A Smidgeon of Homesteading

Alegria Farmstead

(Story by Cullen Curtiss / Photographs by readers)

The beneficiaries of 1862 Homestead Act must have been a bold bunch. Yes, the government granted them up to 160 acres of Western-ho land, but in exchange for keeping it and the opportunity to buy it, these hardscrabble folks had to tame it and make it produce. As we order boxed cereal to arrive at our door with the click of a mouse, we may struggle to fathom living even a smidgeon of this lifestyle.

For 20-some years at Local Flavor, we’ve featured hardcore 21st-century homesteaders, who’ve devoted their lives to extreme self-sufficiency. We’ve learned a lot, including the fact that those who homestead just a smidgeon are also pretty hearty. In fact, we feel any amount of homesteading is noble in the effort to live independently and believe in one’s own industriousness. In response to our call for stories from those composting, hunting, foraging, gardening, farming, sewing their own clothes, and beekeeping a smidgeon, we received a full crop of responses. Thank you all. We celebrate your self-reliance as you inspire us toward a more do-it-yourself lifestyle.

For consultant and teacher Rachel Hillier of Corrales’ Little Dirt Farms, self-reliance starts with the soil. And it’s about soil on the mend with her latest project at the two-and-a-half-acre

Courtesy of Albuquerque Museum

Heritage Field on the Albuquerque Museum’s Casa San Ysidro property. “Soil restoration is essential to sustainability,” she says. Appropriately, her “Introduction to Homesteading” curriculum begins on April 27 with a class titled Soil Prep and Pest Management and ends in October with Soil Restoration and Cover Crops. The 11-class hands-on program will help participants understand the ecological restoration in process on Heritage Field, the time necessary to grow local organic food, and the ancestral methods of farming and sustainability used by Spanish and Native peoples. Rachel will also introduce the idea of teamwork as a homesteading concept, which might seem anathema to the sovereign. “Determine your area of strength, and collaborate,” she insists.

Courtesy of Sam McCarthy

Another super soil advocate is Santa Fean Sam McCarthy, who shares, “When I was a kid my mother would say she wished to be buried in a compost heap. Now I raise red worms and teach people how to use them to develop fertile soil through composting.” Twenty years ago, red worms invited themselves into Sam’s backyard compost pile. He now sells generations of these red wrigglers under the name Do It With Worms at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, where he also talks with the full spectrum of individuals—enthusiast to grossed-out naysayer—to help them become composters of their household scraps and yard waste with “the least labor and the least water.” He says, “Composting in your backyard takes the burden off the local landfill, and leads to long-term carbon sequestration. Healthy soil leads to healthy gardens, which lead to healthy people.”

Two of many healthy Do It With Worms customers are Melissa Homann, a retired chef, and her husband Joe, who’ve gardened everywhere they’ve

Courtesy of Melissa Homann

ever lived—window boxes in a five-flight walk-up on Manhattan’s East 4th Street, an alfalfa field in Pojoaque, a backyard rental in Brooklyn. When they moved to Albuquerque, the first thing they bought was a composting bin. Due to their particularly stubborn patch of ground, they’ve also introduced fertilizing chicken poop pellets and calcium to the soil to help the roots absorb nutrients; as well, they sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the cement block walls, “because Albuquerque has a serious cockroach problem.” In the fall, they plant a cover crop of rye or red clover. Melissa and Joe have taken advantage of Albuquerque’s gardening, composting and water classes, learning, among other things, to aerate the city’s water before applying it to their plants, to employ vertical piping with holes to guide water into the soil roots, and to mulch with straw bale. Melissa says, “I bucket all the water I use for washing vegetables back into watering the garden. Lots of hauling!” To which she also enthusiastically adds, “Shop for your produce out back! Last year, the leeks were amazing. Carrots and radishes the year before. It’s always a surprise.”

Courtesy of Andrea Balter

Santa Fean Andrea Balter, a retired Los Angeles police officer, shares the same joy, but for her 19 girls. “I am enchanted with my hens,” she says. Andrea has several breeds, including Columbian Wyandotte’s, Production Reds and Araucana. And these beauties yield pink, blue and several shades of brown eggs, which she’ll sell if she cannot eat. She uses the hens’ nitrogen-rich droppings in her compost piles, which in turn help grow her veggies. “It’s a wonderful feeling to have a sense of self-sufficiency, and raise chickens in a way that is healthy and happy,” Andrea says. “Factory farming is so brutal, that if one does some research, one might never buy another egg!”

The theme of excitement continues on a large scale with Farm & Landscape Manager Wes Brittenham of Los Poblanos Historic Inn &

Courtesy of Wes Brittenham

Organic Farm, whose team is in constant conversation on 25 acres of ancestral agricultural land. He says, “Our homegrown food travels less than 300 yards from the field to your fork!” Wes describes blooming fruit trees, month-old chicks awaiting new digs, Slovenian beehives, fields primed for planting edible and decorative flowers, as well as nearly 1,000 new lavender plants, garlic coming up, several hoop houses yielding multiple harvests of greens and radishes, and carrots to come. Meanwhile, a variety of seedling trays promise exuberant starts. As for the essential elements of water and earth, Los Poblanos practices conservation, managing flows from the acequia, and treats its soil with cover crops, manure and compost, which Wes calls “homegrown,” lovingly mixed and layered with offerings from the kitchen, the landscapes and plant materials—using the strength of a tractor. Wes writes, “We are so excited to be a source of local, organic and fresh food to share with our guests, visitors, the community and each other.”

Courtesy of Philip Rothwell

While the “strength of a tractor” is not always necessary, “non-stop hard work, experimentation, education and lots of trial and error” are. Phil and Nazca Warren of Alegria Farmstead bought their half-acre land in Ribera in 2010. “It was completely over-run with weeds and trash, and the house needed renovating. We created earthworks, water catchment systems, fixed drainages and pathways, carved rows in the field and double-dug beds. With water harvesting and permaculture, the land is healing and our harvests are abundant,” they write. Their micro-farm, which includes some fowl, is mainly subsistence, but they sell some harvest at the Tri-County Farmers’ Market and the Eldorado Farmers’ Market. All grown from organic heirloom seeds, their crops include lettuce mix, kale, chard, arugula, walking onions, sunflower sprouts, tomatoes, green beans, herbs, corn, amaranth, carrots and radishes. They also wildcraft seasonal edible plants and medicinal herbs to make remedies. Nazca writes, “It’s humbling to grow in Northern New Mexico,” but she indicates that’s just a part of the overall journey.

For Resa Sawyer of the Middle Aged Spread at Aspenwind Farm on Taos Pueblo the journey has been decades-long, homesteading in various locales and living off-grid, growing food and medicine, saving seed, raising honeybees, dairy goats, chickens and guinea hens, and using her farm products to create goat milk and honey soaps, shampoo, herbal salves and lotion bars. In 2017, she moved to 20 acres on Taos Pueblo, where she built barns, erected fencing, planted fruit trees, shrubs, and perennial herbs and flowers, not only for product ingredients, but to provide nectar and pollen for a burgeoning apiary. Resa also serves on the board of the Pueblo’s Red Willow Farm, a nonprofit community farm and educational center. “Our priorities are not to just make use of water and land, but to reinvigorate the skills of self-reliance,” she writes. “In an age when Romaine lettuce can kill you and there is no security in our current economy, the true benefits of a homesteading life can’t be quantified.”

Also in Taos is Nan Fischer, who founded Taos Seed Exchange, a free community service for home gardeners to share their seed. Through the organization, Nan has become a bit of a

Courtesy of Nan Fischer

guru in the community, teaching people how to grow their own food, put it up, and save seed. She also sells nursery starts. “My garden is mostly things I can store, freeze or can—zucchini, dry beans, beets, carrots, green beans, garlic, soup peas, snow peas,” she says. “I have a greenhouse and use row covers and frost cloth to extend the season. You can’t get the flavor or quality of homegrown food out of season. It’s cheaper, tastier and more nutritious than buying. And it’s exhilarating and rewarding to eat your own broccoli or squash in January! It makes the hard work so worth it!”

Courtesy of Anna Martinez

Same goes for Nathalie Bonnard-Grenet, owner with her husband Chef Xavier Grenet of Restaurant L’Olivier in Santa Fe. In addition to the restaurant, she manages up to seven beehives. “They are magical because of what they produce—honey, propolis, pollen, wax,” she says. Nathalie describes the restaurant’s location on the tree-lined river as a great spot for one hive. Contrary to popular belief, honeymaking bees such as hers are “nice,” so guests on their patio are completely safe. Just last year, Nathalie harvested 170 pounds of honey, using it in restaurant dishes like Honey Ice Cream, Briouat Dessert, Honey-Glazed Pork Chop and Honey-Glazed Roasted Squash. Her hope is to inspire others to try beekeeping and help bees survive. “They are the main pollinators for our trees and flowers,” she says.

While the aforementioned have chosen to create some independence from modern convenience and are generally thrilled by the hard work and grateful for the rewards, they are aware they are standing on the aching backs of those who came before. On display in the form of artifacts, photographs and biographical profiles, through the summer at Los Alamos’ Municipal Building is the Women of the Homesteading Era exhibition. Imagine the Pajarito Plateau between 1887 and 1942 (when the Manhattan Project arrived), where 30 Hispano families and six Anglo families homesteaded and dry farmed. The exhibit highlights the lives of three women, fighting bad weather, insects and other threats. After your perusal, you might pick up a Los Alamos Homestead Tour brochure, which will guide you to sites of homesteads around town, in and amongst gas stations, clothing, hardware and grocery stores, and convenience marts—evidence that we’ve progressed so far that we want to go back, even if just a smidgeon.

Children of the Earth

CaminoDePaz-28(Story and photos by Gabriella Marks)

“Can we eat our own DNA?” When the DNA in question is composed of gummy bear nucleotides strung along a base of red licorice, the question seems entirely reasonable. In a school where growing, harvesting, preparing and selling food is an integral part of the daily education, yet another hands-on, edible learning experiment is par for the course.

For nearly 20 years, Camino de Paz School & Farm—a 10-acre agricultural Montessori school nestled in the hills of Santa Cruz, just east of Española—has offered middle-school students a profoundly different alternative to standardized education. Experiential learning has gained traction in recent years as a more effective approach to learning for both adolescents and adults. According to co-founder and school director Patricia Pantano, “…every day is a ropes course here—if a gate breaks or a goat gets out––it’s an ongoing cooperational game.”

Class—outside the room

Pairs of waders line a homemade boot rack beside a blue barn door. Up the path, in the building that houses the kitchen and the main classroom, pegs on the patio, labeled with each student’s name, hold gloves and over-shirts. Arrive any given morning, and class begins outside that classroom. There are five different crews between which the students rotate—animal, dairy, horticultural, marketing, and nutrition and culinary arts. Each day begins, and ends, with these crew responsibilities.

The founding principles of the school are inspired by the teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian scientist and educator who worked at the turn of the last century. Montessori believed children who are at liberty to choose and act freely within an environment prepared according to her model would spontaneously learn and grow with optimal development. She used the term erdkinder (“children of the earth”) to describe adolescents who are preparing to enter the larger, global community. Camino de Paz is part of a global network of Erdkinder programs that are involved in teacher training and exchange programs from Sweden to Italy to Mexico.CaminoDePaz-22

Founders Patricia Pantano and Greg Nussbaum developed Camino de Paz based on that theory of childhood development, emphasizing that what children need most is to build self-confidence and to be aware of responsibilities within and for a group. Greg and Patricia saw a farm as the ideal environment in which to engage with land, with community and with others through meaningful work.

And these students are incredibly engaged. Whereas one might expect chores to be met with the dragging of feet or sullen resistance, there’s no sign of either. Whether quietly working independently harvesting in a hoop house, or running in unison to herd the goats from the pens where they sleep to the fields where they graze during the day, there is an atmosphere of both focus and fun. And there’s an ease in the way the students interact—with the land, with their hands, with each other—that is unlike most middle-school settings. Their responsibilities are a source of pride among the students, each of whom echoes sentiments similar to those of Grecia, now in her third and final year at the school, who says, “I like being active and doing things with my hands and feeling responsible for things.”

From the books to the barnyard

While the students are relatively young––ranging in age from 12 to 15––they are not playing at farming. This is the real deal. The youth are directly responsible for the health and wellbeing of horses, sheep, goats and crops on a working farm that participates actively in the regional economy. Students harvest produce and make products they sell weekly at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, as well as to the independent grocers in the area—Cid’s Food Market in Taos, La Montañita Co-ops throughout Northern New Mexico and Keller’s Farm Stores in Albuquerque.

CaminoDePaz-08From the student in the classroom completing a spreadsheet for this week’s orders, to the white board outside the produce “walk-in” that lists the amounts to harvest this week, the lessons of the farm aren’t merely chores—the economics of sales and tracking orders, the chemistry of making cheese, the biology of planning nutritious meals for both students and livestock‑—each provides academic learning animated from the pages of textbooks and hypothetical problem sets to actual physical experiments with real-world consequences. Classic “standardized” educational progress goes hand in hand with working the land. At a minimum, students keep pace with conventional school tracking, although most actually accelerate standard grade rankings through their time at the school.

A thriving working farm

Students are involved in every aspect of the business of the farm, from planning, budgeting and preparing weekly meals, to compiling vendor orders and harvesting quotas, to selling at their booth at the Farmers’ Market. In terms of sheer output, the numbers are beyond impressive. Fifty percent of the feed the animals consume is grown on the farm. Production on the farm supplies the majority of ingredients used in the 500 meals made monthly and consumed at the school, while outside sales—wholesale to groceries and retail at the Farmers’ Market—were in excess of $125,000 last year, and have already surpassed that number this year.

According to a recent legislative report, of the 24,000 farms in the state of New Mexico, two thirds of those farms generate less than $10,000 in revenue annually. Hardly enough to sustain an individual farmer, let alone a family. This 10-acre school, powered by draft-horse tilling and diligent students, is among the top 10 percent of all working farms in the state.

For Greg, whose academic background includes a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, a Master of Arts in economics, as well as a Master of Business Administration, the financial sustainability of the school is an essential tenet of its design. Just as the physics of heat transfer is integral to actual agriculture, for the school to be truly successful in its mission, students need to graduate with a sense of both accomplishment and potential for their own future ventures. Typical Camino de Paz graduates pursue college degrees in economics and education, and foster hopes for their own farms. It’s amazing how empowering it can be to see your own photo on the label of a Camino de Paz product in a local store.

After the harvest, sowing seeds

On graduation, many students stay involved with the school through summer and after-school jobs, and even through younger siblings who follow in their footsteps. Demographically, CaminoDePaz-04the student body is surprisingly representative of a cross section of New Mexico, averaging around one-third Hispanic, one-third Native American, one-third Anglo. While this year’s roster is a modest 17, the current campus can accommodate three times that number. The challenge to growing the student body lies primarily in the fiscal challenge of being a private school with tuition that must compete with various free public options. However, many Camino de Paz students receive financial aid through fundraising, and can even partially pay on their own through the school’s work programs. One might balance the price of tuition with the outcomes of students, especially compared with those of public schools, and find that over the long term, the investment more than pays for itself.

In addition to the original campus, Patricia and Greg are also developing plans to open a second campus for high school. The goal is both to extend the academic mission of the Montessori theory of development through high school, but also to resolve a key pain-point in the agricultural ecosystem that affects not only Camino de Paz, but all small, independent growers: the lack of places to sell their goods––distribution opportunities. While there are co-ops for consumers, there is no such infrastructure for producers. Included in plans for the new school is a retail front/distribution center through which not only Camino de Paz, but other growers, too, can sell.

It’s an ambitious plan, to be sure. Just like the idea of creating a school on a working farm of 10 acres with draft horses in place of tractors. It’s a plan that is singularly contrary to the notion that bigger is better, a vision that is uniquely grand in its human sense of scale and a quantifiable positive impact on the community.

Children of the earth

CaminodePaz-AllStars02-05Phrases like “sustainable agriculture,” while rhetorically popular, lack effective resonance without real-world examples. And there is no single right route toward creating a sustainable agricultural future, especially in a region struggling with widespread food insecurity and water scarcity as climate change becomes more acute. But teaching personal responsibility to the next generation through real-world lessons on a thriving small farm is a sterling example of what sustainable agriculture can, and in fact does, look like.

In a time when a shared sense of foreboding and concern for the future hangs heavy on the horizon, it’s profoundly invigorating and inspiring to walk rows of flourishing chard on a brisk fall morning, while school children buzz around with purpose, and to feel that rare sense of optimism and hope that sustains us all.

To learn more about Camino de Paz School & Farm visit their website at caminodepaz.net or just stop and say hi if youre at the Santa Fe Farmers Market.

Urban Rebels–Greens with an Attitude

Image by Stephen Lang

Image by Stephen Lang

(Story by Lynn Cline / Photos by Stephen Lang)

Microgreens may be small, but when they’re grown by Santa Fe’s Urban Rebel Farms, they’re packed with mighty flavors—the kind you can’t forget. Perhaps you’ve savored their zesty taste at some of the best-loved restaurants in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Or you’ve been drawn to their vibrant beauty at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. However you’ve discovered these marvelous microgreens, it might surprise you to learn that they’re all grown indoors, in a 220-square-foot room attached to the Santa Fe home of one of the “rebels.”

Jerome Baca and Joey Jacques, friends since middle school, are the dynamic duo behind Urban Rebel Farms. They’re devoted to their edible young herbs, vegetables and grains. Once you’ve sampled the bright, bold flavors of feisty garnish peas, anise hyssop, Florence fennel and any of the other jewel-like microgreens conscientiously grown at Urban Rebel Farms, you’ll fall in love, too.

“When we started growing these, we couldn’t wrap our minds around how flavorful our greens were,” Joey says, relaxing in Jerome’s kitchen as the pair enthusiastically discusses their blooming business. “I’ve tasted microgreens before. They didn’t have that much flavor. But I thought, these really hit you. Wow, they’ve got attitude.”

Urban Rebel Farms’ nutrient powerhouses begin as non GMO-seeds that are nurtured by a vertical growing system. This includes a water-efficient container gardening system, energy-efficient LED lighting and a pure plant-based soil made of fibers from coconut shell husks. Known as coco coir, this renewable resource has no animal byproduct or chemicals often found in peat. It also provides excellent water retention and drainage. Instead of fertilizers, these greens are fed a proprietary, customized, plant-based tea brew of beneficial bacteria, enzymes and kelp.

On the day I visit, the growing microgreens—stacked on 14 racks of six shelves each, with eight trays lining each shelf—are surrounded by lilting strains of classical music. Jerome smiles when asked whether he’s playing the music to stimulate the plants. No, he says, it’s actually helping to reduce his stress.

Urban Rebel Farms began selling its veganic microgreens to local restaurants last February, and at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market last spring. “We slowly grew until last August, when all of a sudden the business doubled in size and we were full,” Joey says. Their first customer was Bouche Bistro—Chef Charles Dale’s first purchase was peas. Today, Urban Rebel supplies some 20 restaurants in Santa Fe and Albuquerque as well as customers at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market and the Rail Yards Market in Albuquerque.

In the beginning, Urban Rebel Farms offered just 10 microgreens, including peas. “When I tasted our first peas, I said ‘Gosh, these things taste terrible, no one’s going to want them,’” Jerome recalls. “The funny thing is, they are our bestseller. We’ve had to grow different varieties of peas in order to get to the type of peas that wouldn’t stretch too much, or that would grow slow.” Other popular items include cilantro, amaranth and mustard scarlet frill, but they’ve garnered fans for each of the 38 varieties they now offer.

Image by Stephen Lang

Image by Stephen Lang

It’s no surprise that these Urban Rebel farmers get along like two peas in a pod. “We’ve been friends since we met at Capshaw Middle School and we’ve known each other for 30 years,” Jerome says. “The last two years have been the most testing of our friendship,” he adds with a grin.

Neither Jerome nor Joey had any experience in gardening when they started, though Jerome has spent the last eight years working at All Seasons Gardening in Albuquerque, which offers gardening supplies from A to Z as well as help with hydroponic gardening. “I had a friend working there in hydroponic gardening, so I started working there a few days a week,” he says. “Seven years ago, I became manager. That’s where I learned the basic ins and outs of growing in controlled environments. I was talking to Joey about the whole situation, and I said, ‘Hey, what do you think about growing microgreens? You should research it and see if it’s viable.’”

Joey had different plans in mind. “At the time he approached me, I was about to graduate from the University of New Mexico with a degree in economics and philosophy,” he says. “The plan was to go to law school, but for some reason, this seemed like a great idea.” Joey and Jerome learned their trade by trial and error, perfecting the growing conditions for their prized plants. The decision to use living trays—recyclable, compostable trays for growing and delivering living microgreens to chefs instead of snippings—improved their product along with their sales. “When we started selling with the living tray concept, that’s when it really took off,” Joey says. “I’m really proud of our product now. It has a difference in integrity.”

Image by Stephen Lang

Image by Stephen Lang

When it came time to unveil Urban Rebel Farm’s microgreens to restaurant chefs, Joey drew from his experience working in Santa Fe restaurants in order to open doors. “I started working in the restaurant industry when I was 16 or 17 at Las Campanas Clubhouse,” he says. “I worked at a lot of venues in the industry, including Terra with Charles Dale, and we now provide to his three restaurants, Bouche Bistro, Trattoria a Mano and Maize.”

The responsibilities at Urban Rebel Farms are divided. Jerome oversees most of the microgreens production and Joey handles sales, billing and bookkeeping. “Joey’s really taken over control of our business, and it’s nice to know that he can do that,” Jerome says. But even with the division of labor, the enterprise requires a lot of work. Both men are married with young kids; Jerome has a two-year-old and a seven-year-old, and Joey has an 11-year-old son whose baseball team he coaches. Two interns help lessen the load—one intern is learning the sales side and the other helps in the vertical garden. “The hardest part has been balancing work and family time together,” Jerome says. “It helps to have two of us so that we can confer and fix a problem.”

The business partners are thrilled about the popularity of their microgreens. “The amount of success we’ve had in such a short period of time has definitely surprised me,” Jerome says. “I almost feel that we have an obligation to our customers, especially the farmer’s market customers. We have people who are changing their diets, who have debilitating diseases, and are actually counting on us to grow this.” That’s because, according to studies by the University of Johns Hopkins, microgreens have five to 40 times more sulforaphane than the adult version, Jerome says, and this antioxidant molecule in cruciferous vegetables is thought to help fight cancer and other diseases.

Joey appreciates the healthful value and flavor of their microgreens, though the boom in business has limited what’s available to him. “I love to make nutrient-dense smoothies in the morning; putting them on my sandwiches to give them some attitude; tumbling fresh amaranth in my buttery mashed potatoes; baking peas into pea chips; rolling our shiso, basil, Thai basil, lemon basil and mustard micros in my homemade stir fry; or muddling some of our herbs into a well-deserved cocktail after a long day,” he says. “Truth is, I put them on everything if I’m lucky enough to have them. These days, there is almost no leftover product.”

A Farmer’s Dream

Image by Doug Merriam

Image by Douglas Merriam

(Story by Tina Deines / Images by Doug Merriam)

Farming is in José Gonzalez’s blood. After all, he’s a third-generation farmer and started learning the ropes from his grandparents and mother at age 5. José and his wife María run Gonzalez Farms, a 12-year member of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market community. The pair won the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute’s Farmer All Star award in 2015, an honor chosen by their peers. While José said the award made him “feel very good,” he and María have even bigger dreams. They’d like to own their own land, a goal they’re steadily working toward. But no dream comes without its challenges.

As I pull up to the Gonzalez home, José—dressed in cowboy boots, a black cowboy hat and white button-down flamingo-adorned shirt—comes to greet me with a smile, while María helps gather extra chairs. Two curious children—8-year-old Mia and 5-year-old Dominic—join us for the interview, while 1-year-old Logan sleeps soundly through the whole thing.

“I love my work,” are José’s first words when I ask him to tell me a little about his farm, which produces a variety of crops including chile, squash, cucumbers, corn, potatoes, beans and sunflowers. María, who crafts and sells chile ristras and other decorative items using herbs and flowers, echoed that sentiment about her own efforts. She says she treasures having the opportunity to stay at home and care for her family while also working. In Spanish, she describes the process of making her chile crafts (crosses are her favorite thing to create). The key, she says, is working with the Sandia chiles—grown right on the farm by José—while they’re still fresh and pliable.

She learned the methods herself when she moved to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico, 12 years ago with José. “She’s very smart,” José says, beaming proudly. “She just saw some at the farmers’ market and she learned.”

María had never seen anything like a chile ristra in Mexico, she says. “The first time I saw them, I thought that they were something to eat, but I found out they were decorations,” she laughs. She admits that her first chile ristra was a hard sell in the market community—she winces a bit as she describes how she had tried to sell it at the market for two weeks without any success. After that initial failure, she doubled down and improved her ristra-crafting skills. She says she labored for about a year to perfect her art. In addition to her chile ristras and crosses, María also creates flower decorations and sage animals like burros, a popular symbol of Mexican agriculture and a reminder of her heritage.

María says she’s inspired by many of New Mexico’s trademark cultural icons—buffalo dancers, kokopelli, sage and turquoise. “I like making a lot of different things,” she says, noting that if she weren’t making decorations, she might be working as a stylist or in another creative field.

José’s been involved in his craft—agriculture—since he was just 5 years old. In a small village in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, where he lived until coming to New Mexico with his mother and two brothers at age 9, he learned about farming from his grandparents and mother. “I grew up on a farm,” José says. “I remember watching my grandparents in Guanajuato. At that time, we grew a lot of beans and corn.” But farming in New Mexico is a lot different than Guanajuato. There, he says, they depended entirely on rain with no irrigation or other water systems in place. Here in New Mexico, the Gonzalezes use acequia irrigation, which is becoming more and more difficult due to the current drought.

Image by Douglas Merriam

Image by Douglas Merriam

“It’s scary,” José says. “Right now, we’re OK with water, but we don’t know what’s going to happen this summer.” He also says the growing season is comparatively short in New Mexico. That’s why he and María want to build more greenhouses to help them harvest crops year-round.

In addition to the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, the Gonzalez farm also sells at farmers’ markets in Taos and Los Alamos, as well as at the Eldorado Farmers’ Market in Santa Fe. “If we have a good season, we sell a lot to restaurants,” José says. “If it’s a bad season or not enough produce, we sell at just the markets.”

While the farm is not certified organic, José utilizes natural growing methods—no pesticides or chemicals. “Everything I use from seeds and soil is certified organic. No GMOs or pesticides,” he says. “I feel good because I know what my family’s eating and I don’t want to poison myself.” He also says his all-natural approach is a selling point with his customers, some of whom have been coming to him for years. “They trust us,” he says.

The family lives just far enough outside of Española to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. And José likes it that way. “I tried to move but I didn’t like the traffic and big buildings,” he says, smiling. José needn’t worry about that—out here, only a few dispersed neighbors, a quiet two-lane highway and the nearby Rio Grande speckle the landscape.

Currently, a small garden and greenhouse greet you as you enter the Gonzalez’s drive—oddly, this is the only hint of farming at a farmer’s home. That’s because the Gonzalezes rent two parcels of land totaling four acres about 20 minutes away from their residence. The couple dreams of one day buying their own land with a home onsite. But the Gonzalezes can’t purchase their land and home until they build enough credit to convince the banks to give them a loan.

“It’s kind of a big issue,” José says. “We just want to work harder to make it our own property and get our own place.” He says he’d love to reside in the Alcalde area, just a hop and a skip away from their current home, because the area benefits from easy access to the Rio Grande.

According to Melissa Willis, program director for the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute, this problem isn’t unique to the Gonzalez family. “Typically, banks won’t even look at farmers when considering any type of loan,” she says, explaining that banks consider farming a “high-risk business.” Crop yields are dependent on weather—rain (or lack thereof), temperatures, wind. Add to that the cash-based economy of the profession, which makes it nearly impossible to build credit, she says.

Image by Doug Merriam

Image by Douglas Merriam

The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute offers a way for small farmers to build their credit and their business by offering low-interest microloans to farmers like José and Maria, who have been taking advantage of the program since 2014. In addition, borrowers benefit from access to other tools like financial counseling, thanks to a partnership with Guadalupe Credit Union. “Not only have we helped them build their credit,” Melissa says, “but we’re giving them access to other resources that will hopefully help them get their land.”

“It’s a good opportunity,” José says. “Sometimes, we don’t have enough money left to buy seeds. And we’re building credit, too.” According to Melissa, the Gonzalezes are the perfect candidates for the microloan program, not to mention a positive force in the community. “They show up to almost every market we have,” she says. “They always have smiles on their faces.”

For now, it’s a slow and steady climb toward their dream. In the meantime, the Gonzalezes will keep doing what they love—growing food, making chile decorations and interacting with their customers.

As I leave, José has one more project he’d like to tell me about. He points to an old postal truck in the corner of his property. With a grin, he says he wants to convert the truck—which he found online—into the Gonzalez Farms Taco Truck. But kitchen equipment is expensive and project taco truck might take a while to get off the ground. “It needs a lot of work,” he laughs.

This Is Ranch Country: Sage Coyote

Image by Gabriella Marks

Image by Gabriella Marks

(Story and Images by Gabriella Marks)

A man walks up to a bull. Three bulls, actually. First the larger black and white one with the long, flowing tresses and arcing horns, then the two thicker shorthair redheads. He offers them cubes of alfalfa, and they gently nuzzle them from his hands.

This single vignette speaks volumes about Sage Coyote Farm: well cared for and calm, these bulls weigh nearly a ton each. The mutual respect, gentle handling and comfortable familiarity signify Gayle and Conlan Jones’s ranching style. The setting is one of those idyllic Northern New Mexico hidden treasures––a valley nestled between rolling hills outside of Tierra Amarilla, just south of Chama. This is ranch country––nearby is Shepherd’s Lamb, and the road leading to Sage Coyote has numerous other ranch gates on the way.

Although her family hails from Texas, this land has been in Gayle’s family for generations––bought by her great uncles who planned to one day ranch there––but to date, Gayle and her husband Conlan are the first in the family to see that vision through to raising herds in these pastures.

Conlan’s background is in the great outdoors, albeit in an altogether different context, as a career employee with the United States Forest Service. A chance meeting years ago at the Three Ravens Cafe in Tierra Amarilla set their

Image by Gabriella Marks

Image by Gabriella Marks

stars in alignment. The cafe is no longer there, but Conlan is, having traded in his service uniform for cowboy boots and a saddle.

There are two herds that graze there––one features the deep chestnut hide of the Red Devon breed. The Devon are a historic breed, dating back to Caesar’s conquest of Britain, and the first few arrived on American shores in the mid 1600s. The breed is experiencing a resurgence as grass-fed beef increases in popularity because these cattle are considered to “finish” better on grass than other breeds. These gentle red giants are also favored for their easy, docile temperament and for being known to calve easily.

SageCoyoteThat’s in one pasture. And in another: even before getting close enough to view individual faces, you can see the difference in the herd silhouette––the larger, elongated heads bearing articulated horns, the long, thickly furry tails, the flowing black coats, waving with the wind. The yaks.

Originally hailing from the Tibetan plateau, domesticated yak seem equally at home in the high-altitude pastures of Northern New Mexico. As Americans expand their palates in search of healthy and adventurous alternatives to beef, and ranchers have responded to that market demand, yak has become an increasingly viable option beside venison and bison. Yak is as lean as venison and bison (its meat is about 95 percent fat free, and has 30 percent less palmitic acid than beef), with a delicate flavor that isn’t gamey.

Chefs like yak for its delicate, succulent balance. Santa Fe’s own Chef Joseph Wrede uses yak to give new inflection to seasoned favorites––like the cubed yak meat in a savory stew with aromatic vegetables, and ”yakballs” on pasta or in chile––dishes he served at Joseph’s Table in Taos. Conlan himself is a bit of a purist, preferring a simple yak burger seasoned with a little salt and pepper, grilled to medium rare.

From an environmental perspective, the yak has a real step up on the continental natives (bison and cattle). Having evolved for centuries over the rough mountainous terrain of Tibet, Yak have small hooves and are more nimble, causing less damage to fragile desert ecosystems. Conlan finds them to be more agile and athletic overall. Furthermore, yaks are incredibly efficient foragers: they need only 6 pounds of forage to gain one pound, compared to 8 pounds for cattle and 12 for bison.

Those are the yak facts. That said, for all their quantifiable benefits, they don’t really do justice to the experience of being in the presence of 20 head of yak. I arrive at Sage Coyote on a Sunday morning. Sunday is herding day at Sage Coyote––the day of the week that Gayle and Conlan usually saddle up their horses and, escorted by a motley crew of ranch dogs thrilling at the weekly outing, amble out toward the pasture.

We make our way through gates and dirt and dry grasses. Just over another hill, they come into view. The sheer magnitude is awesome, but that’s not what makes them different. There’s just a certain majesty to those long locks flowing in the wind––and as I walk among them (at a healthy distance) their inquisitive nature peeks through as they eye me somewhat warily. Gayle and Conlan ride out along the periphery of the herd, steering them with horses, quietly, according to their customary choreography. This isn’t your sepia-tone Gunsmoke-esque ranching. Think: far fewer “yeehaws” and a bunch more “hey honey’s,” in vivid color.

Image by Gabriella Marks

Image by Gabriella Marks

We harbor an irresistible romance with ranching––perhaps especially so here in the Southwest, where our daily landscape so resembles the settings of old-timey Westerns that New Mexico has a thriving film industry dedicated to recreating those dramas of yore. The stoic silhouette of a cowboy at sunset, the endless western horizon, the dust and the thunder and the hollers of the stampede––such sights are emblazoned across our collective cultural psyche like a Zia-shaped cattle brand. But the challenge with this kind of nostalgic template is the fact that such well-worn narratives leave little room for imagining––let alone recognizing in our own midst––the new characters and stories that are just as much a tribute to our shared Western heritage and that contribute just as much to the ongoing tradition of ranching. This domestic partnership at Sage Coyote, firmly grounded on equal footing, long on patience, quick on dry wit, is just as authentic, just as New Mexico “true.”

There is a quiet focus as Gayle and Conlan guide the herd, slowly nudging them down from the pasture through the “alley” leading between pastures, past the satellite dish and the rolling chicken coop, toward the large holding pen. There, they check in and tend to individual animals. Even when things get a little tense, as they inevitably do when handling such large, essentially wild, easily spooked young animals in confined spaces, the overriding vibe is Steady as She Goes. Stress isn’t good for the well being of either the four- or the two-leggeds, and any confusion or hesitation can quickly escalate into potentially dangerous situations. It’s cool and collected, with quick response reflexes. There are soothing voices and calming hands on thickly furred hides as Gayle and Conlan administer vaccinations, check for pregnancies, evaluate overall health. It’s physically demanding, hard work. And from the looks of it, it’s a good bit of fun, too.

It’s funny the way something can be right there in front of you, and yet the cues don’t connect. My own confession along these lines: I have walked past, stopped to chat, taken in as part of the colorful cacophony of the Saturday morning Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, the colorful miniature prayer flags that frame the Sage Coyote booth, and not once registered this classic tribute to the Tibetan origins of the yak they raise. But next time I’m there, I will. And I’ll remember the majesty of a huge black and white fleeced bull nuzzling and munching alfalfa cubes from the hand. That was Pavi––Hindu for “little boy,” short for Piss and Vinegar, whose name captures the character of Sage Coyote so well. If you have yet to visit their booth, keep your mind open for a new culinary experience, and keep your eyes peeled for those festive little flags.

Two Chefs in the Kitchen

Image by Genevieve Russell

Image by Genevieve Russell

(Story by Ashley M. Biggers / Images by Genevieve Russell)

On a May morning, the kitchen staff of Terra bustles, frying eggs and cooking bacon for guests waiting in the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado dining room, and chopping tomatoes and blanching asparagus for mise en place. But there’s a new member in the kitchen this morning. Pueblo chef and teacher Norma Naranjo has road-tripped from Ohkay Owingeh, her home Pueblo, to Terra’s fine-dining kitchen to teach Executive Chef Kai Autenrieth how to make traditional fry bread.

Both clad in denim aprons, the chefs gather around a marble prep table. A massive bowl of all-purpose flour sits before each of them. How much flour? “I don’t know,” Norma confesses. She’s grown up making this recipe, learning it from her mother and grandmother as a child and cooking it countless times over the years for not only her family and Pueblo, but also for guests of The Feasting Place. She runs the two-decades-old cooking-class business with her husband, Hutch, and they partner to cater events, too. It’s the only place in the United States the public can learn to make traditional Pueblo foods, though of late she’s been giving heritage dishes new spins like making crostini with oven bread toasted in her horno, and pizza baked in the traditional oven.

Chef Kai confesses he’s never had baker’s hands—despite that his father was a baker and Kai spent countless hours making pretzels alongside his dad in Germany, where he grew up. After culinary school, Kai initially ventured into pastry, but found he didn’t like following recipes that require precise measuring for the chemical reactions that cause dishes to leaven and rise. “I just like to play,” he says.

Norma’s measuring matches Kai’s easygoing style: She grabs a handful of baking soda in her fist and sprinkles it over the flour. A smaller handful of salt follows. Lastly, she scoops a handful from the Crisco jar, her fingers leaving waves through the shortening. She works her hands into the flower, blending the shortening into the dry ingredients until it flakes. She asks for warm water. The chefs go back and forth mixing steaming water from a pitcher into a bowl of cool water until the water reaches the tepid temperature Norma wants. She mixes water into her bowl slowly, holding back a wall of flour with one hand and gradually letting wet and dry ingredients meet as she mixes with her other. Soon both hands are sticky with dough as she kneads.

Image by Genevieve Russell

Image by Genevieve Russell

Chef Kai pours a generous portion into his stainless steel bowl and combines all the ingredients together instantly. As Norma’s dough combines into a pillow ball, Kai strives to follow suit. His dough is tougher, with less give. Not quite, Norma advises. Keep trying.

Kai’s made fry bread before, serving it once with bone marrow slathered over top, and once pressed into a taco mold then filled with suckling pig. Though, he says, the fry bread turned dry and tough. He hopes with this lesson he can identify his missteps and perfect it for service.

Kai has a distinctly international perspective. After growing up in Germany, he’s spent the past 19 years globe hopping from Switzerland and the United Kingdom, to Australia, Tanzania and across the Caribbean, from St. Martin to Bermuda, and most recently, Nevis in the West Indies. With so much time spent on islands, Kai developed a penchant for locally sourced seafood, though he’s (excuse the pun) found himself to be a fish out of water in the piñon-dotted foothills of the Rocky Mountains. He seems, however, to have a knack for diving into the food culture of each place he’s landed. Kai learned to cook traditional dishes in people’s homes in Africa and noshed on street food in the Caribbean to taste distinct regional flavors. “I like to showcase ingredients from the area, but elevate it to fine dining,” he says.

Chef Kai first sampled fry bread shortly after his August 2016 arrival in Santa Fe, when he and his wife attended Santa Clara Pueblo’s feast day. He’s been trying to replicate that at-the-source taste and texture since.

Image by Genevieve Russell

Image by Genevieve Russell

With the right consistency in hand, Norma begins pinching balls of dough out of her fist to form small rounds ready for rolling. One by one, the dough presses under her small roller and each stretches into an 8- to 10-inch round. For the final touch, she pokes her finger in the center. It’s Norma’s own artist mark—with a bit of practicality since this hole will help the dough poof while frying.

Norma uses coconut oil to fry her bread; it’s a relatively recent change that she finds makes the dough less greasy. She pinches off a small bit of dough and throws it in the oil bath to test.

“It’s too hot,” Chef Kai observes. “No, it’s not. You leave my oil alone,” Norma admonishes, giving him a friendly nudge with her elbow. She lays the dough into the pan and it sizzles instantly. She leaves it only a short time on each side—less than a minute. The fresh fry bread emerges golden brown and irresistible as the chefs and staff tear off pieces to sample. At first, Kai leaves his a bit longer, until it’s honey brown, then follows Norma’s lead. “Maybe I over fried it in the past,” Kai wonders. “The details make a huge difference.”

With fresh rounds emerging from the pan, Kai whips up a quick breakfast. It’s his take on the Indian taco, with chile-braised beef, tri-color potatoes, smoked Gouda cheese, pico de gallo and microgreens. He imagines numerous uses for the traditional Southwestern food in Terra—filling a bread basket at the start of the meal or dishing it alongside a savory dipping sauce as a bar appetizer. “I want to see what hearty foods we can serve it with, elk or bison stew maybe,” he says.

The chefs venture outside. To date, Chef Kai has been collaborating with area farmers to teach him more about Indigenous ingredients, and he’s experimenting with several of his own in the chef’s garden a stone’s throw from the Terra kitchen. Kai points out where he hopes to build a horno and the ingredients he’s growing. Several chile varieties have sprouted, from New Mexico’s favored Big Jim to scorching ghost peppers. Edible Nasturtium are set to climb the coyote fence. He picks a pineapple sage leaf from the stalk and hands it to Norma to taste. It’s a new herb for her, though she too is a seasoned farmer. She and Hutch grow their own crops at his home Pueblo, Santa Clara. They harvest tomatoes—an ingredient Chef Kai has been supremely impressed with in New Mexico—chile and blue corn and chico corn, to name a few. Chicos are a staple of Puebloan cuisine and Southern cooking that are prepared by steaming whole ears of corn in the husk, then drying them.

Image by Genevieve Russell

Image by Genevieve Russell

Unfamiliar with the small corn kernels, Kai asks Norma how he might use them. She’ll teach him, she says. But next time, he’ll have to come to her Pueblo kitchen.

Terra Restaurant is in Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado on State Road 592, 10 minutes from Santa Fe. 505.946.5700. fourseasons.com/santafe.