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Selected Stories from the Oct/Nov 2023 Issue


Lessons from Sol Felíz:
20+ Years of Learning from the Land

Article and Photos by Miguel Santistévan

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Huerta Sol Felíz with “melgitas” or sections of irrigated land established on the contour

I have been living in a house on a piece of irrigated land known as Sol Felíz since 2001. This land I cultivate, lovingly known as Huerta Sol Felíz (Sol Felíz Farm), was set up for acequia gravity-flow irrigation by my grandfather with gates that guide water into my fields. In the 21 growing seasons I have participated in our acequia organization, I have seen many changes. The most important things I have learned have been about how to manage when water resources are scarce. This is of utmost importance in creating a resilient regional food system, especially in the desert Southwest. Central to creating resiliency is to work with a cropping system that is most suited for survival, as well as innovative ways of harvesting water from the landscape.


My first small garden was a success, with all the water I needed, usually provided to me once a week for a full day. In 2003, however, it was a different situation. Right when many crops were finishing up their lifecycle or ripening, I didn’t have any water! The level diminished in the acequia channel week after week in June and July, but not enough to notice. On the day of my awakening, it slowed to a trickle halfway down a row of corn, only to disappear into the subsurface. Calling the mayordomo (ditch boss) didn’t help. His reply was simply, “It’s one of those years when you won’t get any more water.” In recent years, the consistent river flows of my childhood have become ephemeral, due to upstream development, drought and a forest characterized by overgrowth due to mismanagement and the loss of fire ecology. How can I achieve my agricultural ideals if I can’t count on having enough water when I need it?


To deal with this harsh reality, it was helpful to learn that acequias didn’t really have consistent, season-long, water flows before the modern age. Our loss of water mid-season was due to the fact that our dams (presas) leaked to the point of not being able to divert water from the river channel. Constructed with logs, rocks and mud, the presas allowed for downstream river flows, riparian habitat and diversions. We have all but forgotten how acequias used to work, especially now that we enjoy massive concrete diversion structures with metal gates and wheels that allow us to divert the entire river.


The lesson from the leaky presas is that crops had to be able to withstand water shortage mid- to late-season because there simply wasn’t enough water. This created an agricultural system that relied on crops that could be established with winter precipitation, such as winter wheat, rye and garlic; in addition to those that could be well established with predictable springtime acequia flows such as alberjón (peas), habas (fava beans), lentils and garbanzos. Corn, beans and squash could also be started with the acequia flows in May, but after that, many crops had to subsist on little moisture until the monsoons in mid- to late July. During times of meager water, the saying goes: “Es más importante escardar y arrimar la tierra que regar.” (It is more important to cultivate your soil and pile it around your plants than it is to irrigate.)


Another important lesson learned over the years of cultivating the same land and saving seed is that no matter what you do, some years are just not good for certain crops. When I experience difficulty with particular crops, I always talk to other farmers and find that our experiences, for whatever reason, have been similar. There was a year when the corn grew really tall but did not produce ears. In another year, the beans failed. This year, almost every farmer had difficulties with squash. It is typical for us to want everything we think we should have, but nature often has her own peculiarities. This is where having a diverse garden can be the best insurance to withstand unpredictable environmental conditions. Some crops may not thrive, but others are likely to produce sufficient yields. Even in years that were bad for certain crops, individual plants were likely to survive and produce stronger seeds that hopefully have a better chance of survival next time.

Knowing that not all cultivated crops do well all the time, we started looking at useful food and medicinal plants that grow on their own. Quelites and verdolagas immediately and traditionally come to mind, but we also started looking at other plants that are comfortable with our land and conditions. No matter the water situation, we always seem to have robust stands and healthy individuals of alfalfa and clover in patches. Pollinating animals love these plants when they flower, and we are able to use many parts of these plants for food and medicine. We process the seedheads to make sprouts or to be able to reseed areas for ground cover and cover crops. Many other plants in our field have medicinal properties, and we allow them to coexist with our crops so that we can harvest them as remedios. This is a low-cost, low-impact way of using what works on our site, with stacked benefits to the soil, pollinating insects and birds— and us! However, some human visitors get confused when they see a messy garden not defined by strict, straight rows, and “weeds” that have not been eradicated.


In the traditional acequia form and function, irrigation channels were often constructed using the contour of the land. Large sections of irrigated land were structured in a series of terraces known as melgas and could be divided into smaller sections known as eras. Melgas were constructed so that irrigation water could be managed a section at a time. During dry years, not all melgas could be efficiently irrigated, so they would remain fallow. In times and places where eras were employed, little berms directed water into pockets where the plants could benefit from concentrated moisture. The berms also served as windbreaks and shade to further conserve water, similar to Zuni waffle gardens, but in a method developed by Arabs on the other side of the world and with flood irrigation in mind.


The irrigation systems on our acequias have been impacted by subdivision of land, so larger fields once defined by melgas are all but gone in many areas. Remnants of these systems can still be seen as terraced land and swales, some of which are defined by berms made of rocks. Knowing this, we re-introduced a melga-like system in our Huerta Sol Feliz by creating sections that are smaller versions of the melga system along the land’s contours and irrigating by splitting the water at the top of the field to run down each side of the section to meet in the middle. Instead of looking at our land as one big field defined by rows with one-way irrigation, we now think in sections that are managed to slow and hold water based on its relationship to the water’s source, to the sun and shade throughout the day; and accessibility.



To take the idea of water conservation and soil building a step further, we became intrigued with hügelkulture, a way of burying large amounts of biomass to make berms, swales, or mounds. Most of the hügelkulture I have seen, however, requires an incredible amount of excavation, and they are usually sited in areas characterized by more water than we have in the desert. As such, we are experimenting with what we are calling “desert-modified hügelkulture.”


We start by digging a shallow trench on the contour. We were able to create a wick of stomach wool from my neighbor’s sheared sheep and lay it continuously across the entire trench. On top of that, we laid small diameter cuttings from fruit trees and bushes. We then piled on more dry carbon from cut weeds and sprinkled chicken manure on top. We then covered the whole thing with mature compost, and finally, soil. The idea is that this low-impact hügelkulture will decompose over time and create a site of moisture retention and in situ composting. As the years go by, clearing the fields allows us to rake more residue on top of the berm and continue building it up with carbon, manure, compost and soil. We find that the crops grown closest to the berm do not suffer through dry spells as much as those that are farther away. Over time, we envision these berms growing in size to create large, fertile berms that define sunken planting areas by water conservation. The berms will eventually be cultivated, first with nitrogen-producing legumes, and later with crops that require more nutrients as the system decomposes and matures. The use of hügelkulture, in addition to water storage in cisterns, is intended to help us weather the most difficult times of water scarcity.


The most exciting part about farming on ancestral land with no intention of going anywhere is that our relationship to our place is strengthened, dynamic and responsive. We view the land as part of our body and think of its long-term health and happiness instead of a canvas for production, as many farmers are forced to do to meet the demands of the market or their own expectations. As in any healthy relationship, we experience setbacks and failures, and work toward repair for the best outcome for all parties (elements and organisms) involved. We have learned to defer to the conditions and the process, to watch and listen; to rely upon our imagination and artistry more than looking for inputs we can buy to try to control the situation and maximize yields. We build upon what works, not what we think should work. Every year is different and exciting, with surprises and losses, but the end result is always the same: There is more abundance on the land than we can handle, so we are happy to share that with our ecology and look for better ways to use our time and energy to create more potential and nurture more life.


Miguel Santistévan is a father, husband, educator and Permaculturalist. He sells traditional food products and offers consulting and online courses. More on his activities and consulting can be found at 

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Dueling with Drought 

How Regenerative Agriculture, Dryland Farming and Water

Conservation Can Help Save Farming in the Southwest

Article and Photos by Lorenzo Domínquez


Nearly 25 years have passed since the start of former Vice President Al Gore’s crusade against climate change. His message not only still resonates, but the truth remains as inconvenient as ever.


On July 25, Brian Kahn, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noted in the Earth Observatory that, “although urban development in the Southwest probably exacerbated recent warming—by replacing vegetation with impervious surfaces more likely to trap heat—anthropogenic climate change [i.e., resulting from the influence of humans on nature] was likely contributing to this heat wave.”


Likewise, Myles Allen, professor of geosystem science at Oxford University, said in the Washington Post on July 5 that “the solution to the problem is actually rather simple: capturing carbon dioxide, either where it is generated or recapturing it from the atmosphere and disposing of it underground.”


So, how do we capture more carbon dioxide? Easy: plant more plants. It is a solution that farmers implement practically every day. Plants, especially trees, capture carbon dioxide through photosynthesis that supports the growth of their leaves, branches and roots.


In addition to prompting some planting, the unforgiving heat dome we’ve endured this summer should remind us all that we all need to take water conservation seriously, and need to prepare for warmer days to come. It is an inconvenient truth that we have embraced on our farm, one that we are committed to responding to in a number of innovative ways.


In 2021, my wife, Dr. Chelsea Hollander, and I decided to pick up our family and leave a convenient suburban lifestyle in New York and move to the Land of Enchantment so that we might have a healthier life a lot closer to nature. We landed in Cerrillos, 20 miles south of Santa Fe, and started a homestead. Even before our move in May of that year, we knew that in addition to growing organic produce, we were committed to conservation and ecosystem restoration on our 350 acres.

Thus, with the help of a number of amazing partners, including the Quivira Coalition and Ecotone Landscape Planning, we honed our overall efforts to focus on regenerative agriculture, dryland farming and ecosystem restoration, and set our operating philosophy upon three pillars of education, research and community.

And so began our incredible journey into a redefined life that is much less convenient but far more meaningful. As one might expect from a life that is off a dirt road, largely off-the-grid, in the high mountain desert—there have been almost daily trials and tribulations.

One of the foremost challenges has been water conservation. From the onset, our operational directive has employed and experimented with a number of innovative and traditional cultivation and water-harvesting techniques.


Foremost is our commitment to dryland farming, which is the practice of producing crops during the dry season by using the moisture stored in the soil from the previous “rainy” season. To support this practice, we embraced healthy soil principles, which include using cover crops, minimizing soil disturbance, fostering animal and plant biodiversity, eliminating synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, integrating livestock and maximizing the presence of living roots. The combination of these practices ultimately leads to healthier soil that will retain more water over the long run.


With the help of a grant from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, we were able to implement these principles within our first year and saw positive results immediately— all without any supplemental irrigation.


We also chose to plant drought-resistant native plants and succulents that would endure an arid and unforgiving landscape. On June 10 of this year, with the support of several organizational partners and two dozen workshop volunteers, we planted over 500 agave, cacti, yucca, cholla and sotol. With the support of a Western SARE grant, we are also creating a one-acre Permaculture food forest that includes 500 more succulents and native plants such as saltbush, tomatillo, sage bush, amaranth, cottonwood, honey locust trees and a retention pond.


To create infrastructure that will support this endeavor, we are continually creating water harvesting earthworks across our cropland. Heading up this ambitious initiative is Nina Listro, our director of farm operations, who presciently took it upon herself to become a certified water harvesting design practitioner through a course offered by the Watershed Management Group in Tucson. Subsequently, she has led the creation of acres of erosion-control structures like one-rock dams, Zuni bowls and media lunas and also designed a couple of raintank and greywater systems.


Thus, in addition to a 1,500-gallon catchment tank we have attached to our home, we now have two 500-gallon tanks that capture rain and snow-melt off our 2,000 square-foot garage. This provides water for our farm interns’ living spaces and is ultimately recycled by a greywater system that waters a wildflower garden outside their kitchen window.


With a generous grant from the LOR Foundation, we are also building an innovative water catchment system that will help supply the needs of plants and seedlings growing in our 33-foot geodesic greenhouse. The project entails capturing precipitation in a corrugated half-pipe that circumvents the exterior of the dome and runs into a 2,500-gallon underground catchment tank, which will be connected to a solar-powered pump and hydrant inside the dome. Completion of this pioneering system will serve as a model for other producers with domed greenhouses, helping to sustain agriculture in the drought-ridden Southwest.


These are merely a few examples of innovations we are implementing at Chelenzo Farms. We feel fortunate to have settled in Cerrillos for our little life-changing experiment, for we owe a lot to our gracious neighbors who have embraced our aspirations, family and farm team. Our success is also due to the army of volunteers and the multitude of awesome organizational partners we have worked with over the last two years. See a full list of projects and partners at


Lorenzo Domínguez is El Patrón, co-owner of Hacienda Dominguez & Chelenzo Farms in Cerrillos, NM, along with his wife Chelsea, aka “the real boss.” Domínguez is also host of the El Puente radio show on KSWV 99.9 FM in Santa Fe, which bridges regenerative agriculture with regenerative health and community through interviews with leaders and practitioners. He recently served as the only farmer on the inaugural review committee for the New Mexico Economic Development Department’s Healthy Food Financing Fund, an integral part of the governor’s Food Initiative. He is currently a candidate for the governing board of Santa Fe Community College.

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OP-ED: Travis McKenzie

Growing the Future

School Gardens in the South Valley, Agricultural Education and Cultivating

the Next Generation of Earth Stewards

Mother Earth will survive! It is humans that are at risk of extinction. At times we get caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of our modern era and forget that everything we need to survive comes from the Earth. We must honor and respect her for that. We have been given a sacred responsibility to care for the Earth and create balance and harmony with our natural world and with each other. This is what we try to instill in our young people’s hearts and minds to ensure a healthy future for our people and communities.

I have been a teacher in Albuquerque Public Schools since 2017 and am now honored to be teaching in the Los Padillas community at Polk Middle School in the Valle de Atrisco on the historic Camino Reál. I was brought to the school because of my passion and knowledge of agriculture and years of food justice work. Former Assistant Principal Delilah López reached out to me during the pandemic and asked if I would consider bringing this work to Polk to help with their Jardin de Los Sueños garden initiative. I was interviewed by Principal Ben Bustos, an amazing Chicano from Mora in northern New Mexico. We talked about the importance of implementing agriculture in public schools and discussed our dreams and visions. We talked about authentically representing and reflecting the youth and families the school serves. Often, schools don’t really do that. We have been a Spanish-speaking community for hundreds of years but only recently has the school officially become bilingual.


Although our families have been farmers and ranchers for generations, it is also just recently that agriculture has been implemented in our curriculum and on campus. We are fortunate to have students who raise livestock or irrigate with acequias, or help their abuelos in their gardens. We are still connected to the land and will fight to keep it that way. Agricultural education deserves its rightful place as an integral part of what is offered in public schools.

School campuses have the potential and ability to cultivate healthy, nutritious and delicious food for students, families and the community. Our campuses could be transformed to encompass planting seeds, creating edible landscapes and outdoor learning spaces. Imagine if all our schools not only had thriving gardens, but also had classes, curricula and lesson plans that supported earth stewardship and environmental education. At Polk Middle School, we want to lead the way.


Unfortunately, for many years, highly processed foods are what students have been provided. They know that something has been wrong with school meals. A student said to me, “Why is all our food in bags?” I thought, why are we not cooking for our children? Why are we not serving high-quality foods from local farmers and ranchers? Why are our kids eating highly processed, high-sugar items for breakfast, and not home-cooked atole, breakfast burritos or fresh fruit grown in our homelands?

We brought more than 200 students to the 2023 legislative session to learn about government in New Mexico and how they can use their voices to make our state a better place. They learned about bills and how to connect with elected officials. We want to thank state senators Michael Padilla and Leo Jaramillo for sponsoring Senate Bill 4. That bill created Universal Meals, free of charge for students throughout New Mexico. It also made possible the purchase of more locally grown produce to be utilized in school meal programs and advocated for infrastructure that would make it possible for school cafeterias to be able to cook nutritious meals from scratch.


We no longer have a school garden. Polk Middle School now has a small school farm! Principal Bustos helped procure a Title 1 grant that allowed us to build three hoop-houses. We contracted with Mudhub Greenhouses for our first hoop-house to serve as a sensory outdoor learning space that can be utilized by all classes. Math teachers can sign up for the space and take students to learn there. Social studies teachers can bring their classes to have a discussion or write in their journals. Language Arts teachers can bring students to read a book, while surrounded by plants.


The second and third hoop-houses were built in partnership with the Agri-Cultura Network, Los Jardines Institute and the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP). The students were able to integrate the creation and development of the space into our curriculum. When students are a part of a project, they care more about what they are doing. The second hoop-house will be used for production and hopefully will eventually grow enough food to supply a vegetable bar in our cafeteria. Students will be able to plant, maintain, harvest, process and then eat the food they grow. The third hoop-house will be a propagation station, to grow plant starts. We may also experiment with aquaponics.

Legislative funds have also been utilized to create outdoor learning areas that make it possible for the school to create meaningful, culturally relevant experiences. We built an adobe horno (oven) with the help of Maestro Don Albert Parra and Don Joaquín Luján. It is part of our resolana space. We will invite farmers, ranchers, community members and organizations to speak to the students so they can learn in a way that is culturally connected. Resolanas are more than south-facing walls; they are traditional spaces that encourage community dialogue and help bring hopes and dreams to life!


At Valle Vista Elementary, South Valley school, water was running through the acequia when family members were there to pick up their children. One student’s grandfather told us it was the first time in nearly half a century that he had seen water flow onto the campus. Other families walking along the ditch were also happy to see it.


Valle Vista also wants to create a community garden and outdoor classroom where students can be nurtured by an orchard and garden while learning biology, culture, history and other subjects. The project was conceptualized as la resolana because that term invokes the need to connect students to the history of the valley: thousands of years of native Pueblo history all the way to the founding of Atrisco in 1692, and more modern history, from 1848 to the present. It will also connect students and teachers to acequia comisionados and mayordomos from the Atrisco and Arenal acequias who can share their work in the community.

Imagine if schools in every district had thriving gardens and farms! We want to be a part of a renaissance that utilizes our rich agrarian history and cultural diversity to help produce not only nutritious food (and health) for our community, but also develop young leaders ready to become the next generation of farmers, ranchers and educators, and continue our legacy of land and water

stewardship in New Mexico.


When we think about growing a regional food system, schools need to be in the equation. Schools can develop garden resource teacher positions, garden electives and afterschool programs, or even become STEAM/Agricultural Science magnet schools. We need to work with schools, school boards, districts and state legislatures to prioritize agricultural education in partnership with the community and create and implement statewide acequia and land grant curriculum.


We have so much vacant land on our campuses, and our students want to be outdoors. Outdoor learning is the new wave of educational practices that can help lead the way in developing and strengthening our local food systems. We need resources to take students on field trips to local farms, do intercultural exchanges throughout our region, and create more job opportunities and career pathways in agriculture, ranching and earth stewardship.

In pursuing these initiatives, we honor the First Nations, Indigenous people of what we now call New Mexico for passing on cultural knowledge and maintaining a relationship with our sacred Mother Earth. We also honor Chicano communities, the acequieros and acequieras, the farmers and ranchers that have stewarded this land and water for 500 years, as well as all cultures and people that continue this work. In times of climate crisis, historic wildfires, flash floods, extreme droughts and an unstable future, we must all come together to ensure health and wellbeing for ourselves and future generations.

Travis McKenzie is a Chicano who grew up in the East Mountains. He is a teacher at Polk Middle School, food justice organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project and part of the leadership team of Rooted in Community, a national youth food justice network. McKenzie is the 2023 César Chávez “¡Sí se Puede!” Award winner.

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