It's the tomatoes we complain about most. Pale, salmon colored and hard as baseballs, they barely look like real tomatoes much less taste like them. Even the pretty red ones with vines attached come from Holland and the flavor suffers from the journey. Like peaches, tomatoes are very delicate fruits that taste best when picked ripe and eaten immediately—but they don't survive the rigors of shipping if picked ripe. So we're stuck with tasteless tomatoes that have probably been grown with tons of chemicals and then sprayed with gas in order to look ripe. Or are we? Tomatoes grow well here; they love the sun and tolerate the heat. Many of us remember the tomatoes our parents or grandparents grew, on their farms, in their gardens and in pots on the patio. Why can't we buy tomatoes like that in the grocery stores?
While we lament the loss of these succulent fruits, many old-time Albuquerqueans worry about the loss of the city's agricultural heritage. They don't want city folk, in their rush to put houses on every patch of undeveloped land, to forget about the Rio Grande Valley's rich farming history. Together, these two groups of people are seeking and providing ways for urbanites to reconnect with farming. Through community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, community gardens and resource centers, they also hope to preserve farmland in urban areas and create a sustainable market for locally grown organic produce.
Erda Gardens is Albuquerque's oldest and most traditional example of a community-supported garden. It was founded in 1996 by Marie Nord, a former nun and avid follower of the biodynamic gardening philosophy. Nord gathered together a small community of supporters to support her, the grower. The garden members pooled their money to finance the garden's costs, agreeing to share in the bounty and the risks of the growing season. In return for the money they paid up front, members received a steady supply of fruits and vegetables throughout the growing season.
After two years of cultivating a small plot, interest had grown enough for her to move to a larger space at Los Poblanos Ranch (4805 Rio Grande NW), owned by Penny and Armin Rembe. When Nord was killed in a car accident shortly before the 2001 growing season, Erda members and supporters pulled together. Nord had already hired a garden manager and selected apprentices for the season. They were shaken but strengthened by the challenge and they made it through to harvest. Jimmy Pettit, Erda's current head gardener, was hired the following season.
On just a few acres, the group grows staples like tomatoes, potatoes and carrots, as well as more unique and exciting veggies: kohlrabi, Swiss chard, mizuna and tatsoi. Members expect a variety in their boxes and they often get other products of the farm, including apples, herbs and flowers. For a $525 full share the weekly disbursement should be enough produce to feed a family of four for a week. The $325 half share is plenty for two or a family who doesn't cook at home every night. Over the six-month growing period, that works out to about $20 a week for a full share, $12.50 for a half.
The most satisfied Erda members may be those who feel that the community it fosters is as, or more, important than the food. As part of their membership, they agree to help out at the farm for four hours per month. There is always plenty of work to be done but the idea is that putting themselves in the farmer's shoes helps members feel a strong connection with their food.
For Pettit, "The most positive thing is the group of people who come on pick-up day." On Wednesday morning the gardener and volunteers harvest produce for members to collect that evening. (They don't deliver.) "There are a lot of mothers with young children," he says, “and they have sort of a play group out here." The kids, 15 to 20 of them, roam through the garden while their mothers collect their food boxes and mingle.
The group's slate of workshops for parents and kids, which began last year, has been expanded to include topics like beekeeping, composting and sustainable living. They are attracting more nonmembers to the garden every week.
Erda occupies only a small part of the Rembe's property, land that, centuries ago, was part of the Elena Gallegos land grant, a huge plot that stretched from the river to the Sandia Mountains. In the early 1900s, it was also the original site of the Creamland Dairy. Now Los Poblanos Ranch is home to an inn and cultural center as well as Erda Gardens and another CSA project, Los Poblanos Organics.
Jimmy Pettit has high praise for the Rembe's commitment to preserving the agricultural character of the land and says he feels a kinship with Monte Skarsgard of Los Poblanos Organics. At Erda, he says, "We're a group of people working towards one goal. Monte, he calls all the shots—and takes all the responsibility. [Erda's] decisions are often clumsy and slow but sometimes they're very rich and rewarding as a process." Though they have different approaches, they share the same goal: to engage the community supporting local agriculture.
Skarsgard, who grew up not far from Los Poblanos, studied business at the University of California in Santa Barbara but found he didn't have much interest in the business world. After college, he worked in landscaping for a while until discovering CSA in Seattle. There he encountered two models. Skarsgard worked at one that, like Erda, offered produce to members during the growing season. But he found that it required a lot of effort to recruit new members every year. "You let your members go in the winter and then what do you do? It's really tough to come back in the spring," he says. There was another project offering home delivery of organic produce, a very attractive feature for nontraditional CSA members, but it was not tied to a farm. In thinking about starting his own CSA, he knew that working the land was essential for him.
In late January of last year, Skarsgard and his fiancée, Amy, came to Albuquerque to look for a place to get married. They dropped in at Los Poblanos only to discover that the inn doesn't accept wedding parties. In talking to the owners, family acquaintances, it came out that they were looking for a farmer and he was looking for a farm. Skarsgard worked up a business proposal (his time at UCSB came in handy after all) and the Rembes accepted. According to the new farmer, "Everybody said the [Albuquerque] market wasn't ready for it, but I saw the signs."
What Skarsgard wanted to do was a fairly traditional model of a certified-organic CSA. The first crops were planted last March and distribution to members began in June. Though Los Poblanos Organics had no trouble coming up with enough members, the first year was tough.
"I was trying to bring the crops we'd grown in Seattle out here and that was pretty dumb," Skarsgard says. "Instead of banging our heads against the wall and trying to grow everything, including stuff that doesn't grow here, I want to focus on the 10 or 15 things that do really well here." This year, Skarsgard has 10 acres planted with crops he knows do well, things like tomatoes, bell peppers and watermelons—a fruit that he says bears no resemblance to the sickly store-bought version.
Last year also brought ideas for marketing improvements. The first idea was to offer delivery. The second was a way to extend the season throughout winter. In his own words, "I realized that we could buy great organic produce all year round so I was like, yeah! Why not?" Contacting West Coast organic growers, he quickly set up a network that could supply a variety of fruits and vegetables to cover the slow season between October and May. During the rest of the year, other growers fill in the holes in Los Poblanos' inventory. From July to October about 95 percent of the food distributed comes from the farm but Skarsgard likes to throw in some special treats like Kiva peaches from Colorado. According to him, "They just knock your socks off!"
Los Poblanos Organics also has a unique fee structure. Members sign up for blocks of four to 10 weeks instead of a whole season. The cost is $25 per week if members pick up the boxes themselves (on one of three different days at three different locations). For $30 per week the box can be delivered directly to their home or office. Members can also work for two and a half hours per week harvesting or packing produce in exchange for a 50 percent discount on the cost of membership.
Recently, he's been working with the Rembes to renovate the old Creamland Dairy building; it will become the farm's pick-up spot and perhaps evolve into a small country store. In the future, Skarsgard is planning to offer eggs from his hens in addition to contracting with local buffalo-meat producers, cheese-makers and bakers. He's also looking at more land. Ideally, Skarsgard would like to keep his plot at Los Poblanos and expand into another, bigger piece of urban farmland.
Community supported agriculture is a great way to provide city-dwellers with high-quality produce and help them feel a connection with the land. Rio Grande Community Farms, a nonprofit organization leases 138 acres of land at Los Poblanos Fields (not to be confused with Los Poblanos Organics or Los Poblanos Inn and Cultural Center on Rio Grande Boulevard). RGCF takes up much of the space bordered by Montaño to the south, Rio Grande to the west, Chavez to the north and Fourth Street to the east—access to the space is usually from Montaño. RGCF has the someo of the same goas as a CSA but approaches them in a different way. In a partnership deal with the city parks department's Open Space Division, RGCF has responsibility for farming the land using sustainable methods and educating the public about it.
Groups of school children regularly make field trips to the space, especially during the late summer and fall when 10 acres of corn fields are cut into an elaborate labyrinth they call a maize maze. The maze is also open to the public and functions as the organization's only fundraiser. Migrating birds also enjoy the maze for the corn. It is intentionally left standing to provide fodder for the sand hill cranes who winter in the area.
Way over on the other side of the property is RGCF's community garden. For $75, anybody can reserve a row—about 85 feet long and about five feet wide—in the garden. From about March through the end of October, folks can plant whatever they want, "as long as it's organic and as long as it's legal," according to Susan Turner, director of education and service learning.
RGCF provides the land, water, all the tools you could need and even a limited number of seeds and plants. At the beginning of the season there are about 200 plots available. Right now, Turner says, about half are reserved, though more are taken every week. At some point, they'll cut off reservations and till the rest of the rows, planting them with short-season crops that will be donated to charity.
Wednesday is irrigation day at the garden and consequently, Thursdays are generally too muddy to be plodding around the fields. Otherwise, Master Gardner Beverly Rowe, who oversees the garden, is almost always on hand to dispense help and advice. The Albuquerque Master Gardeners come to tend their demonstration garden every Wednesday morning and they're generous with help as well.
Each year the Master Gardeners adopt a new cause and donate their crops to that organization. This year it's Mujeres en Acción, a South Broadway economic development cooperative that employs low-income women in a Mexican food production business.
Nearby Alvarado Elementary School also maintains a garden on the land. For the past few years the kids, who get to vote on what kinds of crops they want to plant, have grown food for wildlife, mostly birds, in the area. Because it's open space land, 25 percent of the plantings have to be wildlife crops.
Turner is extremely passionate about the project and about the land. "This land was saved from development by a grassroots coalition who banded together to preserve it. I always tell this to everyone who comes here: When you band together, you can make a crucial difference. I want people to leave with new eyes."
Felix Torres, director of the Indio-Hispano Academy of Agricultural Arts and Sciences (IHAAS), grew up in a farming community in the North Valley. It prepared him well for a recent Saturday afternoon spent out in the sun plastering adobe for a workshop at Hubbell House. The Hubbell National Historic Site, in the South Valley, is home to an 1840s homestead that several community organizations are in to restore. His organization, IHAAS, is still largely in the fundraising stage, but they're already involved in a farming project at Hubbell House. Next year, he hopes to have a community gardening project up and running there, either a CSA or something more like Rio Grande Community Farms.
Right now, volunteers work with young people at Hubbell House. Many of the kids are referrals from Isleta Pueblo's judicial system, a few of them from the Bernalillo County courts. The Youth Opportunities program also provides an economic incentive for some kids to work in the fields. This year they've only planted chiles and some cover crops, but a wider variety of vegetables and an orchard are planned for next year.
Torres, working with Isleta Pueblo and South Valley groups, is trying to do for that area what is already largely underway in the North Valley. He has an ambitious list of projects he's trying to get off the ground. Though he is no stranger to adobe plastering and crop-planting, much of his job is applying for grants and trying to get funding. If—when—the money comes in, IHAAS will expand the Hubbell House project and start work on several others, including the development of an Academy for Sustainable Agriculture and Development at Valley High School. In the meantime, he's always looking for volunteers to work in the fields and help impress upon the kids the importance of working the land.
Christanna Cappelle says there are no black thumbs (the opposite of green thumbs), there are only the wrong plants for the right people. And sometimes the right people put the wrong plants in the wrong places at the wrong times. Oh, and they either under- or over-water them. Actually, she can think of about a hundred other reasons why plants die but none of them means you should give up on gardening.
Christianna and her husband Abe opened their Nob Hill storefront (Central Avenue and Wellesley Drive, next to Kelly's BYOB) about a month ago, hoping to provide a resource center for urban gardeners. They aim for the place to be a gathering point, a hub for networking among city folk who really want to turn their black thumbs green.
Abe is the professional, having run a landscaping business for the past few years and recently completed the Master Gardener program. Christianna is the earthy pragmatist, a self-educated tiller who has learned by painful mistake and is able to convince even the most lethal plant-killer to try, try again. The Gardeners' Guild, a not-for-profit enterprise, is part retail shop and part learning center. The Cappelles only sell locally-grown plants and repot everything into terra cotta—that way the plants are easier to keep alive until they get into the ground. They're also ready to be given as gifts.
Some of the plants available are regular bedding plants, some are vegetables and herbs. Tall sage plants sit next to bins containing organic fertilizers and soil supplements. They've already sold all of the heirloom tomato plants they'd brought in this spring and for next a local grower has agreed to sprout dozens of varieties of their choice, all for sale at the shop. Just try finding Black Krim tomato plants at the Wal-Mart nursery!
Along the shop's south wall, a vintage refrigerator hums quietly. Inside, a small selection of produce—fresh peas, three kinds of salad greens, red beets and bunches of fresh herbs—are chilling. Corrales' Green Basket Farms brings a changing selection of the stuff in fresh every week. A little sign on the fridge door lists the contents and prices—a sandwich bag full of tarragon costs $1.50.
Plants and produce are a small part of what they do, though. It's information dissemination that's most important to the Cappelles. Have you ever tried to find someone at a big chain nursery who can help you figure out how to keep your tomato plants sufficiently hydrated? It's not impossible but it's tough. This month, the Guild presents "Navigating the Mysteries of Irrigation", the first in a series of workshops presented only for members. Membership costs $30 for an individual and $50 for a family; benefits include a 20 percent discount in the shop and access to the workshops.
If it's not covered in the workshop, they'll look in some of the reference books they keep on a bookshelf near the fridge. If it's not in one of the books then they'll find a resource online and print out the information for you. Whatever it takes to keep your hands in the dirt (except coming over to dig with you), they're up to the task.
In fact, between the Gardeners' Guild, two CSA gardens, the open space at Rio Grande Community Farms and the ambition of the Indio-Hispano Academy of Agricultural Arts and Sciences, aspiring gardeners and lovers of real tomatoes are left with precious few reasons not to be out there tending the rows—or at least visiting the rows as they pick up their weekly boxes.