Rock Star Farming
South Valley Academy’s Dragon Farm takes root
“It’s a challenging place. We have a tough curriculum,” says Richard Brandt of the South Valley Academy charter school.
The backbreaking work underway on the Academy’s Dragon Farm proves his claim. Students and volunteers battle a thicket of obdurate weeds. The temperature hangs in the nineties. The sun blazes. And they have hours of work ahead of them.
Miguel Martinez, a high school junior, stops to re-thread a weed-whacker. He wears a black Metallica T-shirt and fashionably ripped black jeans.
“He always wears black, no matter how hot it is,” chuckles Brandt.
Martinez says he enjoys working the farm, as rivulets of sweat pool in his thick, raven hair. “I had nothing else to do this summer. And it’s a good change for me.”
Aside from heavy metal bands and organic farming, Martinez’ passion is robotics. He’s on the Academy’s robotics team and has landed a scholarship from a private foundation to pursue his interest.
When he’s not getting grubby in the fields, Martinez helps sell the farm’s produce at the Downtown and Nob Hill growers’ markets. That means very early mornings on Saturdays to pack and transport the crops, then set up the stand by 7 a.m. He’s learning all ends of the farm business, from clearing irrigation ditches to planting to retailing.
Martinez loads nylon line into the weed-whacker then gets back to work. Volunteers from California are attacking vines and goatheads. Brandt explains there is a “grassroots underground of college kids”—organic groupies—“who drift from one organic farm to another, all across the country.”
“We also get a lot of volunteers from the American Friends Service Committee. And people in the community stop by to lend a hand.”
Brandt had been the Academy’s art teacher. He’s a commercial and community muralist. Now he’s concentrating on running the Dragon Farm program for this unique charter school.
Don Bustos arrives in a pickup truck. He’s the Dragon Farm’s mentor. He’s also the New Mexico 2006 Farmer of the Year and recipient of the Leyendecker Award from the New Mexico State University’s College of Agriculture and Home Economics as the state’s distinguished agriculturalist. Additionally, Bustos is president of the Sante Fe Farmer’s Market Institute. And he still manages to operate Santa Cruz Farms in Española. It's one of the most successful small farms in northern New Mexico on land that has been in his family since the 1600s.
“After listening to Don talk about using organic farming to build community, then seeing him rush off to testify in Washington, D.C., then fly somewhere else to give another speech, I started calling what we’re doing ‘rock star farming,’” Brandt explains. “The kids liked that.”
Bustos and Brandt show off the “Three Sisters” system of farming copied from Pueblo Indians. Corn, beans and squash seeds are all planted in the same hole. As the corn stalk grows, it offers a trellis for the beans. The spreading leaves of the corn plant create the shade squash needs to thrive. When the products of each plant are eaten together, they provide a complete source of protein.
Dragon Farm is doing for the Academy what this ancient, elegant innovation did for dry land farming. As the farm grows, it enriches classroom learning. Students study not only the science of irrigation, but also soil properties and the law of water rights. They gain hands-on experience with principles of horticulture and organic farming and get a taste of agricultural economics along the way.
The surrounding community also benefits. Students eat better and take fresh, healthy produce home to their families. Inspired neighbors have begun to plant gardens in their own backyards.
Dragon Farm started as a senior year “service action project.” The service learning curriculum at SVA requires all students to go out into the community every Thursday afternoon for three hours. The program provides progressively challenging experiences. Freshman tutor elementary school students and must author their own children’s book. By senior year, students tackle projects such as HIV education and prevention and fighting domestic violence.
One of Brandt’s advisees wanted to address malnutrition in the South Valley. He decided to start an organic farm to make fresh produce available locally, and to demonstrate how organic farming can improve a community’s overall wellbeing.
At the same time, the American Friends Service Committee was seeking to launch a demonstration organic farm project in the South Valley. “It was a natural fit,” says Bustos, who, on top of everything else, works for the AFSC building a network of demonstration farms across the state. “We’ve got a school linked directly with a farm. The rows of corn are almost right outside the classrooms.”
That one-student project, named for the school’s mascot, was initiated only last September and now fills almost an acre of the Academy’s seven-acre campus. Brandt proudly shows off rows of calabacitas, zucchini, tomatoes, corn, basil, onions, lettuce, okra, bell peppers, chile, arugula, cauliflower, broccoli, garlic, sunflowers, eggplant, strawberries, potatoes, chard, cabbage, peas and turnips.
“We’re building a loyal base of customers,” Brandt says. “We quickly became famous for our snap peas and turnips. We sell out everything every week. Our peas go before we’re even set up.”
Plans for expansion pour out of Brandt. He talks of winter crops, planting more acreage and diversification. Next year the farm will grow flowers and cactus for sale to developers on Mesa del Sol. He wants to add an artistic component by teaching students pottery and marketing students’ pots with the ornamentals. He foresees a fruit and vegetable stand at the school’s doorstep on Blake and Coors SW. There’s talk of seminars, livestock, a cookbook, neighborhood harvest parties.
“You gotta make it fun, because farming is hard work. So we really get down, blasting the rock and roll while we’re working. We really crank it up.”
About 30 students so far have participated in Dragon Farm. “Look, not every one of them enjoys this,” says Brandt. “But those that do ... it’s amazing. Some have re-enlisted in the middle of a 100-degree day. And you should see the face of a kid who tastes fresh basil or arugula for the first time. Wow.”
“Or when they see the money,” interjects Bustos. “Seeing their stuff sell really ties it together for them.”
Dragon Farm is a Community Supported Agriculture project. Individuals can buy a full growing season’s share for $475, or a half-share for $275. In return, they receive weekly deliveries of fresh produce straight from the farm’s pesticide-free soil. Bustos calculates shareholders earn the equivalent of a 5-10 percent return. Dragon Farms is accepting subscriptions for next year.
As one of 36 charter schools in the Albuquerque district, the Academy receives public funding, and students receive a free education. The Academy, though, is governed by its own board and administrator. It determines its own approach to educating teenagers, independent of APS control.
Students get into the Academy by lottery. Last year, names were pulled from Brandt’s hat. Most students hail from the South Valley itself. The Academy serves more than 200 children in grades 9 through 12 and has a waiting list of 60 to 80 hoping to attend.
“We’re a really special place,” Brandt says proudly. “It’s so cool watching our kids making something out of nothing, and getting into it, in their own way. They’ll be out there pulling weeds and texting each other across the field at the same time.”
“A perfect example,” laughs super-farmer Bustos, “of ancient agrarian practices meeting modern technology.”