Walter McQuie

 

Early in 2012, I was invited as a representative of the Cuba (New Mexico) Farmers Market, to attend a meeting of Hasbìditó, a nonprofit, youth-centered, sustainable community development organization based in the three easternmost Navajo chapters: Ojo Encino, Counselor and Torreón. Hasbìditó helps ranchers and growers operate more successfully by treating the land well. I figured I’d talk a little about the opportunity for gardeners to earn some money for their efforts and about the potential economic development potential of growing vegetables for local markets and find out if any of their growers were interested in selling at our market.

 

I’m passionate about these things, and the audience seemed receptive, so I also talked about my efforts at season extension (hoop houses and low tunnels), my experiments with mulch, seedballs, crops not usually grown around here, my rainwater collection system and especially my burgeoning investigations into permaculture. The latter I put into a context of observing and learning from nature about providing what is needed for plants to grow and how the land here provided many food and medicinal plants, despite seemingly harsh growing conditions.

 

I also fielded questions, most memorably one translated into English for me from their most accomplished grower, Grandma Rose: “What can you do to improve really sandy soil?” The short answer is you add as much organic matter as you can by incorporating manure, using mulch, rotating food crops with fertility crops (aka cover crops or green manures) and reducing tillage. I didn’t just make recommendations, I gave a long answer that explained how these techniques work, and it unexpectedly set me on a path of learning about dryland farming, permaculture and the strength of community.

 

After the meeting, Hasbìditó’s executive director, Watson Castillo, explained the status of the backyard- and community-gardening initiative that was the impetus for my visit. They had been able to provide some fencing and drip irrigation materials for a few growers but were still looking for someone local who could put on a series of workshops. I readily agreed to try a couple in return for gas money and two pickup-loads of manure.

 

For these hands-on workshops I brought along a broadfork—a massive handtool that loosens the soil to a depth of 16 inches without turning it over as a plow does or mixing it all up as a tiller does. We mixed in manure and humate and planted seeds, seedlings and fruit trees. I talked about caring for growing plants and fielded lots of questions. We ate a potluck lunch together and had a seed exchange; Grandma Rose has lots of corn, squash and melon seeds saved from many successful harvests.

 

I started attending Hasbìditó meetings and talking about things I was trying in the garden, new techniques I’d read about, what I was learning from observing more gardens, and my plans to grow more and grow better. I was dubbed Hasbìditó’s garden consultant. I read more about dryland farming practices in Australia, Africa and China. In the fall, Watson invited me to visit a number of sites, help decide which had the most potential for market-scale growing and draw up some plans about steps to take to improve them. The project had funding for moving earth and installing rock structures to direct the flow of water and for purchasing seeds and flats of seedlings and bacterial/fungal innoculants—all things I had been talking about to improve the sandy soils in the area. We got a donation of native trees for windbreaks. There have been planning meetings for soliciting grants to chip large quantities of wood thinned from local forests for mulch and compost and to fund a Mobile Market vehicle that could also pick up produce from local growers.

 

Watson first took me to visit Grandma Rose’s garden on the day she was harvesting her winter squash in anticipation of the first freeze. More precisely, she was harvesting all the smaller ripe ones, but the big pumpkin-sized hubbards were still there for Watson and me to load up. I noticed that along with the smaller unripe squash there were some unripe melons and that she was pulling up the purslane growing in the garden and piling it on top of the melons and squash she wasn’t harvesting yet. I conjectured to Watson that Grandma Rose was doing something that I do (except with a local natural material)—protecting unripe summer crops from the first freeze so that they might ripen in the weeks of warmer weather that usually follow. She laughed approvingly when he translated my theory and again with my explanation that purslane is a great local green.

 

This year we visited individual backyard gardeners and did versions of last year’s community-based workshops, but more individualized. We are doing follow-up visits and succession plantings, planting fertility crops, providing mulch and also designing larger-scale drip irrigation systems. We are learning from mistakes and helping each other carve out our roles in a local food system. We’ll have a bigger than ever harvest celebration in October.

 

For more information, or to provide a donation to Hasbìditó, contact Tammy Herera at 505.220.8053 or tammyherrera7@gmail.com

 

 

Walter McQuie grows vegetables, observes nature and teaches food growing in the foothills of the San Pedro Mountains north of Cuba, NM.

 

 

 

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