December 2017

Learning from the Land: Agricultural Continuation and Innovation in Taos


Article and Photos by Miguel Santistevan


Seniors from a Washington D.C. Waldorf high school learn about acequias and plant corn at a Sol Feliz Farm workshop sponsored by the nonprofit Agriculture, Implementation, Research & Education (AIRE).



Taos has always been on the edge and a land of extremes. From hot dry summers to intense winters, people have had to adapt and learn by trial and error how to survive with limited resources and unpredictable weather. The present situation is no different except that we are able to experience some security with the availability of electricity and gas, food from grocery stores, and water that comes from wells or public works. As we forge a future that will have to contend with climate change, historical agricultural practices and contemporary agricultural tinkering provide some tools that support our capability for adaptation and resilience.


As we consider how we might adapt to the future food and water needs, we can reflect on the lifeways of the past. People of the pueblos and acequias of northern New Mexico were able to make use of the abundance inherent in our desert ecosystems. People may consider the desert to be devoid of abundance compared to more humid ecosystems but the opposite is true. The desert is actually one of the most abundant ecosystems on Earth. 


Small-scale agriculture with a variety of crops and trees is maintained with acequia flood irrigation at Sol Feliz Farm.



People of the desert have always relied on gathering. In historical times, nomadic cultures would often look for areas that had an abundance of food that could be gathered and would hunker down for the winter in camps to make use of wild foods like piñón, wild grass seed, or acorns, and would supplement these foods with hunting and fishing. As agriculture began to take hold, cultures in the region became more sedentary and eventually made dwellings out of mud, rock and wood. These provided shelter from the summer sun and winter cold, and served as storehouses for food. In the early Spanish colonization, the Natives had as much as seven years of food in storage that could be used if there was a drought or other food scarcity. 


As the Spanish influence and acequia culture took hold, the practice of flood irrigation from acequias nurtured many wild plants that were gathered as food, medicine, and other utilitarian uses, in a strategy known as “jardín de riso.” Harvests of wild spinach (quelites) and purslane (verdolagas) could provide fresh greens that could be dried and preserved for the winter months. Families would come together for activities that required mutualism such as cleaning the acequias, constructing and repairing houses, harvesting and food processing, such as making chicos or having matanzas, and of course, celebrations and holidays. People would also often see each other in church or when visiting neighbors. While there was less connection to the outside world than nowadays, there were more connections in the community.


The “Sol Feliz” (Happy Sun) sign serves as a beacon for sustainable agriculture education.



As the modern age came about, especially with the passing of events such as World War I and II, many people left their land-based way of life in search of the conveniences and benefits of a more urbanized, market-based society. People were now able to travel, get a formal education and experience food availability, electricity, indoor plumbing and motorized transportation.


These conveniences have had lasting impacts on natural resources around the world. Almost all of our activities are now connected to some kind of resource extraction and out-of-sight pollution. Whether it is the impact of eating industrial meat, the use of touch-screens on cell phones, or driving—we all share responsibility for the causes of environmental devastation and climate change. Some of us express our concern by signing petitions or getting politically involved. Many others are looking for alternatives in our lifeways to forge a future that can meet challenges such as climate extremes and soil and water depletion. We are seeing a rise in small farming operations, farmers’ markets and local food, and a growing interest in eating and shopping more responsibly.


In looking for lifeways that are more sustainable and resilient, it is possible to find pockets of agricultural and land-based knowledge systems that continue almost unnoticed by the modern lifestyles of convenience and impatience. In nooks and crannies of northern New Mexico, people get together to clean acequias, plant fields, process the harvest, and continue annual traditions and ceremonies. These activities continue without much fanfare and provide living examples of ways with which we might want to reconnect. In addition, many people are stepping forward with other forms of expertise that include alternative energy, innovative water systems and soil building techniques.


I have been looking for the sweet spot that integrates the best in traditional knowledge and contemporary innovation since I first started becoming aware of the world’s problems as a teenager. I am the product of a quality public school education that was subsidized by the Department of Energy in Los Alamos, New Mexico. I was raised with the latest math, science and technology to prepare me for a successful and lucrative career. But occasional air-raid sirens wafted across the hills and mesas of Los Alamos, rattling my eardrums and provoking thoughts that maybe something was not right with some visions of a collective future. As I searched for answers, my memories would drift to being with my grandparents on the lands and waters in the Taos Valley.


Quinoa and amaranth are heritage grains that can be produced in the high desert environments of northern New Mexico.



I spent much of my youthful summers in Taos with my grandparents. And there were great holiday gatherings of aunts, uncles and cousins under my grandparents’ loving roof. My brother, cousins and I would play in the acequia flowing by the house and spend hours frolicking in the vast irrigated fields and gardens that had no houses or fences around them as they do today. As I became more aware of contemporary issues, I sought a more meaningful livelihood.


I was able to move into my grandparents’ house in 2003. The reconnection has been incredible as I learn from the land and look for artifacts that can shed light on the thoughts and actions of my grandfather as he built the house and developed the land with irrigation channels, fields and trees. The road is now called Sol Feliz, a name anchored on a signpost by the foresight of my aunt Marie, who is now my neighbor. 


Sol Feliz Farm is a sandbox of a garden, with the messiness of useful wild plants alongside cultivated rows of garlic, alternating types of corn, squash heritage grains and legumes. Many fruit trees are planted, compost piles abound, and chickens scratch the earth looking for worms and bugs. Groups come to visit, share and learn traditional agriculture and Permaculture. We also try to cultivate something just as important: innovation and hope.


Some of the lessons we have learned from the land are the need to adapt our seeds, build soils and cultivate diversity as a fundamental approach to resilience. Adapting seeds requires additional infrastructure and more time than cultivating crops for food or market, but the end result is the satisfaction of knowing the seeds are learning to adapt to climate changes, alongside the farmer. Along with saving seeds, we are reconnecting with the gathering traditions of the jardín de riso, and thinking of ways to expand our gathering traditions by establishing and encouraging useful native plants to be more prolific.


This year was particularly interesting in that much of our corn and beans did not emerge in late May as had been typical. I believe the daytime temperatures in the early season were sufficient for seed germination, but nighttime temperatures were too cold to allow seedlings a steady upbringing. A second planting brought about an adequate harvest, but much seed from the initial planting was lost. The good news is that seeds that persisted through the early season are more likely to survive in similar conditions in future years. These shifts in temperature are likely to be typical of a climate-change future.


One way to support the seeds is to make sure their soil environment is conducive to their survival and success. A big idea in soils right now is to nurture the soil biology and cultivate diversity within soils, as opposed to the more common practice of soil amendment to support the plants’ needs. It is also beginning to be recognized that soils can have an incredible capacity to absorb carbon and therefore mitigate climate change impacts by addressing carbon pollution. Plants are able to better provide for themselves by growing in soil that is teeming with microorganisms. We employ a variety of composting methods that allow compost to mature with minimal disturbances. Instead of mixing our compost piles, we strive to maintain moisture and oxygen levels so that compost can develop through a process that maximizes and balances the representative bacteria and fungi. To support this process, we create activated charcoal in a Dutch oven in the wood stove, inoculate it with a compost extract, and apply it to our fields or compost piles.


Nurturing biological diversity is a great way to prime your farm for resilience. Biodiversity creates stability in an ecosystem. Stability is then defined as a system’s ability to resist a disturbance (like climate extremes) and its resilience, or ability to grow back. Every farm should be thinking about ways to accommodate and nurture biological diversity, either within the field or on the edges. Unfortunately, much of our industrial agriculture considers biological diversity an adversary, and spends billions of dollars worldwide to control insects, weeds and microorganisms. An approach we take at Sol Feliz Farm is to construct birdhouses, bat houses and establish pollinator plants and even pollinator hotels to provide a haven for organisms that are more beneficial than not. Interestingly, many pollinator plants can be used by people for food or medicine.


It is our hope that our little farm will be a nugget of conservation and innovation to help address some the regional and global challenges we anticipate. Being connected to one of the oldest acequias in Taos, the Acequia Madre del Sur del Río de Don Fernando, we hope our continued operations will help conserve water for agriculture and maintain local food traditions. We also hope that visitors and other farmers in the region will be inspired to adapt crops, build soils and create community. In this way we will support a legacy of living in Taos, one of the oldest and possibly the most sustainable communities in North America, if not the world.


Miguel Santistevan is an educator and researcher with a master’s degree in Agriculture Ecology from UC Davis. His demonstration farm in Taos, New Mexico, hosts visitors and workshops. His consulting business offers services in Permaculture design and sustainable/regenerative agriculture. Email or visit his blog:





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