Planting the Seeds
A conversation with Jesse Daves of Amyo Farms
This is the answer Jesse Daves, the owner of Amyo Farms—a local pesticide-free grower—gives when I ask him what prompted his transition from a formerly computer-centered life to one of hard manual labor and sunshine.
Full disclosure: I knew Daves in college. He was one among a group of my friends who lived at the Coronado dormitory in our first year at UNM. We were a fairly nerdy bunch, and my primary memories of Daves consist of him crouched behind his PC, mouse furiously clicking as he navigated the maze of a first-person-shooter video game. Back then, computers seemed to be Daves’ life, and he planned on earning his degree in computer science.
Ten years later, his life couldn’t be more different.
We’re standing on a half-acre of planted land abutting the Rio Grande in Albuquerque’s Atrisco community, on one of three fields that make up Amyo Farms. The land is verdant, and there is a mouthwatering array of vegetables ripening under the late summer sun: corn, sweet peppers, green chile, tomatoes, squash, arugula, even sorghum and amaranth.
Daves laughs as we walk along the rows, then continues his answer to my question, “To be honest, I don’t exactly remember what the inspiration was. ... I had done a lot of computer work in college, work in the 3-D graphics field, and I think I had just gotten so sick of sitting behind a computer screen that I really wanted to do something outside. Something where I could see a tangible result of my labor.”
By the time he finished college, Daves had already given up on computers, but there was as yet nothing to replace his former passion. He briefly worked for the post office in Albuquerque and quit after six months of the graveyard shift. He then found his way to the West Coast for an extended visit with some friends at Berkeley. It was there that inspiration struck, although Daves is quick to point out that there was no “mountaintop experience.” “I think I saw something about local farming on TV,” he says. “I don’t know where it came from.” Regardless, the seed was planted.
After working on two organic farms, Easy Sweet Farm in California (now gone) and Erda Gardens in Albuquerque, Daves realized that the farming lifestyle held considerable appeal for him. “I was pretty good at it. I had a really great teacher [at Easy Sweet], and he kicked my ass, but he taught me a lot. I liked how there was a beginning and an end to the work. How it always changes. It’s not the same thing every single day, every single month.”
In 2003, he decided to take the plunge and make farming his primary occupation. He borrowed money from his family and started Amyo on a plot of his parents’ land in Bosque Farms, essentially betting his future on becoming one of a growing number of local farmers who work small fields and earn their year’s income at the weekly growers’ markets that have sprung up like so many backyard chicken coops throughout the Albuquerque area (for more on hatching your own chicks, see this week’s Food section).
“I want people to come because they want good food. I want them motivated by their stomachs and not their brains.”
Jesse Daves, Amyo Farms
As we walk through his field, Daves points out his favorites among the vegetables. Crouching over a row of low leafy plants, he lifts up a beautiful orange bell pepper. “This is a variety I’ve just been saving the seeds from. It was one plant in my field five years ago, and now it’s a whole row.”
It’s a gorgeous pepper, and I can’t help myself. “Can I eat that?,” I ask.
Daves picks the pepper and hands it to me. There are no pesticides or other chemicals to worry about, and I bite into it like an apple. It’s delicious, sweet with just the barest hint of spicy heat. “Wow,” I say. “You know, I never had an appreciation for peppers before I started shopping at the farmers’ markets.”
“Yeah,” he answers. “It makes a huge difference when they’re allowed to ripen. Just like with tomatoes, [conventional farms] pick peppers before they’re ready and just gas them to get the right color. They never get a chance to develop their sugars.”
Daves believes that it is the superior flavor of locally grown vegetables that should be at the heart of why people might choose to purchase them over conventionally grown products. “I don’t want to try and make people feel guilty. I don’t want them going to the market just because it supports their local growers or it’s better for the environment. I think that those are true and important reasons, but I want people to come because they want good food,” he says. “I want them motivated by their stomachs and not their brains.”
“You naturally start to reject the things that are detrimental to your community.”
Jesse Daves, Amyo Farms
“I think that if you start to appreciate the quality [of the food], then you begin to appreciate the grower, and then the community,” he continues. “You naturally start to reject the things that are detrimental to your community. If you’re willing to invest in local food, maybe you become willing to invest in your local bank because they’re good to you like the local growers are good to you. I’m past the stage of protesting against things. I want to focus on positive things instead.”
The idea of “community” is extremely important to Daves, and it forms a good part of why he became involved in farming and why he continues to find it fulfilling. In particular, he enjoys the face-to-face interaction of selling his goods at the local growers’ markets. “It’s the regular customers who come back. I’ve had young couples who showed up at the markets I did five years ago, and I’ve seen them have three kids,” he says. “To see a family grow up right before my eyes, and know that they’ve been eating my food ... I really love that type of interaction. I’m from here. I grew up here. And I wanted to do something that established me as an asset to the community. I love to feel like I’m contributing.”
In addition to selling his produce at the markets, Daves also provides seeds for Cuatro Puertas and the Garden’s Edge, two local nonprofits that run seed banks. “It’s more like a seed library,” he says. “A local grower can ‘borrow’ some seeds, then return them [after the season at] double the quantity. It gives farmers access to varieties that you just can’t find commercially. It helps maintain biodiversity.”
Farming has been good to Daves, both from the standpoint of his connection to the land and his bottom line. His three fields, which he works himself with some help from volunteers, produce enough to make a living, although he says he sometimes feels the pull of a more conventional and higher paying career. “I don’t make a lot of money, so sometimes there’s a sort of guilt, like, Do I make enough? But then I think, What the hell else am I going to do? I mean, I love it, and I’ve done well. I’ve had a lot of support from my family, from the community, and I greatly appreciate it. Sometimes I feel guilty because I’m having too much fun.”
As dusk sets in, we begin walking back toward the house at the front of the property. “What does ‘Amyo’ mean?” I get around to asking. I had googled the word before I arrived, thinking that it had some obscure Spanish definition, but the search came up dry.
“I don’t make a lot of money, so sometimes there’s a sort of guilt, like, Do I make enough? But then I think, What the hell else am I going to do? I mean, I love it, and I’ve done well. ...Sometimes I feel guilty because I’m having too much fun.”
“When I was a kid growing up in Bosque Farms,” Daves begins, “there were two lots across the street from our house, less than an acre each. We used to play there, and there were a lot of cottonwoods along the back where an old ditch was. There was one tree in particular that we called ‘Amyo’. That was its name. And that’s where one of my fields is now, so that’s what I called the farm.”
“But where did ‘Amyo’ come from? Why that name?”
“I don’t remember exactly,” Daves sighs. “It just came to us while we were playing out there. When I was a kid that property was still irrigated and somewhat forested. We used to camp out there and just had so much fun. Over the years it became overgrazed and the trees disappeared. When my parents bought it, it was a barren lot of dirt. I always wanted to take it back and make it like it was when I was a kid. Make it a special place again.”
I ask Daves if gardening was an important part of his childhood.
“I don’t remember liking to work [in my parents’] garden when I was a kid, but I really loved playing in it. We had an old wagon like this,” Daves stops and points to a rusted-out Radio Flyer just in front of the corn rows, standing as though abandoned by a child in that very spot decades before. “And we’d push each other around, up and down the rows on a summer evening. That was so much fun.”
“What about the future of Amyo farms?” I ask.
“Well, when I started, I said, I’ll give it five years and see where I’m at,” he explains. “And my fifth year was last year and I’m still here. I’m doing well enough that I’m going to keep at it. I think for New Mexico it’s a viable way to make a living. I’m not doing horribly, and I’m not doing spectacularly. But I’m hanging in there.”