Hundreds of acres of county-owned woodland and pasture in La Cienega have sat idle—until now.

A group of nonprofits are working together to grow food on a small plot at La Bajada Ranch , the first time the land has been put to use since Santa Fe County purchased it in 2009. The nonprofits plan to use existing food distribution programs in the city as well as send future vegetables to Nambe and Pojoaque and other places identified by the Santa Fe Food Policy Council as without access to enough fresh food.

Less than a quarter of an acre on the 470-acre property, formerly known as Santa Fe Canyon Ranch, is now mulched and manured, thanks to young people from YouthWorks, one of the participating organizations. YouthWorks participants will plant a cover crop, likely winter wheat, in September, so the land is ready to be sown with vegetables in the springtime.

The garden will take up a small portion of the couple hundred acres that Frank Mancuso Jr., a film producer, leased from the county for agricultural purposes in 2017 when he planned to build a house on an adjacent 850 acres nearby. He agreed to pay about $21,600 over that time. The contract limits the property to agricultural, livestock and educational purposes, and the nonprofits don't have to pay anything to use the land.

An existing well and a drip irrigation system will water the forthcoming garden.

"We want to create multilayered, intergenerational, intersectional healing along with being able to provide sustainable farm lands with closed loops that help our community," says Israel Francisco Haros Lopez, one of the founders of the Alas de Agua Art Collective, a nonprofit that is part of the farming project. "Currently we are looking for more funding sources and hoping this is just the beginning of bigger collaborations with the county and other landowners. This is the beginning of projects that we hope will help locally on many levels."

Reunity Resources and the Mother Nature Resource Center are also working with YouthWorks and Alas de Agua on the project, which includes the plot of land on La Bajada Ranch and a second one adjacent to and owned by Reunity Resources. Reunity runs the former Santa Fe Community Farm at San Ysidro Crossing, a compost program and a farm stand. The new plot at Renuity will soon be planted with autumn vegetables like squashes and cabbages that are already sprouting in the nearby greenhouse.

Haros Lopez tells SFR that both of these farming projects create another option for fresh food for a city that has both an income and food access gap, while teaching people about farming techniques.

According to Santa Fe County Planning Manager Robert Griego, the idea for nonprofits to plant for free on a portion of the ranch came from the county's agricultural implementation plan, which includes "approaches to agricultural use on county land to include development of improving the capacity of the local food system and development of demonstration gardens."

But the implementation plan is slow going. This one-quarter of an acre on La Bajada Ranch is the first to actually be used for agriculture through Mancuso's lease. There has never been any other agricultural use on the rest of the property, Griego says.

The county is "in the process" of figuring out other potential uses for the land it bought with taxpayer money, but that will require a new conceptual plan to replace the existing master plan for the ranch. One of the separate proposals for La Bajada Ranch is to set up a regional food hub to aggregate, process, package and repack, market and distribute local food, according to Griego. But as of yet there is no timeline on when this food hub might come to fruition.

Melynn Schuyler, the founder and executive director of YouthWorks, tells SFR the increased food insecurity created by COVID-19 made it clear to her that more local food needed to be made available to the community. The nonprofit has applied for two federal grants from the United States Department of Agriculture and is working on a third for a different state department. The grants would finance farming construction and equipment, she says.

Along with growing more food for Northern New Mexico, the farming is also good for the young people who work with YouthWorks and have done much of the labor on both plots of land.

"YouthWorks just shifted some of our contracts to train and educate the youth to work on farms because we knew we could keep them socially distanced on that kind of property," Schuyler says. "They could be out but together and that's what young people need right now, that feeling of belonging and togetherness."