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Home / Articles / News / Local News /  The Last Farmer
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John Stephenson founded the Santa Fe Community Farm.
Justin Horwath

The Last Farmer

What does John Stephenson’s 100th birthday say about urban agriculture in Santa Fe?

August 5, 2014, 12:00 am

Marcia Mount Shoop came to Santa Fe as a mission volunteer in 1992, when the Presbyterian church placed her to work with John Stephenson during what turned out to be one of the farmer’s most successful corn crops.

Asked if she was a hard worker, Stephenson laughs. “She picked the best sack of corn that most people couldn’t even carry,” he recalls, seated in a room full of family and friends in a home on the Santa Fe Community Farm. “She’d carry it down, load it on the truck.”

“Those were 50-pound bags, you told me,” replies Shoop, who flew in from Indiana for the party in honor of Stephenson’s 100th birthday last weekend.

Another celebrant jokes: “Fifty-pound bags with 100 pounds of corn in it?”

“That was the year I think I got first place in the state fair for our corn,” says Stephenson.

Shoop opens a binder showing the results of the famous bumper corn crop of 1992: 17,300 ears of corn harvested in one year.

“Oh!” intones Stephenson in delight. “I hope that’s your writing—not mine.”

Schoop confirms that’s her writing on the ledger. The farm’s total harvest that year also included 10,000 pounds of apples and other produce worth over $16,500, much of it distributed to 25 different agencies, with more than 850 volunteer hours by people from 12 different organizations.

Stephenson says he was fortunate Shoop was there to write it all down, given his poor handwriting.

“You were never one for paperwork,” Shoop says.

“No, I was awful,” quips the spry centenarian.

The birthday on Aug. 3 at the farm, where members of the public celebrated with cake and well-water lemonade at the Agua Fría Village property, also brings up wistful questions, namely: Is John Stephenson one of Santa Fe’s last farmers?

From the time the Spaniards brought European farming practices to the region—taking some ideas from native pueblos, too—Santa Fe has struggled between balancing urban and agricultural. That’s mainly because of the scarce water supply that attracted settlers in the first place.

"I think that farmers generally have a longer life than some other people"

In 1695, following the reconquest of the territory after the Pueblo Revolt, Governor Don Diego de Vargas issued a proclamation claiming territory 20 miles north of Santa Fe, according to a research paper at the Office of the State Historian. That was almost 100 years after the local Spanish rulers had implemented a public works project that first resulted in two acequia madres from the Santa Fe River for irrigation. By the time of de Vargas, however, dozens of canals branched off the irrigation system to “sustain the growing population,” according to the document. Then, however, the governor wrote that “there is not the supply of water that is requisite to insure the irrigation of the cultivated field,” and allowed families to move to Santa Cruz.

Stephenson recalls growing up in downtown Santa Fe and getting water from a ditch in the early decades of the 1900s. His parents moved to the City Different from Iowa. Stephenson was born just two years after New Mexico became a state.

He served in the military during World War II. When he returned to Santa Fe, he then bought property that would become the Santa Fe Community Farm, which now uses well water to irrigate almost 9 acres of crops. Last year, it produced 13,000 pounds of organic vegetables, the majority of which was given away to organizations like the Food Depot, says Roy Stephenson, John’s son.

Roy is the executive director of the nonprofit that runs the farm. Even he doesn’t recall much agriculture in City Different when he was growing up. He notes that while there are a few small operations that have sprouted up in recent years, theirs is the last remaining Santa Fe commercial farm from a bygone era.

Most of the farming in the area dried up once the city built reservoirs along the Santa Fe River and choked the flow of water to the acequias. It would be good, he says, to see more urban agriculture projects like the one his father started.

He brings up recent troubles for Gaia Gardens, a small farm inside the city limits near the Bellamah neighborhood. City officials told Gaia to limit the number of volunteers on site, but the Community Farm, located in the county jurisdiction, doesn’t have that restriction. The farm also offers fresh produce at its farm stand on Sunday afternoons.

He’s surprised by the number of people who show up at the farm to pick an apple for the first time.

“I believe that most Americans are very, very out of touch with their food source,” says the younger Stephenson.

Farm volunteer coordinator Nina Zelevansky says those who help with simple tasks such as picking weeds experience rewards. “This is a healing place,” she says.

Stephenson, for his part, responds in the affirmative when asked if there’s a relationship between being a farmer and making it to 100 years old. (Take his word with the caveat that it’s coming from a former forest ranger and champion weightlifter who abstains from spirits and smoking).

“I think that farmers generally have a longer life than some other people…” he says. “They are sort of independent people, and they make it or don’t make it on their own.”

 

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