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Organic farm struggles to recover after fire

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The weeds have come back.

Five weeks ago, what became known as the Escondida Fire rushed through the bosque north of Socorro, leaving 524 acres of blackened earth peppered with scorched stumps of salt cedar and turning stately stands of cottonwoods that had grown there for decades into bony, black fingers clutching at the skies.

Some of the trees are still smoldering from the inside, bursting into flame as recently as Tuesday. Thick branches fall unexpectedly, dangerously.

But in that scarred soil, determined shoots of growth, the weeds, are returning. It is a welcome, if not altogether helpful, sign that maybe someday other life there will come back, too.

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The fire, which began on a hot and windy June 10, not only destroyed precious bosque acreage but devastated Nolina’s Heavenly Organics, a small farm that, as the name implies, grows organic produce and was indeed heavenly.

new map temp_feb_16In 2003, the eponymous Nolina (she doesn’t give out her last name, shies away from the spotlight) left her corporate job and bought about 30 acres of wild, untouched bosque property. Slowly, by the sweat of her brow and the hope of her heart, she cleared away invasive vegetation and tamed 2 acres of the land. She installed greenhouses and growing fields, a chicken coop for an exotic feathered flock, a solar-paneled shed to house a generator, adobe storage buildings and a quaint tin-roofed, straw-bale home adorned with wind chimes, bird feeders and prayer flags.

The farm started producing 80 varieties of specialty garlic, rows of onions, shallots, cucumbers, carrots, eggplant, beans, corn, tomatoes and melons, all of which are sold at La Montañita Co-op on Rio Grande in Albuquerque and at farmers markets.

Besides being a working organic farm, Nolina’s was a preserve of sorts for rare bosque birds and insects, deer, foxes, beavers and the occasional mountain lion. A flock of peacocks came to live there, and in summer so many hummingbirds buzzed about the feeders that it felt as if a colorful cloud were swirling about the trees.

If you were lucky enough to have visited Nolina’s, you know what a sweet corner of the earth this was. If you were lucky enough to know Nolina, so much the better.

Among those who know both is Lexi Firth, another independent spirit who came to New Mexico in 2012 as a biology intern at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge working on the Prairie Dog Relocation Project.

Although the Escondida Fire devastated much of Nolina's Heavenly Organics, most of the crops grown on the farm were untouched. Above, Lexi Firth checks the salad greens in one of two large greenhouses on the property. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Although the Escondida Fire devastated much of Nolina’s Heavenly Organics, most of the crops grown on the farm were untouched. Above, Lexi Firth checks the salad greens in one of two large greenhouses on the property. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Firth, who has held a series of seasonal biology jobs, came on board as a resident farmer at Nolina’s after learning about it through one of the farm’s volunteers.

These days, her main job is figuring out how to save Nolina’s.

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“A lot of stuff has to be done before we can start over again,” she says. “If we start over again.”

They had been given little time to pack up before being evacuated because of the fire, which began in a neighbor’s home. They watched it burn for a while from the shoulder of Interstate 25. When they were allowed to return the next day, the destruction was overwhelming.

“We lost so much,” Firth says as we walk around the property on a recent morning.

It’s been five weeks since the fire, and little has been done to clear away the debris. Sheds are black carcasses of twisted metal and ash. The chicken coop is gone, and with it the chickens. Most perished in the fire; the rest probably became victims of coyotes. A shed that contained all the important gardening tools, thousands of seeds and boxes of personal belongings is a total loss. Plastic siding on one greenhouse is melted away.

Perhaps most emotional of all is the loss of Nolina’s home, now a heap of corrugated tin roofing and the metal tubes from burned wind chimes. Bird feeders are twisted, melted plastic globs.

There was no insurance.

Amazingly, Firth’s tiny hand-built house was spared, though the fire chewed deep into an encroaching olive bush, stopping right before it came to a small bell she had hung in the branches, a memorial to her late father.

“My theory is his spirit stopped the fire there and kept it from catching onto my house,” she says.

Firth’s own spirit is flagging.

“We lost our seed collection, tools; morale is low,” she says. “There’s a lot of big decisions to be made.”

Firth has already made one. Once the vegetables and garlic in the ground are harvested and sold in late August and early September, she is leaving, bound for graduate school in Mississippi.

Before she goes, though, she is embarking on a fundraising campaign to rebuild the farm. A GoFundMe account has brought in $9,575 but has stalled in recent weeks.

Firth is also looking at other ways to bring in money – a night at a local brewpub, T-shirts, whatever she can do to save the farm and the woman who saved her.

“I don’t know how to explain what this land means to me or what Nolina means to me,” she says. “I feel like this farm really helped me at a time when I was depressed. My father had died. I didn’t know what to do with my life. But this place grounded me. It has been my stability. It made me feel happy looking around here, living here.”

In time, Firth says, she hopes more than weeds will come back. She hopes hope will come back. Like a farmer and a steward of the land, she is trying to help that along.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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