilient and productive individuals in the population, in addition to identifying those that might be amenable to being planted in late Fall and over-wintering.

By mid-April the apricots were flowering and froze a few days later. The peaches were also flowering but mostly escaped frost effects. I was able to get the water about once a week and had irrigation as good as any year but it was clear shortage was coming as our Acequia Madre Sur (South side) started repartiendo el agua (sharing the water) del Río de Don Fernando with the Acequia Madre Norte (North Side). As is customary on our acequia, the water is divided three ways: two thirds to serve our Acequia Madre Sur and the Randall Community Ditch, and one-third to return to the river to serve Acequia Madre Norte. When reparto (sharing) starts, Acequia Madre gets all the river water for one-third of the week, or 56 hours, and the South side gets all the water for the remaining two-thirds. This year we started sharing just after the third week in April, the earliest I have ever seen the need to share water. The end of April saw the emergence of all the planted habas and alberjón, and the beginning of flowering of the apples.

A monument to the viability of the agricultural season lies in the survivorship of flowers from fruit-bearing trees, like this apricot. The flowers must survive and pollinate without suffering a killing frost that could come with the dynamic temperature swings of late Winter/early Spring in our high desert.

In the first week of May we planted garbanzos. We might have prepared fields and planted earlier but our tiller ended up in the shop with the need for a new motor. This was regrettably unexpected and created a further delay by a back-ordered engine and so in the meantime some rows were prepared by hand, planted, and seedling starts made in the second half of May.  Irrigation continued regularly throughout May, but I had no idea how fast the water might run out as I waited for my tiller to be repaired so I could prepare rows for the main planting of corn, beans, squash, and transplanted seedlings that would hopefully receive two or three irrigations before the water ran out.

As I waited for my tiller engine to be replaced, I thought of all the miles I put on the 8 horsepower machine that is known as “Fierce” and “Atiller the Hunn.” I thought of all the gardens put in, row by row, with that tiller, cutter bar, and hiller/furrower. Notable gardens were prepared at Parr Field in Taos, the Sanchez Farm in Albuquerque, and a few other garden plots in Albuquerque for charter schools, youth programs, and friends. We had gardens put in and tended by high school students in Taos on the North and South side acequias over several years. And of course Fierce has been cornerstone to production at our base of Sol Feliz where dozens of students come to learn about acequia agriculture, Permaculture, and our methods in seed and soil management. All of these gardens have included hundreds, likely thousands of youth over the years.  I have cultivated as much community and friendship around these efforts as land.  As we continue the saga of Growing Season 2018 in Part 2 of this series, I express gratitude that you are reading this blog and to the many supporters who make this work possible.

This 8 Horsepower BCS 722 tiller has been an indispensable tool in our agriculture success. Two horses of power were added with an engine replacement made possible from the generous donations of our supporters!

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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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