Chicos, Chiles and Beans

Chicos and beansHere in New Mexico, birthplace of our nation’s oldest culinary heritage, an elegant blueprint for sustainability was set in place for us by the Anasazi many centuries ago. Also known as the “ancient ones,” these early ancestors of the Pueblo Indians along the Rio Grande enjoyed a rich culture, thriving on the plants and animals indigenous to what is now New Mexico. With an abundant supply of such diverse foods as acorns, berries, cactus, piñons and mushrooms, as well as deer, rabbit, bison, quail and other birds, they only needed to depend on a handful of domesticated crops—corn, beans, chile and squash.  Corn, grown in a rainbow of colors but most importantly blue, was and is not only a primary food source but is also held sacred in Native American culture. Bolita beans, first cultivated in Peru 10,000 years ago, eventually worked their way up to New Mexico, followed later by pintos; Anasazi beans, reputedly rediscovered in the remains of an ancient cliff dwelling, also grow well here and are gaining popularity. Various chiles, flavorful sources of Vitamin C, migrated up north from Mexico and South America at least as long ago as bolitas. These foods were later adopted in the 1500s by Spanish explorers settling in New Mexico, evolving over many generations into what we know today as traditional New Mexican cuisine. Corn, chile and beans, the three main ingredients for so many distinctively delicioso local dishes, share one common trait—they’re all easily dried for storage throughout the winter, making them a vital addition to any New Mexico pantry. Continue reading

Real Milk

De Smet June 2014Farmer Mike De Smet walks about six feet behind a group of 20 dairy cows through knee-high green grass, rhythmically whistling as he brings them from pasture for their daily milking. The scene is idyllic in every sense of the word. Mike is calm, the cows are calm, the sun shines, wind rustles the leaves, the acequia waters murmur behind us. It is the classic pastoral scene we see more often portrayed on milk bottles than on actual dairy farms, most of which are large confinement operations these days. Mike’s wife, Erica, stands with my husband, two children and me on the dirt road nearby and quizzes my daughter on bovine knowledge. The black and white cows are Holsteins and the brown ones are Jersey cows (one of these, Snooki, has a son named Lorenzo). Did you know cows have four stomachs? And all cows have horns, even the girls. My 5-year-old starts to look concerned as the large, gentle beasts move closer, so Erica shares, “They only have teeth on the bottom, so don’t worry, they can’t bite you. There’s Red,” she exclaims, and interrupts her teaching to praise and adore the sole red and white Guernsey now strolling by us. “You’re our prize milking cow, aren’t you, Red?” she crows. Perhaps it’s the power of suggestion, but Red does indeed look pretty proud of herself. In fact, all the cows on De Smet Dairy Farm look content, clean and healthy. Continue reading

Green Tractor Farm

Green Tractor June 2014

 

 

Green Tractor

What’s in a name? The act of naming—a child, a pet, a company, a farm—is a time-honored tradition, a ritual dating back to our origins in which we invest meaning, hopes and aspirations. With farms, names tend toward the descriptive and practical. They are grounded, based in an everyday reality of seasons, tools, seedlings. Hence a name like Green Tractor Farm.

In these days of industrial food production, of so-called “enriched” foods and empty calories, we’re just as hungry for authenticity, for a taste of something real, as we are for fresh greens. When we head to the farmers market on a Saturday morning, we’re looking for a narrative that rings true, a story of hand-raised produce, grown just down the road, presented by familiar faces.

That’s why I was so tickled to discover that there really is a green tractor at Green Tractor Farm. It’s not a logo gimmick; it’s the real deal. The story of that green tractor, and the recent addition of a second green tractor, is a parable of heritage and adaptation that characterizes the farm’s history and future. Continue reading

The Greenhouse Grocery

Once upon a time, food co-ops were truly cooperative. Members owned the co-op together, everyone was required to volunteer a certain number of hours a month to run the daily operations and each member participated in the co-op’s decision making. It was grassroots democracy in action, and each member was a part of why it succeeded. With only a few paid staff members in supervisory roles, overhead costs were low, which in turn made high quality food much more affordable to the widest swath of the co-op’s neighboring population. What’s more, people who’ve been members of this original style of food co-op invariably rave about how working their shifts resulted in lasting friendships, community solidarity and goodwill amongst people of diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Continue reading

Let’s Make Lasagna!

Lasagna gardening is a technique gaining in popularity, especially for those of us living in high-desert terrain. It’s drought-tolerant, requiring minimal watering, for one thing; also, in preparing the bed, you won’t be trying to hack and whack your way through dry, hardpacked caliche and bedrock because with lasagna gardening, you’re literally building new soil from the ground up. In her straightforwardly titled book Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!, author Patricia Lanza lays out the fundamentals for the simple, effective—and fun—technique she developed about 20 years ago. It incorporates levels of nitrogen and carbon, which together produce the energy and organisms essential for organic plant and soil health. You can be creative with the materials you use, as long as you follow the rule of Lanza’s recommended ratio, which is two inches of carbon-rich “lasagna levels” interspersed with one inch of nitrogen-rich materials… Continue reading

Let Me Tell You ‘Bout the Birds and the Bees

In Upstate New York, where I grew up, water was so ubiquitous that I didn’t notice it. Grass needed to be cut once a week, trees didn’t need to be watered, and our property was surrounded by woods and fields. The soundtrack to summer was the chirping and warbling of birds and the drone of bees. I took all of that bounty for granted until I bought a home in southwest Santa Fe (or what was southwest Santa Fe 15 years ago). I looked around my yard, which had been cleverly landscaped by the previous owner with a mix of dirt, goat heads and tumbleweeds, and thought to myself, “Something is missing.” As I built an oasis for myself, adding flower beds, bird feeders, outdoor drinking areas for the cat and brightly painted patio furniture and garden walls, I noticed that birds and bees moved in as well. Now I can look out my bedroom window and watch a hummingbird sitting on her nest, and when I nap in the hammock I can hear the bees.

The rules of attraction are fairly simple: have things in your garden that birds and bees love.

"#1 Sunflower Lane" Pat Woodall Fine Art, Taos

“#1 Sunflower Lane” Pat Woodall Fine Art, Taos

“The single biggest attraction [for birds] is water,” said Roberta Beyer of fatfinch.com, an online avian accessory store based in Albuquerque. “It’s like a magnet.” If you can make the water move, that’s even better—the birds can see and hear it from a greater distance. Active water also stays cleaner, harboring fewer of the parasites that can harm birds. Bird baths, fountains and ponds are all inviting to birds, and the water attracts a wider range of birds than feeders alone. (Bees also need the water; they use it for cooling their hives.) A few rocks or floating twigs added to your bird bath or fountain just above the water line give the bees a foothold while they collect water.

Bird feeders and hummingbird feeders are fun, because not only do they attract birds, but they attract them to where you want to see them, such as your porch or outside the window where you drink your coffee in the morning. Make sure to hang feeders in an area that has some protection from cats and wind.  Hummingbirds, Roberta told me, will remember from year to year what hook you hang the feeder on, and once you’ve let them know that you’re open for business, you’ll be on their route each year. I asked her if it’s the same hummingbird I’ve been seeing for years in the nest outside my window, and she assured me it is. “She’ll keep coming back as long as you leave the nest alone.” Hummingbirds also send out an early scout, so you should already have your feeders out!

I spoke with Terry Smith, who used to keep bees, and asked him for some tips. His top suggestion was to keep fruit trees. “Fruit trees love bees, and bees love fruit trees,” he said. “Plant an apple tree and just stand by and watch them come.” He noted that when he had his bees, he had apples by the cartful. He also told me that bees have a three-mile radius, and when a bee finds a good source of nectar and pollen, it returns to the hive, where it does an elaborate ritual dance that transmits the direction and distance of the source to the other bees. So there really is a bee out there saying to his mates, “Caitlin planted some Russian sage and some bee balm, and she has an apple tree. It’s this way—let’s go!”

Native plants are important to birds and bees, as is variety. One of the reasons we’re losing bees is monoculture farming, in which there is only one crop to be seen for miles on end. Bees need a range of flowers and plants in order to maintain their health and health of the hive. When laying out your garden, plant flowers of different shapes, colors and varieties—preferably arranged in clumps rather than in solitary fashion. Bees are particularly attracted to purple, blue and violet. It’s also important to have a combo of plants that flower at different times so that there’s something available the entire growing season. Native plants are better than hybrids, which have less pollen and nectar. (Of course, they also take less maintenance to grow.) When planting for bees, bear in mind that they prefer sun to shade, and they like to be protected from the wind. I have lavender and salvia along a sunny wall, and they are very popular with both the bees and the hummingbirds.

When you’re in your beautiful garden surrounded by colorful native plants, the sound of fountain gurgling, birds in the trees and bees buzzing around, you should keep certain caveats in mind. You don’t get to pick and choose which birds you attract. If you invite one bird, you invite them all. And the expression, “The early bird gets the worm”? Well, birds take that to heart. They get up early. Very early. And they like to sing about it. The beautiful hummingbird outside my window? She’s also very messy. Sit down to a nice dinner or lunch al fresco, and the bees will assume that they are invited guests. But I can live will all of that. The birds are quiet in the afternoon, so I can take my hammock nap then. A broom, a hose and some window cleaner take care of the mess from the hummingbird. And a few bees have never ruined my picnic; if they show too great an interest in the strawberries or the wine, I always give them their own dish off to the side and politely ask them to buzz off.

 Story by Caitlin Richards