A Farm as a Living Organism
By Lesley S. King
On a spring morning, with the air smelling of piñon smoke and the wind rushing eastward, Greg Nussbaum ties two Belgian draft horses to a wooden fence post. “Poco sucio,” he says when he looks down at the horses’ hooves. Indeed, they are dirty, a fortunate sign here in the Rio Grande Valley outside the village of Santa Cruz, where the moisture from a rare spring rain lingers in the soil. While he cleans the hooves, I look around us at sheep grazing and turkeys pecking the earth. This is Camino de Paz, a unique farm/school that uses biodynamic methods, treating the farm as a living organism. While Greg hooks on the harness straps, kids move about doing chores: giving water to chickens, feeding goats, and weeding crops in greenhouses.
The farm that Greg and his wife Patricia Pantano run on 10 acres is modeled after Greg’s great-great grandfather’s. The method integrates animal programs with crop and vegetable production. It’s an ancient philosophy using the stars and moon as guides to planting and nurturing the farm, and yet in today’s climate of commercial agriculture and here in the high desert, it’s revolutionary.
The horses are ready, and Greg says, “Step out, Bessie.” The lead one moves forward, and the other, called Colonel, follows, both blowing breath through large nostrils, hooves clomping, sending the sweet scent of manure into the air. As they make their way to the field, the harness jangles and the horses’ heads bob. Once Greg is there, the scraping of the blade cutting the earth causes them to step lively and waggle their ears. He talks in a calm voice—“Easy Bessie, easy Colonel”—lulling them into a steady pace. With a set of reins in each hand, Greg walks behind them in his worn leather cowboy hat, the horses’ straw-colored manes shining in the morning sun.
This springtime ritual prepares the soil. It’s a gentler way to work than using a tractor and Greg enjoys the process, the fruits of the labor. But most of all, he farms with a bigger picture in mind. It’s the belief in what’s called the “Gaia hypothesis,” seeing the earth as a living organism—the whole planet as one life form. “You maximize the health of that planet,” he says. “As stewards, we try to maintain the natural balance.”
In this view, all the parts are critical to the whole, and this starts with the animals. “Manure is an important element,” he says. With the animals—chickens, ducks, turkey, sheep, goats, and horses—rotating through the fields, direct application of manure happens. And as well as the animals giving to the crops, the crops give to them. “We do massive amounts of composting,” Greg says. The greenhouse “take outs” go to the poultry. “Our birds get fresh greens year-round,” he says. The rest of the clearings go to compost, which is used to feed the crops.
The result, as well as flavorful and healthy eggs, is hearty peppers, beets, onions, lettuce, parsley, carrots and pumpkins, which hold the flavor of such conscious farming. Greg and Patty then accompany to market a handful of the 25 or so kids who work and study at this Montessori school. Their cooking greens are coveted, a tender mixture of young kale and collards, bok choi and tot-soi, and sometimes radicchio, creating a boldness of texture, color and flavor.
“Our most prized product is our diversity,” Greg says. “This philosophy takes you miles away from growing for what’s profitable. We always look at expanding our diversity; it brings wealth to the living organism.” As an example he mentions the sheep, whose wool they spin into yarn to make clothing at the school. “The animals aren’t that profitable, but they’re completely integral.”
The draft horses contribute as well. “I could easily have a cold, steel tractor in the field,” he says. But instead he chose Bessie and Colonel, who add back to the soil. And this philosophy translates into a bigger picture still. “With the school, we’re trying to help young people live in a whole way and own all the consequences of how they live—it’s about honoring life all the way through.”