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Youth group helping to transform the land

Isabella O’Donnell, left, and Evan Chilton-Garcia discuss the intricacies of the Johnson-Su bio-reactors.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

TAOS – Sarah Wood, executive director of the New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps, looked out at gardens and a nearly completed greenhouse at the 20-acre San Fernando Park owned by the Taos Land Trust, and shook her head.

“I was here in November and it did not look this,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting what they’ve been able to do.”

‘They’ are a dedicated crew of YCC workers who have been tending the site since the spring, helping transform it.

“I love all of it,” said 19-year-old Kineo Memmer, who graduated from Taos High School in 2019 and is now attending the University of New Mexico. “It’s really amazing to see the land transform because it was kind of overridden with weeds and barren, dry ground. So to see these garden beds pop up is just kind of amazing. And I love that we donate our food to the Taos community that needs it.”

The Land Trust work is one of 28 projects around the state that New Mexico youth aged 14 to 25 made possible in part with money supplied by the NMYCC.

The organization spent about $3 million on the various projects, which covered every corner of the state, employing about 600. Four grantees had to return their funds because of COVID-19 issues.

Wood said expectations are for a significantly better year in 2021.

“We are ready to gear up for it full force next year,” she said, adding the desire is to dole out as much as $4.5 million and employ 800 to 1,000.

As a matter of fact, the application process is getting ready to kick off by the end of the month, Wood said, with nonprofits and government agencies the usual recipients. Organizations must agree to hire at least five youth, with 70% of the funds earmarked for wages, and the remainder for training, supplies, materials and equipment.

“We really emphasize training,” Wood said. “They can get a variety of training. Anything that will help these youth advance in their education, stay in New Mexico and advance in their career, we support.”

The youth workers at the Taos Land Trust received a wealth of training.

“We learn a lot of stuff; it’s a variety of things,” said Evan Chilton-Garcia, 18, who graduated from Taos High in the spring and is now attending UNM. “We do everything. We fit all those irrigation systems together. We built the greenhouse. Woodworking. Especially since we’re a small crew, there isn’t a single one of us that isn’t in charge of something. We all have our own set of responsibilities.”

One of the bigger projects for the summer was building a series of Johnson-Su bio-reactors to break down the vast amount of waste. The bio-reactors, created by a University of New Mexico researcher, are large, upright bins that don’t need to be turned. Instead, they are watered regularly with a slower breakdown of waste and more specific carbon-nitrogen mixture, Memmer said.

This creates mulch that is more fungal biomass, which is important for restoring the soil, said Ben Wright, who oversees the Taos Land Trust YCC workers.

And this, Memmer said, makes for healthier, happier plants.

“The fungi attach themselves and they have a symbiotic relationship with the plants,” she said. “The fungi will go out and get the plants nitrogen and carbon, and we give them water and, in return, the plant will give the fungi sugar to survive.”

Because the grounds require so much watering, the crew experimented with some natural forms of weed control.

“The big purple plant, amaranth, is supposed to be a control against spine weeds,” explained Taos junior Isabella O’Donnell. “It’s something about their biochemistry, and the fact that they’re huge and provide a lot of shade. It’s been pretty effective.”

O’Donnell, 16, whose dad works at the trust, said her favorite part of it is working in the gardens, which produced corns, peas, squash, beets, lettuce, cilantro, kale, wild spinach and regular spinach, mustard greens, broccoli, basil and popcorn.

“I really enjoy the job, it’s been great to work outside every day, to work in a situation where you’re safe,” she said. “We’re all outside and we can maintain distance. It’s a nice job. I like working in the garden. It’s my favorite part. Thistleing is less my favorite part.

“Building the greenhouse has been great. I’ve learned a bunch of stuff that I would not have learned otherwise. I had an interest in learning how to garden and taking care of plants, so this helps me learn more. It’s a nice skill to have under my belt.”

Some other projects take youth into the mountains. One crew with the Rocky Mountain YCC is working on fire prevention by reducing the fuel load, which then provides firewood for locals who cannot afford it. Another is recreation infrastructure, helping with trail maintenance and building bridges, while crews of Taos Pueblo youth are working at the pueblo helping to restore buildings and with a native cutthroat trout project to remove invasive fish species, said Ben Thomas, executive director of the RMYCC.

It’s all a part of giving New Mexico youth a chance to give back to their communities and to inspire them, Wood said.

And it is certainly working.

“The work I have done here has inspired me to focus on water resources and farming across the country,” said Memmer, who is majoring in environmental science, with a double minor in statistics and sustainability studies. It’s becoming such a prominent issue with food insecurity. Addressing climate change in the future, it’s going to take people like me working in agriculture and people working in fossil fuels to kind of come together in a holistic way to really save our resources.”