Saturday, November 28, 2015

Closing the Chapter

I had the privilege of spending much of this growing season as an intern at Gaia Gardens. Over the past seven months, I experienced the natural shifts in weather and tasks from spring to summer to fall, as well as several models of marketing and engaging with the surrounding community. I learned more than I ever imagined about gardening, the demands of running a small business, the potential of urban farms, and the daunting legal and political challenges they can face. Now as the season draws to its final, hastened end, I am left at once grateful, inspired, and disillusioned.

I arrived in early March to a flurry of seeding, transplanting, and on occasion, snow. At the time, Poki and Dominique were optimistic that the urban farming ordinance that had been drafted and circulated the previous year would soon pass, and were looking forward to welcoming more school groups, hosting workshops, and reopening the farm stand. In the meantime, we spent nearly a third of our time working in two school gardens and selling seeds and plant starts at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.

For a time, I found it exciting and fun to work the market. I was energized by the buzz of interactions, the faces that soon grew familiar, the spontaneous moments of connection with strangers passing through, the camaraderie and admiration and support among vendors. But by mid-summer, I was also weary of the hours of loading and unloading a truck stacked high with bins and tables, hundreds of seedlings, crate after heavy crate of gallon pot tomatoes. When we finally freed ourselves, in a frenzy of giving, from the last of the plant starts, I was deeply relieved and ready to let go of the most stressful part of each week, as well as intrigued to see the farm stand unfold.

I soon understood why Poki and Dominique had been so eager and fought so hard to reopen the farm stand. I cannot imagine a more ideal space, right off a major bike trail, in the heart of the garden, where people could sit in the shade and enjoy a free cup of herbal tea grown on the farm, or walk through the garden to admire the flowers and see where and how the produce they purchased grew, just feet away. A few familiar friends and neighbors dropped by, thrilled to finally be able to walk down the street to chat and buy their produce for the week. Most of the people who came to the stand I had never seen before. Some had walked or biked by the farm every day on their way to work, wondering at the flowers along the fence, and were excited to be invited in through the open gate. Others happened to be passing by on a ride through town and were curious and excited to discover a farm in the city. One such young couple in particular are engraved in my memory. They came in from the bike trail,  bought a bunch of kale and a bundle of carrots, and meandered through the garden. They eventually found their way to the “dragon bench,” lovingly shaped and plastered with straw and clay by volunteers, nibbled their way through the carrots, then headed up the hill to feed the carrot tops to the chickens. I found them in front of the coop several minutes later, still tossing the leaves piece by piece to the chickens, laughing, playful, teasing, entranced. I wondered if they had ever fed chickens before. Yes, I thought, it was moments like these, far more than the meager sum we earned, that made the farm stand worthwhile and critical.

On a practical level, the farm stand took a fraction of the time, effort, fuel, and heavy lifting of the Farmer’s Market. For months, we had spent at least five or six hours each week first loading the truck for market, then leaving before dawn, driving three miles away, and scrambling to unload and set up our stand, only to pack everything carefully back into bins a few hours later, load them back onto the truck, make the short drive back to the farm, and unload all of our supplies again. Now, instead, we could rise with the sun, quickly set up and harvest for the farm stand from within the garden, and work in the surrounding fields during lulls between customers. We could harvest just a modest amount of each vegetable, much of it that same morning, and restock as necessary. This saved us from having to figure out how to store or use up a giant harvest if sales were slow on a given day. It also meant the freshest produce possible for customers, and less going to waste. And we were providing fresh organic vegetables to a completely different clientele not already served by scores of other growers at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.

The farm stand lasted two weeks before it was closed by the city. The expressions of dismay and outrage of those passing by persisted for months. I came to dread the predictable questions, from the mouths of friends of the farm and utter strangers alike: Why didn’t we just return to the farmer’s market, or wholesale to local restaurants and co-ops? And couldn’t we sell them produce “under the table” in exchange for a “donation?”

What many people don’t seem to realize is that producing and selling food was only a small part of what the farm offered, or could have if it were given the freedom to.  All along, the purpose of Gaia Gardens was to provide a space for people to tangibly contribute, learn by doing, share their experience and skills, and in the process, forge connections with the natural world and each other. First and foremost, the farm aimed to demonstrate, refine, and teach ecological food production methods, as well as model “bootstrapping” a farm by diverting waste and utilizing inexpensive local resources. (Rain catchment, composting food scraps from local restaurants, recycling used potting soil, and using salvaged building materials, to name a few.) Ironically, the farm stand became the central focus of the controversy around Gaia Gardens and urban farming in Santa Fe, but I believe it was actually the city’s over-zealous restrictions on school visits, volunteer groups, workshops, and community events that most undermined the spirit and promise of the farm.

We knew when we opened the farm stand that our days were numbered. The morning before, we had been informed that the property owner was not willing to consider a short-sale, and there no longer remained a viable option for securing the land. I spent most of the day clearing the dirt paths to the garden and carefully lining them with stones, shrouded in sadness. Mourning the loss of such a treasure of a place, where so many had invested their energy, dreams, sweat, and skills; found solace, inspiration, healing, and new ideas; laughed, deepened friendships, shared a meal, chomped on a lemon cucumber or scarlet runner bean right off the vine. Where barren ground had been built and nourished each year, transformed into rich soil prime for food production, and constantly fluttering with birds and pollinators.

And I mourned the loss of incredible potential, all it could have become, the fragile spider web of visions and dreams that had spiralled around it: a demonstration center or intentional community centered around natural building and permaculture, an alternative school, a summer camp, an urban farm incubator program...

I looked back through the fence at the waving fronds of cosmos, the tidy rows of vegetables, land that had passed through so many manifestations and transformations over the years, loved and abused, a stage and silent witness to the rise and fall of human ambitions and dreams, patient, enduring. A quiet assurance that even as this chapter was drawing to a close, the story of the land was far from over.

A few stones have been kicked out of place, but the paths still lead to the garden gate and through the fields, still beckon neighbors and friends and passer-bys, winged and human alike, to wander through a labyrinth of rows still blooming, still teeming with rich soil and seeds and a universe of subterrestrial life. Yet we must continue on our own winding paths, hoping, praying, trusting that in some way -- in the unknown mystery of seeds burrowed and stirring beneath the crust of the earth -- the legacy of growing, nurturing, connecting, and sharing will live on, here on this pinprick of the planet and in this community.

Blessings to all of you who have enriched this place and my time here.

Rachel Brylawski