Erda Gardens

Erda Gardens

Erda Gardens

I head over to the Blake location of Erda Gardens and Learning Center, just a few miles away, to meet with Outreach and Education Coordinator, Amanda Rich. Like La Orilla, this is not a manicured showplace. It is a working farm. Arriving there, I am greeted by kids with kids—that is, one of Erda’s nanny goats gave birth to three kids the day before, and Amanda is conducting a farm camp with a group of children, who are having a great time petting and holding the kids. Amazing how ready to go they are, at one day old.

Amanda and I sit at a picnic table by one of the fields. Again, we’re near the Rio, so there’s the sounds of the cranes, and there are more low flying aircraft. We are smack-dab in the middle of the big picture.

Erda, whose name comes from the German word for “earth”, was, says Amanda, “started in 1996 by a Franciscan nun, Marie Nord, a peace and anti-poverty activist for many years.” Frustrated with activism as a reaction, Nord decided to create something positive, something that would help her community, heal her community. “This is the first CSA project [Community Supported Agriculture] in Albuquerque,” says Amanda. People invest in Erda either as a paying or work-trade member and share in the produce of the farm. “We are also a learning center with a free lecture series,” she says. “Work parties in the gardens are an opportunity for hands-on learning, and we have farm camp for kids, giving them access to the outdoors.”

A crew is harvesting carrots, which will be sold through the Agri-Cultura Network to local restaurants. We pause as Amanda takes a carrot, wipes off the dirt, snaps it in half and hands a piece to me. It is sweet and crunchy, earthy and good. “There’s something about tilling a bed, or planting or weeding—you feel that you’ve accomplished something,” she says. “You’ve contributed in a meaningful way.” I mention to Amanda we’ve been digging in the earth longer than we’ve been fooling around with computers. “Amen to that,” she says.

Erda now has six growing sites around Albuquerque and is more than halfway into a capital campaign toward buying the Blake location. “The last five or six years, I’ve watched the exponential growth of the local food movement and the local farming movement,” says Amanda. “Many people are thinking about this; many people are wanting to learn these skills. Our workshop series is overwhelmed with participants. People want the knowledge. Ultimately, we really need this.” It’s great to see Erda’s success. “The more people who can learn how to grow food, the better—for everyone,” says Amanda. We peer into a cold frame brimming with new little green things sprouting up. How can you not be optimistic looking at this?

 Story by Gordon Bunker

Goat Magic

Stewards of Animals and Earth

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When I was a kid, I had a favorite game involving one of my dolls, Sharon. Her short black hair was in a perpetual cyclone of disarray; her body was covered with a mean case of pencil-hole-poked measles. The other dolls would discover her glowering, sickly self and take her in (off the streets, away from a cold, lonely castle or out of an evil stepmother’s clutches). They’d nurse Sharon’s wounds, feed her food fresh from their garden, encourage her to explore the surrounding woodlands and fields while sharing their love and their home. Step by step, Sharon would begin to get betterhealthy, happy, even glowing.

This childhood yearning to participate in the miracle of transformation wasn’t mine alone. We all want that, for ourselves, for the world. That yearning is what spawned this recent interest in urban homesteading. And a young couple living outside the village of Cerrillos, JoAnna Conte Durham and her husband, Erin Durham, are its poster kids. Along with their eight playful goats.

“Goats are the best anti-anxiety medicine there is,” says JoAnna. “Yes, they give milk, they give meat to some, they cut the grass and fertilize it. They’re amazing pets—intelligent, loving, affectionate. I try to name it, but they are just magic!”

As we near their pen, goat faces begin to bunch up, poking through the bars of the gate. With their horizontal pupils, they look like aliens. To enter, we have to push past them. JoAnna introduces me to each one, sometimes several at once, as they nose me, nudge me, sniff and eyeball me. You can’t be afraid of them—they’re just nosy. Nosier even than Curious George. In fact, they make you want to laugh.

Inside their pen are a number of wooden plank ramps at various angles, leading up to the roof of their home and across the yard. They can’t really balance on those, can they? “Yes!” says Erin, who built the planks—along with everything else out here. “They’re hilarious. Sometimes they stand on top of their house and just stare out to the highway. Friends have said they’re driving by and look over and there’s this goat standing above the fence line.”

JoAnna, an artist who also does art therapy, includes the goats as her assistants, similar to the way horses are used in equine therapy. “They’re so entertaining! Their comic lightheartedness helps everybody relax into that deep state of being in the present moment, which activates our body’s abilities to heal. They connect us to our hearts. Someone who was abused and has trusting issues, even they automatically fall in love with the goats, feeling safe. Goats have their own mission.”

“And if we’re going to have ’em,” Erin adds with a smile, “let’s milk ’em.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 12.34.23 PM  JoAnna’s love affair with goats began when she was a little girl growing up in Maryland. “Trashy. He was my garage goat. I walked him around the neighborhood, and my mom used to load him in the back of the jeep to pick me up from school.” JoAnna’s always loved farm animals and has had what she laughingly calls “a paragraph” of them all her life. “Animals are medicine for me. They help me; they’re a divine gift. They’re always there for you. They teach me to be like them, to walk without separation.” She knew ten years ago, as she first discovered the Cerrillos Hills, off Highway 14, that she wanted to live within view of them and have goats. Recently graduated from art school, she’d come out west to enroll at Santa Fe’s Southwestern College to begin her art therapy study.

She found her house, a turn-of-the-century adobe. It matched up exactly with the floor plan she’d previously drawn. She fenced in the land. Then she got goats. Her first two, bought from a nearby ranch, she named Basil and Nova. Nova was a strong and healthy kid, she says, but “Basil was teeny, just one week old. Her mother wouldn’t feed her, so she was traumatized.” JoAnna brought her home and fed her from a bottle. That’s how, soon afterwards, she met Erin.

“She had goats,” Erin laughs, “I had hay.” He’d grown up surrounded by chickens, pigs, horses and a potbellied pig on a 40-acre ranch up the highway in Lone Butte.

“I knew I could trust him,” JoAnna continues, “so I asked him to watch Basil and Nova for me while I was away. Then we stared dating.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 12.34.29 PM   The goats are members of their family. There’s Basil, Copper, Clover, Watson, Wings, Teddy, Story and Vicente. They got Story from a ranch in Edgewood; she’d never been touched and was skittish. Now she’s mothered several litters. Wings was born right here, a little black guy with two white wing shapes on his back. “We knew we’d keep him!” JoAnna adds. And Watson was their first Nigerian—they got him four or five years ago. He was the size of a Chihuahua when they brought him home; his bed was a dog carrier in the kitchen. “Now he’s really loyal,” JoAnna says. “He comes and lies on our feet.”

Watson, JoAnna says, has become a crucial part of the family’s history. “Erin had made a pack for Watson to wear out of an old pair of jeans, and he left the pocket on. Watson was wearing the pack, and Erin said, ‘Let’s go for a hike.’ We took Harley, my dog, too, and went up into the Cerrillos Hills. At the top, I was sitting with Harley on one side of me, Watson on the other, and Erin proposed! Watson had the ring in his pocket!”

By now, it must be obvious that these goats aren’t raised for their meat. JoAnna and Erin need to breed the girls in order to milk them—that’s Erin’s job. He devised a wooden milking stand for them which, he says, they walk right onto, voluntarily fitting their heads over the bar in order to reach the feed container to munch from during the process. JoAnna makes cheese with the milk. They don’t sell the milk or the cheese, because they aren’t certified to do that. They use it themselves instead, or trade some and give some as gifts. But they do sell baby goats each year, to neighbors as pets or as future milkers. Because goat milk isn’t homogenized, explains JoAnna, who is allergic to cow’s milk, and there are no hormone additives, it’s a lot healthier. “Our bodies are able to use a lot more of the nutrient energy in goat’s milk. It’s easier to assimilate.”

“And,” Erin adds, “it’s the closest thing to human milk. A lot of babies go right from breastfeeding to goat milk.”

Erin built what he and JoAnna refer to as their maternity ward, a little house just off the pen, for birthing mothers. “Story just drops the baby and starts nursing,” he says. “Basil still has to have us do it for her.” How do they know when it’s time? “There are signals. And the goats tell us. Sometimes it even seems like they wait till we’re around.”

They also have several rabbits. Erin designed their cages so their waste falls down to a lower level (“Everybody has a job,” says JoAnna—the rabbits’ household contribution, besides love, is fertilizer). And they’re about to start raising a new batch of chicks. As we tour around, Erin’s on the porch setting up a large round covered home he built for the chicks til they’re ready for the chicken house. He’s also in the process of starting a passive solar greenhouse. “I’ve been collecting windows a long time for this,” he says.

The couple grows a surprising variety of vegetables in Erin’s raised beds, including tomatoes, corn, chiles, bell peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, squash, lettuce, onions, kale, swiss chard, beets, radishes, carrots and strawberries, plus raspberries from two bushes. JoAnna is Italian on her father’s side; he makes his own wine and gave her and Erin nine grapevines. They water their fruit trees with rain catchment.

“It’s all research,” Erin says, clearly relishing that part. “How to plant a particular thing, what soil it likes. You use a lot less water if you do it in the proper way.”

“He’s got a lot of books,” JoAnna interjects.

“We do all this,” Erin continues, gesturing around the property, “so that, no matter what might happen, we won’t have to leave. We can just trade with our friends.”

“At some point,” JoAnna says, indicating a shady space in the front yard, “Erin is building me an outside kitchen and an horno. I’m used to large Italian gatherings. That’s what we do!”

“All our friends are pretty much on the same page,” Erin says.

JoAnna agrees. “We’re a unique community out here: stewards of animals and the earth.” They’ve sold a lot of their friends on the idea of raising goats. When they sell their goat babies, “we think of it as their chance to move up.”

“Goats really increase our quality of life,” JoAnna continues. “They’re our inspiration.” One of her favorite paintings is one she made of Wings, flying through the air, his alien eyes shining. “Goat medicine,” she adds, “is joy medicine.”

 Story by Gail Snyder; photos by Kitty Leaken

Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen

Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen is a wonderful place to walk into: clean white walls, a high-pitched ceiling with wooden beams and light, light, light pouring in from the many windows and skylights. The décor is modern and minimal, with simple wood and metal tables and chairs. A row of red, orange and yellow bell peppers preserved in big mason jars lines one wall and overlooks the community table, which has a mini garden filled with plants running through its center. The atmosphere here, just like the food, is sincere and honest. When I met Soma Franks and Fiona Wong, joint owners of the venture (which opened in December of 2012), they explained why the principles of homesteading are important to the philosophy behind their first restaurant. Continue reading


Meeting with Michael Reed—gardener, thinker and doer in Albuquerque’s South Valley—gives me a new and clear understanding of what it means to be grounded. He is engaged less with the rhythms of hard drives and internet connections and more with those of plants, days and seasons. Michael runs La Orilla Farm with his wife, Susan, and teaches the Mother of All Back-Yard Gardening Courses; he is also part of the Erda Gardens and Learning Center’s core group.
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When I arrive at La Orilla Farm, Michael is out front, keeping an eye open for me. I stop and put the window down. “You must be Michael Reed,” I say.

“Yes,” he replies, smiling and looking around. “I must be.” Continue reading


hugelkultur garden layout

Hugelkultur Garden

by Gail Snyder

“Hugelkultur” is the kind of word my dad would’ve loved. If I’d called him up and said, “Hi, Dad! I’m making a hugelkultur garden,” he would’ve interrupted me immediately, giving it endless variations—hoooooglekultur; hewglekultur—of Dr. Strangelove pronunciations, laughing at his own wit. It’s the kind of word that encourages silliness.
And actually, as a gardening technique, hugelkultur totally lives up to the wacky spirit of its name. It’s virtually rule-less, so there’s no way you can screw it up. It uses a ton of unconventional materials—trash, basically—not ordinarily associated with gardening. And so if, like me, you hate following recipes and instructions and you love madcap adventures, hugelkultur is for you. Continue reading