Ron Boyd pulls a worn leather pouch from his pocket.
"I'm not a rich man," he says, pouring the contents into his callused farmer's hand, "but right here is my wealth."
I inspect the collection of seeds he holds in his palm. There are four corn varieties, including the ancient maize morado, a purple corn from the Andes highlands, and glass gem, the rainbow-kerneled culmination of a friendship between a Cherokee farmer from Oklahoma and a New Mexico seed keeper. There's a fava seed from Guatemala and a scarlet runner bean; blue Ethiopian emmer and blue Utrecht wheats; Mirasol chile and two types of cucumber.
Pooled together, this microcosm of life at Boyd's Mer-Girl Gardens in La Villita tells tales from far beyond the Rio Grande Valley. Later, I read a passage by Chilean agronomist Miguel Altieri that sums up those stories:
"In a handful of wild seeds taken from any one natural community, there is hidden the distillation of millions of years of coevolution of plants and animals … the living reverberations of how past cultures selected plant characters that
reflected their human sense of taste, color, proportion and fitness in a particular environment."
The small histories cupped in Boyd's hand on this mid-September day also point the way forward. In the face of climate change and the GMO-laced tyranny of big agriculture, Boyd and other Northern New Mexico growers, Indigenous farming experts and community activists are cultivating a food revolution. How? By going back to the old ways: revitalizing traditional agricultural practices, embracing biodiversity, saving seeds and shoring up sustenance for future generations.
Grain Heads Bake Up a Plan
The idea for the Los Luceros Grain Trials began over a three-day weekend in early 2018. That's when Boyd went to Grain School, a seminar at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs designed to inspire people to grow heritage grains in their communities. There, Boyd met a cohort of fellow "grain heads" based in Santa Fe. Among them were the James Beard-award-winning food writer and chef Deborah Madison and Master Gardener Christine Salem.
Back in Santa Fe, Salem ran into Susann Mikkelson, then the site manager at Los Luceros Historic Site. The state-owned 148-acre ranch just up the road from Boyd's farm near Alcalde was undergoing administrative changes.
"I learned that the hoped-for vision on some people's parts for Los Luceros was to return it back to its heritage of being a functioning farm and ranch," Salem says.
Mikkelson told Salem about an idea that had been kicking around Los Luceros for a while: partnering with farmers to restore the property to its former agricultural glory. Salem had grain on the brain, of course, and with a sponsorship from the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, the Los Luceros Grain Team was born. On a 6-by-60-foot rectangle of land at Los Luceros, along with a few plots of his own land, Boyd and the team planted 52 different ancient and heritage grains beginning in spring 2018. The mission? To capture data on germination rates, growing characteristics and crop yields, and share it with interested local farmers.
Replenishing the Breadbasket
Growing grains in Northern New Mexico is a very old idea. The northern Río Grande Valley was once known as the breadbasket of the region.
"A lot of wheat was grown here," Salem says, "it was brought here by the Spaniards and the missionaries. I learned that one of the first crops they planted in the late 1500s was wheat."
"They needed something for the [Communion] wafer," Boyd elaborates. "We know that it was Sonoran white and probably Pima club that were some of the first grains used in the Southwest."
By the 1950s, most local wheat crops were phased out, victims of dying water mills and the rise of commercial agriculture. Together, Boyd and Salem weave a story of the monoculturization of American wheat.
"Anything grown up until 1950 is defined as a heritage grain," Salem explains.
She points to modern wheat as a concoction of the Green Revolution, the midcentury renovation of agricultural practices that increased production worldwide while severely limiting crop variety.
"Wheat is the biggest crop in the world," Salem continues. "There used to be 90,000 varieties of wheat grown worldwide, and we're down to a slim percentage of that."
She and Boyd point to several factors making Big Wheat hard to swallow. With gluten bred into wheat to make it easier to bake, the application of glyphosate to regulate crops and the use of quick-rise leavening agents, it's no wonder more and more Americans without celiac disease are finding themselves increasingly intolerant to grains.
"Why is grain making people sick?" Boyd asks. "It has been the staff of life. It moved armies, it transported people. Twenty-some years ago, who ever heard of gluten intolerance? And that's the whole long story about yield over quality. That's become kind of the picture of agriculture in the US—well, the world, really. The Green Revolution meant, use any product that Monsanto has because it'll make everything green, which was absolute truth. And then the outcome—we can discover that later."
A Very Small Start
The Grain Team has thus far planted three seasons worth of spelt, rye, barley, wheat, oats, sorghum, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa. They are called "trials" for a reason. The team, with Boyd as lead farmer, has found that seeds planted in the fall have fared better than those sowed in the springtime. At Los Luceros this summer, the fields were blighted by defunct irrigation systems and the chomping of wayward cows, along with the usual pests and weeds. The team will move all its trials to Boyd's land this fall in favor of better quality control.
Lacking any records of what had been grown at Los Luceros, the growers were advised on seeds by experts from the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. Salem says some didn't germinate at all.
"Some of these were 30-year-old seeds and maybe hadn't been stored properly," she explains.
But like any farmer, the team is stoic, celebrating hard-won yields and looking to the future. Their vision is to create a so-called "grain chain" in Northern New Mexico: a few farmers, a couple grain varieties, a commercial-sized mill, and a willing baker or two who can supply the region with bread from more easily digestible ancient and heirloom grains. Salem says this model is burgeoning in communities around the country. At a workshop she attended in Maine, she saw local grains pouring into breweries and bakeries, sustaining communities with an easily overseen food system.
"We don't have enough right now even to bake a loaf of bread at this point," she tells SFR. "But we have enough that we could give someone some wheat berries that they could sprout and incorporate as an element in their bread. It's a very small start."
Boyd recently took 25 pounds of heritage grains to baker Andre Kempton at Taos' Wild Leaven Bakery. Salem points to their 10 pounds of harvested seed as a win.
"That's a nice increase," she says. "It makes it possible for us to use those for our own seed increase purposes, as well as share with some other folks who want to get started."
The new seeds also replenish the RMSA.
"RMSA will send 100 seeds of a variety," says Salem, "and you send them back 200 seeds."
The Grain Team's ultimate goal is to develop landrace seeds that are completely adapted to the region. The seeds' genetic component should be able to weather the subtle gradations of climate change as the planet becomes hotter and more arid.
"That means that we won't be subject to issues of monoculture devastation and starvation because we'll have grains that their biological diversity will be adaptable to whatever gets thrown at them," Salem says. "The potato famine was a real thing, and it could happen to any other crop."
The old ways
In comparison to the long agricultural history at Tesuque Pueblo, the heritage seeds planted at Los Luceros are mere teenagers. The Tewa people at Tesuque have farmed the same valley since the 1300s.
As with all Indigenous farmers in the Americas, the main strength of their traditional systems stemmed from their degree of biodiversity, or varied crops. But when Emigdio Ballon came from Bolivia 14 years ago to serve as the pueblo's agricultural director, he found that alfalfa had largely replaced the Three Sisters crops of corn, beans and squash.
Ballon, who is a Quechua descendant of the Inca people, set to work restoring traditional farming practices and implementing biodynamic methods to develop an orchard and a diverse solar-powered permaculture garden spanning more than 75 acres. In addition to growing food for the pueblo, Tesuque also maintains a commercial medicinal garden and grows seed for organizations that include Seeds of Change and Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit based in Tucson and founded by ecologist-writer Gary Paul Nabhan.
Asked about the pueblo's achievements, Ballon replies, "I don't want to say it's what we did. It's a lesson from our ancestors, actually. We have diversified the crops."
More than 1,500 seed are carefully stored for future generations in the burgeoning seed library."When we talk about the old ways, it's getting to thinking how independent you can be in life. That's why it's important to be growing food for ourselves, for our health. If it's not food, we cannot talk about sovereignty. That's the key between sovereignty and food."
Perennials are political
The idea came to Beata Tsosie-Peña during a rainstorm. Watching the runoff from the parking lot above Valdez Park in Española, the program coordinator of the Environmental Health and Justice program at Tewa Women United saw that floods of rainwater were eroding the wedge-shaped hillside below the parking lot. Instead of waste, she saw potential.
More than three years later, that barren patch of soil is blooming with nearly 300 varieties of plants both edible and medicinal. Almost all of them are perennials, tended with the Tewa dryland farming and rainwater harvesting techniques that Tsosie-Peña's Santa Clara Pueblo ancestors employed for millennia. The hill is dotted with stalks of ripening blue and red corn, yellow cota blossoms, crimson wolfberries and orange Indian paintbrush. A fiber arts garden yields natural dye plants. Lines of winding stones form two symbolic Avanyu, or water serpent spirits, which represent the southern and northern pueblos.
Its name is fitting: Española Healing Foods Oasis. A walk along the sloping Avanyu paths makes for an immersion in agricultural renewal and hope. The garden's progress represents a triumph in the face of overwhelming challenges to a stable food system.
Tsosie-Peña rattles off an intimidating list of factors standing in the way of her people's right to raise their children in a healthy and safe environment.
"We face a lot of environmental violence from nuclear weapons production, oil and gas extraction, a couple of Superfund sites in Española, the threat of GMO … encroachment on our traditional heirloom seeds, and the continued colonization of our food systems," she says, "which is eroding everyone's health in the community."
In light of those uncontrollable risks, she asks, "How do we go back to eating our traditional foods, so that our bodies are stronger in the face of the environmental threats that are in our community?"
At the Oasis and in conjunction with Tewa Women United and a long list of community collaborators, Tsosie-Peña facilitates workshops on contour farming, companion planting, spiral gardens, rainwater catchment, fruit tree pruning, erosion control, soil health, micro- and bioremediation and constructing mycelium bricks. The Española Healing Foods Seed Library, spearheaded by a group of youth leaders, is slated to open in the next month or so.
But like harvested rainwater, local environmental justice advocates must be positioned to divert where they're needed. In early 2019, activists from the New Mexico Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance (of which Tewa Women United is a member) found a disturbing seed pre-emption incentive in a state legislative bill that was set to be passed. The line—similar to the intention of a bill proposed and tabled in 2018—would have given the state the power to override local seed regulations, which would potentially prevent any limitations on GMO planting.
"It was just by chance that we found the line about seed pre-emption last year, because it was buried in a budget appropriations bill that was, like, 200 pages long — and it was one line. It was really sneaky the way they tried to put it through," Tsosie-Peña says.
In the face of swift opposition, Gov. Lujan Grisham issued a line-item veto.
A moment of great bounty
Fledgling tree shadows stretch down the transformed hillside on the last Wednesday in September. The Healing Gardens Oasis is hosting its fourth annual amaranth harvest workshop in Valdez Park. Joined by Guatemalan stewards from Qachuu Aloom, who brought the Mayan amaranth seeds to Española, more than 50 community members gather to pray over the sacred crop.
Tsosie-Peña says they are there to "rematriate" the amaranth. It's a pre-contact supergrain whose strengthening powers were said to so intimidate the Spanish conquistadors that they forbade its planting. Listening to participants introduce themselves in Tewa, Achi Maya, Spanish, Mohawk and English, I think about what Tsosie-Peña told me earlier regarding the current militarization of the border.
"Our Pueblo cultures in New Mexico had trade routes with indigenous cultures from the south, and part of our sustainability in this land is the ability to trade medicine and seeds with each other. You can't really talk about agricultural food systems in silo of the larger political context."
We prepare to hike up the hillside, gather the branches of magenta, orange and green amaranth, and shake the seeds onto tarps laid on the grass. Cradling the gently drooping branches, I remember a few lines from H.D.'s poem "Amaranth:"
"I give back to my goddess the gift/she tendered me in a moment/of great bounty."
Tsosie-Peña has an even better line. "We are all seeds," she tells us.
Don’t you know I’m a loco-vore?
Resources for eating and growing
Chef, cookbook author and Native foods expert Lois Ellen Frank has an object lesson for people who worry about the high prices of sustainably or locally grown food. It involves the Ojibwe wild rice she buys from Minnesota at $15 a pound.
"In order to hand-harvest the rice, you need a canoe that's hand-built by Native
people, which needs the Indigenous knowledge to harvest the wood to build the canoe," she says. "Then you also need pristine lakes to go onto the water where the wild rice grows. So we save the environment, because wild rice won't grow unless it has a pristine environment to grow in. So now we're revitalizing the technology around building the canoe and the environment that needs the canoe to harvest the rice. But then we also support and create the economic viability for the families that have the knowledge to build the canoes that go on the lake to harvest the rice and then sell the rice."
Did you get all that? Frank puts it another way:
"A pound will feed somewhere between 22 and 25 people. So if I take $15 and divide it by, say, 22, it's 64 cents a serving. It's not that expensive."
She narrows it down to the local level, citing the white, blue, pink and yellow hominy she buys at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market to make posole.
"What we're doing is not only supporting a sustainable local economy, but we're supporting a process of indigenous knowledge that goes back millennia," she explains. "And if nobody buys local hominy or posole, then that tradition is just gonna fade away and disappear."
Aside from supporting independent farmers, Christine Salem of the Rio Grande Grain Team points to an upcoming opportunity to learn more about developing and sharing locally adapted seeds. Seed School Weekend takes place Oct. 25-27. For more information and to register, visit
Here are a few of Frank and Salem's picks for local purveyors:
Cloud Cliff Bakery
Intergalactic Bread Company & Space Sauce
Wild Leaven Bakery
Ground Stone Farm
Jesus Guzman Produce
Romero Farms LLC
Sungreen Living Foods
Other food sources
Beck & Bulow Buffalo LLC (meat)
Casados Farms in Embudo (blue corn and hominy)
The Cooking Post at Santa Ana Pueblo (blue and white corn)
El Rancho de los Garcias (green chile and salsa)
Food King (chile)
The Santa Fe School of Cooking (local products)