Taos Valley farms break new (and old) ground

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The land and water of Taos Valley have been sustaining human life for more than 10,000 years since the first nomadic people came here. As corn became a bigger part of their diet, the Native people began to cultivate it and build more permanent settlements. They planted crops and brought water to irrigate them.

An article in Indian Country Today reports, "Spanish explorers stumbled on Taos Pueblo in 1540 as they searched for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. According to Taos legend, Taos women rubbed mica on the pueblo walls to make them shine.

"The walls looked like they were covered in specks of gold," said Ilona Spruce, director of tourism at the Pueblo. "The whole Taos valley was irrigated, and when the Spanish arrived they saw the shimmering pueblo surrounded by fields of corn."

The system of acequias was expanded by the Spanish to support farms and ranches. The long tradition of farming in Taos is being carried forward and given new life by young farmers today at Taos Pueblo and on agricultural land across the valley.

New native farmers

Native youth have a chance to learn about growing, harvesting and selling crops beginning this month. The Taos County Economic Development Center is offering a youth internship program for six Native youth ages 15-21.

Tiana Suazo, the garden program coordinator, says they will be using two greenhouses and plots at the TCEDC to help the new farmers learn about all aspects of the process. The program includes training in preserving food, along with money management, work habits and marketing. Produce will be sold at a farm stand on the Taos Pueblo at Red Willow Farm.

This summer, the nonprofit Red Willow Center will offer its Summer Sustainability Institute that has been held most years since 2003. The program is for high school students and involves coursework that qualifies for school credit as well as applied learning and work experience from mid-June to the end of July.

Executive Director Ryan Rose says, "A main focus is sustainable living. That is not a new concept to the Pueblo, but it can get lost over generations. With the greenhouse, there are many sustainable renewable resources at work, including solar and thermal energy."

The program by itself doesn't guarantee someone will become a farmer, but many of the participants have gone on to study for environmentally oriented degrees in college. Rose says, "It is hard to make a living as a farmer with our short growing season, raising only summer crops. But the training working in the heated greenhouses at Red Willow Farm can help prepare someone to grow produce all year long."

At Red Willow Farm, crops, such as Swiss chard, spinach, kale, lettuce and cilantro are already flourishing. Rose says that Red Willow Market will be open again soon.

Farming on family land

William Cisneros of El Prado started raising cattle 15 years ago on five acres of land that has been in his family. "My dad had cattle at one time when I was young but I pretty much started off on my own. Now I have 30 cows and rent about 30 acres which I irrigate, cut, and bale for my cows," he says.

When asked for advice for new farmers Cisneros advises, "Be ready to spend a lot of time and money."

Farmers renewing the land

Copper Pot Farms

Chris Bergner and Fiona Lee of Copper Pot Farms began farming by leasing several different fields in Talpa and then Llano Quemado. After five years of hard work, they were able to buy their own home and farm on more than two acres. They still lease four other fields to grow produce to sell at the Taos Farmers Market as well as to the Love Apple restaurant and Wild Leaven Bakery. They raise chickens for eggs, which are sold to Taos Market and Wild Leaven.

This winter they continued to grow in their greenhouses to supply produce for a list of people who signed up last summer at the Farmers Market. Bergner says that they had about 15 regular buyers who would meet them at pickup points in town whenever fresh vegetables were available. Bergner says, "We had salad greens most weeks. It was great to have people supporting the farm this winter."

Now the couple is busy getting ready for the opening of the Farmers Market Saturday (May 12) on Taos Plaza. Their four greenhouses are filled with rows of lettuce, arugula and spinach planted at different times to insure that each week fresh crops are ready to harvest for the Farmers Market and other buyers.

Reflecting on the process of farming, Bergner says, "Starting from nothing is the hardest part. At the beginning, I tried to keep the equipment mobile so that I could move it to different fields, including the water pumps and a tiller. Keep expenses low. For so many years, I bought used equipment. You have to dedicate yourself to your project, love it and take it seriously. It is about working with natural processes and turning them to your advantage. Do the Farmers Market. Without the Farmers Market, farming would not be sustainable for me."

Lee adds, "For me, farming is the most natural thing to be doing. It is fulfilling and wholesome. It makes my heart happy to grow food."

Lettuce Grow Farms

Julie Shedko started Lettuce Grow Farms and Educational Center eight years ago in El Prado. Recently, the farm has relocated to the old Blossoms Garden Center, at 118 State Road 240 in Ranchos de Taos. At the new location, Shedko is working to explore ways to restore vitality to the soil.

Four greenhouses and fields on four acres are beginning to take shape. One greenhouse has starts that will be ready to move into the fields after June 1. Shedko is trying lettuce, kale and all kinds of herbs, including basil that is growing in a hydroponic tower in the greenhouse. On a tour of the greenhouse, she points out starts of golden zucchini, microgreens and beneficial flowers, such as alyssum and nasturtium. She says, "I try to invite nature in by doing things like releasing ladybugs into the greenhouse to eat pests."

One of the specialties of Lettuce Grow Farms is microgreens or veggie confetti that includes broccoli, arugula, kale, radish and sunflowers that are harvested when they are two inches tall. These tiny greens have 40 percent more enzymes than full-grown plants.

Lettuce Grow Farms works directly with customers in a weekly pick-up program. Shedko also provides greens for Inspire preschool and the Bavarian restaurant along with Taos Market. She sells spices, such as rosemary, thyme, basil, dill and cilantro to Taos Spice Merchant. Through its HUBB program, Lettuce Grow works with other farmers to gather up their produce and sell it for them to help guarantee there will be a market for their crops.

Her advice to new farmers is to look for new ways to replenish the soil and minimize impacts of farming on the environment. She uses as little tilling of the soil as possible to reduce the release of carbon into the air that contributes to greenhouse gases. She is experimenting with new crops, such as saffron that grow well with little water. "I like to try a little bit of everything and see what works," says Shedko.

The farm holds educational events for kids and others. For Earth Day, close to 100 people attended a celebration. "Farming is not instant gratification. It takes a little while for kids to get used to that. Some kids have been attending workshops for eight years and now can act as project leaders. I love it when a child teaches another child," says Shedko.

There is lots of room at the old Blossoms site, and Shedko is dreaming of all the possible growing projects that might happen there, including a sanctuary for monarch butterflies. She is excited to be part of efforts at old Blossoms and is open to partners joining her there who share her ideals. "I want to grow food, keep it local and support others," she says.

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