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.


(Story by Michael Dax / Photographs by Stephen Lang)

Most simply, wildcrafting is the practice of harvesting wild plants that are typically intended for medicines, foods or other practical uses. But for Tomas Enos, who founded Milagro Herbs nearly 30 years ago, this relatively simple explanation only scratches the surface. For Tomas, he more aptly describes his life’s work as the “sustainable harvest of wild foods.”

“We’re not only gatherers, but we also study the plants and how ecosystems are doing, how they’re growing, what their populations look like and what impacts there are,” he says. “So it’s a little more involved than just harvesting.” It is this perspective that helps Tomas stand out. It’s not just about making a living, but rather, teaching people to interact with and integrate themselves into their environment while providing an opportunity for them to better understand the cultures that have shaped Northern New Mexico for more than a thousand years.

More than ever before, Americans have become wholly disconnected from the natural world, and as the impacts of climate change, as well as residential development, roads, overgrazing and other human impacts have degraded our natural landscapes, we are less and less equipped to understand and combat this ecological deterioration. So although outdoor recreation is experiencing a historic boom, people are not necessarily engaging in deep observation or forming the kind of meaningful relationships with the plant and animal communities around them.

This is where Tomas comes in. Sixty percent of his products, which include hair and skin care, nutritional supplements, pain relievers and dried herbs, are locally harvested. But for him, this is just the first step. More than anything, he hopes these products will help spark an interest and inspire people to learn more about the native plants and herbs growing from the Rio Grande to the highest ridges of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And with this curiosity for knowing how to harvest, process and use these plants in a responsible and sustainable manner comes a deeper appreciation and understanding for the natural world and humankind’s place in it.

Like many people, Tomas’s initial interest in wildcrafting began with spending time outside and wanting to learn the names, applications and cultural histories of the plants around him. But soon, his hobby became a passion and as he studied more, his interest grew beyond just knowing when and how to use these plants, but also, as he puts it, “how to live at the level that all other living things can tolerate.”

Part of this process is knowing when and when not to harvest, and for Tomas, his joy comes not from harvesting, but rather the opportunity to be out in the woods gaining knowledge. “Each time, it’s like a pilgrimage just to see what’s going on, maybe with the intent to harvest, but certainly with the intent to be in that environment,” he says. “It’s listening and the environment communicating.”

Perhaps no example better illustrates how seriously Tomas takes this ethic than the dilemma he faced during 2018’s historic drought.  “Last year, we had an incredibly dry year and things weren’t as viable and the plants were stressed, so it wasn’t an optimal time to do much collecting, and I had to adapt my business and life activities around that,” he says. “I’ve made a pact that if I’m going to live this kind of life, I have to live according to the natural ways. I can’t let business practices dictate my activities in the forest or else it will negatively impact the plants.”

As much as he laments how climate change and other human impacts have altered our natural landscapes, making certain plants increasingly hard to find, for Tomas, adjusting to those new realities is part of the point. Nothing in nature is ever static. Although the idea of living “sustainably” has become increasingly fashionable, often manifesting in such actions as installing home solar, driving an electric car or using recycled products, for Tomas, many of these efforts largely miss the mark. “Technology doesn’t provide the deeper answers to sustainable living,” he says.

More than anything else, Tomas views our fundamental disconnect from the environment as the largest overarching threat, and in many ways, wildcrafting both as practice and process offers a path forward. “We can’t take it for granted that those things are going to be there,” he says. “We have to be on our toes about what’s the right thing to do and our relationship with the natural world—finding our place and being aware and sensitive to that.”

While the impacts of climate change may have made last year particularly difficult, they have also engendered a growing interest in wildcrafting and the larger ethic of self-reliance that it represents. To meet this demand, Tomas offers a variety of classes and workshops focused on topics like herbalism, the cultural contexts of healing and making herbal medicines. He even has a six-month certification course in the foundations of herbal medicine.

While some of the classes can be fairly intensive, Tomas also leads a series of casual two-hour walks that provide a softer introduction to some of the fundamental principles of wildcrafting. In addition to what he describes as “a beautiful walk in the forest,” these classes also include overviews of identifying plants as well as when and how to harvest plants and herbs in order to promote future growth and not damage the plant. In the spring, these walks take place at lower elevations where participants might find commonly used medicinal plants like yerba mansa, which has a variety of uses, from reducing inflammation to easing stomach pain to curing common skin ailments.

As summer approaches, Tomas’s walks move up into the Santa Fe Ski Basin where people might find plants like osha, which Indigenous tribes have used for centuries to treat a variety of different aches and pains. Tomas will even lead walks around town to help demonstrate how many common plants we see growing as weeds can actually be quite useful. Yerba de negrita, also known as globe mallow, is a particular favorite. Blooming in July and known for its beautiful orange blooms, both the root and the leaves have long been used to treat sore stomachs, cover insect bites and condition hair and skin.

No matter the course, it’s not merely about teaching students about the plants and their uses, but about instilling an understanding and appreciation of how we, as humans, employ them in a respectful and ecologically responsible manner. Tomas is aware that in the wrong hands, certain herbs and plants can be overexploited and harvested at unsustainable levels. “We teach it very carefully,” he says. “It’s sacred information and we don’t want people using the knowledge and over extracting.”

To this end, he makes a point of incorporating plants’ cultural and human histories to better contextualize their practical applications. “We can’t always predict how people are going to use the information, and yet it is really important to get [that knowledge] out there, so along with teaching about the information, we have to work with people’s state of understand and being,” he says. “Without cultural meaning, the plants become just a commodity.”

Despite the mounting impacts of climate change and our increasing dependence on technology, he has found reason for hope. More and more, young people have become especially interested in wildcrafting and all the principles of self-reliance it embodies. “People are feeling a strong sense of wanting to reconnect with the natural world and wanting to know what all the uses are for plants,” he says.

In this movement, he sees a growing sense of community and shared experience among people who value that foundational connection to open spaces, biodiversity and healthy ecosystems he considers so essential. Wildcrafting’s prevalence may still be relatively small, but for Tomas Enos and his fellow enthusiasts, its potential to imbue a deeper sense of reverence for the plants that have sustained us for centuries is boundless.

Milagro Herbs is located at 1500 5th St. in Santa Fe, 505.820.6321,



We’ve Got Your Back(yard)

Courtesy of Paynes Nursery

(Story by Kelly Koepke)

Every year, homeowners pour hundreds (even thousands) of dollars, hours and energy into their gardens, yards and landscapes. According to the National Garden Survey, we spent $47.8 billion on lawn and garden retail sales last year, with a record average household spend of $503.

So when a shrub or tree fails, or that perennial labeled “full sun” from the big-box retailer shrivels and dies, we’re devastated. We shake our hands and curse Mother Nature. But we’re probably blaming the wrong cause. What if we’d gone to a local nursery instead? Had talked with someone who raised that seedling from a speck, knew exactly where and how to plant it and how much to water? We’d have succeeded for sure.

Jill Brown, landscape architect and owner of Brown, green & more is a huge advocate of local plant centers and the people who teach about, tend and sell growing things. She’s spent almost 20 years helping homeowners achieve their dream landscapes. Obviously, she says, shopping local means a win-win with money going back into the local economy, but she says, “The only way to assure that you get a plant suited for your yard is to go to a local nursery. There are so many factors to consider when purchasing plants, so sticking to local nurseries will help enormously in your landscape’s future success.”

Each one of these local nurseries and garden centers has smart people to counsel you. So stop cursing Mother Nature and start saving your yard and garden.


Agra Greenhouses of Albuquerque

2015 Gun Club Road SW


Three generations of Doherty’s work Agra Greenhouses, which specializes in flowering annuals, herbs and an explosion of vegetables—three-quarters of a million tomato and chile starts each year–from their South Valley retail outlet. Patriarch Chuck Doherty gives three reasons to shop local. “Price-wise the big-box stores might be friendlier, but not by much. Local nurseries have more variety and you can also meet face to face with the people who grew the plants,” he says. “They have expertise, rather than being someone who just waters them. But the strongest reason is that you’re keeping your dollar local. That’s the bottom line.”

Alameda Greenhouse

9515 4th St. NW


This North Valley staple is dedicated to growing and maintaining all manner of outdoor plants– veggies, fruit trees, flowers, and plenty of shrubs and perennials. Their nine greenhouses grow hundreds of pepper and tomato varieties and plant thousands of perennials every year.

Jericho Nursery

101 Alameda Blvd. NW


6921 Pan American Freeway NE


Gardening expert Rick Hobson and wife Jennifer, a landscape designer, have two locations to help with your lawn, tree care and other gardening needs–from veggies to houseplants to succulents. Store manager Amanda Clem wants local gardeners to succeed. “We have a lot of people come in for xeriscaping plants and shade trees. We frequently recommend different types of sterile elms whose low water use, fast growth, drought and disease resistance makes them the perfect shade tree for our area.”

Osuna Nursery

501 Osuna Road NE


Founded in 1980 by Korean immigrant Chang An and run today by his wife Myong, Osuna Nursery not only sells everything you might need to garden, they also hold frequent classes on everything from water conservation to landscape design to container and herb gardens. Their website also offers guides to horticulture topics like beneficial insects, pruning and caring for trees.

Parker’s Farm and Greenhouse


251 Church St. East Edgewood

For four generations, Parker’s Farm and Greenhouse has grown and sold garden plants only (no pots, soils or fertilizers). They specialize in plants for the high-altitude garden.

Perennial Delights


3871 Corrales Road

Perennial Delights offers locally grown annuals and perennials at the Corrales Growers’ Market and Los Ranchos Growers’ Market, or by appointment. They are also pollinator experts with plants supporting our birds, bees and butterflies.

Plants of the Southwest

6680 4th St. NW in Albuquerque


3095 Agua Fria St. in Santa Fe


With stores in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as well as online, Plants of the Southwest is the go-to for professional landscapers and homeowners who want water-wise and native vegetation.

Plant World Nursery & Landscape Supplies

250 El Pueblo Road NE


The largest wholesale nursery in New Mexico, Plant World sells to the trade and the public. They can also source large and hard-to-find specimens and carry a huge selection of hardscape materials and supplies.

Rehm’s Nursery & Garden Center

5801 Lomas Blvd NE


Known as the “Purple Greenhouse,” Rehm’s has been growing trees, shrubs and more for 80-plus years. Owner Tammy Hayman says she’s blessed with knowledgeable staff and provides a wide selection of heirloom, unique or hard-to-find vegetables. “We’re doing more organic, and sell a lot of beneficial insects like ladybugs and green lacewings,” she says. “When you go to a big box, nobody is ever there to help, or they don’t know what they are talking about. We do.”

Rio Valley Greenhouses

2000 Harzman Road SW


This small greenhouse in the South Valley provides locally grown annuals, perennials, vegetable starts, New Mexico chiles, herbs and more. Shop from their greenhouse and at the Railyards and Downtown Growers’ Markets.

Santa Ana Garden Center

960 US-550 in Bernalillo


Santa Ana Garden Center offers plants grown from locally gathered seed and raised at their nursery on the Santa Ana Pueblo, which ensures the hardiness of their plants for north central New Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley.

Santa Fe

Agua Fria Nursery

1409 Agua Fria St.


Agua Fria Nursery specializes in native and exotic perennials, shrubs and succulents. Their naturally grown plants, trees and other greenery, and their vegetable selection, are hard to match.

Newman’s Nursery

7501 Cerrillos Road


Newman’s offers a full selection of nursery plants and trees, including an excellent variety of fruit, flowering and shade trees, shrubs and drought tolerant perennials, as well as vegetables and soils. Owner Malcolm Newman prides himself on having the largest collection of fruit trees and roses in New Mexico. “We have over 1,000 trees like Asian Pears, Rainier cherries, Pink Lady and other older varieties of apples like Macintosh and Spitenzberg,” he says. “And we have over 4,500 rose bushes each year.”

Payne’s Nurseries

Payne’s South

715 St. Michael’s Dr.


Payne’s North

304 Camino Alire


Payne’s Organic Soil Yard

6037 Agua Fria St.


The Payne family has been in the nursery business in Santa Fe since 1952, with two full-service locations and their own organic soil yard that composts the green waste from the City of Santa Fe, offering it back to the public. Owner Lynn Payne knows the climate and soil, what grows here and doesn’t, and offers only landscape and garden plants he knows will survive and thrive. “A big box has a buyer for an entire region,” he says. “The buyer for Santa Fe might be in Phoenix, [Ariz.]. So when the tag for a perennial or shade tree says sun, it’s nowhere near being winter-hardy here. That will never happen in an independent, local nursery.


Tooley’s Trees

1301 Road (dirt road off Rt. 76) in Truchas


Tooley’s Trees retail and wholesale nursery on the highroad between Santa Fe and Taos grows trees, shrubs and grafted fruits. They focus on varieties that are drought tolerant and adapted to our high pH soil.

Petree’s Nursery & Greenhouses

25 Petree Lane


Northern New Mexico’s oldest and largest nursery with 10 greenhouses and acres of trees and shrubs, Petree’s caters to both the professional landscaper and the residential newbie getting started with houseplants or a container of tomatoes and chile. Owner Sylvia Petree says, “Service, knowledge and an experienced staff mean that our customers get to talk to people who know what grows here. Local nurseries provide information based on their own their gardening experience as well. We are the grower, so our quality is beyond compare.”

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,

Chefs for Change

ChefAmabassadorJBFBootCamp_Fall2018-001-resized2(Story by Ashley M. Biggers)

We rely on chefs to source the finest ingredients and craft the perfect dishes. Over time, we trust them not only with a single meal, but also with some of our highest values—the food we use to nourish our bodies, and the community built between farm and table. As Eric Kessler, co-founder of Chef Action Network observes, “When it comes to health and nutrition, what’s remarkable is that second to only medical professionals, chefs are the most trusted voice in America.”

Today, chefs are becoming advocates for issues far beyond the perfect béarnaise. Through organizations including the James Beard Foundation and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, chefs like Martín Rios and Rocky Durham are advocating for farmers’ economic futures and getting nutritious ingredients on New Mexicans’ tables, especially those of children.

ChefAmbassadorJBFBootCamp_Shelburne2018-062“I do have a voice. I can use my restaurant, my reputation, my celebrity status to change the world,” Martín  says. That newfound confidence and focus comes from his participation in the James Beard Foundation’s 16th Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change, held Sept. 9–11, at Shelburne Farms in Burlington, Vermont.

“We focus on teaching them how to open conversations with people and how to better tell their own story about why these policies are important to them,” says Katherine Miller, vice president of impact at the James Beard Foundation. “Chefs are natural-born storytellers and our program gives them the tools to hone their message and be more effective.”

Martín, a multi-time finalist for the Best Chef Southwest award from the James Beard Foundation, was eager to parlay his standing relationship with the foundation into additional education. He had no idea, however, all that was in store. He headed east with the expectation he’d learn about farming and how to better work with farmers, and perhaps cook with the other 15 chefs in attendance. Instead, he received an encyclopedic education on the Farm Bill––an umbrella of legislation for policies that may seem like bureaucratic abstractions but have very real impacts on farmers and food-insecure Americans.

Congress passed the original Farm Bill, officially known as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, in 1933, when farmers’ livelihoods literally and figuratively blew away in the Dust Bowl. At its base, the bill established policies that support farm income and encourage agricultural conservation and sustainability practices. Over the years, new areas have been tacked on—far beyond corn, soybean and cotton subsidies. The bill now includes policies that range from renewable energy to nutrition. In 1973, the Farm Bill also had a shotgun marriage with a food assistance program, which has been part of the program since. Today, 75 cents of every farm bill dollar are spent on the Supplemental Nutrition Program—a contentious point for negotiation when the bill came up for renewal this fall. The bill officially expired on Sept. 30, and the lame-duck Congress was expected to take up its five-year renewal after the midterm elections.

“Chefs like Martín are able to help policy makers understand the personal stories behind the programs including farmers who benefit from incentives to grow more healthy fruits and vegetables and the more than 40 million Americans including children, veterans and families who receive SNAP assistance,” Katherine says.

With so many facets to choose from, the boot camp organizers encouraged chefs to cut a slice of the Farm Bill pie for their advocacy missions. In the past, some have chosen to speak in favor of sustainable seafood, while others have opted to lobby members of Congress on the Farm Bill directly. Martín chose a cause close to home: expanding his work with Cooking with Kids, a local organization that educates and empowers children and families to make healthy food choices. He’s been involved with the nonprofit for decades.

Martín says his previous involvement has been small, and “cooking something with the kids for a couple hours.” In the future, he envisions expanding his role into a culinary advisor—helping to create recipes, working with farmers to get fresh ingredients into the classrooms for lessons and into cafeterias for meals, and instructing cafeteria employees on preparing fresh produce. His ultimate goal is for children to eat healthier meals in school. This is especially vital since many children live below the poverty line—half of all households in New Mexico fall into that category—and many children eat their only reliable meals of the day at school. “How can I help them even if they’re only having breakfast and lunch at school? If kids don’t have healthy meals, how are they going to be able to succeed?” he asks.

Rocky Durham, a fellow Cooking with Kids volunteer chef, is taking on a larger advocacy role, Chef-Ambassadors-at-the-State-Fairtoo. A long-time spokesperson for local agriculture, Rocky now has an official title as one of two New Mexico Department of Agriculture Taste the Tradition Chef Ambassadors. (Chef John C. Hartley, of Las Cruces, who is currently serving as a college assistant professor at the New Mexico State University School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management, is the second ambassador.)

The chef ambassadors will conduct cooking demonstrations at the New Mexico State Fair and other events, like the recent NMSU Ag Day, and create digital promotions, like cooking videos for social media, all in the name of promoting New Mexico agriculture. “This is a role that I’ve always done off my own back,” Rocky says. “Any more, people look to chefs. Chefs get a lot of press and screen time. Being a chef is like being a minor celebrity. People want to know what you’re doing. And diners getting more savvy about wanting to know the pedigree of your products—where you source them. They want to know the farmer’s name.”

Chef-Ambassadors-2018Rocky’s always sourced from and spoken highly of local farmers, as he does currently as chef of Blue Heron Restaurant at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort. One of his key platforms is “five a week”—shifting $5 a week in items people would already buy into New Mexico-grown products. If everyone does that, he says, “we’re talking about a huge influx into the agrarian economy. That behooves everyone.” Rocky says that’s one way for people to advocate for their own health and wellness. Big box-stores, he says, are only going to stock more local products when consumers demand them. “That’s one way we can get their attention,” he says.

Rocky’s longtime work with Cooking with Kids perfectly crosses over with this new mission. “Little by little, we’re getting healthy ingredients into our public schools and our most precious resources, our children,” he says. “It’s not about additional money. It’s just refocusing where the ingredients come from.”

The tasks of Rocky and Martín as chefs are evolving into broader roles as trusted advocates for the sustainability of our farms and the nourishment of our children. “We’ve always been community oriented,” Martín says of his restaurant, “but there’s always room for a little bit more.”