Reflections on the harvest of blue corn in Taos in 2016

Blue corn harvest is husked and put out to dry before grinding.

Blue corn harvest is husked and put out to dry before grinding.

It can be said that my experience with blue corn (maíz azul) is the reason I became interested in agriculture in the first place. You can read about my first experience planting blue corn here. Husking an ear of blue corn is like unwrapping a Christmas present. There is a feeling of excitement from knowing that there can be any kind of surprising colors beneath the layers of leaves surrounding the ear of corn. A person can spend hours admiring the hues of blues, blacks, purples, and reds with sparkles and streaks of white and other colors. Like looking at the clouds, you can envision shapes, patterns, and microcosms of horizons, sunrises, sunsets, the cosmos, and landscapes of this and other planets…

A Native American farmer taught me that corn is the mother, the teacher, and the food source… She taught us about how to feed ourselves, to pay attention to the seasons and the cycles of time, and gave us a multitude of traditions and foods by our attention to her. Since the first time I planted corn, and blue corn at that, I knew that I would always be a maicero, a corn man, and that planting and caring for seeds is something in my blood and bones, something that I didn’t know I had until I took the time to take care of something greater than myself…   From this perspective I believe that corn (and wheat and rice and sorghum, etc.) is the physical embodiment of the Mother Earth, a gift to feed our mind and allow us to develop language, culture, and technology. As I grew up learning the Christian ways and taking communion in Church, I came to the realization that to break bread is a sacred act that represents our evolutionary journey with the Mother Earth to develop consciousness to take care of each other and the gifts of nature…

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This image created by Miguel Santistevan shows the integrated relationship between who is know as La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Corn Mother, and the Mother Earth herself, otherwise known as Tonantzin.

So I have been planting corn for over 20 years but mostly only plant one variety, maybe two, per year. I have a small piece of land and if I plant more that one variety of corn, I risk cross pollination and my dilute the genetics of the variety I am trying to propagate and conserve. Although in some years I intentionally plant two similar varieties that I would like to cross genetics. In the last 13 years I have been farming at Sol Feliz, I estimate I have planted this blue corn about 6 to 8 of those years. Other years have been dedicated to my white, sweet, and pinini (ancestral popcorn) varieties.

This year was mostly a good harvest for my blue corn. I originally obtained this variety in the mid-1990s from a village called Sena in San Miguel County, New Mexico. I really don’t remember how I got it or who I got it from but I know it is a good traditional, open-pollinated, “organic” variety because those are the kinds of a varieties that capture my interest in the first place. So I have been growing this variety and enjoying the products I can make from it: mostly atole (toasted blue corn flour for porridge) and nixtamal (corn cooked in an alkaline solution of ashes or cal to make hominy or masa for tamales). We also like to grind the blue corn into flour for cornbread, pancakes, and waffles.

Blue corn kernels are toasted before being ground into flour for atole, a traditional blue corn porridge.

Blue corn kernels are toasted before being ground into flour for atole, a traditional blue corn porridge.

Since corn is regarded at the teacher, we learn about nuances in the seasons, the quality of our soils, and the resilience of our Mother to problems such as drought and other effects of climate change. This year was an interesting year for growing corn. Many of our stalks stayed short and did not even produce an ear. This was perplexing but also experienced by many other corn farmers in our area. One reason could be due to the infestation we experienced this year with grasshoppers. Worms will also eat the corn silk but I have never experienced this kind of impact to pollination and seed setting. I have never harvested so many naked and sparsely-kernelled cobs in addition to the corn plants that never produced an ear. I always get some sparsely-kernelled cobs, especially on the edges of the cornfield, presumably due to lower pollination rates. Since corn is wind pollinated and since each kernel represents a successful link between a corn silk strand and pollen grain, it is possible that not all silk strands will receive a pollen grain, leaving a naked spot or patch on the ear of corn.

The occurrence of so many naked and sparsely-kernelled cobs suggests some kind of negative impact to the pollination process. I have ideas that a changing climate with intense UV radiation, increased Carbon Dioxide levels, and/or temperature extremes can potentially disrupt the ontogeny, or biological development, of the corn and other crops. This is why we believe it is important to keep planting and saving seed during these times of climate change. By planting fields of corn and other open-pollinated crops, a farmer can pay attention to which crops are thriving and save seeds from those. Crops that noticeably suffer might still be good for food, but can then be eliminated from future seed stock. A comparison of our seed saving methods in comparison to other seed banks, or “vaults,” can be heard here.

Bare spots on the cobs reveal a lack of pollination. The kernels show are likely viable, but may not be the best genetics for future plantings.

Bare spots on the cobs reveal a lack of pollination. The kernels show are likely viable, but may not be the best genetics for future plantings.

Noticing which crops thrived and which ones suffered implies some kind of genetic, epigenetic, or environmental variation that caused a differential response to conditions in the growing season. Without extensive monitoring, analysis, and experimentation, it is almost impossible to determine which factors are most responsible for success or suffering with particular plants in the field. It could be said, however, that whatever corn produced in the context of grasshopper pressure may have had some inherent resistance to grasshoppers, either by some biological means (i.e. producing some kind of compound that deters grasshoppers) or perhaps by some factor that allowed optimal acquisition of soil nutrients and water with and end result that was able to withstand or prevent grasshopper effects. The flipside of this position is that the corn plants that did not produce kernels or have good pollination may have had some factor that made them vulnerable to grasshoppers.

If crops are vulnerable to grasshoppers and other insects, is it because they were lacking some kind of soil nutrient that weakened their resistance that might have otherwise deterred their herbivory? Does the presence of herbivory imply that there is some kind of genetic or epigenetic cause of weakness OR preference (i.e. does corn silk that was eaten by grasshoppers have more sugar or other nutrients)? Or is the presence or absence of herbivory a function of chance, where some plants just happen to be found or noticed by grasshoppers by random occurrence rather than a biological explanation? These kinds of questions keep the practice of agriculture exciting, interesting, and engaging albeit frustrating at times of loss…

Each silk strand needs to receive a pollen grain to create a kernel within the ear of corn.

Each silk strand needs to receive a pollen grain to create a kernel within the ear of corn.

So all of these thoughts come from the accumulation of over 20 years of growing corn and over 6 years of growing this particular variety. We are looking to expand our agricultural operations in the coming years to be able to accommodate more varieties per season and may grow this particular variety of blue corn again in the coming years. But part of me wants to try out other varieties of blue corn, of which there are many, and take that on as a future educational experience to round out my interests and learning about how different varieties respond to our environment and what their culinary qualities could be. We hope you find these deliberations and expressions interesting, feel free to send us comments with your thoughts or questions… Until next time!

NOTE:  All images and text on this website are the property (copyright) of Miguel Santistevan and cannot be used without permission.

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Reflections on the 2016 Growing Season

August 8, 2016. Our plot of blue corn will likely be productive this year.

August 8, 2016. Our plot of blue corn will likely be productive this year.

The growing season always begins with watchful hopes of snowpack in the mountains. Many snowfalls that are measured in inches in the Taos Valley are matched with snowfalls that are measured in feet in the high mountains. The last post shows some enthusiasm and anticipation of a good, wet winter. Several elders of the acequia community have shared with me that the early snows of the winter will feed our irrigation needs (acequias) while late snows mostly contribute to downstream river flows in the Rio Grande. Our biggest snowfall was as in the post in November and gave much hope for a robust acequia irrigation season. We also got some snow in December and January. As most of the growing season has now passed, we are overdue to tell some of the stories and observations this year.

March 6, 2016. This plot was recently planted with one row of peas and fava beans using a digging fork and hoe. The rest of the plot contains garlic.

March 6, 2016. This plot was recently planted with one row of peas and fava beans using a digging fork and hoe. The rest of the plot contains garlic.

This winter was interesting in that there seemed to be more water in the river than in many years past. Besides the aforementioned snowfalls, there was not too much precipitation to speak of. I remember seeing water flowing in February from ice that persisted from months before. It seemed to warm up earlier in the year than in years past. This warm spell allowed us to finally put the garlic in the ground in late February, four months late but better late than never. In early March we planted fava beans and peas. In less than one month from planting, the garlic emerged.

April 4, 2016. First acequia irrigation with no shortage of flow.

April 4, 2016. First acequia irrigation with no shortage of flow.

In the beginning of April we had the acequia irrigation flowing again. We have a mostly new Commission and Mayordomo this time around and the transition was smooth. We planted potatoes on May 8 and planted the plot of blue corn with the help of students from the Denver Montessori School on May 25.  Irrigation was consistent until the first week in July, at which time the river flows were diminished and did not allow the water to reach my fields from the acequia. The rains were minimal and my corn and other crops began to suffer water stress so I installed drip irrigation in mid-July. I usually just cultivate the soil and let my maize persist, losing some to drought, but this year I decided to provide extra water and insure a better harvest.  This additional water is especially important to crops like squash, cucumbers, and melons.

May 8. 2016. Soil prepared with 8hp rototiller and planted with potatoes.

May 8. 2016. Soil prepared with 8hp rototiller and planted with potatoes.

We are now in August and are in the middle of harvest activity. We had some good fruit production this year with some pie cherries in early July and apricots in the middle of July. We also harvested our garlic at this time. The garlic was smaller than last year, maybe due to less water, heat, soil fertility, and/or our late planting date. We are gearing up for some peaches and apples now by mid August. The chokecherries are also ready. We have some more dry fava beans and peas to harvest, which have been drying on the plants for a few weeks now. The corn is forming ears; it will be about a month to harvest. We are going to start harvesting young squash in about a week or two and we have a couple of squash that we will allow to mature for seed and pumpkin flesh. Our biggest squash is about as big as a softball right now.

July 4, 2016. Cherries await harvesting and are the first fruit of the season.

July 4, 2016. Cherries await harvesting and are the first fruit of the season.

I look to changes in my growing season experience year-to-year to try and observe and predict the potential effects of climate change on our region, especially with regard to the resilience of agriculture. We are always looking at how the season progresses and how the experience might give us clues as to what is in store for us in the future. A few of things we noticed this year is that our hollyhocks never really flowered this year. We had a couple of heat waves and some dry periods but I am not sure if that was the cause of the problem. We also had a plague of grasshoppers that did some damage to many plants. In general we notice an intensity of heat that goes beyond temperature. Perhaps it is UV radiation or increased CO2, but there seems to be an aspect to the heat that is more intense than in years past. We feel the best way to meet the challenge of climate change is to keep adapting our crops and keep building our soils while looking for innovative ways to capture water and enhance soil moisture through composting, biochar, and other water-harvesting techniques. We look forward to keeping you posted on these and other developments in the future, until next time!

July 28, 2016. A plot of "melon mexicano," cucumbers, and chile is also supported by drip irrigation after the acequia irrigation season ends.

July 28, 2016. A plot of “melon mexicano,” cucumbers, and chile in the foreground is supported by drip irrigation after the acequia irrigation season ends. Our plot of blue corn stands in the background.

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First snow of the season

      Some time has passed since our last blog posting.  It has been an incredibly busy season that prevented consistent blog posting over the summer.  A reflection on the growing season will be forthcoming, but this snowstorm was inspirational in the creation of a blog post that will hopefully become the restart of more consistent postings.

This snowstorm was somewhat anticipated by weather experts, though the timing of its onset and its intensity were greatly underestimated.  A foot of snow created the conditions to cancel school and delay many other businesses.  I personally spent almost 6 hours shoveling out the vehicles, walkways, and around the walls of my adobe house and garage.

As mentioned in other posts, the ‘water year’ for the desert southwest begins on October 1.  This water year provides a measure of the total snowpack accummulated in the upper watershed and gives some indication of what stream and river flows will look like from snowmelt and runoff in the Spring.  This storm brings our precipitation for the current water year to well over 2.5 inches.  On average, ten inches of snow will equal 1 inch of precipitation.  We hope to capture a value for this snowstorm with our weather station, but at the time of this writing the temperature has not really risen above freezing so the amount of precipitation has not yet been counted by our rain collector.  It is possible that some of the snow will be lost to evaporation by wind or sun before it gets counted.

A snowstorm of this magnitude this early in the season offers promise for a good snowpack and sufficient snowmelt for our irrigation season next spring and summer.  Hopefully the temperatures remain such that the snow can keep accumulating in the upper watershed.  With the predictions of an exceptional ‘El Niño’ weather event this winter, we are hopeful that the snows will continue throughout the winter and help in our coming irrigation season and potential drought condition.

Sudden and intense snow events are also cause for concern when it comes to fruit trees.  This year some trees were so loaded with fruit that branches were in danger of breaking.  We received reports that some trees broke under the stress of full crops of peaches and apples.  We will be interested to see if some of those tree limbs could be reconnected with screws or other means to ‘re-graft’ those broken limbs back into place.  This rapid and heavy snow had a similar effect on our fruit trees, with many limbs bending under the weight of trapped snow in their canopies.  Unfortunately, our old apricot tree pictured below succumbed to the weight and we lost a substantial limb that supported a considerable amount of architecture on that side of the tree.  This limb cannot likely be repaired and we hope the tree as a whole does not suffer and perhaps we can encourage new growth into the area that the limb once resided.

  

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Northern Youth Project visits Sol Feliz Farm

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Today we received a visit from some incredible young people from the Abiquiu area that are part of a program called the Northern Youth Project.  With ages ranging from 5 to 14, these young people have been spending the summer learning about gardening, art, and community involvement.  I have heard of this program for several years from a friend Marcela Casaus and it was a pleasure to host them at Sol Feliz Farm.  Marcela has a great agricultural practice, comes from a programs at UC Santa Cruz and with Paul Stamets (www.fungi.com) and actually helped me facilitate one of the first workshops at Sol Feliz more than 10 years ago!  More information on their program can be found at:

northernyouthproject.org

northernyouthproject@gmail.com

(505) 685-9474  IMG_0550

Our presentation focused on the lay of the land in relation to the acequia and the crops in the field.  We learned about white corn food traditions, garlic, and how to dry process beans for food and seed.  Margaret Garcia, pictured above, showed the uses of over a dozen wild plants that can be harvested for food and medicine.  At the end of our visit, we sent the students with a handful green bean seeds that we cleaned, a bulb of garlic each to plant, and a potted plant of cota, a native plant used for tea, natural dye, and as a host to beneficial pollinators.

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Hollyhocks starting to bloom

  It is a beautiful time of the year when the flowers start to bloom.  These hollyhocks in particular were transplanted or started from seed to beautify the grounds of Sol Feliz while providing for pollinators.  These are the very first hollyhock flowers to emerge this year.  We will have to wait for the other colors of hollyhocks like white, yellow, peach, and even black!  We will post another picture when the whole lot is in bloom…

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AIRE presents at Xeriscape Conference

Slide1On February 19  I had the opportunity to give a presentation at the Land and Water Summit of the Xeriscape Council of NM.  Visit their website here or at the website xeriscapenm.com.  The conference was awesome.  Peter McBride, a photographer for National Geographic, chronicled the challenges posed to the health of the Colorado River.  Excellent photography and narrative shed light on the critical issues of conserving the integrity of the Colorado River flows.  Many cities and agricultural areas depend on water from the Colorado River and now the river water does not even reach the ocean.  He shared a story where river flow was restored all the way to ocean and he showed photos of his team following that process.

Another excellent presentation was given by Dr. David Gutzler, Climate Scientist with the University of New Mexico’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department.  Dr. Gutzler shared much data from the last years and even up to the recent month to show the difficulty in predicting water flows from snowpack and what those numbers mean for reservoir and flow levels in the Rio Grande.  The most interesting aspect of his presentation to me was the question of what defines a drought.  Apparently we are getting, on average, the same amount of annual precipitation but the precipitation is not coming as snowpack as in the past, but in rainfall during the Spring, Summer, and Fall.  Precipitation that comes as snowpack can be stored in reservoirs for future use but rainfall does not allow the same kind of storage.

My presentation started with the form and function of the acequia system in the watershed and moved on to contemporary issues in acequia management in the face of drought, water policy, and community involvement.  The image above is from one of my slides which lists the issues around water administration in the Taos Valley.  At some point I will have to flesh out a full article on my perspective with these issues, but perhaps the slide gives some food for thought.  It is possible that more information from my presentation is available on the Xeriscape website, check if you are interested or send me a comment with your questions…

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Clearing the Garden at Parr Field

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IMG_8138.JPGToday was the final round of clearing the field at our Parr Field Garden Project.  We want the field to look nice since it is school property and the site is used by the public.  Hopefully there will not be too many people that let their dogs run around in this area and make messes for our land preparation again in the Spring.

IMG_8140.JPGWe gather up all the dry materials from the field and relocate them to one of our ‘carbon cache’ systems.  In the Spring we will be looking for nitrogen sources to make compost from this carbon and will continue our soil fertility programs.

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