Reinterpreting an old idea - Albuquerque Journal

Reinterpreting an old idea

Francisco Javier Prieto, the farm manager at Los Portales, picks Tango baby leaf lettuce at the farm in Nambe Wednesday August 18, 2021. The farm raises produce for the Vinaigrette restaurants in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

NAMBÉ – Towering cottonwoods line the lower portion of a 10-acre micro farm here, creating a quiet, shady retreat that seems quite apart from a bustling, cultivation hotbed.

Overlooking the cottonwood basin, non-stop farm manager Francisco Javier Prieto – whom everybody calls Javi and who will get up as early as 3 a.m. to harvest produce by headlamp and moonlight – works rows of arugula, various lettuces, tomatoes and other veggies set in beds created in the Zuni waffle-style farming method designed to maximize yield while conserving water.

Packed full of rich mulch compost, the beds are fed via a drip irrigation system that Javi flops from one bed to the next. The water emerges from a 10,000-gallon reservoir buried beneath the property that is filled via rain harvesting from the farm’s structures.

Francisco Javier Prieto, farm manager at Los Portales farm, picks several types of lettuce at the farm in Nambe. The farm raises produce for the Vinaigrette restaurants in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The farm, known for years as Los Portales where lilies were raised, is now a free-form site where flowers are every bit as important as the vegetables that are raised and used, gracing the tables at the Vinaigrette restaurants in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

As a matter of fact, the farm could be used as a study for modern, small farms struggling to survive as mega farming corporations gobble up acreage across the globe.

“It’s brutal,” said farm owner Erin Wade, who also owns the Vinaigrette franchise, as well as the Modern General stores. “The reason food has gotten so unnaturally cheap is subsidies and huge farm conglomerates that made growing food so cheap. To survive with a small farm you have to be more sustainable and it’s very difficult. So difficult. I think that’s what I’m looking for. Farm diversity is health.”

So, Wade, who moved to the lapsed farmland in 2002 and began farming it two years later, has been seeking ways to turn the serene property about 10 miles north of Santa Fe into more. Early on, she stumbled into a rich yield as the restaurants offered a ready outlet and revenue for the produce that is grown on some three of the acres.

Apple trees are starting to yield fruit that will be turned into apple cider.

Plans are in the works for the fall and spring to plant a ¾-acre weed-filled, barren piece of land – that had once been the dumping ground for the effort to bury the reservoir – with a variety of grapes to create red-wine vinegar.

“They turned all the unhealthy subsoil, turned that on top and we’ve been rehabbing that area for 15 years,” Wade said. “That was a real lesson for me. You have to be really gentle with the soil here in New Mexico. It’s very fine and fragile and brittle. We don’t drive tractors anywhere off trails because the soils compact so easily.”

Apples and tomatoes picked at Los Portales farm in Nambe. The farm raises produce and flowers for the Vinaigrette restaurants in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

And Wade sees the farm itself almost as a cozy, self-contained refuge that corporate types and others who have lost their way in today’s frenzied life can use as a shielded, chill place to relax and detox, getting back to the primal side of humanity.

She envisions shade structures under those peaceful cottonwood trees, where artists can paint and writers can create. Wade sees a large garage as being a workshop where woodworkers can perfect their craft and potters can spin a wheel to teach lessons.

“Our lives have gotten so keyed up and busy and fast,” she said. “But there are these older tools, older functions and things we have been doing for such a long time as people that we have lost a connection to; farming, making things with our hands, doing things with our hands. There is so much brain space devoted to hand-to-eye coordination.”

Providing a place where people can change that narrative would be beneficial.

“It’s really refreshing to be out in nature, and be in your body and using your hands, and not be up in your head and watching a screen,” Wade said. “It’s truly therapeutic. We are actually made for it. So, I’m working on turning the farm into a place where people can take classes. Learn how to carve a wooden spoon or bake bread or make a raised garden bed or make compost tea. A place to check out from the increasingly frenetic modern life and check into a different frequency.”

While providing a necessary community haven, it will help generate income, which is always a constant struggle for the small farmer.

“We have to have multi-track revenue streams,” Wade said. “If you don’t, inevitably, you’re going to be over-pushing too hard on one of those things.”

Soil management is important at Los Portales farm. Here, Prieto plants dark red lollo lettuce. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

And when that delicate balance is upended, matters tend to take a turn for the worse.

“It’s getting harder and harder to be a farmer, to grow food as the climate gets more unpredictable and extreme,” she said. “This year, we have had not a single release from the ditch, we’ve finally had a decent amount of rain, but it’s been an incredibly difficult year. We’re not seeing the kind of snowmelt that gives you the river water that allows the ditches to run at full capacity, so we’re having to get more creative with how we grow and what we grow.”

It is all part of the circle that keeps the farm solvent – not unlike the circle farmers relied on centuries ago.

“They had hay for horses that ran the plough, a few cows they milked and then sold the milk, kept hens and sold the eggs, berries they made jam with, and then some staple crop,” Wade noted. “But the industrialization of farming sort of murdered the diverse, traditional family farm. So, the idea is really an old one interpreted for modern times. It’s possible to sell niche products direct to the customer with the right marketing and idea. Old, but new.”

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