Modern Tools, Ancient Values: Year-Round Farming at Taos Pueblo

by Todd Wynward

Think the local food movement is a fad for elite yuppies and homesteading hipsters?  Think again. Meet the Red Willow Growers Cooperative: Taos Pueblo food producers who use cutting-edge technologies to promote place-based values that have sustained their culture for a thousand years.

The Red Willow Farmer’s Market is a high-desert haven, providing abundant food year-round at 7,100’ above sea level. Located next to two substantial greenhouses and an educational building at Taos Pueblo, the market is open Wednesdays year-round and offers grass-fed beef, seasonal produce, eggs, fresh breads and pastries, fruits in season, jams, jellies, and soaps. From their rangeland nearby, the Taos Pueblo War Chief’s Office provides local buffalo, which is USDA certified, 100% grass-fed, and sustainably produced. During summer the farmer’s market is both indoor and outdoor, with a dozen vendor tables and an outdoor grill; in the off-season the market moves inside and is more limited.

The farmer’s market operation is impressive enough by itself.  But even more remarkable are the sustainable greenhouses on site that keep fresh produce growing even in deep winter.

Angelo McHorse, Red Willow’s new Farm Manager, knows the systems well.  He needs to:  his livelihood—and the well-being of hundreds of other members of his bioregion—depend on it.  Last week he took me to the heart of Red Willow’s heated greenhouse system.  Passing by stacks of locally-harvested piñón logs, he swung open the thick round metal door of the GARN heater to reveal a chamber that would soon hold a blazing fire.  Describing the GARN in 2011, Tara Somerville of the Taos Newscalled the high-tech heater “the foundation of a complex but sustainable system that is allowing agriculture to thrive even as temperatures plunge.”  Observing Angelo manage Red Willow’s operations almost three years later, that statement seems truer than ever.

Angelo summarized how the GARN system works: Over 3000 gallons of a water mixture swirl around in a steel chamber surrounding the firebox. This heated water then shoots into above- and below-ground pipes to warm the pair of greenhouses, as well as two other buildings on site.  All the particulates from the piñón fire are burned off when the smoke travels into the second core of the system—a ceramic tube that increases the temperature to over three thousand degrees. After taking a few minutes to warm up, the system becomes smoke-free.

Red Willow uses high tech tools to achieve traditional goals, in order to achieve both food sovereignty and regional food security. The GARN biomass heater is only one of several innovative systems that have made the project a regional model in adaptive climate change sustainable farming. As we walked, Angelo showed me several other sustainable systems: one of the most remarkable was a series of strategically placed fans near blue barrels that siphon the hot air from the top of the greenhouse into an underground piping system in order to warm the earth around the plants and prevent freezing.  Another energy-preserving technology used at Red Willow is cellulose insulation, made from locally sourced 100 percent recycled newspaper, used in the walls of the market’s walk-in cooler.  In addition, solar panels provide the energy for the greenhouses’ drip and irrigation systems, and recently acquired batteries are going a long way to take the entire system off the grid, as well as provide emergency back up.

The potential unleashed by the year-round greenhouses has put Taos Pueblo on the map as a model for other pueblos and communities looking to revitalize bioregional desert agriculture.  Visitors have come from Tuba City, Hopi, Dine, Navajo Country, and White Apache Mountain to see the emerging project.

The powerful mixture of traditional values and cutting-edge techniques used at Red Willow are influencing younger generations at Taos Pueblo through the Red Willow Education Center’s after-school and summer youth programs started by Education Director Shawn Duran. In 2002, as a twelve year-old, Angelo McHorse took part in Red Willow’s first Sustainability Institute in 2002.  Now, as Farm Manager and college graduate, he’s deeply grateful for all that has come before him, and also feels that he can take the Red Willow project to a new level.

“It feels like I’m completing a circle,” he says quietly.  “So much has been done before me, it feels like I’m building on a legacy.”  In past years, the goal of producing enough fresh produce year-round for significant market sale has proved elusive; McHorse and his colleagues are working hard to ensure that this upcoming winter will be the most profitable and abundant yet.

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My visit to Taos Pueblo left me inspired.  This little farmer’s market is about so much more than local healthy food production:  it’s also about robust local economics, place-based environmentalism, and education.  It’s a vision that is the foundation for three interconnected initiatives: First, the Red Willow Farmer’s Market provides year-round fresh local food free of chemicals and additives; second, the Red Willow Grower’s Coop specializes in resilient bioregional food production powered by renewable resources; and third, the Red Willow Educational Center focuses upon sustainable agriculture educational and vocational opportunities for Pueblo youth, farmers and entrepreneurs.

Our nation’s communities sorely need this kind of spark: a compelling vision inspiring interconnected initiatives to launch massive social change.  We need new local visions that improve how we eat, how we shop, how we farm, how we work, how we relate to the earth and each other.  In short, we need an invitation to re-inhabitation.

Here’s one take at a vision that might incite a movement: The 25/75/100 Bioregional Food Covenant.  To join, an individual would make this vow: “By the year 2025, I will source 75% of my food from within 100 miles.

Even to me—who authored it–a personal vow like this appears insignificant at first glance. But think about it:  if a critical mass of people joined in, this humble promise could change the planet.  Let me count the ways:

It enriches local economies.  Thousands of families committing local for the long term would establish new demand and new markets, creating an incubator for regional companies in the business of growing, selling and distributing good food to their communities. Hard-earned cash would circulate longer within the region, causing more cycles of exchange for local goods and services as proposed by “slow money” advocates. Right now, there are few local growers and there is very little local food available because the majority of Americans don’t demand it.

It corrects our crazy consumption.  Sourcing much of our food locally means adapting to our watershed and letting it instruct us how to be.  It means learning to live within healthy natural limits.  As David Orr writes: “It makes better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than to attempt to reshape the planet to our infinite wants.”

It improves individual health. Kale..or Krispy Kreme?  I know this is not a fair comparison, but my point is this: when members of communities encourage one another to eat food produced off the land, better health is likely to develop.  In the case of Taos Pueblo, diet-related diabetes has become a deep concern among recent generations, and affordable access to farm-fresh food is a promising antidote.

It reduces our dependence on petroleum, packaging and pollution.  Currently, the majority of mega-chain food travels a thousand miles or more to reach your local grocery store.  Massive amounts of petroleum are used in soil amending, growing, processing, storing, packaging, and delivery of food items that could be grown and transported within a few miles of your house.  Reduced travel and storage means reduced packaging and pollution.

It builds basins of relations across race and class.  Brock Dolman writes that everyone on the planet lives in a basin of relations:  “Everything we do for work, play, school, shopping, farming, recreation and so on occurs in a watershed somewhere.”  What if those who could afford it signed on to a bioregional food covenant for themselves and for another family?  What if congregations or schools or clubs became communities of care and made the promise for alltheir members? When a group of very different people direct their intent and resources toward making local food affordable and accessible, differences can unite in common cause.

It improves bioregional citizenship.  Once we take a stand to eat from our bioregion, we begin to care much more about its health—about the quality of the water, soil, and air around us.  We see the beautiful complexity of the interconnected living systems required to produce good food.  We start acting in creative and clarifying ways like the New Mexico Coalition for Community Rights: they encourage thousands of regional groups to adopt Community Bills of Rights, asserting that corporations are not above people, and declare that all citizens of a watershed have an inalienable right to clean air and clean water.

Most importantly, a 25/75/100 bioregional food covenant boosts “community resilience”—a term describing the ability of your home region to thrive in the face of change and shocks from the outside, articulated by Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins.  Like the three initiatives that are working together in the Red Willow project at Taos Pueblo, a bioregional food covenant would build local capacity and infrastructure, reduce dependency upon external providers, promote sustainability, and increase biological diversity.

Who knows—if a groundswell of people across North America took on this covenant in the next decade and patiently worked with farmers and sellers and communities so they could obtain 75% of their food from their own region by 2025, what would our nation look like?  It’s an interesting reality to ponder.

Next week, I’ll be meeting near Washington DC for a national Watershed Discipleship Roundtable, imagining with others how we might launch initiatives like this to energize a Watershed Discipleship movement across the country.  Stay tuned!