Reyna Banteah is farming on her own for the first time this year. She shows all the trepidation of a new parent when I first meet her at the farm at Gutierrez-Hubbell House, looking at her still-bare rows with a furrowed brow. Her onion shoots have come up in spades, but her other rows are either still germinating or yet to be planted. Knowing other farmers who have been doing this longer than her, I can comfortably say that this concern never really goes away—each year after planting time you’ll fret until you start seeing green shoots. No matter how familiar with growing patterns you get, there’s always room for doubt in your mind.
Last year, Banteah was a part of the Grow the Growers program at the Gutierrez-Hubbell House, a cultural and historical museum, public open space and farmland. Grow the Growers, a Bernalillo County-sponsored agricultural education program, is a “multi-year farm training and business acceleration program designed to attract new and emerging farmers into professional food production,” according to its page on bernco.gov. In her year of training, Banteah learned about all the hands-on aspects of farming through the other farmers at Gutierrez-Hubbell House, as well as through GtG alumni and other farmers throughout the South Valley. At the end of her internship year, she decided that she wanted to continue on to the business incubation period. This means that she can farm on the Bernalillo County Open Space at Gutierrez-Hubbell House for an affordable lease and continue to receive some of the business and agricultural mentoring she got in her first year. She named her farm Ts’uyya Farm, after the Zuni word for hummingbird. It’s an apt name, since hummingbirds are a common pollinator and a huge part of the desert ecosystem in New Mexico.
Banteah came to farming through a somewhat lateral move. She’s a student of the Sustainability Studies program at UNM, and she’s always been particularly passionate about sustainable agricultural practices that have the potential to reduce our impact on the environment. When her student debt started stacking up, she decided to take some time away from school to learn about sustainable agriculture in a more hands-on way through Grow the Growers.
Banteah is farming about a half acre of Gutierrez-Hubbell House’s land—which doesn’t sound like a whole lot until you realize that she’s farming it almost entirely by herself. She already has rows of beets, herbs and onions growing, with spinach, radishes, carrots and much more on the way. She wants to save some space for growing blue corn, amaranth and native varieties of beans—all crops that do well in New Mexico because they’ve grown here for hundreds of years. She got most of these seeds through Native Seeds/SEARCH, an organization based in Tucson that keeps a seed bank as well as a conservation farm for the sole purpose of preserving heirloom crops native to the Southwest.
Banteah, who grew up in Zuni Pueblo (about two and a half hours west of Albuquerque) says, “The seeds that I have from Zuni are ones that I want to keep growing so I have seed stock to share with others, and then bring them back home.”
One bare spot in Banteah’s plot is being saved for another very special purpose: waffle gardening. An alternative to the typical European method of farming in rows, “waffle gardening” simply means farming in dug-out squares, and it’s a traditional Zuni farming method that, Banteah says, uses less water and is more suited to the southern New Mexican climate. She’s written in depth about the benefits and history of this method at ABQ Stew, a blog for the UNM Sustainability Studies students. She hopes to teach this method to some of the farming apprentices in the Grow the Growers program this year and, eventually, bring them back to Zuni Pueblo to revitalize the tradition in its home. She sees it as a potential to create more agricultural jobs and make the Pueblo less of a food desert than it has been in recent generations. “In the long term I want to bring those agricultural practices back. It’s starting to pick up more—I notice a lot more community gardens. But I want more stable agricultural community there,” Banteah says. “We don’t have a farmers’ market back home. So that’s one of the projects I want to work on.”
But before she gets to establishing a new farmers’ market, though, she needs to make it through the market season here in Albuquerque. She’ll be missing the first Downtown Growers’ Market of the year, but she plans on being there and/or at the Railyards Market every weekend after, depending on how much produce she has to sell. Though she has the agricultural training under her belt, Banteah knows that her lofty goals for Ts’uyya Farm will only be realized if she can be a good businesswoman as well as a good farmer.
As we stand out in her rows she shows me the stickers and business cards that her boyfriend has designed for the farm: They both feature a logo of a hummingbird in a deep “prickly pear purple,” as Banteah calls it. Inside the hummingbird, the traditional Zuni sunface symbol shines down on rolling hills and fields of corn. It’s a beautiful image of abundance in the desert and prosperity for a historically isolated and poor Pueblo. Although the soil in Zuni Pueblo—as in most places in New Mexico—is dry and difficult to grow in, Banteah believes that it can be as fruitful as it once was. After she gets a few more years of experience in the South Valley and learns to run the business side of a farm, I have no doubt that she will be the best person to prove herself right.