By Lesley S. King
A cold wind blows from the south today, while drifts of snow line rows of wintering asparagus on Santa Cruz Farm. With a rocking gate, Don Bustos walks among the rows sitting above the Española Valley. Smoke from woodstoves hangs in a thin gray layer above the Rio Grande, and in the distance the Pajarito Plateau rises up on the western horizon. We step through a doorway into a greenhouse, and suddenly the air turns tropical, with verdant plants surrounding us.
Don is one of the region’s most knowledgeable farmers. He knows so much, you’d expect him to be, well, old, but when you see his bright hazel eyes and vibrant smile, you realize his understanding comes from a deeper source. His family has farmed this land for some 400 years, since the King of Spain deeded it to them. Don knows the seasons, the bugs, the gophers, and the water as though they were a part of his own body. “The first memory I have is of following Gramps while he plowed the fields,” he says.
That may be why Don is so easily moving toward revolutionary ways of farming here. For years he, like his ancestors, grew more traditional crops on his four acres: squash, beans, corn, cucumbers, and chile—and he still does, but more recently he’s planted different ones. “We’ve shifted to the softer, more high-value crops,” he says. By that he means mainly asparagus, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries.
Part of the change came from his desire to lighten up on his body, which has labored so long in the fields. “I’m thinking I want to keep farming till I get old,” he says, “and this may help.” Another part is his progressive nature. Don is always on the cutting edge. He participates in world water issues, traveling to Hawaii, Mexico and Brazil in an effort to help balance the water needs of farmers with those of urban development. “We believe that water is the common instead of a commodity, that everyone should have access to it,” he says.
Most recently, Don has developed farming methods that allow him to grow year-round without using fossil fuels. He’s installed a radiant heat system underneath a series of greenhouses. Solar panels warm the water, which travels under the beds beneath our feet, keeping the temperature constant, so, year-round, he can grow spinach, chard, kale, arugula, carrots, radishes and a variety of types of lettuce. It’s an experimental system that he developed with a Sustainable Agriculture Research Education grant. His concern for the future ignited the project. “How are upcoming generations going to survive if the land grows warmer?” he asks. “What can we grow? How much can we do without fossil fuels?”
In the meantime, his produce sells quickly. His greens and chile, and especially his more unique crops, such as asparagus and berries, seem to fly off his tables the minute he sets them down. Don sees the appreciation for this food that is all vegan—grown without exploiting animals—as a symbol of a change in consciousness. “I see a huge amount of connecting back to the earth,” he says. “There’s this big movement to be more spiritual.”
He’s also a connoisseur of sorts, with a roster of recipes which use his own crops. Most notable is a blackberry sauce to put on ice cream that he plans to bottle and sell. “It has a secret ingredient,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “Sake!” He’s also partial to cooking greens such as kale and chard. His favorite way of preparing them is to sauté them lightly in oil, and add a bit of garlic and pepper. “Back in the days,” he says, “my mom always used to put a little piece of bacon in there to make it nice and tasty.”