Story and Photos by STEPHANIE HILLER
Published Oct 29, 2013 in La Jicarita, An Online Magazine of Environmental Politics in New Mexico
An idyllic vision of community, farming, feasting, and creating art has collided with a wall of local ordinances and at least one neighbor who feels her personal and property rights have been infringed upon.
Gaia Gardens, an urban farm created by “Poki” (Hugo) Piottin and Dominique Pozo according to biodynamic agriculture practices, is the realization of his vision of “regenerative culture, a response to the crisis in environmental destruction and abuse that threatens to overwhelm and even destroy civilization as we know it,” as he frames it.
It is a vision that has its roots in the communal farms of the Sixties and differs from the current permaculture movement in only a few details; but like permaculture, a highly effective approach to sustainable land use, Piottin’s “regenerative culture” is a more mature effort to create a healthy, environmentally sound alternative to the corporate agriculture that now dominates the market for food.
Corporate agriculture features sophisticated machinery, highly toxic pesticides and soil amendments, monoculture, high water usage, and most recently, genetically modified foods, technologies justified as the best means for feeding the burgeoning population of the planet.
But the industrial production of foods has unpleasant consequences, as the popular documentary, The Future of Food, amply reveals; and the public has become increasingly aware that it has little control over its food supply. But where is one to get fresh healthy food? Here in Santa Fe, we have access to many farmers and organic stores, but across the country from truck stops to Safeway most of the food supply is processed, and the rest has been sprayed and otherwise adulterated.
America was once a country of small farmers, extolled by Thomas Jefferson as the very heartbeat of a democracy. Now the family farm has gone the way of the bison. Places like Gaia Gardens attempting to regenerate abused land for organic farming thus strike a chord in the hearts of many Americans who want clean food and may not be able to grow their own. The Urban Farm movement that is now taking hold in desperate cities like Detroit as well as on rooftops in Manhattan, trashed lots in Chicago, in St. Louis and elsewhere, was also inspired by the memory of the “Victory Gardens” that sprang up in response to food shortages during World War II. Where there has been nothing but junk and garbage – rocks, beer bottles, crushed cigarettes, the occasional hypodermic needle, and condoms – there is now swiss chard, tomatoes, and peas.
Urban farming is not the same thing as organic industrial farming. Based more on sharing than on profit, it often has the goal of providing fresh food to poor people without access to it. The labor, which is intensive, is supplied by neighbors augmented by visiting volunteers called “woofers” – interns or apprentices who travel to small farms to share in the work and the harvest, usually accommodated on the land in some form of housing. Woofers owe their name to a networking organization called WWOOF, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA (WWOOF-USA®), whose mission “is part of a worldwide effort to link visitors with organic farmers, promote an educational exchange, and build a global community conscious of ecological farming practices.”
At Gaia Gardens, a number of woofers helped with the work while living in trailers and tents. With their volunteer help, the farm produced bushels of colorful vegetables without machines or chemicals, demonstrating ecological techniques of recycling, composting, and pest control, and bringing school children out to see where real food comes from. It also holds monthly potlucks where neighbors share the food they grow, creating a convivial atmosphere of community and sense of shared purpose, and beautifying the grounds in view of the public hiking trail.
But not everyone in the neighborhood was enchanted; in particular, one woman, a retired lawyer whose house directly abuts a corner of the property, became increasingly irritated despite what Piottin sees as his best efforts to mollify her. Finally, she filed a detailed complaint that brought city investigators crashing down on the beaming faces of blooming sunflowers and threatened to bring to a close Gaia’s two year sojourn.
Gaia Gardens is located in a residential neighborhood that is zoned R-5. Properties in this type of zone are not allowed to engage in commercial activity. Their activities are governed by the Home Occupation Ordinance, which restricts the number of nonresident employees or volunteers to two. Having workers live in tents is also not allowed.
For neighbor Susan Turner it may have seemed that Occupy had come to stay, with people living in temporary and unpermitted dwellings with limited facilities. (She declined to be interviewed, saying she was too busy.) Her complaint, in addition to identifying relevant zoning regulations and unpermitted structures, also accuses the city of not responding to earlier, unofficial communications. She charges, among other things, that the neighboring vegetable garden is “massive . . . a large scale for- profit agricultural production” in which workers “frequently work into the night, sometimes picking by means of car lights shining on the garden.”
Gaia Gardens next to Susan Turner's house
The garden occupies approximately one acre on a 3.5 acre piece. Gaia Gardens is not-for-profit, and not large scale.
The complaint further calls the property an “eye-sore” and a “possible health hazard,” alleging that “trash, retired piles of building materials, various equipment, etc., is piled in various areas.” But a visit to Gaia Gardens this month revealed no garbage. Piottin told La Jicarita that the property was trashed when he rented it two years ago, and he carried away loads of junk and rocks before he could begin to nourish the dried, hard soil.
Turner’s complaint also refers to the “degradation” of property values caused by the farm, “as well as a gross invasion of our quality of life as homeowners” and called for a “complete halt” to the operation. But other neighbors see the garden as a valued addition to their neighborhood. Deb Farson, who lives within the neighboring Arroyo Chamiso complex, told LJ the garden greatly enhanced the view from the trail.
Farson is the head of the Neighborhood Association for the complex that recently sent a letter to the Land Use Department expressing its support for the project. She said the situation is complicated by the property’s history of multiple owners, many of whom trashed the property. For her, Gaia Gardens is a great improvement to what was there before.
Asked whether Piottin was responsive to neighbor concerns, she said “absolutely,” citing an instance when the ducks in a pen near the residences kept residents awake at night. When they complained to Piottin, he relocated the duck pen.
But the critical issue, that sent up a red flag to the city’s Land Use Department, was Piottin’s creation of a farm stand that was open to the neighborhood three days a week. The Home Occupation Ordinance does not allow for products of any kind to be sold on private property. Food grown in the garden should be for the family. Excess may be sold at farm markets.
Gaia Gardens is a tenant. The present owner of the property, Stuart Jay Tallmon, resides in Colorado; he has entrusted much of the management to Piottin. When investigators determined that permit violations existed, a Notice of Violation was sent to Tallmon dated June 7, demanding immediate action.
In a phone interview, Land Use Director Matthew O’Reilly confirmed the property was not suitable for public use such as visiting school groups, interns staying in tents, and film showings. O’Reilly claims to have received “untold calls” about the Gardens, with neighbors calling to complain while supporters lived further away. For him, “the law is the law” and it’s his job to enforce it.
But he confessed he was not unsympathetic to the project. “I understand the sentiment completely,” he avowed. “I think this is a good debate to be having. If our governing body [the city council] decides this is the way to go, I’d be more than happy to enforce it.”
A resolution by Councilor Patti Bushee, directing staff to “draft amendments to the city code…related to the establishment of a permitted use in certain zoning districts for farm stands and urban agriculture,” is currently on hold, pending recommendations from the Sustainable Santa Fe Commission http://www.santafenm.gov/index.aspx?nid=645, which will consider the issue over the coming months within the context of a “range of food issues, including food security, food justice, the capacity of the region to produce food,” according to Katherine Mortimer, head of the Commission. In a phone conversation with LJ, Mortimer also said that the resolution, which would permit farm stands like Piottin’s, did not originate around the Gaia Gardens controversy.
Acknowledging that she has never visited the farm, she said she doesn’t want the Gardens to be a “lightning rod” for this issue. Past experience has shown her (she has worked on land policy issues for 30 years) that one person with a contentious issue can derail fruitful progress on a larger concept; the discussion centers on the contentions.
Referring to the complaints of “one neighbor,” Mortimer added that one of the neighbor’s claims – that Piottin dumped manure “three feet from her bedroom window” – suggests that her house may not be in compliance with regulations requiring “houses to be at least ten feet from the property line.” But she does not want to be engaged in any part of the Gaia Gardens issue.
On a chilly fall morning following a raging thunderstorm, I sat with Poki Piottin, wearing the wool jacket he loaned me for protection from the cold wind. Despite the brisk wind, the landscape before us was dazzling – a handmade horno, slightly beaten up by the night’s storm; a field of pumpkins ripening in the sun; rows of brilliant red chard; and beyond, the Arroyo Chamiso. No piles of building materials or trash were in sight.
Piottin, better known as Poki, hails from Lyon, France. He spoke with considerable fervor about the vision he had had several years ago on his way to Seattle, of a “regenerative culture” that would restore abused lands and create community around the growing of healthy foods.
Poki had once – “in another life” – been a businessman, the initiator, among other things, of a famous grunge club and later the developer of a software company that was eventually bought out. But when the World Trade Organization protests hit Seattle and the police responded en masse, Poki saw what citizens are up against and understood the pressing need for a new society.
Now in his fifties, he became a farmer only a few years ago. With his partner, Dominique Pozo, he founded Gaia Gardens in 2011 and is deeply committed, not only to the project but to the vision of a radically new culture that it is intended to model.
He was drawn to this spot because it is “visible from the Chamiso trail, not hidden away from the people.” Not content to just grow food and sell it, he really aims to educate people of all ages about how – and why – to grow food sustainably.
“I was looking at all the components of culture,” he says, in a radio broadcast, “habitat, livelihood, money, food production, education, eldercare, healthcare, the more I was gravitating toward farming, how all these problems were stemming from an agriculture that’s toxic, and exploitive and destructive, so in order to build a culture that is healthy and sane…we need to rebuild agriculture.
“Urban agriculture can touch a lot of people quickly,” he added, and that is his goal.
He is very frustrated by the city’s response to his forthright attempts to acquire a business license and follow the laws; he says he did what he was told to do. He knew that the farm stand might be illegal, but there was no space available at the Saturday Farmers’ Market and he needed to sell some produce, so he contacted the mayor, whom he had once met, to ask if he could receive a special permit to allow him to do it. Instead of hearing from the mayor’s office, he received a letter from the Land Use office citing him for infractions. He complains that he was scolded like a child by a man ten years younger than he.
He appears to be a man who is willing to play by the rules but is unable to wait years for the bureaucratic process to create the rules that would allow him to follow his dream.
At the October potluck, probably the last event until next year (if the farm is able to continue), a table serving as a buffet was piled with foods. People settled in around three tables in the outdoor kitchen. It grew dark, with only a makeshift chandelier of white Christmas lights over one table. Some people were neighbors, others came from farther afield, outside the city. Among them were people who were helping Poki disentangle the crossed wires of regulations and permits.
Poki sat down only long enough to eat and join a discussion about what happened and how to proceed. He doesn’t stay idle long. When I arrived, he was grating cheese. Later I saw him rolling out pizza dough. The pizza that landed on the buffet table was the best I have ever had.
The Gaia Gardens experiment promises much: the new vision that is emerging all across the country of more sustainable land use and safer, healthier food could well be a viable response to a system of agriculture that just isn’t working for everyone. People like Poki Piottin and Dominique Pozo are not trying to overthrow the government; they are fostering a return to a way of life that was America, and that offers promise for the future.
But, like other urban farms, there are problems. Not only will regulations need to change, which has happened in several cities, and neighbors accommodated, but water rights may also be at issue.
And then there is money.
As Poki explained at the potluck, “This type of farming is so intensive, you have to live on the land. You have to devote your total attention to it.
“So if you can’t sell the food, you can’t survive.”
Someone asked how many people this one-acre farm could feed.
“You won’t have the butter. You won’t have the quinoa. But vegetables, grains, eggs from the chickens? Maybe 20. Maybe 15.”
The challenge for urban farming, clearly, resides not only in re-crafting the regulations but in how those numbers will add up.
The Sustainable Santa Fe Commission has sponsored several meetings to address issues Katherine Mortimer described above. An upcoming meeting will be held November 2 at the Southside Community Fiesta at Zona del Sol located at 6601 Jaguar Drive. There will be a community listening session covering a range of topics with mention of the Food Plan and a system for collecting comments on the larger goal areas so far identified for that plan, from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. that day.
Stephanie Hiller is an independent journalist and editor based in Santa Fe. She blogs at http://stephaniehiller.wordpress.com