Free Farmin’Can urban farming flourish in the high desert?
By Conor L Sanchez
Growing up in the Candlelight neighborhood of Santa Fe, I often felt like I lived in adobe suburbia. The homes in this wedge just west of the intersection of Zia Road and St. Francis Drive are pretty cookie-cutter, you have to drive everywhere and nearly every property has a perfectly manicured yard full of gravel.
So when I visited Gaia Gardens for the first time this summer, I felt like I had been transported into another dimension. The whole setting, from the lush garden beds with over 30 different types of vegetables to the spacious chicken coop where fresh eggs are produced daily, breaks the mold of concrete driveways and xeriscaped landscapes.
To get to the farm that’s off Yucca Road along the Arroyo Chamiso Trail, I park on Paseo de los Chamisos and walk through a set of wrought-iron gates adorned with Zia symbols. I am greeted by a long-haired 20-something guy on a bike, who turns out to be a volunteer with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that links volunteers with organic farms all over the planet.
We walk down the hill toward the gardens where Poki Piottin, the farm’s founder, is organizing deliveries for the day. As we stand under a tree chatting, Dominique Pozo, Piottin’s partner and the farm’s artistic director, walks outside and shouts at us to look up. We lift our heads in time to spot a large gray and white bird perched on a nearby branch.
Despite growing up a mile away and attending high school just down the street, I had never seen a hawk here before.
For Piottin, this is what it’s all about—getting the community to engage with the environment and its neighbors in a way that doesn’t happen in cities anymore.
“I tend to look at this operation more from the intangible side of things,” he says. “They aren’t hard figures, so you may have to use your imagination for the benefits of nurturing well-oxygenated kids and happy moms who stop by here on a daily basis.”
Proponents of urban farming are offering up a lot of hype, going so far as to tout its potential to rejuvenate depressed neighborhoods in cities like Detroit and Baltimore by developing unused land, addressing food insecurity and promoting healthier diets.
I knew nothing about the concept until two years ago, when a friend in Washington DC said he was growing tomatoes on his roof. On Facebook, friends in New York City and San Francisco were posting photos of themselves in overalls with skylines in the background.
When I moved back to Santa Fe in June, I was convinced I’d find a plethora of these progressive efforts to build a more sustainable future for food production. I didn’t.
One way cities can promote urban farming is by addressing land use laws. Those ordinances are typically broken down into three categories: residential, commercial and industrial. And since urban farms often occur in someone’s backyard, cities are grappling with how to appropriately regulate these new operations given their tendency to blur the lines they’ve drawn over the past half-century.
The city of Santa Fe, however, has yet to produce a policy that addresses urban farming. Last summer, the Public Works Committee considered a resolution that ordered city staff to look at ways for urban agriculture to be integrated into land use, but that didn’t get far. Now, the Santa Fe Food Policy Council is preparing what it calls “a comprehensive food plan,” part of which addresses urban agriculture. This fall, those formal recommendations are expected to land before city and county officials.
Gaia Gardens is a perfect example of how bumpy the road can be. The farm started in February 2012 shortly after Piottin spent six months working on a farm in San Pancho, Mexico.
Piottin has spent the last two years working to develop the farm despite complaints from some neighbors about the frequency of farm visitors. Last summer the city issued citations about code violations on the property and even said school kids could no longer take field trips to work on the farm and volunteers weren’t allowed to sleep in tents there. A farm stand had to be shuttered and the produce couldn’t legally be sold from the site, the city ordered.
I knocked on the door of the neighbor who, according to Piottin, takes photos of the garden when too many volunteers are on the field. She told me she was “addressing the issue in other ways” and shut the door.
Even if the city adopts a more farm-friendly policy in residential zones, I wonder what we can realistically expect from a region that averages 14.21 inches of rainfall per year and where the cost of water, not to mention land, is so high.
Although Gaia Gardens has a permit application with the State Engineer that is under protest and could affect the water part of the equation, much of their overhead costs are uniquely low. Last year, they brought in just over $21,000 from sales. Their total expenses were $16,000, leaving the farm with about $5,000 in net revenue.
The slim profit margin, Piottin says, is why it is so important that the city provide support for urban farmers. “There’s a lot of talent and potential here. We may be behind most cities, but we can forget that by creating something that help young urban farmers,” he says.
Although Gaia remains the city’s largest commercial farm, there has been a local uptick in the number of residents interested in farming.
“I would definitely say that in more recent years, urban farming has become a growing trend in Santa Fe, and not in the sense of large commercial farming, but rather a lot of folks just want to grow their own food,” says Patrick Torres, interim Northern District director for the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension program.
Gerard Martinez, who lives in Los Cedros neighborhood near Nava Elementary, began growing food in his backyard five years ago. Today, Martinez says he saves $300 on food costs each year by getting food from his backyard.
The biggest challenge, he says, is water. He’s installed an irrigation system that reclaims water used by his dishwasher, but he says if the city is serious about helping urban farmers, it also needs to find residents more access to graywater.
So what’s holding urban farming back?
It’s impossible to argue that Santa Feans lack the interest or ingenuity to boost local food production and expand access to affordable produce on their own. But residents need clarity as to how the city plans to regulate farms, and they could really use greater access to safe reclaimed water.
My childhood neighborhood needed something like Gaia. I’m waiting for the city government to catch up.