Without a living carpet of green, the good compost we spread across our land would quickly wash away down the slope in the late summer monsoon rains. In the spring, while we waited for the comprehensive design to further build our garden, we decided to grow a meadow of annual plants whose roots would hold our soil/compost in place, further enrich our soil with nutrients, help to break up the hard-pan layer of earth, as well as add beauty. We chose a seed mix from Curtis and Curtis Seed company that included barley, monida oats, winter Peas, hairy vetch, and red and white Clovers plus a southwest wildflower mix. With this selection of seeds, we were planning for a cover crop with leguminous plants to help fix nitrogen in our soil.
Our soil restoration plan has its roots in ideas adapted from Wes Jackson and the Land Institute.
To broadcast the seed, The 8th grade science students fanned out, an arms width away from each other across the prepared earth. With a small bucket of seeds, the students were asked to broadcast the seed in an arc. Then each student would step forward in unison across the land broadcasting and stepping until they reached the end of the prepared earth.
The students then raked the seed into the soil, not too deep, not too shallow.
With the seed evenly distributed, the land needed to be watered twice each day until germination. If the soil dried out, the seed would not germinate. Spring in New Mexico can be very hot, very dry and VERY windy.
Within the week, our first small green sprouts poked through the soil. Soon we could see the entire field flush with inch tall barley and squat round lobed oats. Anticipation of mid-summer wildflowers buzzing with bees brought smiles to our faces.
Last Monday, 150 8th grade students visited 5 farms located throughout Albuquerque’s valley, where farmers have been growing food for centuries. My team of students was invited to Lorenzo Candelaria’s Farm, located in the South Valley, where Lorenzo has nourished his family for over 300 years.
Before the Rio Grande was channelized and controlled by levees and damns in the early 1900’s, when the Rio traversed the mile-wide flood plain, most farmland was inundated each spring, making growing food a dicey proposition. However, for most of the 300 years that the Candelaria family has farmed, the floods swerved around their plot of land, allowing the family to continuously provide for each generation of children, each generation passing down the traditional agricultural knowledge of growing corn, beans and squash.
Today, Lorenzo’s grandchild, now only 8, will become the 8th generation of farmer to tend the land. Lorenzo’s gift to his grandson is more precious than gold. Lorenzo’s deep knowledge of the land is coupled with a spirit of gratitude and an appreciation that all life is connected. Five years ago, Lorenzo returned his land to an ethic echoed by many in the sustainable food movement. Lorenzo certified his land as USDA organic, in an area of town where I suspect most people have not the coin to spare on such seemingly extravagant credentials. But more than this certification, Lorenzo speaks of a care for the soil, the plants and the animals that made me want to cry out and hug the small gentleman with joy.
As we strolled along the acequia, Lorenzo told me about the problem that he had had in his greenhouse with ants. The ants were infesting the greenhouse and destroying his tomatoes. He told me that everywhere that he had asked about how to remove the ants, he was given ways to kill the ants. Reluctant to employ even organic, non-toxic extermination methods, Lorenzo continued his research. He read somewhere that ants did not like water, so Lorenzo devised a way to flood the floor of his greenhouse by filling up buckets with small holes in the bottom, continuously providing a gentle stream to dampen the floor. The ants picked up house and moved away – just to the outside of the greenhouse, out of range of Lorenzo’s valuable crops. Lorenzo explained that ants have right to life, that they too have a spirit.
Lorenzo’s farm has expanded beyond his ancestor’s crops of corn, beans, squash, and chilies. He now grows asparagus, blackberries, several varieties of cucumbers, melons and even his chilies have a modern face – their scoville value is 600,000! We were warned not to touch our skin with these as they could burn on contact.
Lorenzo’s mission is to feed his community with more than just nutritious food. His mission is to feed the soul of his community – to reconnect them with the spirit of the land. He invites children and adults to come and learn, to dig the soil, to plant the seed and harvest the fruits.
Our thirty 8th grade students listened, learned, tended and tasted. Inspired by Lorenzo’s gentle stories and Travis McKenzie’s charismatic teachings, our students gained a cultural experience that has the potential to change their lives.