AIRE: Agriculture Implementation Research and Education
AIRE has a mission “to gather the people and plant the fields.” We have been an official nonprofit educational organization since December, 2010. AIRE was formalized with multi-year funding from the Kindle Project, now part of the Common Counsel Foundation. Our work strives to accomplish multiple goals that relate to youth involvement in agriculture, crop adaptation and propagation, food security awareness and actualization, and research and development in sustainable agriculture methods.
Our base of operations is Sol Feliz Farm, irrigated from the Acequia Madre del Sur del Río de Don Fernando de Taos, an age-old communally managed, gravity-fed irrigation ditch. Here we implement research plots in crop adaptation around drought tolerance over generations, as well as soil management techniques using chickens, compost, compost tea, and biochar. We host groups of all ages to learn, hands-on, from our Permaculture- and traditional agriculture-inspired techniques within the context of an acequia landscape and culture. Our location allows for experiences such as the cleaning out of acequia ditches, irrigation and an understanding of the acequia’s ecology in the landscape.
In the fall of 2011, AIRE was recruited by Rocky Mountain Youth Corp to identify a “Master Gardener” who would be willing to steward a Grow-Dome in the Taos area for education and production of local food. A partnership was established between Carlos Garcia of Chrysalis Alternative School, an arts-based high school of the Taos Municipal Schools, and myself, as director of AIRE, to care for the dome. I was teaching a course through UNM-Taos called “Sustainable Food and Farming,” which provided concurrent enrollment with students at Chrysalis from Carlos Garcia’s science class. The dome was planted with greens such as chard, spinach, kale and lettuce, in addition to legumes like peas and habas (fava beans), and became part of the curriculum. The dome has a 700-gallon water tank to stabilize internal temperatures and now hosts bluegill fish for our beginning studies of aquaculture.
Early in 2012 AIRE looked into putting a milpa (cornfield) and garden on the Enos Garcia Elementary School grounds at Parr Field, a large patch of grass in the middle of the town of Taos, used mostly for Field Day activities of the elementary students at the end of the school year. A relationship forged between AIRE and the Taos Municipal Schools resulted in the Parr Field Garden Project. By early May, with the involvement of student interns from Chrysalis Alternative School, we had prepared a 100×60-ft. section of the field for a milpa, two raised beds and a greenhouse.
The planting of the project happened concurrently with the school’s Field Day and competition as part of the students’ physical education program. The students received three seeds each of corn, beans or squash. The garden was planted by almost 500 kindergarten-through-fifth-grade students over three days in May.
Over the summer we constructed a mud-oven horno at Chrysalis in anticipation of making chicos (horno-roasted sweet corn) from our Parr Field Garden Project milpa. Students learned how to make the adobe bricks and construct the horno in a series of workshops. The horno was constructed with funds from the McCune Foundation and has become an important part of our overall programming around traditional agriculture and food traditions.
In August of 2012 I secured employment within the Taos Schools as a math and science teacher at Chrysalis Alternative School. AIRE was able to strengthen its support of activities and curriculum in the maintenance and use of the Grow-Dome and the horno from within the school, in addition to facilitating research projects, food science and culinary arts activities. Our efforts culminated in a Thanksgiving feast in November. AIRE facilitated the preparation of pumpkin pies, mashed potatoes, red chile and a green bean casserole that came from our harvest. We also cooked several turkeys and a leg of locally harvested deer in our horno as part of a workshop the evening before the feast.
In 2013 we continued the tradition of putting the “field” in Field Day at Parr Field by getting the Garden Project going again and having almost 600 students of Enos Garcia and Ranchos Elementary plant the field in a series of workshops. This time we were able to provide homemade seed packets of locally grown corn, beans and squash to each of the students. We hosted a photo contest in hopes of giving the students an incentive to plant a garden themselves. These activities were facilitated by the participation of student interns from the Taos School District, a youth program we are calling “Sembradores” or master planter/gardeners. Stipends for our interns and funding for our summer programming was provided by the Healy Foundation. Additionally, a partnership between AIRE and the UNM-Taos CAMP program provides internship opportunities for college students to assist in AIRE’s activities while gaining college credit.
AIRE has been developing methods within the Grow-Dome with the participation of the students at Chrysalis. We acquired almost 40 bluegill fish from the NM Department of Game and Fish and are beginning our aquaculture program. We grew many greens and tomatoes this year in addition to some melons and jalapeños, but we had a lot of lessons to learn about indoor growing and pest management, overheating mitigation, and other aspects of soil management, crop types and irrigation frequency.
We cared for the Parr Field Garden and the Grow-Dome over the summer, hosting workshops and visiting groups. We harvested many pounds of green beans for blanching and left the rest to mature into seed to give out to the students for Field Day 2014. When the corn was ready to make chicos, we had over 300 elementary students help us harvest. We harvested so much corn, we quickly realized we were going to have to make two batches of chicos. In addition, we harvested 418 pounds of squash, several ristras of red chile, five bottle gourds, and other crops such as cucumbers, eggplant and even a rare black variety of barley.
After we made chicos in the horno and had our fill of fresh tasty chicos, we strung them up and hung them to dry under the porch at the school. We had over 25 pounds of chicos and a similar quantity of sweet corn seed harvested from the field. The corn seed will be given to the students for their Field Day in 2014. We provided 20 pounds of chicos to the food service director of the Enos Garcia Elementary School for use in the school’s holiday meal that includes red chile and a choice of posole, beans or chicos. Approximately 250 students were fed from our harvest. While they were eating, we gave a presentation to the students about the progress and significance of the Parr Field Garden Project. As part of our mentorship program, the presentation included contributions from our student interns who had helped with the land preparation, garden care and harvest activities.
All in all, it was a successful year with much product and learning to show for it. As we enter the third year of the project, we are looking forward to expanding our milpa and chile plots in hopes of providing more traditional food to the schools and refining our “school-to-farm-to-school” model. We are hopeful that we will secure another three-year MOU with the schools for the Parr Field Garden Project in 2015. We are also looking forward to strengthening our programs at Chrysalis and in our Grow-Dome with the construction of more raised beds and the refinement of our aquaculture/aquaponics program. We are honored to be able to facilitate these activities and know that this investment in our youth and seed now will have incredible returns for the conservation of our local food traditions, the inspiration of young people into agriculture and the adaptation of crops for our high-elevation, short-season, water-stressed environment. Please check our website to learn about developments in our future programs.
Miguel Santistevan was recently elected president of Acequia Madre del Sur del Río de Don Fernando de Taos. He runs a demonstration/seed conservation farm with his wife and daughter. He has an M.A. in Agriculture Ecology from the University of California, Davis and is working on a Ph.D. in Biology at the UNM. email@example.com, www.GrowFarmers.org