Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Article in New Mexican today


Grower says community garden facing its last harvest

The vegetables are not grown in neat rows at Gaia Gardens, an urban farm just off an arroyo south of Santa Fe High School.

Poki Piottin and Dominique Pozo have worked to create a jungle where sunflowers tower over patches of cabbage and chile peppers. A former alley cat named Scrappy roams the lush growth, protecting it from rabbits and other uninvited visitors.
With help from volunteers, school groups and others, the couple over the past four years has grown chard, arugula, cucumbers, garlic and other vegetables on part of a 3.5-acre property that also includes a half-dozen residential units. The duo has operated a stand on the site to sell fresh produce a few days a week.

And that’s one reason they have run afoul of city code-enforcement officials, spurred on by a neighbor’s complaints that they were running a commercial operation in a residential neighborhood.

Late Monday, Piottin announced that he and Pozo are quitting the enterprise after failing to negotiate a way to temporarily keep selling the freshly picked abundance from their certified organic farm.

“When you work as hard as we do and make as little as we do and still get in trouble, it’s a pretty clear path to take,” Piottin said in an interview Tuesday.

The announcement by the French-born 57-year-old, who said he began the operation five years ago with the help of grant money because of “a call of spirit,” apparently signals the end of an idealistic experiment. He had become something of a poster boy for efforts to promote locally grown food within the city. The farm, which was the subject of a documentary film, was part of a mission to create a model for high-desert gardens, permaculture and other earth-friendly practices.

“Going to the Farmers’ Market doesn’t make sense when you can sell your food to your neighborhood,” he wrote in an online posting this week about the decision to shut down the vending stand. He added, “It’s time for me to move on and offer my skills, energy and devotion to greater causes, and a more engaged and supportive community.”

Inspectors from the city Land Use Department visited the property early this week and issued red tags for various violations — including plumbing and structural issues — something the city also did back in 2013. Both Piottin and Land Use Department Director Lisa Martinez said the city had received numerous complaint calls about those violations from two people, one of whom lives in a house adjacent to the farm.

Piottin said he opened the vending stand again last month with the hope that a city agricultural subcommittee could come up with a solution to his problem quickly. But he said the committee has been working on that draft for a year and it would still have to clear the city Finance Committee, the Planning Commission and the City Council. “It could take a long time,” he said.
Piottin said he met with city officials repeatedly over the past month in an effort to address the situation and informed them he would be opening his small market.

Martinez said Tuesday that the city is “actively looking for a solution and, ideally, the subcommittee could have come up with an ordinance. If we had something like that to fall back on, it would make it easier on us.”

She said the city looked into options for a “homeowner-type permit. But what makes it difficult is that Poki doesn’t own the property.”

Piottin pays a dollar a year in rent for the land in return for acting as the responsible party for the owner, Stuart Tallmon, who lives in Colorado. He said some of the ordinance violations that the city found during the recent inspection have to do with the property and not the farm.

Piottin does not blame the Land Use Department staff. “They are in a bind. City inspectors have to enforce codes, and until those codes change, they are like a cop.”

Piottin, who was born in Lyon, France, in 1958, said that at the time he decided to start the farm, “I had done everything under the sun. I was fascinated by sustainability. I got interested in composting and gardening. I was 52 and had never gardened before.”

He said the land he chose had been worked as a farm in the 1940s and ’50s.

The farm’s problems began in the summer of 2013, when the city cited operators for six violations, including erecting structures on the property without a permit, failure to obtain a business license and attracting a greater number of visitors than would be normal for a residential neighborhood.

The city sent the farm operators a letter ordering them to stop hosting school groups or using more than two volunteers. Piottin said he complied to a large degree but still allowed a few school groups to visit. “I’m not going to say no if a teacher asks if she can bring some school kids to my farm,” he said. “That’s ridiculous.”

He said when he chose to reopen the market in July, “I was very aware that I would be out of compliance and drawing ire from one neighbor and the city.”

While one neighbor has complained multiple times to the city, another neighbor, Gerard Martinez, said most neighbors love the farm, which has its own well. He said his wife and children volunteer at the farm and that his family takes part in a community-supported agriculture movement where they pay a certain amount each week for locally grown fresh vegetables and eggs.

“The site has historically been a farm,” Gerard Martinez said. “Things are very peaceful there. If we want to do something about promoting a healthy planet, battling climate change, it’s the little things we do that are part of that whole. A community’s cultural values should be about returning agricultural farming to a place it had originally been long ago.”

He called the complaints “narrow-minded and short-sighted.”

Piottin said he and Pozo will continue to cultivate through the end of the growing season and give the food away to those in need. Beyond that, he doesn’t know what will happen. Between them, they have made no more than about $20,000 a year, he said.

“All is good,” he said of their decision. “We’re actually in very, very good spirits.”

Lisa Martinez said she does not know of any other urban farms within the city. But she said the city’s agricultural subcommittee will still try to develop an ordinance, should someone choose to start another one.

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