Remember your mom’s advice when you’d come home complaining about the neighborhood bully? “Just keep walking,” she’d say. “Don’t engage.” But that sounded crazy. It felt like, if you wanted to save your skin, your only choice was to cringe with shame as he helped himself to your lunch money every day. But transformative change is like aikido—you let the opposition take itself down with its own momentum, suddenly creating a possibility for transformative change. And that’s the concept behind Patricia Allaire and Scott Newman’s Simple Revolution? Farm! in Albuquerque.
You might have to say that out loud a few times. It’s sort of a shorthand version of: “Feeling crushed by a nature-phobic world of befouled wilderness, disappearing pollinators and astronomical food prices? Looking for a way to fight it? Stop overthinking! There’s a simpler path to revolution—start farming!” Located in a residential neighborhood of Albuquerque’s South Valley, Patricia and Scott’s farm fits into their conventionally-sized backyard, yet they grow enough to feed themselves as well as to sell at weekly local farmers markets, following the principles of biointensive farming and biodiversity, along with companion and succession planting. Contrary to real estate’s famous emphasis (Location, Location, Location), the emphasis here is on Soil. When they first laid eyes on this property 21 years ago, in their search for a place to farm, what Patricia and Scott beheld was a wasteland: hardpacked dirt, pounded, scraped and sun-scorched, with glinting glass shards half-buried beneath the surface. Not a tree, not a cactus. “It was the biggest property we could afford,” says Patricia, “and we fell in love with it.” The backyard today is full of big and small generously spreading trees, their branches extending wind protection and shade to the multitudes of thriving green plants, their beds stretching to the back boundary where chickens, ducks and hogs live.
Neither Patricia nor Scott grew up farming, or even planting family gardens (except for Patricia’s Aunt Winny). But they both loved being outdoors and, back in the early 1990s, when permaculture was still mostly unfamiliar, they had just begun exploring gardening in the Southwest. After committing to their new home in the South Valley, Patricia says, “We couldn’t afford a rototiller or a tractor. So I dug in hard.” And she did—not just figuratively but literally. They moved into the 750-square-foot adobe, gradually adding straw-bale rooms, while Patricia read up on permaculture and then took a three day course in Boulder with biointensive pioneer John Jeavens, father of Ecology Action. It’s a process born of several like minds, and includes ancient farming as well as newer permaculture techniques along with the concept of French intensive planting. “You use no fossil fuels, for fertilizer or for farm machinery,” Patricia goes on. “Instead of planting in rows, you plant in honeycomb formations. It’s a balance of labor and energy, with the major components being water, soil and me—human power. Oh,” she adds, “and also compost.”
The first step was the hardest. Before planting anything, they had to prepare the severely depleted, empty of nutrients, rock-hard moonscape out back. This required the process of double digging. After delineating the bed, you dig a 12-inch trench across its width, setting the soil from it aside. Then, with a spading fork, you loosen the soil 12 inches below the trench floor, aerating it. This process is repeated for the next trench alongside the first. As you finish digging that second trench and forking the soil below it, you fill its empty space back in with its original soil. Repeat, until the entire bed has been double dug, filling in the last trench with the soil from the first one. It’s recommended that compost be combined with the soil in order to return nutrients from the organic matter, including the roots of the plants themselves. Now the soil has greater drainage capacity, so that water reaches much further down, meaning it holds the water like a sponge, allowing for more efficient water use while allowing plant roots to grow that much deeper as well.
“Our huge yields,” Patricia says, “are a reflection on the surface of what we see beneath it”—bigger, more healthy plants fed by longer, more healthy roots. She points to a young sunflower plant that’s invaded the lettuce bed. “Pull that out,” she tells me. A little nervously, concerned that I’ll break off the plant, leaving the root, I do. It slips right out. Patricia nods at my hand, the entire plant dangling from it. “The soil’s like a warm cake of butter!” she says, and that’s exactly what it feels like.
Planting in honeycombs rather than rows allows more efficient use of bed space so more plants can grow per square foot, leaving very little available space for weeds. “In this technique, your bed is always just as wide as your reach. You never step into the bed itself, you work around its sides.” Companion and succession planting are two factors that expand the farm’s biodiversity. Still crouched beside the lettuce, Patricia points out very tiny new plants peeking out from beneath the lettuce leaves. “These lettuces grow very low to the ground. With peppers just starting beside them in the bed, the lettuce is the nurse plant, helping to toughen the peppers up as they get bigger. But the lettuce only has another few weeks to go and then it’s too hot for them, so as they finish, we’ll replace them with something else—maybe carrots. With companion planting, you always have to be thinking three to six weeks ahead of time. The plants that work together form a guild, or community, the species supporting each other.” And, in order to provide balance that’s lacking in monocrop farms, she recommends integrating perennial crops, as well. Use of open pollinated seeds also allows for genetic diversity.
Through the several decades of establishing their farm, both also have kept outside careers, Patricia as a therapist who owns her practice, Scott as a case manager, owner of his own company. They also raised their two kids, with Patricia homeschooling them through the sixth grade. Scott reminds Patricia of when Barbara Kingsolver’s book—Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a memoir about the author’s family homesteading experience—came out and they both laugh. “Friends asked us if we’d read it and then they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah,’ realizing we were living it.” They remember going out to dinner as a family when their son was about four. Hearing menu choices, he asked his parents, “Do you think they slaughter the chickens themselves?” Now, aged 20 and 21, both kids have gardens of their own. Interns from UNM, and many of their kids’ peers, are becoming interested in what they do here at Simple Revolution? Farm!
“This is our activism,” Patricia says. “We know what our watershed is: the river and the aquifer. Where does our local food live and come from? Albuquerque used to be some of the most fertile land in the state. Now the South Valley, often referred to in a negative way”—“Dangerous, polluted, scary,” Scott interjects—yeah, this poorest part of the Valley, is our largest foodshed!” Early on, the couple began a community garden down the street. It’s since languished but meanwhile they’ve encouraged lots of their friends, also students and even customers at the Downtown Growers’ Market, to start up farms here. Speaking to customers about the soap she makes and sells with lard rendered from their pigs, Patricia laughs about always looking for a chance to start what she calls “the oil conversation.” Scott says, “Every suburban household should have three chickens to eat their leftovers and then they can compost their waste. And have fresh eggs!”
One of the most transformative things they’ve done is to start a neighborhood association. “[Change] has to start on a micro level,” says Patricia. “You shape the vision by talking to your neighbors, empowering them. We got the speed humps put in on Sunset. But bigger than that, we helped save land that was zoned agricultural from being rezoned to commercial, right here on Sunset!” “This developer came in,” says Scott, “wanting to build 250 apartments, a convenience store, a drug store and medical building. Because we were an established neighborhood association, we got to have a voice, a seat at the table, and it changed the dialogue between the County and the Zoning Commission.” “It’s a small victory,” Patricia adds, “but it creates awareness, motivation” to stop gentrification in their foodshed. “This is a really important thing, not just a fad!”
That’s the simple revolution: farming. By the single self-empowering act of planting and raising your own food, you’re improving the soil of your foodshed, providing comfortable pollinator-friendly environments for birds and bees, planting trees that help clean the air, building community by creating trading possibilities with your neighbors, withdrawing your support for high priced food trucked in from whole different time zones, eating more healthily, learning self-reliance and being an example of it for the kids in your community, getting exercise, communing with nature, and breathing fresh air.
“Farming,” says Scott, “is an act of optimism.”
by Gail Snyder