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THE LOCAL VOICE – A Garden of Change: Urban Farming in the Heart of Santa Fe
“What is your theory of change?” a friend and colleague asked me recently. The question caught me so off guard I paused for several seconds to form a thought. Well, localism, of course. I’d localize everything if I could: keep money in the community, the region, in the state so that we could be a healthy and wealthy state with good jobs. Utopian? Maybe.
Walking into Gaia Gardens where Poki Piottin farms, composts, hosts potluck events, and trains young farmers feels a bit like that utopian idea. The day I arrived to talk with Poki, I was greeted warmly by a group of women picking what was left in the field after the early October frost. The three women all stood to shake my hand, smiling and seemingly beaming from the hard work at hand.
We sat down to a conversation at an outdoor table where Poki had prepared tea at an outdoor kitchen. His idea to start Gaia Gardens came more out of necessity than anything else. He was living in a three-bedroom, three-bath house and wanted to share his space, plant a garden and create a community. The landlord told him no, you can’t have three people in here. Poki packed it in and searched for a place to combine his passions and interests. That place is Gaia Gardens, a rolling compound perched next to the bike path between Yucca and Camino Carlos Rey in a residential Santa Fe neighborhood. It is owned by a generous man who said, “Take my land, please.”
That generous landlord also provided a small loan from which Poki was able to buy his supplies, plot out a garden and begin growing. In just one season with a farm stand along the bike trail, a booth at the farmers’ market, plus deliveries to local restaurants, the urban farm has netted over $10,000 in sales. Not bad for a first year urban farm start-up.
The idea behind Gaia Gardens—to be a model for a regenerative urban food-growing enterprise, a place for the community to gather, learn to grow food and participate in the local food system—is not new. But it is a concept that is booming right now. What’s new about Poki’s approach is that it feels more accessible than any farm I’ve ever seen, including my own family’s farms. Gaia Gardens is like a big hug welcoming you to join in the fun of picking food for the farm stand or to attend a workshop on composting. Volunteers can take some food home, of course. The invitation to participate is so inviting, you could easily show up with no skills and just hang out to learn a few things.
So what’s the theory of change for Gaia Gardens? It seems to be about creating community. Jump back to the moment I arrived at the garden plot: three women picking vegetables, laughing and conversing about something so intriguing they barely hear Poki and me approach. They are in community in that moment, and suddenly I want to be with them too. I want to hang out with these people who love food but don’t take farming too seriously and instead are giggling in a patch of tomatoes. While we are talking under the shade tree sipping tea, Brian Skeele—local developer of community living spaces—approaches with a grin from ear to ear. I think he just got the Gaia Garden hug, too. He came for tomatoes and left with an armload of squash and chard. “I love this place. My mother lives on the property,” he says to me. In the next breath he announces: “Hey, I’m building a dehydrator.” From there the conversation turns to how he might build one for the gardens and how they could start a dehydration business. This is what intrigues me about Gaia Gardens’ model: they are looking at revenue streams that include selling at farmers’ markets, their own farm stand, classes and workshops, and creating food businesses. It’s social-local-community-enterprise in action.
“We delivered fresh basil to Joe’s Diner down the street, and traded with a couple other restaurants,” Poki says. “It’s a good market and the bike-path farm stand went from $48 of income on the first day over to $200 the other day. People are buying.” Chef/Owner Roland Richter of Joe’s Diner, a long-time supporter of local products agrees. “It was really good to have a consistent supply of basil, and the garden is so close,” he says, gesturing with this hand in the direction of the neighborhood behind his restaurant.
The women in the garden are from all walks of the foodie world. Dominique Pozo, Poki’s partner, lives on the grounds and is the second-in-command. She is a strong supporter of the vision. Kaylyn McClellan is a farmhand and self-proclaimed “farm jester,” likely the one telling a funny story in the tomato patch. She’s traveling her way around the US to work on farms and learn as much as she can because “it doesn’t have to be work, and we just need it right now—the awareness, education and inspiration” of getting back to our food source.” Sansi Coonan, a volunteer, believes that giving her time to Gaia Gardens is “like medicine, but now it’s time to collaborate across cultures and on all levels, to share and collaborate.” For Kathy Morse, a recent transplant to Santa Fe with experience starting community gardens in Washington State, Gaia Gardens gives her the opportunity to learn about gardening in the high desert. “There’s a lot you can do just by example,” she says. She stumbled upon Gaia Gardens while on a walk along the bike path.
What they all agree on is that it’s a group effort and a community mentality that has made the garden a success so quickly. But Poki is quick to deflect the praise onto his volunteers. “This,” he waves his hand across the field, “is about all of us.” By “all of us” he means the neighbors, kids, families, bike riders, people wanting to learn building trades or how to plant their own food, or caring enough about the environment and food to pitch in and help sell at the farm stand.
There’s more to Gaia Gardens than meets the eye, though. Coffee grounds and juice pulp from local restaurants are collected and composted here; trade with other food vendors keeps the volunteers and core team fed (they trade for eggs, dairy and bread). Skills are traded too. Poki describes an afternoon after a windstorm when the shade structure fell apart and an intern wanted to rebuild it but had no idea where to begin. Instead of taking a break from work in the heat of the day, Poki taught the young intern how to build a structure that would withstand the wind and upcoming winter elements.
The long-term vision for Gaia Gardens as a permaculture hub of activity might not last long, however. The property is currently in foreclosure, but Poki and his crew are hopeful. The plan is to work with the bank to buy time and create a land trust so that the property remains a community urban farm. It’s a vision that includes showing how a solar residential and commercial compound lives in harmony with an urban garden. Perhaps the theory of change for Gaia Gardens looks more like a land trust. Can the community come together to preserve what has quickly become a central learning place for sustainable living, farming and community? Could the utopian idea of living in harmony with land and people through the growth of food in the middle of a city be less of an idea and more of a realization if the land were placed in a trust for future generations to create their own community?
Urban farms are the future of cities looking to change how land is used, how to create jobs and secure more food for their own citizens. It’s not utopian if you buy into the idea that it is the future, and the future is here and will welcome you with a big hug.
Check out Gaia Gardens online: http://gaiagardens.blogspot.com/
Vicki Pozzebon is the owner/principal of Prospera Partners, a consulting group practicing bold localism. Visit www.prosperapartners.org. Follow her on Twitter: @VickiPozzebon
Classes are planned in building skills; there’s a pottery studio on the property, and of course you can learn more about worms than you ever wanted to know. Every first Monday of the month Gaia Gardens hosts a potluck dinner and community celebration that includes art and music.
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