Homesteaders

Farm to Table Editorial - Homesteading

Nazca Warren

Finding the meaning in a phrase like “homesteading” is a journey in itself. And that makes sense, really. Over the course of meeting and talking with people who organize their lives around the concept, it became clear to me that to “homestead” is no singular act; it is not a verb constrained by strict definitions. Consider instead meaning drawn from patterns—lives lived one day at a time, based on a series of small conscious choices, the sum of which create a system of living in closer harmony with ourselves and the land.

I take personal refuge in this route to understanding Homesteading because, perhaps like you, I was more than a little daunted by the formality of the pursuit by the puritanism I had projected onto the term. In short, I’d imagined “The Homesteader” as someone of heroic proportions and deeply rooted convictions, someone ready to eschew the comforts of modern living for bootstrapped self-sufficiency of nearly monastic proportions. Maybe chalk that up in part to a penchant for the dramatic and my own idiosyncratic way of seeing just how much greener that xeriscaped garden is on the other side.

But like so many misconceptions, that premise was a false binary. There isn’t an “us and them,” and we’re cast along a continuum. Those of us living and thriving in Northern New Mexico have the increasingly rare and precious privilege of living in a liminal realm between urban and rural. The non-negotiable realities of living in a desert—even one at high altitude—dictate a level of environmental awareness that is conspicuously absent in other regions. Before moving here, I’d never seen a rain barrel—despite having lived most of my life in California, a state chronically challenged by drought.

Rain barrels, cisterns and makeshift water catchment systems are practically par for the course here. And that’s a defining aspect of the domestic landscape here: without making great sacrifice or any big fuss, many of us are already incorporating aspects of homesteading. At its elemental root, it’s about a common-sense relationship with the land.

Making the leap to intentional homesteading, as those profiled here, is actually no more than one simple step, followed by another. To homestead is to actively engage with a process: to make one decision that leads to another, based on guiding principles of living sustainably. And that doesn’t need to mean estranging oneself from traditional infrastructure. It means making thoughtful decisions when possible that, combined, lead to a life that is thoroughly livable and enjoyable, while minimizing environmental impact and maximizing successful strategies. The homes profiled here are not so far from our own. Small changes in energy production and consumption, from water conservation to growing just a little bit of our own food, generate meaningful community momentum.

By incorporating a little bit of homesteading in your everyday, you can change the world. At the very least: you are actively living in and changing your world, and that is something to recognize and celebrate, however epic or modest that motion might be.

Juliana & Tejinder Ciano, Nambe

Farm to Table Editorial - Homesteading

“I connect the labor of my own hands to the things I need—everything I need is in front of me if I know where to look for it.” – Juliana Ciano

Juliana traces the origins of her homesteading back to childhood memories of her parents reading aloud from Little House on the Prairie. Those literary seeds, harvested from the autobiographical tales of Laura Ingalls Wilder, took root and helped shape the perspective through which Juliana and her family now live and grow.

Rather than out on the prairie, their home is nestled deep in the fertile terrain of Nambe, surrounded by a protective perimeter of cottonwoods and elm, with spectacular views of the Sangre de Cristo range to the east. The defining horticultural element on their land is a well-established asparagus plot, which although overgrown with weeds when they arrived a couple years ago, is once again healthy and productive, yielding enough not only for their table but to sell to restaurants in town.

Farm to Table Editorial - Whispering Spirit Alpaca for Local FlavorThe inherited asparagus plot tells a story all its own: not only of the continuum in the land from one generation of owner/caretaker to another, but also of sustainable agriculture: once established, perennial crops produce for years, even decades. They have deep root systems, require fewer nutrients than annuals, and don’t require the labor of annual seeding/transplanting. Perennials are a defining cornerstone of permaculture, the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

But of course, you can’t feed a young family on asparagus alone, and that’s where community comes in. For Juliana, homesteading is about a way of engaging in her life in a holistic way. “There’s this lofty ideal of being self-sustaining, but in practice, it’s more community sustaining: what are we growing and what are you growing, and how can we share?”

Farm to Table Editorial - Whispering Spirit Alpaca for Local FlavorWith their land, Juliana and her husband Tejinder plan to share not only their produce, but the ability to grow itself: this year, they plan to invite city-dweller friends to plant and harvest community gardens along the eastern border of their acreage.

Just a couple years into their adventure, Juliana is both pragmatic and visionary about their plans. “The reality of our ambitions is much longer than the list of accomplishments—it’s bit by bit by bit, and there is no instant gratification.”

They are a family at the beginning of their arc—growing their home on the land while also growing a business in town, Reunity Resources, which recycles food waste from Santa Fe-area restaurants into productive compost.

Their approach to homesteading is one where the journey really is the destination: the process of finding a way to live both within and outside of established systems. “I think a lot about homesteading as a way to voice resistance to the systems, to convention,” Juliana explains, “and yet how difficult it is to find your way into the lifestyle without being a part of the system in some way. You have one foot playing the game according to the rules: earn money, pay taxes, permits for our business in order to have a piece of land that’s irrigated and arable.” It’s an ongoing compromise, and one that they are negotiating with patience and ingenuity.  

Nazca Armentha Warren & Phil Rothwell, La Fragua (Ribera)

Farm to Table Editorial - Whispering Spirit Alpaca for Local Flavor“And we’ll collect the moments one by one: I guess that’s how the future is done.” – Fiona Apple

When Nazca Warren and Phil Rothwell moved into their home in the Pecos River valley of Ribera, it was essentially a shell—walls and a roof and little else. Over a century of use—as a home, and according to lore, even a bootlegger’s den—had taken its toll on the structure. But built in the traditional style, with two-foot-thick stone walls and adobe, its structural integrity was still strong.

From that simple foundation, Nazca and Phil, both originally from urban settings (Las Cruces and Detroit, respectively) embarked on their rural adventure, creating what is now flourishing cultivated land surrounding their cozy home. Over the course of five years, they’ve rebuilt the house back to livability, putting in electricity, plumbing, plaster, floors, cabinets and eventually, they added on an attached greenhouse.

A drive through this valley follows gentle curves, both horizontal and vertical, around and up and down the waves of hills the define the landscape along the river. Although their land features a relatively flat, rock-fortified field, it was dormant and undeveloped when they moved in—which is hard to imagine when walking through it today.

Farm to Table Editorial - Whispering Spirit Alpaca for Local FlavorCurrently, it’s all about garlic: garlic for seed, garlic for eating at home, garlic for the little farm stand they have at the bottom of their driveway. Rock-lined paths wind through the little plots that are terraced in classic permaculture style to follow the flow of water through the property. The water itself is rainwater catchment from the roof, collected in cisterns. There is a well on the property, but they didn’t feel it would be responsible to grow the garden from well water.

While compact, there is incredible abundance, with nearly every single inch of ground cultivated. The techniques Nazca and Phil used to develop their little farm are both basic and ingenious, drawn from each of their experiences globally as “WWOOFers” (an organization that enables people to stay and volunteer on organic properties), workshops at Ampersand Sustainable Living Center and from Bob Pennington of Agua Fria Nursery, books and neighbors.

The transition to living in Ribera was an education that goes beyond learning about growing food. “Out here, the priorities change,” Nazca explains. It is a life that is both more isolated than city living, yet also more tightly knit. Community organizations like El Valle Women’s Collaborative and Bueno Para Todos Cooperative provide invaluable support for neighbors invested in bringing agricultural living back to the valley.

As the garlic planted last fall spike green leaves skyward, Nazca elaborates on their future plans—growing Goji and Jujube trees, building an outdoor kitchen, an herb garden, bringing chickens to the newly built hutch. But she is committed to small steps, staying within what feels doable—and sustainable—on a daily basis: “It’s layers of learning that you have to practice a lot, and figure out how systems work” she explains, “It takes years to know how a system works. We don’t want to overextend before we’re ready.” Given what they’ve built so far in just a few years, it will be fascinating to see what their homestead becomes in just a few more.

Amanda and Andy Bramble, Madrid

Farm to Table Editorial - Homesteading

Off the grid without a well. It’s a phrase that strikes skepticism in even the most hardy desert dwellers among us. From the pioneering frontier of sustainability and energy independence, Amanda Bramble and her husband Andy demonstrate daily just how it’s done.

Featured a few years ago in Local Flavor, it’s intriguing to revisit their Ampersand Sustainable Living Center in Madrid, to explore their ongoing and ever-growing experiment. In contrast to the families building the beginning foundations of their homesteading futures, Amanda and Andy have spent the last decade creating their own habitat in the seemingly inhospitable badlands between Cerrillos and Madrid. The question is: Once you have your systems in place, what does the next adventure look like?

For someone whose life is structured around collaborating systems that sustain themselves, Amanda is limited only by what she can see in her mind. These days, she is growing increasingly enthusiastic about a “percolating vision” of an earth-bermed sauna built into the side of the donated high-tunnel hoophouse that is the latest addition to the property. Warmed within the greenhouse by the sauna, a fig tree will form the canopy of a little food forest haven. Higher up the hill at the house, Amanda and Andy are planning a “napnest” above the recently completed entry room on their earth-bermed solar home.

Farm to Table Editorial - Whispering Spirit Alpaca for Local FlavorAfter over a decade of work—both constructing and teaching through Ampersand, Amanda finds herself at a moment of transition—a time to catch her breath and reflect on what she has accomplished, and where her soul seeks nourishment now.

“The longer we’ve been here,” she recognizes, “we can’t and don’t want to do everything ourselves. We can be energy independent. We can build shelter with natural and salvaged materials. We can be water independent. We chose to do some things. But we don’t want to do everything.”

And the “thing” that’s really captured her lately is encouraging people to grow their own food by focusing on raising and selling vegetable starts. From the attached greenhouse, Amanda’s “seed starting sanctuary,” to the hoophouse nursery, dozens of little greens thrive—French sorrel for its subtle lemon essence, edible chrysanthemum, three kinds of kale, nutritious parsley that does well in both sun and shade, to name a few.

Limited resources foster creativity—and when the resource is your own time, it fosters community, too. The passage of time has really brought that message to bear for the Brambles: just how integral community is to a life based on self-sufficiency. While Ampersand is a learning center, the experience of teaching is itself an education. “We’ve learned a lot about pitching in to support others in our community through the volunteers we have had here. There have been so many times that I have been so filled with gratitude for the help that people give us. It has made me realize how much it means to get some support, and that has contributed towards my vision of what healthy community, and sustainable community looks like. Partly, it looks like producing our own goods and foods to take care of a lot of our needs, collectively. It means having a variety of skills that are shared and appreciated. And it means looking out for each other, and offering what we can.”

Story and photos by Gabriella Marks


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