The Golden Circle: Tales of the Luddite Chef

(Story by Katharine Kagel / Photos by Gabriella Marks)

This Luddite Chef is devoted to all things low-tech, especially when there are high-yield results to be had. We hear it everyday, we read it everyday; our sorry, exhausted planet is pleading for inspirational solutions to human desecration. As a restaurateur with breakfast, lunch and dinner services seven days a week, I have a trove of food scraps ready for reuse. As you’ll see from the story about to unfold before you, there is a brilliant, sustainable answer to reusing our city’s commercial and household daily food waste. The stage is set; now, we only need the actors—ourselves and the political will of our city’s decision makers—to make household food scrap and commercial food waste a daily system for Reunity Resources’ curbside pick up.

Lucky for us, a vibrant collaborative, win-win project awaits. An innovative project that uses the most basic of technologies—human ingenuity, imaginative brain power, compassion, dedication, mastery, patience, goodwill, backbone, joy and foresight—is already at play here in Santa Fe. Impish Juliana and pensive Tejinder Ciano, the dynamic duo who first established the small commercial cooking-oil- to bio-fuel-recycling business Reunity Resources, have grown it into an estimable full-circle, sustainable, environment-saving model. For eight years, they’ve been collecting cooking oil from some 100 businesses in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and turning it into bio-fuel. And these days, they also transform food scraps into excellent compost.

Juliana had her first vision of such resource cycling back in the third grade when she was asked to contribute to her school’s science fair. Young Juliana invented in her youthful mind a machine to vacuum pollution out of the air and send it into the soil. She didn’t have the science then, but has discovered since that she could fulfill her childhood dream with the work she and her husband Tejinder have created alongside compost expert Trevor Ortiz at Reunity Resources.

Tejinder realized through his meditation practice that he, too, wanted to contribute to a life in service beyond himself. After his college years, and playing in a band in Los Angeles, he relocated to Northern New Mexico to create a life doing his part in building a sustainable community. That’s when he met and married Juliana.

As the parents of two small boys, the Cianos are dedicated to generativity and a nurturing care for the planet, because that’s what they most want to give to their children and future generations. Their systematic solutions with the attendant ripple effect are already in high gear—right here, right now.

Their solutions lie in their creation, Reunity Resources, a nonprofit closed-loop food project. For the past four years, they’ve been collecting food scraps from some 51 area restaurants and school cafeterias. They’ve taught more than 15,000 school children how to separate their food scraps from other waste. Source-separating and processing food scraps into compost has resulted in mountains of compost for sale to area gardeners and farmers.

The compost Reunity makes has a lasting beneficial impact on Santa Fe. More than one million pounds of food scraps are diverted annually from our landfill and put to work in area farms and gardens. Their method of composting sets up the carbon sequestration cycle, which can actually reverse climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere. (You go, little Juliana!) Last year, Reunity sold and donated a total of 8,000 cubic yards of compost to area gardens. The equivalent of 19,000 car emissions was mitigated last year alone.

Reunity transforms the mountains of food waste collections by a method known as an Aerated Static Pile composting system. They use large machinery minimally. Turning the windrows of compost can make carbon dioxide and risks the troubling possibility of the compost going anaerobic and creating methane. Reunity uses a nifty system.

Aerating the compost piles is accomplished from the inside out, with a timed fan blowing air into a perforated pipe running through the base of the piles. The regular infusion of air into the center of the piles allows the compost to “cook” at temps that reach 130-160 degrees. These high temperatures can break down not just wet scraps but also meats, dairy and citrus—items usually excluded from home-scale composting systems. Even weed seeds are killed in the high-temp processing method, so spreading this compost can be done with confidence. Because of the high-heat system, no pesticides or other possibly dangerous residuals have been found by third-party labs.

After 30 days in the Aerated Static Piles, the compost cures for a minimum of 30 days with attention to the propagation of beneficial micro-fungi, micro-bacteria and nematodes. The compost is available as top dressing for scattering on lawns, pastures or on cover crops, and also as enriched compost to amend soil for better plantings. Mulch and worm compost are also sold to add to the garden for growth enhancement and protection of plants.

OH, WORMS! Worms are farmed by Reunity in a 40-foot-long high tunnel so that the worm-castings (poop) are then packaged and sold in one-pound bags for home gardeners to enrich existing plants or as a soil amendment for initial plantings; these bags are available from Reunity Farm and also sold at Agua Fria Nursery.

The fine-screened compost in all its forms is available at Reunity Farm for pick up or delivery. Container-ready potting mixes by the cubic-foot bag or in bulk by the cubic yard for garden or farm are also available at Reunity Resources.

In March of this year, Reunity Resources purchased Santa Fe Community Farm, continuing the legacy of Founder/Farmer John Stephenson. After witnessing the ravages of hunger in war-torn Europe during and after World War II, John, a veteran, created the three-acre farm and 80-tree orchard located at San Ysidro Crossing to combat hunger here at home. John dedicated his life to growing food communally, with volunteer help, to donate to our city’s hunger-relief organizations. He loved what he called “The Golden Circle,” in which food and farm waste is composted and then put back into the farm’s soil to grow more produce for the community good. Upon his death at 102 years old, his children decided to sell to Reunity Resources so the mission their father began some 70 years ago would continue.

The farm John Stephenson created operated with the determined effort from an ever-changing corps of Santa Fe area volunteers in addition to its small board and staff. Now, under Reunity Resources’ stewardship, Reunity Farm continues the mission efficiently with their new practices. Last year alone, more than 10,000 pounds of the farm’s production was contributed to area hunger organizations—that’s roughly $25,000 worth of food to combat hunger.

A perfect example of The Loop in action is Kitchen Angels, a recipient of Reunity Farm’s donated produce. Kitchen Angels uses the donated produce to prepare daily meals delivered at no charge for their homebound clients. The food scraps that are source-separated at Kitchen Angels’ facility during food production of the recipients’ meals are then picked up by Reunity Resources for composting. Eventually, the compost and mulch is dug into Reunity Farm’s rows by farm volunteers and a few paid staff members to create healthy and flourishing crops for purchase and for Kitchen Angels, among other food-security groups.

The Food Depot, YouthWorks, Adelante Development Center, and Feeding Santa Fe also receive donated produce from the farm and orchard, and they, too, collaborate as contributing partners in this genius sustainable food loop.

This spring, to help along “The Golden Circle,” Reunity Farm needs our support. Like any community garden, upfront cash is needed at the start of the season. Reunity is issuing a $100 Farm Card, good for a 10-percent discount on all purchased produce during the growing season, both at the farm and at their booth at The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. It is my earnest hope as a dedicated luddite chef who believes in community solutions that commercial food-waste pick ups become a daily occurrence in Santa Fe. To become a local reality, household weekly food-scrap curbside pick up, as proposed to the city by Reunity Resources, needs constituent lobbying of city councilors and the mayor. Call, write, e-mail, support. The future is determined by the determined.

Reunity Resources is a community-wide effort, and its dedicated founders need us, as concerned Santa Fe citizens, to become dynamic partners in order to ensure our resources are responsibly invested. The many harmonic integrated parts of this remarkable work are inspirational and accessible to everyone. Let’s join in to help create mulch mulch more of the Cianos’ gentle but imperative community-building dream machine.


Reunity Farm

Shop for produce, flowers and fruit at The Farmstand at Reunity Farm, open Tuesdays 3-7 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m.-3 p.m., June through November.

The Reunity Farm Card offers a discount of 10 percent on all purchases from Reunity Farm or The Reunity Farm Booth at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays throughout the farm’s season, June – November. The prepaid card supports The Reunity Farm Project and is used to buy produce and flowers. There’s a $100 minimum with no upward limit on the card. Limited cards are on offer for 10-percent off this season’s produce.

Buy a $10 Reunity Farm Membership and be called/messaged first for u-pick days at Reunity Farm as a delicious and nourishing perk. Visit

Experience the Farm and contribute your time to growing crops for those in need Tuesdays from 3-7 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m.-3 p.m., beginning in June. Volunteers are encouraged to bring a friend and a picnic to relax and enjoy, and then work the soil and get their hands dirty.

Reunity Resources Composting

To purchase compost delivered by the yard, contact 505.393.1196.

To purchase compost/mulch/potting mix/worm castings, haul in your truck/trailer or purchase by the bag. Visit Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. and Saturdays, 9 a.m.-noon (Note: Saturdays only, April-June).

To contribute food scraps/cooking oil from your business or institution, contact 505.393.1196.

Want a home-composting collection bin in Santa Fe County? Visit Reunity will deliver the bin and pick up your home food scraps for a small fee.

Want to drop off your home composting at Reunity Farm? Drive on in to 1829 San Ysidro Crossing between 9 a.m.-5 p.m. any day, and drive 50 yards straight ahead and drop-off your food scraps at the compost sign.

More Ways to Get Involved

Home Compost Collection is not yet available for pick up in the City of Santa Fe as of this writing. Encourage your city councilors and the mayor to institute a program of curb-side home-food-waste pick up, as proposed by Reunity Resources, by emailing City Hall; visit

A letter to the newspaper of your choice calling for home-composting curbside pick-up by Reunity Resources in the City of Santa Fe might further nudge the city’s decision makers.

To make a Donation to Reunity Farm, book a workshop or presentation, schedule a field trip, or for other educational opportunities, contact To volunteer at Reunity Farm, contact

To learn more about the Farm, food collection, composting, Harvest Groups and beyond, visit

The Luddite Chef suggests: Please do whatever you can to alleviate food insecurity in our community.

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.

Gettin’ Dirty Since 1975

(Story by Melyssa Holik / Photographs by Ramsay de Give)

When Bob Pennington started Agua Fria Nursery more than 40 years ago, he had no horticulture background, no retail experience and no idea what he was getting into. What he did have was a belief in tomorrow and a desire to make the future a little bit better.

Clad in a flannel shirt and overalls, Bob has an easy, relaxed manner as he greets shoppers, teases employees and answers customer questions. He’s a man of contradictions: simultaneously hopeful and jaded, world-weary yet idealistic, at once lighthearted and thoughtful. He’s quick to crack a joke and yet deeply serious in his desire to improve his small corner of the world.

Before he was a nursery owner, Bob worked with troubled adolescents. After graduate school at University of California, Berkeley, Bob and his wife, Jeni, ran a foster home for runaway youths in Philadelphia, PA. Even then, Bob was torn between his innate optimism and the difficult realities around him. His voice is compassionate yet tinged with resignation as he describes the circumstances of the children who were in his care. “These kids were in really messed up situations,” he says. “They had very good reasons to leave home.” And while he says it was rewarding work, Bob found it emotionally draining.

After a few years, he moved back to Denver (where Jeni was from), and worked in what he wryly calls “the juvenile INjustice system.” There again, the harsh realities collided with his inborn idealism. His desire to help was frustrated by the futility and scope of the problem. By 1975, Bob was looking for a new direction. His father, who was already living in Santa Fe, asked him, “How would you like to run a nursery? Plants, not children!” Bob thought it over and decided to give it a go. By November, he and his father had purchased the non-operational Agua Fria Nursery, Bob and Jeni had relocated to Santa Fe, and the entire family was ready to embark on their new adventure.

None of them had any experience running a nursery. “We had to learn everything from the ground up, literally!” Bob jokes. It was a welcome change, though. Bob compares his current profession to his past careers, saying, “Working in the juvenile injustice system, it’s hard to find a lot of pleasure in what you’re doing there.” It’s much different than his current livelihood, he says, as he returns to his good-natured kidding. “I still do a lot of grief counseling, but now it’s for dead plants.”

As the business grew, so did the Pennington family. Bob and Jeni’s three sons were all born in Santa Fe, and sons Shane and Mark have worked at the nursery with their father for pretty much their whole lives. Most recently, Agua Fria Nursery has included the fourth generation of Penningtons with Bob’s grandson, Aeneas, joining the crew.

“It’s a collaborative effort, nobody does one thing, but we all carved out little areas for ourselves,” Bob says. “My specialty is native plants and perennials; Mark orders most of the shrubs and trees; Shane is more interested in evergreens and, to an extent, annuals; Jeni ordered most of the seeds.”

His voice wavers as he reminisces about Jeni, who passed away this past August. He takes a deep breath and as quickly as the sadness came over him, he shakes it off with a quip about the secret to a lasting marriage—“Argue a lot but get over it!” He says their 54-year marriage was partly because, “We were both strong, stubborn people, but also too stubborn to give up.”

The family’s tenacity has paid off as Agua Fria Nursery continues to thrive. From the start they were guided by their principles as they built the business. “My dad was a minister, and I studied for ministry,” Bob says. “So it colors everything we do. We try to make really ethical choices and run a business in a way we can be proud of on an ethical and environmental basis. We live on this earth. I would love to pass on a better earth than the one I grew up in. I’m going to do my best to make sure that happens.” A look of exasperation crosses his face as he sighs and adds, “Well, it’s not happening, but… we try. We are politically sensitive and it shows.”

In reference to the controversial Monsanto herbicide, Bob says, “Take Roundup. We have never ever sold Roundup, and we never will. The neonicotinoids which are implicated in bee deaths, we have never sold them.” Bob considers those chemicals unnecessary and dangerous. “We don’t use ’em, we don’t buy ’em, we don’t sell ’em,” he states adamantly. The upshot is, as he puts it, “You don’t have to walk through the door with a gas mask.” His children were able to play safely in this environment, digging in the dirt and running through the plants without the risk of contact with dangerous chemicals. Today, employees’ children do the same. In fact, the employees are more concerned about cars in the parking lot than anything used on the plants.

“We have learned a few things about how to use better soils or better fertilizers, but we’ve also learned some are junk,” Bob says. “Peat moss is environmentally, a total disaster. It’s sold as renewable, but it takes 3,000 years to recover from strip mining!” Instead, he advises, “You can use coconut fiber, which was strictly a waste product.”

In keeping with their convictions, Agua Fria Nursery aims to use as many waste products as they can. This includes using animal waste as fertilizer, and some lesser-known plant waste products such as bark, rice hulls and the remnants from cotton ginning. The pots the nursery uses for their roses are made of paper waste, and other pots are made from rice byproducts—something Bob wishes to see more of industry-wide. He says, “Hopefully we can figure out how to use more waste products and less plastic; plastic is probably the biggest waste in industry.”

In addition to the organic methods and sustainable materials they use in their greenhouses, Agua Fria Nursery encourages people to plant native plants and appropriate exotics. Bob says, “Native plants grow here with the least supplemental inputs. You want things to grow with as little artificial manipulation as possible. For your own sake, you don’t want to be watering and spraying and feeding; it’s better if you can just enjoy it.” Beyond the advantages for an individual, Bob points out the global benefits of native plants. “Native plants and animals evolved together,” he says. He explains that desirable pollinators like butterflies and bees can’t utilize plants from China the way they can take advantage of native plants. Planting native species supports the entire ecosystem. “It’s just part of being stewards of the land we are responsible for, the land we live on,” Bob insists.

The climate in Northern New Mexico is dry, with poor soil, hot sun and high elevation. That combination creates unique challenges for gardeners here. Bob reflects, “Things people think they want to grow may not do well here. We’re here to help. We really do care about the success of your plants, and we do our best to provide you with the best plants we can lay our hands on.” He is determined to help guide customers in selecting plants that they’ll be happy with, and that will work in this climate.

“Great basin plants love it here; they think this is a cool place,” he says. “Are they native? Maybe not, but they’re very similar. Plants from all over the world thrive here because they come from similar environments.” He considers it his responsibility to help educate people on what works, what doesn’t and why. “I have taught Continuing Education for years at Santa Fe Community College, and I’m the state instructor for New Mexico Certified Nursery Professionals.” Agua Fria Nursery employs all certified, educated professionals because Bob believes in having qualified employees who know what they’re doing.

Setting a high bar for their employees hasn’t hurt the nursery one bit, either. “In reading trade journals, finding employees is the number one issue nurseries report, and getting younger customers is number two,” Bob says. “We’ve been really lucky to have a whole cadre of young people working here and a fair amount of young customers. We’re lucky, I think. We fill our roster each spring [and] summer. Maybe it’s the way we treat our employees, I don’t know.” He dismisses those issues, saying, “Water and space are our main problems!”

Continuing, “We have great customers! We have the best customer base in the city. He confides, “Quite frankly, I love all the people that I see. I’m sure for the last eight months, that’s what’s kept my sanity.”

Bob shows gratitude, joy and contentment as he reflects on the life he’s led and his business. “My wife and I, we traveled all over the Southwest looking at wildflowers, and it was all for business. Not everyone gets to do that. I get to play in the sun. I get to play in the dirt. I get to make beauty. I get to help people grow things to eat that are better than anything they can buy in the store.”

Bob says, “The rewards are pretty tremendous. I can’t imagine doing anything else.” With complete sincerity he sums it all up simply, “I love what I’m doing, and I love all of you.”

Agua Fria Nursery is located at 1409 Agua Fria Street in Santa Fe. 505.983.4831,

Pioneering New Mexico’s Farm Food Revolution

Image by Deborah Fleig

Image by Deborah Fleig

(Story by Lynn Cline)

The Santa Fe Farmers’ Market began 50 years ago as a small group of growers selling produce on Saturdays out of the back of their pick-up trucks. Those pioneers could hardly have imagined how their market would blossom. With 150 farmers across Northern New Mexico selling fresh food grown in the high desert to eager shoppers and restaurant chefs year-round, it’s become not only a Santa Fe treasure but one of the country’s biggest, oldest and most successful farmers’ markets.

The Santa Fe restaurant community has played a vital role in the market’s success, as chefs began purchasing lettuce, vegetables, fruits, meat, cheese and other items from area farmers and ranchers long before the farm to table and buy local, buy organic movements took root in New Mexico.

“Local restaurants certainly contribute to the financial viability of the farmers,” says Kierstan Pickens, executive director of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute. “A few restaurants in town—Il Piatto [Italian Farmhouse Kitchen] and 315 [Restaurant & Wine Bar] come to mind—have been purchasing local ingredients since before farm to restaurant was a thing. Early on market days, you’ll see chefs roaming the market, picking up wholesale pre-order from specific farms while also perusing what’s fresh and available that day. Squash blossoms are an especially popular seasonal item. Chefs buy local because they want the freshest, most delicious ingredients for their dishes. It’s why they choose to shop here. The quality cannot be beat. And it helps to keep money in the local economy.”

Image by Doug Merriam

Image by Doug Merriam

Chef Matt Yohalem, owner of Il Piatto, has been an ardent shopper at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market since the early 1990s, after moving here from New York City and opening Bistro 315, followed by Il Piatto. “At 315, Louis Moskow and I would go to the trailers and pick out everything,” Chef Matt says. “We’d get squash blossoms and 14 kinds of eggplant. We had endless energy, and we’d get back to the restaurant and say ‘I got an idea, I got an idea!’ I easily spent $50,000 to $100,000 a year at the market and that was my main source. I was amazed at how much variety they had than what I thought would be out here in the high desert.”

At 315 Restaurant & Wine Bar, Chef/Owner Louis Moskow remains a devotee of local, seasonal farm-grown ingredients. “I feel a certain obligation to support what I believe in,” Louis says. “In addition to keeping my money local and supporting local farming, I particularly enjoy the structure my menu gets by following rules of local seasonality. I only serve what is growing at the time. I like being told what to cook and when, the way nature intended.”

Deborah Madison, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and private cooking teacher in Galisteo, has long been a passionate advocate of farmers’ markets, and has written a book about them, Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from Americas Farmers Markets. “I really appreciate the foods that have sustained New Mexicans for generations, such as the chile and dried corn, whether posole, corn, corn seeds, chicos, masa, corn meal or whatever form it’s in,” Deborah says. “If I were visiting here, that’s what I’d be thrilled to find. In fact, these are the foods I was thrilled to find when I first came here in the l970s, and I brought them back to San Francisco to serve at my restaurant, Greens. But our real treasures are the farmers who have been growing their crops for a long time—and you have to know the market to know who they are. I treasure Stanley Crawford [who sold at the very first market], as well as his garlic and shallots and books. Or the person who is selling seeds, or incense, or more native food and plants.”

Image by Gabriella Marks

Image by Gabriella Marks

At Joe’s Dining, owner Roland Richter estimates he shops the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market 45 out of 52 Saturdays a year. “I love seeing the people who are producing the products, talking to them, asking them about what kind of challenges they have, what they’re going to have next week,” Roland says. “I love having a pulse on the environment, and how certain farmers are growing certain things. Many of the farmers are very good acquaintances now.”

By sourcing the farmers’ market for ingredients, Roland shows his customers how much he cares about what they eat. “It distinguishes us from the big stores, the multinational restaurants who just aren’t doing what we do,” he says. “They are spending so much money on marketing and image and we don’t do that. We spend our money on the ingredients for the food. ”

In turn, Joe’s Dining customers keep coming back for seasonal dishes like Margherita Pizza with fresh summer tomatoes. “They all love the idea that there are really strong standards to the tomatoes that we use,” Roland says. “They have to be soil-grown and sun-ripened. The tomatoes never see a refrigerator. They’re from a local farmer; they didn’t travel thousands of miles. It’s just like growing them in your own backyard and our customers enjoy them while they’re in season, along with apricots, cherries, peaches and corn. Most of the market foods are certified organic and some farmers use better principles than organic, as written down by law.”

Not surprisingly, farmers’ market shoppers develop a strong bond with the ingredients they purchase. “The food is alive!” Deborah Madison says. “It has a way of inspiring me that food from the store just doesn’t—unless it’s a store that happens to carry that food, and most don’t, and let’s face it, it’s not going to be as fresh as it is at the market, even when they do buy from the farmers. I also appreciate knowing and speaking to those who raise the food I eat. Sometimes their stories are hard—as they are this year with the drought, despite the monsoons. It’s important to see that and know that. That’s when we might just see that we’re actually in a precarious position vis à vis our food.”

Image by Kitty Leaken

Image by Kitty Leaken

Easy access to fresh, flavorful, farm-grown ingredients has helped to grow the farm to table and buy local, buy organic revolutions in New Mexico, and both these movements are vividly on display at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market.

“My only real experience with local farm to table and organic practices are witnessed at the farmers’ market where scores of people come to support the movement,” Chef Louis says. “Judging by the attendance, I would have to say it is a great success.”

Visit the market any day of the week, and you’ll see the relationship between farmers and chefs and home cooks. “I’d recommend coming to the market early on a Saturday morning and witnessing the exchange between chef and farmer,” Kierstan Pickens says. “Chefs wandering about with big bags of greens and other produce, picking up orders and dropping off checks. Discussing with farmers what’s going to be available when, do you have any more of this, can I get the last of that. I have seen Matt Yohalem stop by our small and quiet Wednesday market first thing in the afternoon to wipe out the entire supply of cauliflower from one vendor for the last two-three weeks. We’ve witnessed a vendor announcing bulk cherries for sale on Instagram, only to see Chef Rocky Durham respond within five minutes and stop by the market shortly thereafter to buy ALL the cherries she had that day. That’s really how it plays out. So much of the market is about community. The community between chef and farmer, farmer to farmer, farmer to customer and all the intersections in between. I think chefs and restaurants have helped to put a spotlight on local food and why it’s so important and delicious. But I think food-access programs like Double Up Food Bucks (we double SNAP transactions at the market) and our simple Market Fresh Cooking demos go a long way to help influence families as well.”

It’s with a keen eye toward the future that Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen Chef Scott Eastburn ardently uses fresh, local, farm-grown ingredients. “I feel that when I purchase from vendors at the Farmers’ Market, I am spending money in a conscious way,” Chef Scott says. “Not only do I support my friends, the farmers, but I am able to participate in a localized movement that cultivates more than just soil, but art, education and community. Farm to table is about bringing the best food to the table that I can. But it is also about espousing a set of values for a better tomorrow. My children will be raised at the farmers’ market along with the children of the farmers. Together, they may create a future that is bright, fulfilling and full from the value of things created and shared.”