ln September 2003, wide-eyed and fresh out of college, I landed on a simmering tarmac in El Salvador, the small, crowded country where I would spend the next two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. The program directors trained us in soil conservation and organic farming and, just before sending us off to our villages, urged us not to be disappointed when—not if—we failed.
Felipe Mancía was the reason I didn’t fail. When I arrived, he walked me through his makeshift greenhouse (bamboo poles, plastic sheeting) and told me he’d been growing organic green beans but wanted to try tomatoes. He smiled, and I saw he was missing teeth.
Together, Felipe and I grew everything from asparagus to starfruit. We put fish in the water tank to kill the mosquitoes and covered the ground with legumes in the off-season. He showed me how to sing to the oxen so they’d walk in circles for hours, grinding raw sugarcane into hot, foamy heaven and, when I grew tomatoes, his wife shooed me off to the market with an enormous basket of them on my head and my promise not to accept less than $12.
Felipe did everything right. He knew more about organic farming than anyone I’d ever met—out of necessity, before Monsanto started bringing the genetically modified seeds that died after one season and before Bayer gave out samples of toxic pesticides in bottles children used to carry water.
Felipe’s sons knew the earth, too. For hours each day, they helped their father, then clustered around one bare lightbulb to study. It was the only way out, Felipe Jr. told me once. Studying was the only way not to become a farmer.
Arty Mangan, the Food & Farming Director for Bioneers, says he doesn’t blame kids for wanting to avoid a future that involves a lot of hard work and little pay.
But Mangan is a lead researcher for Dreaming New Mexico, a Bioneers collaborative project with the purpose of changing the game.
“Farming should be an occupation, a career choice that people can make a really good living at,” Mangan says. “Why shouldn’t it be? And the people who [farm] should have rights and benefits and living wages. Will everybody want to become a farmer? No. But at least those who do have sort of an inherent passion can make that choice and do it.”
To that end, Mangan is working with acclaimed ecologist Peter Warshall to develop a map and pamphlet that plot New Mexico’s way forward into a more sustainable, localized, fair trade culinary future.
Though the pamphlet, which is scheduled for release this month, will offer some concrete research and initiatives, the map is just colorful and artistic enough to evoke its namesake—a dream. And though dreams carry the connotation of unattainability, both Mangan and Nikki Spangenburg, the project coordinator, seem unconcerned.
“The idea of the project is to imagine the preferred state,” Spangenburg says. “Dreaming the future can create the future. If you imagine the place you want to be, then the steps to getting there become much clearer.”
Or as Mangan puts it, “you have to start someplace.”
Not that the dream is simple. Perhaps the project’s greatest merit—and challenge—is that it attempts to look at everything at once, from preserving local farms to reforming agribusiness to educating children to conserving water—all against the backdrop of climate change.
But to Miguel Santistevan—farmer, activist, PhD student and Taos mayordomo—looking at everything at once is absolutely essential.
“Too many times I’ve been involved in the food movement, and people don’t get involved politically [or] realize the importance of protecting the farmers or preventing GMOs,” Santistevan says.
Though the Dreaming New Mexico map doesn’t call for legislative action just yet, Mangan acknowledges that some initiatives will need it. And though Santistevan spent the session lobbying unsuccessfully for a Senate bill designed to keep big agribusinesses like Monsanto from suing New Mexico’s farmers, he’s far from giving up.
In fact, Santistevan sees the legumes that native New Mexicans have been growing for centuries—garbanzos, fava beans, lentils and peas—as the answer to locavorism and climate change, all at once.
“If anywhere is going to teach the rest of the world how to survive climate change, it’s this upper Rio Grande area,” Santistevan says. “And so this needs to be honored as that guiding light to a resilient agricultural system.”
Hence the Farmer Protection Act, which would shield small farmers from legal action if their fields were to be contaminated with genetically engineered, patented seed.
Without such protections, Mangan says, small, sustainable farms from El Salvador to New Mexico have to compete with “a rigged global system that exploits all farmers for the benefit of a few large corporations.” Part of the Dreaming New Mexico plan is to reverse that trend—or as Mangan puts it, to level the playing field.
“The wild card, in food systems and just about everything, is climate change,” Mangan says. But even without knowledge of exactly how New Mexico’s climate will be affected, tailoring food systems to each microclimate, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by consuming locally grown food and even just raising awareness for small farmers’ uphill battle could lessen the blow, Mangan says.
New Mexico currently consumes approximately 3 percent of all the food produced in-state, Mangan says. Getting that number back up to 25 percent by 2025 is one of Dreaming New Mexico’s key goals—and one Mangan says isn’t too far a stretch for a state that was completely localized just a few hundred years ago.
“Most people don’t even know where their food comes from. Most people don’t ask those questions,” Spangenburg says. (Santa Fe, she notes, is uniquely progressive and already on its way to establishing a local-food infrastructure.)
But exactly what New Mexico needs to reach that goal—incentives, subsidies, education, good old-fashioned guilt—is anyone’s guess. That’s the value of forming a collective dream before diving in, Mangan says.
“What I hope will happen is that this becomes a rallying point for people to start to envision and implement their own sustainable futures in their own communities,” he explains. “That’s what this process is about, really. We’re trying to give some raw material and some food for thought.”
No pun intended, of course.