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Can urban agriculture work in Santa Fe?

SANTA FE, N.M. — Every neighborhood should have an urban farm.

That’s a declaration from Erin O’Neill, who oversees the culinary garden at Santa Fe Community College. And if you’ve ever visited that garden, you would clearly see what abundance can occur in a relatively small space.

“Our youth want to know how to grow food,” she said in a film that will be screened publicly for the first time Saturday at the Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque.

The documentary “Bringing Food Home” is the work of filmmakers David Aubrey and Nanda Currant.

They started work on it after Gaia Gardens, an urban farm operating along Arroyo Chamiso, attracted a host of city zoning, fire, electrical and more inspectors after a neighbor complained about the operation. Founders Poki Piottin and Dominique Lozo labored to bring it into compliance, losing some of their flexibility to bring in volunteers to help farm and groups to learn how urban farms can work, and to sell produce on the premises.

At the same time, a host of neighborhood residents spoke out in favor of Gaia Gardens, saying it was a center to build community, and a welcome oasis in the scrubby and weedy environs along the sandy arroyo.

Aubrey said in a telephone interview that he had ridden his bike along the trail behind Gaia Gardens and seen the plantings taking shape there. When he heard about the issues it was having with zoning and city ordinances, he thought it would be ripe for filming.

He hadn’t had a particular interest in urban farming before, but has been a filmmaker in Santa Fe for 34 years. Previous work of his includes “A Thousand Voices” about tribal women in the Southwest, which aired on New Mexico PBS and won an award from New Mexico Women in Film, and the Emmy-winning “Canes of Power,” which explores the history of the canes President Abraham Lincoln presented to tribes to signal their sovereignty.

Hearing about Gaia Gardens, Aubrey said, he wondered “with all our best intentions, with the interest so broad in eating healthfully, it seems kind of like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t we love this?” The filmmakers considered broadening the project to a feature-length documentary on urban farming, but the time and money for such a project meant it would not be ready in time to have an impact on the local situation, he said. “It would take a long time to get out the word,” he said.

But the film does reach beyond Gaia Gardens in talking about the need for local food sources.

And that was one of the points that stood out for me. The more centralized any industry or system becomes, the easier it is to derail.

Just think of our worries these days – remember Y2K? – about computer espionage and sabotage, and about what might happen to our banking, defense and a host of other systems if a hostile hacker invaded electronically and wiped out stores of data or took control over them.

Focusing on food, have you ever noticed how people rush to the grocery store when there’s a prediction of a major snowstorm, hurricane or – well, if we ever developed a good way to predict earthquakes, them, too. In most cases, it seems a little irrational.

But is it really? When we rely on stores for our food that is shipped in from across the nation, and across nations, it’s easy to get a little nervous about shelves becoming empty if our transportation systems suffer a major disruption.

And how about the way food is grown on a massive scale? More and more, major growers limit themselves to only a few types of crops. Yet that makes those crops more susceptible to failure if a bug or other pathogen attacks en masse.

Just look to the Irish potato famine, which began in 1845, lasted a half-dozen years, and caused the deaths of a million people and the emigration of another million, according to There were a lot of political factors that greatly increased the misery caused then, but a root factor was that poor peasants began to rely strongly on the potato, and a particular variety of potato at that, when it was hit by a fungal blight. The potatoes died and, without a good supply of other food to rely on, people starved.

Variety is good. Local is good. A food supply relying on a bunch of small, local (or at least regional) growers can adapt more quickly to challenges, both in what is grown and where food is sent, say people interviewed in the film.

To get there, though, we all have to be adaptable, they said.

“Sustainability is going to mean changes. It’s going to mean sacrifice,” said Bianca Sopoci-Belknap, chair of the Sustainable Santa Fe Commission.

And it’s going to mean some loosening of some city rules that make urban farming more of a struggle than it needs to be.

In his online blog, Piottin has said that he only made $10,000 last year. Many of us would have a hard time surviving on that kind of income.

On July 8, after a devastating hailstorm hit his crops, he wrote:

“I work from sunrise to sunset seven days a week every day of the year. After 5 years of farming, I am coming to some difficult realizations. Small scale farming like we practice, in the desert, on less than an acre, without machinery and with very little water (our well is shallow and doesn’t produce enough) is unsustainable. I work all the time and am tired all the time. I don’t have any life outside the farm.”

But, he continued, he sees hope under Mayor Javier Gonzalez, who “has invited us to help create a vision for a sustainable Santa Fe and shape a comprehensive urban agriculture ordinance.”

“As difficult as it’s been, we’ve made a huge impact on the city and hopefully have opened the way for more food production to take place in Santa Fe (as it once was!).”