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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Acequia cleaning 2017. Part I.

About a week ago I received notice from our Acequia Commission that we will be starting our acequia cleaning this Friday, March 17.  This is the earliest we gather to clean the acequias in my memory, likely due to our interest in being ready to irrigate when the comes, which seems to be earlier every year.

Today we cleaned our acequia ditch system starting at the top where our diversion structure is in the river.  You can see in the picture above that we have a large headgate or presa to bring the water in our system.  The clear area you see to the left was a job our Mayordomo put me and a couple other guys on…  We had to clear this area of willows and other vegetation.  If there is a flood from a large rain event, we might get our diversion structure clogged with debris that would come down the river channel.  Having this area clear allows these materials to flow around and past the diversion structure and keeps the river channel more open.

After cleaning the diversion structure area, we proceeded down the acequia channel itself.  The Mayordomo (seen with the brush cutter) moved ahead and cut the vegetation on the bordos (banks) of the acequias and we workers (peones) in turn cleared the area and moved the brush away from the ditch bank.  Our Mayordomo and Commissioners need to be able to walk on the bordos and check the status of the water and fix any problem areas.  This cleaning is to maintain our easement which is ten feet from the center of the acequia to the ditch bank on each side for a total of twenty feet.

It was a great day to reconnect with members of my community and nature.  After our next full day of cleaning, the acequia will be ready to bring water to our fields…

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Tree Care and Pruning Workshop in Taos – 3/20/2017

Taos, NM – March 10, 2017 – A Taos non-profit organization Agriculture Implementation Research & Education (AIRE) is coordinating a tree care event entitled “Fruit tree care and pruning 101: a hands-on workshop.” The workshop is a collaboration between AIRE, the Taos Tree Board, the Heartwood Coalition, the Los Jardineros Garden Club, and the Taos Charter School. It will be held on Monday, March 20 from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM at the Taos Charter School located at 1303 Paseo del Cañon East.

Jeremy Jones, principal of the Taos Charter School, is excited about the workshop noting that the fruit trees have not been pruned but have given a considerable amount of fruit. Beth Enson, volunteer for the Heartwood Coalition, commented that the orchard at the Taos Charter School is now one of 6 orchards located in the Taos area on public property that the Heartwood has planted or is actively caring for. Ben Wright and Paul Bryan Jones will take the lead in the workshop and are accomplished arborists who have garnered national attention for their identification and care of giant trees in Taos. They are also known locally for establishing orchards adjacent to the Parr Field Garden and at the Gusdorf Park.

Miguel Santistevan, Executive Director of AIRE, was awarded a grant from the Los Jardineros Garden Club to help with supplies for the workshop in addition to funds for the establishment of a “three sisters” garden to also be located on the grounds of the Taos Charter School. Miguel sees this initial workshop as a kick-off to the agricultural season and is scheduling workshops and presentations throughout the Spring and Summer to teach acequia agriculture, Permaculture, and other modalities of Sustainability. Miguel has many publications on these subjects and recently presented at the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance conference in early March. 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. “The acequia landscape has always been known to have orchard systems, many of which have been neglected in recent years. I am honored to work with Paul and Ben in our shared vision to care for the trees we have and expand fruit production in the Taos Valley. Someday I would like to see our students be able to eat almost exclusively from a harvest of local fruit for their school lunches and snacks.” 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, and implement agriculture, research, and education for food security and restoration/conservation of the landscape, food traditions, and other Northern New Mexican (agri)cultural practices.”

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Rio Fernando starts flowing

Today I drove by the familiar bridge on Witt Rd and saw water coming down the river.  It seems early for this to happen, remembering that early in my life the river would flow year round.  The sight of water reminds me that we are on the verge of Spring and that soon I need to be preparing to plant early spring crops like alberjon (peas) and habas (fava beans).  It also reminds of the upcoming irrigation season and the cleaning of acequias.  How long will the water last this year?  My guess, especially with the early river flow, is that we can only count on irrigation until about June, if even.  But it is still early in the season and it could still snow in the mountains to supplement our waters.  It could also be a rainy season which could make for good agricultural production even if there is not flood water for irrigation.  I wish I had more time and resources to monitor the river and look at day to day flows, graph them in units of CFS (cubic feet per second), and make better predictions on our flows and the dynamics around the snowmelt.  You can see a post from 2014 that the river started to flow in March of that year (https://solfelizfarm.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/rio-don-fernando-starts-flowing/).  In that year we were able to take measurements which were compared to flows in 2013, you can read that post here:  https://solfelizfarm.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/on-the-flow-of-rio-don-fernando/

When the river turns muddy it will signify the start of the runoff (note that at the time of writing this post in the last week of March, the runoff has begun.)  When the water turns more clear after that, the peak runoff has past.

The picture also indicates challenges we have with the ecology and integrity of the stream channel.  Overgrowth of Siberian Elm is a major invasive along the river bank and sections of the river have been greatly impacted by the presence of roads and development, often right along the edge of the river.  There is a problem with salt and “welding” of the stream bed from application of salt and pumice when it snows.  There is a problem with e. coli contamination upstream and downstream of this section of the river (determined to be TNC or Too Numerous to Count), luckily we do not have such a dramatic presence of e.coli here that would affect our irrigation water.  We also have to think of fire danger in the upper watershed.  A fire and the flow of silt and ash that could happen afterwards could be devastating.  I don’t know what it would take to restore our river, maybe someday we will have a big flood and she will clean herself…  Until then, I know our acequia community is doing what we can to do our part and other groups like Amigos Bravos are looking at water quality.  Someday all these stakeholders will be able to come together in a meaningful way and address the problems in our watershed and make some positive change…

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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.    Photo copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

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…

virgentierramaiz

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. Image copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

Photo copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

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. Photo copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

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. Photo copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

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. Photo copyright M.Santistevan 2016.

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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