If you shop at the Downtown Growers’ Market during the season, you’ve probably seen Casey Holland at the Red Tractor Farm booth, selling huge bunches of kale and carrots with a smile on her face. She’s worked with various farms in the South Valley for the past eight years, but with Red Tractor for the longest and most consistently. When Dory Wegrzyn and Nerissa Muus, the owners of Red Tractor Farm, decided to retire (at least the veggie-growing part of their business—they’ll still be making jams and jellies) last year, Casey knew it was time to start her own farm. With the experience and know-how she’d accumulated over the years, she began putting out some feelers for an appropriate plot of land.
She couldn’t have found a much better deal than the 4-acre plot in the South Valley that’s now not only her farm, but her home, too. The land is owned by a well-heeled philanthropist who once lived on it himself—but, after realizing he didn’t quite have a green thumb, he decided to lend the house and land out to somebody who would take care of it properly. He doesn’t charge rent or ask to be involved in the farm at all; his only directive, Casey tells me, is simple: “Feed people.”
There were a handful of other young farmers who lived on the farm and acted as stewards before Casey, but none of them had the experience or staying power to make it work long-term. “When I first moved out here,” she tells me, “this place was a mess.” Since she took over in May of last year, though, the farm has been totally transformed. She grew a cover crop of sorghum in the fields over the fall to enrich the soil for the growing season, tore down some dilapidated animal pens to make space for an outdoor community dining room, set up a chicken coop, compost bin, outdoor classroom and a produce washing station. This was all during what’s typically the off-season for farmers, but Casey knew that the land needed some TLC if it was going to grow healthy fruits and veggies in the following year.
Casey’s little dog, Faun, greets me at the gate when I come to visit her on the first day of spring, and I see Casey in the orchard pulling a wagon behind her. She’s spraying the fruit trees with fish emulsion and neem oil—a fragrant mix that does the job of keeping pests away without chemicals. Despite the smell, she seems delighted—the trees are flowering and gorgeous this time of year, and some of her radishes are just starting to come up. All the work that she’s put into the farm thus far is finally showing some results.
We walk over rows of carrots, spinach, radishes and garlic that she and Ian Colburn, a farmer-in-training, planted earlier. Each of these crops takes a different amount of time to germinate, and Casey knows exactly when to plant and when to start worrying that things aren’t sprouting like they should. There are tall stakes in the rows where the tomato plants (still growing in a greenhouse at the moment) will go, and between these is where the bell peppers will go. “The bell peppers are kind of delicate and can actually get sunburned when it gets really hot in the summer,” she tells me, “but the tomato plants grow tall enough to give them some shade.” It’s knowing symbiotic plant relationships like this that makes running an organic farm viable.
In the orchard are apricots, grapes, cherries and figs; in the fields are aforementioned carrots, spinach, radishes and garlic, as well as arugula, lettuce mixes, collard greens, kale (“I’m kind of known for how huge my kale gets”), onions and leeks. And that’s only in the first couple weeks of the growing season. Later there will be peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers. No monocrop farming here—if you can grow anything, why not grow everything?
Running a farm is a lot of work, but Casey’s also aware of just how lucky she is in her particular situation. “Sometimes in the mornings, Clover [her cat] and the chickens will meet me at the front door, and I just think, ‘What is this bucolic life I’m living?,’ ” she tells me.
Having a benefactor take care of some of the expenses of the farm also allows Casey to give energy to projects that she wouldn’t otherwise be able to. For instance, she’s dedicated one row entirely to preserving heritage varieties of garlic that would go the way of the dodo without her stewardship—very much a passion project, and not a profitable one. She’s also set aside a half acre at the back of the plot to be a sort of wildlife sanctuary, growing plants that local birds and bugs particularly like to eat. Her next project? She wants the owner of the farm to make the land into a conservation easement—meaning it would be preserved by the city, forever, as farmland. “It’ll be one hell of a legacy,” she says.
To say that I’m impressed with Casey is an understatement. She was a huge help to me as I tried to get my head above water in my first months as Food Editor: providing connections, suggesting stories, introducing me to farmers and food people I was grateful to meet. She’s a well-known and well-liked figure in the Rio Grande Valley farming community, and a great friend as well. Her work organizing and educating young farmers through the National Young Farmers Coalition and the Bernalillo County’s Grow the Growers program ensures that she, too will have a hell of a legacy here. As we sit at the tree stump table in her outdoor classroom eating lunch together, I get a little starry-eyed and tell her, “Casey, you’re going to save the world.” She laughs, “I’m at least gonna save this neighborhood.”
If you want to help Casey save the South Valley, look for the Chispas Farm stand at farmers’ markets this year and buy some fruits and veggies from her, or sign up for her CSA box at chispasfarms.com. CSA pick-ups are once a week and start in June. You can also volunteer on the farm by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.