Saturday, November 28, 2015

Closing the Chapter

I had the privilege of spending much of this growing season as an intern at Gaia Gardens. Over the past seven months, I experienced the natural shifts in weather and tasks from spring to summer to fall, as well as several models of marketing and engaging with the surrounding community. I learned more than I ever imagined about gardening, the demands of running a small business, the potential of urban farms, and the daunting legal and political challenges they can face. Now as the season draws to its final, hastened end, I am left at once grateful, inspired, and disillusioned.

I arrived in early March to a flurry of seeding, transplanting, and on occasion, snow. At the time, Poki and Dominique were optimistic that the urban farming ordinance that had been drafted and circulated the previous year would soon pass, and were looking forward to welcoming more school groups, hosting workshops, and reopening the farm stand. In the meantime, we spent nearly a third of our time working in two school gardens and selling seeds and plant starts at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.

For a time, I found it exciting and fun to work the market. I was energized by the buzz of interactions, the faces that soon grew familiar, the spontaneous moments of connection with strangers passing through, the camaraderie and admiration and support among vendors. But by mid-summer, I was also weary of the hours of loading and unloading a truck stacked high with bins and tables, hundreds of seedlings, crate after heavy crate of gallon pot tomatoes. When we finally freed ourselves, in a frenzy of giving, from the last of the plant starts, I was deeply relieved and ready to let go of the most stressful part of each week, as well as intrigued to see the farm stand unfold.

I soon understood why Poki and Dominique had been so eager and fought so hard to reopen the farm stand. I cannot imagine a more ideal space, right off a major bike trail, in the heart of the garden, where people could sit in the shade and enjoy a free cup of herbal tea grown on the farm, or walk through the garden to admire the flowers and see where and how the produce they purchased grew, just feet away. A few familiar friends and neighbors dropped by, thrilled to finally be able to walk down the street to chat and buy their produce for the week. Most of the people who came to the stand I had never seen before. Some had walked or biked by the farm every day on their way to work, wondering at the flowers along the fence, and were excited to be invited in through the open gate. Others happened to be passing by on a ride through town and were curious and excited to discover a farm in the city. One such young couple in particular are engraved in my memory. They came in from the bike trail,  bought a bunch of kale and a bundle of carrots, and meandered through the garden. They eventually found their way to the “dragon bench,” lovingly shaped and plastered with straw and clay by volunteers, nibbled their way through the carrots, then headed up the hill to feed the carrot tops to the chickens. I found them in front of the coop several minutes later, still tossing the leaves piece by piece to the chickens, laughing, playful, teasing, entranced. I wondered if they had ever fed chickens before. Yes, I thought, it was moments like these, far more than the meager sum we earned, that made the farm stand worthwhile and critical.

On a practical level, the farm stand took a fraction of the time, effort, fuel, and heavy lifting of the Farmer’s Market. For months, we had spent at least five or six hours each week first loading the truck for market, then leaving before dawn, driving three miles away, and scrambling to unload and set up our stand, only to pack everything carefully back into bins a few hours later, load them back onto the truck, make the short drive back to the farm, and unload all of our supplies again. Now, instead, we could rise with the sun, quickly set up and harvest for the farm stand from within the garden, and work in the surrounding fields during lulls between customers. We could harvest just a modest amount of each vegetable, much of it that same morning, and restock as necessary. This saved us from having to figure out how to store or use up a giant harvest if sales were slow on a given day. It also meant the freshest produce possible for customers, and less going to waste. And we were providing fresh organic vegetables to a completely different clientele not already served by scores of other growers at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.

The farm stand lasted two weeks before it was closed by the city. The expressions of dismay and outrage of those passing by persisted for months. I came to dread the predictable questions, from the mouths of friends of the farm and utter strangers alike: Why didn’t we just return to the farmer’s market, or wholesale to local restaurants and co-ops? And couldn’t we sell them produce “under the table” in exchange for a “donation?”

What many people don’t seem to realize is that producing and selling food was only a small part of what the farm offered, or could have if it were given the freedom to.  All along, the purpose of Gaia Gardens was to provide a space for people to tangibly contribute, learn by doing, share their experience and skills, and in the process, forge connections with the natural world and each other. First and foremost, the farm aimed to demonstrate, refine, and teach ecological food production methods, as well as model “bootstrapping” a farm by diverting waste and utilizing inexpensive local resources. (Rain catchment, composting food scraps from local restaurants, recycling used potting soil, and using salvaged building materials, to name a few.) Ironically, the farm stand became the central focus of the controversy around Gaia Gardens and urban farming in Santa Fe, but I believe it was actually the city’s over-zealous restrictions on school visits, volunteer groups, workshops, and community events that most undermined the spirit and promise of the farm.

We knew when we opened the farm stand that our days were numbered. The morning before, we had been informed that the property owner was not willing to consider a short-sale, and there no longer remained a viable option for securing the land. I spent most of the day clearing the dirt paths to the garden and carefully lining them with stones, shrouded in sadness. Mourning the loss of such a treasure of a place, where so many had invested their energy, dreams, sweat, and skills; found solace, inspiration, healing, and new ideas; laughed, deepened friendships, shared a meal, chomped on a lemon cucumber or scarlet runner bean right off the vine. Where barren ground had been built and nourished each year, transformed into rich soil prime for food production, and constantly fluttering with birds and pollinators.

And I mourned the loss of incredible potential, all it could have become, the fragile spider web of visions and dreams that had spiralled around it: a demonstration center or intentional community centered around natural building and permaculture, an alternative school, a summer camp, an urban farm incubator program...

I looked back through the fence at the waving fronds of cosmos, the tidy rows of vegetables, land that had passed through so many manifestations and transformations over the years, loved and abused, a stage and silent witness to the rise and fall of human ambitions and dreams, patient, enduring. A quiet assurance that even as this chapter was drawing to a close, the story of the land was far from over.

A few stones have been kicked out of place, but the paths still lead to the garden gate and through the fields, still beckon neighbors and friends and passer-bys, winged and human alike, to wander through a labyrinth of rows still blooming, still teeming with rich soil and seeds and a universe of subterrestrial life. Yet we must continue on our own winding paths, hoping, praying, trusting that in some way -- in the unknown mystery of seeds burrowed and stirring beneath the crust of the earth -- the legacy of growing, nurturing, connecting, and sharing will live on, here on this pinprick of the planet and in this community.

Blessings to all of you who have enriched this place and my time here.

Rachel Brylawski

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Meeting with the Mayor and City Manager

On Sept. 3, 20156, my attorney and I met for one hour with:

  • Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales
  • City Manager Brian Snyder
  • Public Information Director Matt Ross
  • Land Use Director Lisa Martinez
  • Assistant City Attorney Zachary Shandler 
  • Renewable Energy Planner John Alejandro
The purpose of the meeting was for the Mayor and his senior staff to hear about what Gaia Gardens has been going through in the past 4 years and why we decided to quit.  I told them that they needed to educate their staff about how fragile an undertaking an urban farm is, and that before looking for what's "wrong" with a project like Gaia Gardens and slapping the property with a Notice of Violation amounting to a death sentence, they should look at what's "right" with a situation and help the project instead of trying to shut it down as they did.

I sent the meeting participants a "Chronology of Events" ahead of the meeting (see below).

The Mayor apologized for all of our troubles at the onset of the meeting.  I explained how, before we began breaking ground at the farm, the property owner and I met with five senior Land Use planners in early 2012 to present what we intended to do (farming, education, etc.) and to seek guidance.  We were given their blessings.

See below a history of our dealings with the City administration.  There are 23 referenced attachments that you can download at once here). 


Chronology of Events
Nov. 2011 through August 10, 2015
Nov. 2, 2011
Mr. Piottin places an ad on Craigslist seeking a parcel of land for urban farming
(See attachment 1 -Posted on Craigslist 11-02-2011)

November 15, 2011
Stuart Tallmon, owner of the Gaia Gardens property, offers his land for creating the urban farm project

Jan., 2012
Mr. Piottin emails Mayor Coss, informing him of his plan to start an urban farm and asks whom he should talk for land use information.  Mayor Coss refers Mr. Piottin to Heather Lamboy, a Land Use Senior Planner

Feb. 6, 2012

Ms. Lamboy sends Mr. Piottin an email and suggests that he meets with Land Use Staff for further exploration  (See  attachment 2- Heather Lamboy Letter)

Feb. 17, 2012  10:00am-11:00am
Mr. Tallmon and Mr. Piottin meet with five Land Use and Water Division staff (including Heather Lamboy and Tamara Baer) to present the farm project and request guidance (See attachment 3 - Presentation to Land Use Feb. 17, 2012).  Land Use staff doesn’t foresee any issues with our plan, states that the only thing to be aware of is the farm can’t sell off the premises.  Land Use staff never mentions that the farm needs to apply for a Home Occupation License.

June 11, 2012

Unable to get a booth at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, farm announces the opening of a farm stand on property with access from the bike trail (See attachment 4 - Farm Stand Blog announcement)

July 2, 2012
Farm Stand opens to the public Mon., Wed. and Fri.  7:00am-11:00am

August 8, 2012

New Mexican publishes article on the farm, describing the farm stand (See attachment 5 - New Mexican Article 8/8/12)

Sept. 5, 2012
Mr. Piottin, having been accepted as a Santa Fe Farmers’ Market vendor applies for a City of Santa Fe Business License.  Vince Daniels at the City Business License Office, after hearing from Mr. Piottin that Gaia Gardens is operating a farm in the City limit and needs a Business License, tells Mr. Piottin that a Farmers Market Vendor Business License is all that is required.  Mr. Daniels never mentions the need for Mr. Piottin to apply for a Home Occupation License.  Business License # 12-00116243 is issued on that date.  Mr. Piottin has renewed his Farmers’ Market Vendor Business License each year since then.

Jan. 18, 2013

Mr. Piottin emails Mayor Coss and informs him of the farm stand operating successfully in 2012 and requests help to obtain a variance to continue the farm stand (See attachment 6 - Letter to Mayor Coss).  Mayor Coss never responds to Mr. Piottin’s email.

Feb 1, 2013
Mayor Coss sends email to Matt O’Reilly asking if Mr. O’Reilly can help with Mr. Piottin’s request  (See attachment 7 - Email from David Coss to Matt O'Reilly  Feb. 1, 2013)

Feb. 3, 2013
The New Mexico Community Foundation, Gaia Gardens’ fiscal sponsor, informs Mr. Piottin that his neighbor Susan Turner has called the Attorney General’s Office to complain that: 1) the farm non-profit is illegitimate 2) that the farm is trespassing on public land in its creation of a small shrine (made with sticks and stone).  The complaint is dismissed for being without merit (See attachment 8 - Dear Ms. Turner)

Feb. 11, 2013
Tom Watson, an elder and friend of the farm, takes it upon himself to visit Matt O’Reilly, then Director of Land Use.  Mr. Watson reports to Mr. Piottin the next day that he met with both Matt O’Reilly and Patti Bushee, and his assessment on the meeting is that “the City wants to shut down the farm” and that the farm in their view is "an inappropriate use in a residential zoning".
Feb. 18, 2013
Matt O’Reilly calls Mr. Piottin into his office.  On Feb. 12, Matt O’Reilly receives a complaint from Susan Turner, (one of our neighbors), about the farm being an illegal operation in residential zoning (See attachment 9 – Susan Turner’s Complaint)

Feb.-June 2013
Land Use Inspectors visit the farm on at least 5 occasions, looking at all areas of the farm operation.  Mr. Piottin cooperates and lets them on the property without dispute.  All inspectors are very courteous.

April 9, 2013

Gaia Gardens received the Santa Fe Sustainable Commission's Award for "Best Sustainable Food System". 

June 2013
Councilor Bushee introduces a draft for a Farm Stand Resolution.  Because of opposition from the Farmers’ Market, the Farm Stand Resolution draft is handed to the Food Policy Council for a rewrite (See attachment 10 - Councilor Patti Bushee Farm Stand Resolution 6/12/13)

June 6, 2013
Mr. Piottin applies for Home Occupation License.  When Mr. Piottin drops off his application at Land Use, he is told by inspector at the desk that “Matt O’Reilly said a Home Occupation License couldn’t be given because the farm is using volunteers”  (See attachment 11 - Home Occupation Permit Application 6/6/13)

July 11, 2013                                                                                          
Mr. Piottin sends email to Councilor Bushee and offers her to visit the farm to hear about the farm’s experience running a farm stand.  Councilor Bushee never replies to Mr. Piottin’s email (See attachment 12 - Letter to Councilor Bushee July 11, 2013)

June 11, 2013
Property owner Stuart Tallmon receives a Notice of Violation asking that the farm operation cease immediately (See attachment 13 - Notice of Violation Letter 6/11/13)

June 12, 2013
Poki Piottin, on behalf of Mr. Tallmon, requests an extension on the Violation Notice  (See attachment 14 - Letter to Matt O'Reilly 6-13-13)

June 27, 2013
After Matt O’Reilly requests complete access to all the property dwellings for inspection, a group of inspectors from water, grading, electrical and plumbing departments meticulously inspect the property for any building violation.

June 30, 2013
Matt O'Reilly having informed Mr. Piottin that he could not live in the trailer that was parked on the farm property, Mr. Piottin begins researching the issue, and posts an ad on Craigslist asking the public whether the City has enforced this against others (See attachment 15 - Posted on Craigslist 06-30-2013).  In the farm neighborhood alone, Mr. Piottin can easily point to several residents living in trailers.  Matt O’Reilly calls Kyle Harwood, an attorney helping us at the time, asking him if “we were planning to file a lawsuit against the City”.  Kyle Hardwood contacts Mr. Piottin to ask if he had posted the ad on Craigslist.  Mr. Piottin deletes the Craigslist ad that same day.
July 3, 2013
Property owner Stuart Tallmon receives another Notice of Violation  (See attachment 16 –Letter to Stuart Tallmon 7-3-13)

Sept. 4, 2013
The Los Chamisos Homeowners Association, bordering the farm property on two sides, passes a resolution supporting all the activities of the farm (See attachment 17 - Los Chamisos Homeowners Association Resolution)

Oct. 13, 2013
An email is sent to Matt O’Reilly regarding a progress update on the building violations  (See attachment 18 - Progress Update Oct 13, 2013)

Feb. 6, 2014
An email is sent to Matt O’Reilly regarding a progress update on the building violations  (See attachment 19 - Progress Update Feb. 6, 2014)

May 13, 2014
Mr. Piottin and Richard Welker, a volunteer doing research on urban agriculture ordinances around the US, present to the Santa Fe Food Policy Council a comprehensive document to assist the SFFPC in the drafting of an urban agricultural ordinance (See attachment 20 - Proposed Elements for Urban Agricultural Ordinance)

July 1, 2014
After Mayor Gonzales comes into office, Mr. Piottin sends Noah Berke, Planning and Policy Administrator for the Mayor, the Proposed Elements for Urban Agricultural Ordinance document.

July 14, 2014
Mr. Piottin meets with Mr. Berke to discuss the creation of an urban agriculture ordinance.  Mr. Berke mentions that Katherine Mortimer, Sustainable Santa Fe Programs Manager for the City of Santa Fe, is being considered to lead that effort.

Oct. 23, 2014
Mr. Piottin, Ms. Pozo, co-founder of Gaia Gardens, legal counsel Gretchen Elsner and three Gaia Gardens interns meet with Ms. Mortimer to begin a discussion on the details of an urban agriculture ordinance.

Oct. 2014 - May 2015
Mr. Piottin, Ms. Pozo, legal counsel Gretchen Elsner and several Gaia Gardens interns continue to work with Ms. Mortimer to further draft the details of an urban agriculture ordinance. (See attachment 21 - Sample of Communications with Katherine Mortimer).  The City appeared not to be making any progress toward having a public meeting or finishing a draft of the ordinance, but the proposed ordinance draft does make clear that farm stand will be allowed. 

May 28, 2015
John Alejandro, Renewable Energy Planner for the City of Santa Fe, invites Mr. Piottin to become a member of a newly created Urban Agriculture Committee. 
Mr. Alejandro is replacing Ms. Mortimer as the person in charge of creating an Urban Agriculture Ordinance.  Mr. Piottin participates in several meetings until his resignation from the committee on August 13, 2015.

May-August 2015 
On two occasions, during meetings of the Urban Agriculture Committee, Mr. Piottin asks Mr. Alejandro to help the farm find a way to get a permit for the farm stand that the farm plans to open in July 2015.  Mr. Alejandro states both times that he will work on Mr. Piottin’s request with the Land Use staff.

July 24, 2015 
After two years of contacting the City regarding how to offer fresh, locally grown vegetables to the neighborhood, the farm stand opens 8:00am-12:00pm.  Inspector Mike Purdy comes to the farm at 2:00pm and issues a Notice to Stop Work order on the property for “Commercial/Business in Residential Zoning”  (See attachment 22- Stop Work/Red Tag)

July 24, 2015  4:00pm
Mr. Piottin visits City Hall and meets with Lisa Martinez, Director of Land Use and Greg Smith, Division Planning Director of Land Use.  Ms. Martinez and Mr. Smith state that they are looking into a way to legalize the farm stand, maybe using a special “neighborhood grocery” license.

July 25, 2015
The documentary Bringing Food Home, centered on the Gaia Gardens’ story, premieres to a sold-out audience at the CCA. 

July 27, 2015
Ms. Martinez and Mr. Smith visit the farm to take a look at our operation.  Farm stand is open that morning and several neighbors, including architect and neighbor Wayne Lloyd, are present to greet Ms. Martinez and Mr. Smith, and praise the farm for being a good neighbor. At the end of the visit, Lisa Martinez states that they will try to get a “pilot project”-type permit for the farm stand.

July 27, 29, 31 and August 3, 5, 7, 10,  2015

Farm stand continues to operate  8:00am-12:00pm.  90% of farm stand customers are using the bike path, not creating traffic in the neighborhood, nor needing parking.

August 10, 2015

Lisa Martinez and several Land Use inspectors come to inspect the farm property, are being told and shown what building violations have and haven’t been remedied.  Ms. Martinez, at the end of the inspection, states that the farm needs to close its farm stand.  Mr. Piottin states, and also confirms via email, that he no longer represents Mr. Tallmon, the property owner, and that from now on, he only wishes to address the code violations related to the farm.  (See attachment 23 - Email to Lisa Martinez August 10, 2015)

August 10, 2015
Mr. Piottin issues a press release stating that Gaia Gardens has made a decision to stop farming in the City of Santa Fe.  Mr. Piottin submits his resignation from the Urban Agriculture Ordinance Committee to the Mayor and the Committee Chair John Alejandro.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Tales from the road: Urban farm forced to close

By Mary-Kate Newton  
Metropolitan State University of Denver

When Santa Fe forced Gaia Gardens to close, owners Poki Piottin and Dominique Pozo wanted their farm to die gracefully. 

The end of Poki and Pozo’s vision to teach holistic, self sustainable farming was punctuated by a liquidation sale September 12. 

“It’s time to put it to rest,” said Pozo. “We’re accepting the process of letting go of everything we’ve created.” 

Rather than abandoning their creation immediately, the owners and their intern Rachel Brylawksi will stay with the final harvest until their last corn stalk is cut. 

“The garden is a living thing. It would be like abandoning a child hungry in the desert,” Pozo said.

Before farming, Piottin was a businessman in Seattle. He worked for building contractors, an Internet company and owned his own dance and music club. 

“I quit,” Piottin said. “I got my eyes opened and became sensitized to corporate domination over government. I just decided to become an activist.” 

Piottin pursued various other projects including teaching sacred dance and an urban farm in Washington. In 2012, he decided to start a similar agricultural project in Santa Fe after a vision. “I had a vision of farming again and working with young people,” he said. 

Alongside Pozo, he rented property along Arroyo Chamiso and they began to teach Santa Fe about sustainable, Biodynamic farming. 

“We wanted to do education of the ins-and-outs of community gardening,” Piottin said, “Bootstrapping a project, and just making something out of nothing. We wanted to expose them to the magic of nature and creating an ecosystem in your backyard.” 

Piottin said Biodynamic farming is a holistic understanding of agriculture that relies on the energy rather than solely the chemistry of plants.  “Plants, trees; they have properties that are beyond the chemistry. Even the soil,” he said.  Gaia Gardens teaches seven preparations for manure that cater to energy and health of their plants which include adding materials like chamomile and horsetail.

Piottin’s business partner, Pozo, is a Doula, body worker and art therapist. She works with people suffering from eating disorders, and the farm has become a rewarding part of teaching her clients.
“It’s looking at food through a different lens, as a miracle and a way to nourish your body,” she said.

Pozo brings to the garden her knowledge of plants’ holistic and healing properties and used it to teach and help others. 

“The farm has been a labor of love. It was short lived but worth it,” Pozo said.

The bulk of the farm’s legal hurdles began two years ago when a neighbor of Gaia Gardens overwhelmed the city Attorney’s office with complaints about the farm. Piottin and Pozo have worked endlessly to appease zoning ordinances, water rights and licensing, but finally gave up warring with the city.

“It’s just plain meanness,” Piottin said. “She knew the codes were on her side, and forced the city to enforce their codes. It was about winning a game.”

In 2013, Gaia Gardens was denied a business license, making
 it impossible to operate as a business and school on residential property. In order to sustain, Gaia Gardens began selling their vegetables at the local Farmer’s Market. This business model proved too straining on Gaia Gardens’ 3.5 acres, volunteer operated farm, and so they stopped growing food for commercial use.
“So that we’re not giving in to the commercial side, we give to four charities,” he said. “Right now [the complaining neighbors] are the most hated people in the neighborhood because we do so much for the community like this.”

At the farm’s sale, Leonard Gomez, who lives around the corner from Gaia Gardens, expressed frustration at the closure of the beloved farm.  “It’s bullshit, picking on someone that is trying to do so much good,” Gomez said. “If codes don’t work in favor of a place like this, then it’s time for the laws to change.” 

During the somber liquidation sale, Pozo, Piottin and Brylawski were gracious hosts. Pozo greeted visitors and gave away wildflower seeds. Piottin offered glasses of apple juice as people browsed the yard sale, and Brylawski offered some of the lunch she made from fresh garden veggies. 

“He’s generous to a fault,” Brylawski said about Piottin. “ He’s a businessman but he gives everything away.” 

At the sale, Piottin spoke with a family of five. The youngest boy picked out an old bike tire and Piottin offered him a free helmet, concerned he might be riding without one. He sold the family a few armfuls of trinkets for one quarter. 

Piottin said helping people is his primary motivation. 

“Life is about finding a way to be of service in whatever way you want to do it,” he said. “Whatever is next, I’ll do what I can to have an impact on the community, whatever that city is.” 

The Gaia Gardens trio will live on the property in foreclosure until their crops live out their natural life cycles, which could be until early December. 

Pozo will concentrate on her other jobs, Brylawski will move to a homestead in California and Piottin will keep looking for his next way to be of service. 

“Life is a complex tapestry,” Piottin said. “I don’t worry about what’s next. I’m a citizen of the world, and I will go where it takes me.” 

Photos by Alyson McClaran

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Last Dance

 Our last potluck was magnificent. 

Thank you to all who attended, especially the musicians.

Here are five music samples from the evening.

Click on each image to listen.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Beware of Eldorado Doctors!

Last week, I filed a Request for Public Records at the City Attorney's office regarding the latest round of complaints about the farm.

The person who recently sent a complaint to the City about our farm stand lives in.... Eldorado!

That's exactly 18.4 mi from the farm!

Her name is Dr. Deborah Watkin, she's the anonymous (not anymore!) blogger Deborah who left the following comment on our website:

"Gee, I wanna drive my BMW 100 miles an hour, darn I can't well maybe I'll just do it anyway and in the meanwhile see if I can schmooz the police to let me whizz by.... ever think regulatory mechanisms empower people to excell. Your business model would be perfect for a third world country, busloads of school kids, no nagging neighbors, no regulations on inspections to ensure your produce is safe...  Thailand perhaps, I saw a cheap one way ticket, the donators would get over it... bye bye bozo."  See her comments here

She is most likely an acquaintance of our immediate neighbor who's regularly been using proxies to wage her war on the farm and our water rights since 2013.

Dct. Watkin called the City numerous times, including the City Attorney's office, and threatened litigation against the City if the farm wasn't shut down.

Her accusations:

1) We are operating the farm without a business license
True.  We applied for one in 2013 but it was denied on the grounds that there were building violations on the property (having nothing to do with the farm). The City has let us operate the farm since then.

2) We are illegally using domestic water from a well
False.  On Jan. 16, 2014 the Office of the State Engineer granted us 1.05 acre-feet of irrigation water rights.  The transfer of these water rights is currently being protested by the same neighbor who has tortured us to death for the past 3 years!  While the Office of the State Engineer is conducting formal hearings on the protest, the use of water for irrigation from our domestic well is legal.

3) We are squatting on a property that's in foreclosure
False.  The farm leases one acre of the property for its operation. We have worked with multiple lawyers over the last few years to see what the farm could do regarding the foreclosure, but as a tenant, we have been limited by the property owner’s actions and desires because he’s the party responsible for the foreclosure.  Last year, we formed a community land trust and raised money to attempt to buy the property out of foreclosure, way more than a tenant would normally do.
4) We are building structures without proper permits
False.  The only structure that was built (hoop houses do not require permits) is the garden structure that we had permitted in 2013 and later used for our short-lived farm stand!  A previous shed structure built by another tenant without proper permits was torn down in 2013 upon request by the City.

We are in a position of financial and social power, and we could be agents of change in our society. Without pretension, I believe we could be a nice little gardener who takes care of the garden, and hopefully our neighbor will do the same. Then, maybe we'll achieve a better world - Guy Laliberte

Jan. 2013 Letter to Mayor Coss asking for Help to Legalize our Farm Stand

2012 "Best Recycler" Award Ceremony at City Hall with Mayor Coss in the backgound

In anticipation of a meeting with Mayor Gonzalez next week, to discuss the Gaia Gardens situation, I am releasing the following letter sent to Mayor Coss in Jan. 2013.  I sent the letter twice and never got a reply from Mayor Coss.  

Jan. 18, 2013

Dear Mayor Coss,

I most recently met you at the City Council session of Nov. 14, 2012, where Gaia Gardens received the "Best Recycler" award from the Santa Fe Green Chamber of Commerce, and two weeks ago at the Carbon Economy Series on Sustainable Tourism.

Gaia Gardens, a new urban farm in the City limit, received many praises from the Santa Fe press in 2012 (see press coverage here)

I am writing to you to seek your guidance and support on two issues having to do with urban farming in residential zoning.

With Gaia Gardens being located next to the Arroyo de los Chamisos Trail, many neighbors, bicyclists and walkers stop by to visit our beautiful garden.  Upon their frequent requests in the Spring, we opened a small farm stand and sold produce three mornings a week during the summer months.

Being a new non-profit, having that farm stand was an economic life saver since we were on a waiting list with the Santa Fe Farmers Market and could not get a booth on Saturdays until later in the summer.  The farm stand sales accounted for nearly half of our income in 2012.

Quandary #1 : According to city zoning codes, the sell of farm produce is apparently not allowed on our premises.  I understand that one of the reasons for not allowing retail in residential zoning is related to noise and parking issues.

In our situation, 90% of our customers come on foot and access the farm stand via our garden gate situated off the Arroyo de los Chamisos Trail.  Most are neighbors and enthusiastic about being able to purchase fresh organic produce from their neighborhood farm.

Our farm is part of the Wwoof-USA organization (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), and we welcome young people the world over, who are eager to work and learn at organic farms.  We host these young people in 4 small tents, have built an outdoor kitchen and have bathrooms and showers for them in one of the buildings on the property.

Quandary #2:  According to Code Enforcement Officer James G. Martinez, whom I spoke with recently, city codes don't allow camping on our property.

Wwoofers, along with volunteers that we welcome three days a week in the garden, are the labor force that makes the operation of our farm possible, just like many other organic farms selling at the Farmers Market.

Question #1:  Is it possible to get a variance to be allowed to sell produce at our farm stand?  We get an average of 20 people between the hours of 7:00am and 11:00am on Mon., Wed. & Fri., with sales ranging from $75 to $200.

Question #2:  Is it possible to get permission to have up to 4 people at anytime camp on the land.  Most Woofers stay for a couple days to a couple weeks as they tend to visit several farms while in the area.

Our farm is flanked on two sides by the Chamisos Subdivision, an association of 53 homes.  We are frequently featured in their newsletter, many of the association members are our customers and we recently agreed to host their chicken co-op on our property.  

Growing food in our city seems essential to developing a sustainable Santa Fe. Selling that food on site is not only the most sustainable solution but also helps build community and neighborhood resilience.  In addition, farm stands are, according to Selena Marroquin, Agritourism Coordinator for Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship, "a vital part of agritourism".

Earlier last year, I wrote to you seeking your advice on water rights issues related to starting a farm in the city.

You were very kind and responsive in referring me to Heather Lamboy and Tamara Baer.

I would appreciate hearing any suggestions that you may have on the above mentioned topics.


Poki Piottin
Executive Director
Gaia Gardens 

Gaia Gardens is fiscally-sponsored by the New Mexico Community Foundation, a 501(c)3

Sunday, August 23, 2015

In the New Mexican Today



A garden that could have changed lives

Every day I strive to spark changes in my patients’ diets. I’m not very successful and neither are my pediatric colleagues. We need help. Just look at all the trends of increasing childhood obesity and diabetes.

Bucking these trends takes a collaborative effort from many sectors of our communities. Gaia Gardens, Santa Fe’s premier urban farming initiative, has been a shining example of one such effort. Started in 2012 by Poki Piottin in a neighborhood near Santa Fe High School, this 3.5-acre dirt lot soon blossomed into an oasis of organic vegetables and free-range chickens and ducks.

Poki and his partner, Dominique Pozo, love children. They have welcomed school groups to Gaia Gardens to learn firsthand not only how sustainable organic urban farming benefits our town but how we can live healthier, happier and more fit lives through forging a connection with the outdoor world and becoming aware of the benefits of freshly grown food. This kind of experience inspires children and their families to make the kinds of lifestyle changes that I encourage in my practice.

This summer, Gaia Gardens was selling vegetables from a small farm stand on their property, which borders the bike trail. When people see a beautiful garden with fresh vegetables for sale in their neighborhood, some of them are bound to at least ponder bringing more healthy produce into their kitchens. Moreover, Poki and Dominique have been training others in their farming techniques and have considered starting a more formal school for urban farming. They are offering a “ripple of hope” that could spread throughout our city and beyond.

What has been the response from the governing members of our City Different? Instead of embracing such a winning program the way many other cities have — some more outwardly stodgy than ours — the city quickly enforced petty restrictions and has yet to pass an ordinance that would provide a legal framework for urban agriculture here. I understand that government works slowly, yet one would think that this is the kind of win-win program that any progressive politician would go out of his/her way to promote, pronto.

Poki and Dominique announced recently that they were quitting their urban-renewal undertaking in protest of all of the red tape they have had to battle in order to stay afloat. They have been working patiently with City Hall for years; they alerted the City Council of their intentions to operate from their small, part-time farm stand two months prior to its opening; they have tirelessly worked to comply with all city codes and to be good neighbors.

There may still be time for our city to rally behind what so many other cities have already embraced — one proven solution to the epidemic of obesity and outsourcing. Let’s not make this a lost opportunity.

I moved back to New Mexico with my young family 10 years ago and chose to live in Santa Fe because I expected that the common values under which it operated would champion grassroots efforts like Gaia Gardens, and that my ideals as a pediatrician for improved public health would be bolstered by a caring electorate. Why does the city make way for fancy art shows and high-end restaurants while failing to support a beacon for a healthy future?

I’m with Poki and Dominique — maybe it’s time to move on.

Dr. Daniel Coles lives in Santa Fe with his wife, two sons, dogs, cats and horses. He is a pediatrician at the Santa Fe Indian Hospital. Dr. Coles loves playing outside, the color orange and collaborating with others to change dysfunctional social paradigms.

Gaia Gardens represents possibility for urban farming

I am a young professional raised in Santa Fe but educated out of state, and, now that I have finished college, I am looking for a community in which to start a career. I care deeply about community and environmental sustainability, so an important factor in my choice of a home city will be the presence — or absence — of grass-roots community organizations focused on local, sustainable food.

I have experienced firsthand the benefits such organizations bring to communities. In Sacramento, Calif., where I lived last year, multiple farmers markets and urban farms provided affordable, nutritious food to my low-income neighborhood. In addition, volunteering at Sacramento’s urban farms helped me de-stress and connect with my neighborhood community.

Everyone in Sacramento was encouraged when the City Council approved an ordinance last March legalizing farm stands in residential neighborhoods, since the ability to sell produce on-site makes many more urban farms possible, especially in low-income areas where people badly need both fresh food and additional income.

This summer, I had the privilege of moving back home to Santa Fe and volunteering at Gaia Gardens, an urban farm on the Arroyo Chamiso Trail. Weeding, pruning and transplanting along with the other volunteers amid a wilderness of sunflowers and flowering herbs was invaluable for my mental health. Even more importantly, I could tell that my work was contributing to real, substantial community formation, similar to what I experienced in Sacramento.

Dozens of neighbors, friends, volunteers and customers — and their children — shared food at Gaia Gardens’ monthly potlucks. When Gaia Gardens opened its farm stand by the bike path on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, a steady stream of customers poured in to buy vegetables, drink tea and chat with the farm’s owners.

Even after the farm stand closed, not a morning went by without someone turning off the path and coming up to the farm to express disappointment that they could no longer buy fresh produce in their neighborhood. Now that the farm stand is shut down, it is not feasible for Gaia Gardens’ owner to continue farming in the same location, so the farm will close. This is a tremendous loss to me and my community.

To me, Gaia Gardens and its farm stand represent the possibility of a vibrant urban-farming scene in Santa Fe — the kind of farming scene that so attracted me in Sacramento. I want to encourage everyone in Santa Fe to support urban farming by pushing the City Council to legalize farm stands so that young professionals like me can come home to a community-centered, sustainable city.

Eleanor Stevens is a Spanish student and a recent AmeriCorps graduate. She will spend the next year working with nonprofits in Mexico; after that, she hopes to move back home to Santa Fe and start a career in education or social work. She was in the Santa Fe Waldorf Class of 2010.

Letters to the Editor

August 23, 2015

City Ripe

Mayor Javier Gonzales says, “Urban agriculture has a great future in Santa Fe,” just as the city makes it impossible for the only farm in Santa Fe to continue. This is unconscious politically and unnecessarily cruel.

If the city does not make Gaia Gardens possible now, nobody will ever try farming in Santa Fe again (“Grower says community garden facing its last harvest,” Aug. 12). We will not find a more appropriate place, nor a couple who will put in the kind of work and devotion that Poki Piottin and Dominique Pozo have mustered.

Wake up, Santa Fe City Council. We are losing some of our most valuable resources; namely, people who can teach our children how to actually live in this place. To grow food in Santa Fe is a high art. It’s a devotion, not for the meek or money-oriented.

These generous citizens of inspired vocation are worth more than gold. I’d like to see them get a Living Treasure award. Let them sell vegetables on the Arroyo Chamiso Trail — a lovely use of the public path — the most beautiful food stand in town. 
Chris Wells 
Santa Fe

Realized Revenge

Poki Piottin (“Grower says community garden facing its last harvest,” Aug. 12) should clutter the land with dead cars, camping trailers, heavy equipment and maybe tie up a few dogs for the rest of their lives. There are laws and ordinances about these, too, but no one enforces them even when numerous people complain. It is only fair that his neighborhood have what many of us have to endure instead of a beautiful garden. 
Susan Macdonell
Santa Fe

August 19

One voice
No wonder Santa Feans are leaving for places like Portland and Austin. These cities thrive on innovation and enterprises that benefit a broad and curious population. Allowing one neighbor to close down a charming and thriving urban farm is absurd (“Grower says community garden facing its last harvest,” Aug. 12). Once again, a single individual has overwhelmed the collective good. 

Susan Munroe
Santa Fe

August 18, 2015

Keep Gaia Gardens
I read with sadness about the closure of Gaia Gardens (“Grower says community garden facing its last harvest,” August 12). The growth of individual and community organic vegetable gardens is a growing phenomenon in the United States. The sale of vegetable seeds has increased by double digits. There is a global effort to create more such wonderful gardens as exemplified by Gaia Gardens — and it is being forced to close here in Santa Fe?
Organic food, caring for the soil and eating healthier food (more vegetables) to attack our national health issues, including obesity, will ultimately have to include and encourage home gardens in urban environments as a cost-saving measure to provide sustainable food for the U.S. and the planet. Now is a good time to consider and create new zoning laws and small- business license regulations to support Poki Piottin’s efforts with open arms. Let’s get this one right.
Judith Haden

Santa Fe

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Front-yard produce stands the latest in Denver's local food movement

Take a look at what Denver just did. It is not that difficult!

New Home Occupation: Fresh Produce and Cottage Food Sales

Adopted by City Council via text amendment to the zoning code on July 14, 2014, and effective July 18, 2014, this home occupation allows Denver residents to sell raw, uncut produce and homemade cottage foods from their home. Sellers must have grown the produce in their home gardens or off-site at a community garden, urban farm, or another person’s property, and must have prepared the cottage foods at their homes. Cottage foods are defined by the State of Colorado Cottage Food Act and include non-potentially hazardous foods such as tea, honey, jams, jellies, and dried produce.
For rules and requirements associated with this home occupation, information on allowable cottage foods, and best practices, download the Fresh Produce and Cottage Foods Home Occupation Guide (PDF).

In the New Mexican Today-Our View

Our view: Urban farming still a dream

Posted: Wednesday, August 19, 2015 
The New Mexican, Santa Fe

Gaia Gardens, a noble experiment in urban organic farming, is shutting down after one last harvest. What lessons can we learn from this failure, especially in a city that claims to be committed to supporting urban farming and healthy eating? 

The Santa Fe Food Policy Council has stated its commitment to healthy food being available in all parts of town, including a section in its comprehensive plan that discusses in detail ways the region can promote growing food. One big unmet goal: the development of a “commercial scale urban agricultural permit to protect both neighborhood and agricultural interests within the city.” That would set policies about water use, sales, number of employees and volunteers, among other things.

The city of Santa Fe’s Sustainable Santa Fe plan is ambitious enough to discuss the notion of setting a “target such as ‘30 percent of the food consumed in Santa Fe by residents will be from a 300-mile food shed by 2018.’ ”

Yet despite these lofty goals, an otherwise thriving urban farm likely will shut down this fall after five years.

Founders Poki Piottin and his partner, Dominque Pozo, are tired of fighting City Hall. Until it closes, they are donating produce to The Food Depot — 100 pounds of collard greens, Russian kale, curly kale, chard and summer squash were taken in the first installment. More will be dropped off three times a week until the end of the growing season.

To be clear, the masterminds behind Gaia Gardens were not always easy neighbors — perhaps for the community at large, but definitely not next door. Many initial changes to the land and buildings were done without proper permits or city permission. Shifting ground in a way that floods your neighbor’s property is no way to win friends. The situation is a tad more complicated than City Bureaucracy vs. the Little Garden that Could.

However, at the heart of the debate is whether Santa Fe is serious about promoting urban agriculture, something that Los Angeles and even New York City have been able to do. Santa Fe, despite its talk, is not finding ways to help farms thrive.

Whatever happens to Gaia Gardens, the city needs to write its urban agricultural ordinance — not after the next farm starts, but before.

Santa Fe needs to balance residential needs with the ability of a small farm to sell produce without trucking it off-property. A farm stand along a walking trail, as Gaia Gardens operated, should not reduce the residents’ quality of life. Goodness, the city of Santa Fe allows weekly garage sales at some houses — complete with car traffic — but couldn’t allow a stand to which people walk or bike.

Write an uncomplicated code. Why does it matter that Piottin was the not the property owner, so long as the property owner allowed the farm and the tenant could prove he had permission? Such overemphasis on rules, rather than results, just makes Santa Fe look ridiculous.

Gaia Gardens might soon become history, but its founders paved the way for smart urban agriculture.

Our Comment posted in the New Mexican

Thank you dear editorial staff for your ongoing support!
I am the co-founder of Gaia Gardens and wanted to clarify your statement about "Many initial changes to the land and buildings were done without proper permits or city permission. Shifting ground in a way that floods your neighbor’s property is no way to win friends".  THE FACTS: 1) None of the building violations on the property have to do with the farm and happened prior to our leasing the land for farming.  2) the flooding of our neighbor's basement happened the year before we started the farm and has nothing to do with the activities of the farm or the farm property for that matter.  Her house is on the flood plain and at the bottom of a hill. The heavy rains that year were responsible for the flooding.  I wanted to clarify this point because our neighbor has lied repeatedly about this.  If indeed "we" flooded her basement, why didn't she sue us?  Because it's a lie and she doesn't have a case. And a house built on a flood plain isn't allowed by code to have a basement anyway! 

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